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Traveling Outside of Time

By Returning to the Days of Luxury, Amtrak Executive Brian Rosenwald Made the Coast Starlight Train a Hit With Passengers. But Will It Survive Perpetual Cost Cuts?

February 01, 2004|Lauren Kessler | Lauren Kessler is the author of "Clever Girl" (HarperCollins, 2003) and nine other books. She directs the graduate program in literary nonfiction at the University of Oregon.

Soon Amtrak's hand-to-mouth existence, with its attendant bare-bones budgeting, undercut Rosenwald's efforts. Then, in spring 2000, he was offered a chance to supervise passenger services for three of Amtrak's long-distance trains out of Chicago, now part of the Central Division. Shortly after, it became harder for anyone to innovate anywhere. That's because, in yet another string of cost-cutting moves meant to inch Amtrak toward self-sufficiency, the corporation reorganized. Its new geographic divisions took away "ownership" of any single train from any single group of people. The Coast Starlight, for example, is now under the supervision of both the Southwest Division (L.A. to San Luis Obispo) and the Pacific Division (north of San Luis Obispo). It's not "Brian's train" anymore. It's not anybody's train.

My trip to Seattle came last November, beginning on one of those bright, balmy days that makes everyone remember why they live in L.A. I sit in the Pacific Parlour Car of the northbound Coast Starlight sipping a cup of herbal tea as we leave Union Station. I've stowed my luggage in compartment C, a deluxe sleeper two cars forward, a private 7-by-6 1/2-foot room with a 5-foot-long picture window.

Along one side of the compartment is a couch that opens into a twin bed. (There's a pull-down berth above to accommodate a second traveler.) The couch faces a comfortable armchair. Between them is a small table with a bouquet of fresh flowers. An airline would pack six to nine coach passengers in the space that is mine alone for the next day and a half.

Two hours out of L.A., with Santa Barbara up ahead, the scenery is all tall palms and pink stucco houses. Beyond the manicured backyards, each with its own swimming pool, lies the Pacific, smooth and pewter gray under suddenly stormy skies. Inside, lunch is being served from a menu that includes quiche Lorraine, jambalaya, a roast beef and Muenster sandwich, grilled chicken, and a salad of field greens, tomato, hard-boiled egg, olive tapenade and white asparagus spears topped with a piece of dill-seasoned salmon.

Rosenwald understood many things about long-distance train travel, not the least of which was the importance of the meal. His tonier innovations for the Coast Starlight included the Winemaker Lunch and Winemaker Dinner, with California and Oregon vintners invited to talk about their wines, conduct tastings and, with guest chefs, orchestrate special meals. Rosenwald, himself a card-carrying oenophile, arranged more than a dozen of these, meeting with predictably excellent response. But the logistics of scheduling turned out to be too tough and time-consuming.

More successful was his plan to change the dining car menu into a series of regional specialties highlighting California cuisine and Northwest seafood. One of the great moments of Rosenwald's tenure with the Coast Starlight was when Saveur magazine, in its 100 "favorite things from the world of food and drink," listed the Coast Starlight. The meal described, Rosenwald fondly remembers, was halibut in a pesto crust.

"Brian was one smart cat," Willie Bryant tells me. "He had this train smokin'." Willie is the onboard chef, although he prefers the humbler title of "cook." An engaging man who could give Denzel a run for his money in the looks department, he has been a cook all of his adult life and an Amtrak cook for more than 10 years. He and his crew prepare some of the food from scratch, such as the salads and breakfast egg dishes. But most of the lunch and dinner entrees come to him flash-frozen and vacuum-packed from Amtrak's L.A. commissary. The quality is better than you would expect, although nothing like the unique meals on Brian's train of yore. Rosenwald's regional menus were discontinued in early 2002, when yet more cost-cutting measures took effect.

The Coast Starlight itself was doing fine. It had the highest ridership of any long-distance train in the system. The costs of operating the entire national railroad enterprise are spread across the system, however, which means that even though Rosenwald had made a success of the Starlight, the train could not reap the rewards.

During the ensuing dark period that followed the 2002 cuts, all Amtrak trains served the same menu, a situation remedied when an Amtrak exec found himself traveling for 12 days on three separate trains and eating from the same limited menu every night. Now the trains operate on four cycles, with four different groups of entrees split across the national system.

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