By Ben Joravsky

There was never a doubt, at least for James Coston, that his long wait was worth it.

After five years of plotting, planning, and biding his time, he’s about to be appointed to the board that controls Amtrak.

It’s not official. President Clinton, diverted by other concerns, hasn’t yet made the announcement. There’s always a chance that Illinois will again be shafted, that a more powerful insider from the east or west coast will be named to the board instead.

But that doesn’t seem likely. Coston’s been backed by Illinois senators Carol Moseley-Braun and Richard Durbin, by Mayor Daley and Chicago’s congressional delegation, and even by the major railroad workers’ union. A lot of the world can’t quite understand why a 42-year-old lawyer with a lucrative practice has spent so much time aggressively pursuing a position that seems so marginal, but they don’t see the world as Coston does.

“I see trains as part of the future, not the past,” he says, with the passion of a true believer. “I foresee a day when train travel along the central midwest corridors between Chicago and Saint Louis or Chicago and Milwaukee, Detroit, or Cleveland rivals the airlines.”

Coston traces his enthusiasm for trains to a visit he and a high school friend, Bill Fahrenwald, made to Union Station as 14-year-olds back in 1969.

“I fell in love with trains. I studied trains, memorizing runs and schedules the way other kids memorized batting averages,” he says. “There were still six active passenger stations and I used to visit them all. I used to read accounts of the Hollywood legends riding into Chicago on their way between LA and New York and scooting over to the Pump Room where they’d be interviewed by the press. I loved this stuff. Trains were already dying and I thought that was tragic. I started writing letters to congressmen and writing speeches on the subject that I never gave because I had no audience. But so what? I caught the train bug–I caught it bad.”

In 1970 he and Fahrenwald organized the Twentieth Century Railroad Club, naming it after the old New York-to-Chicago run.

“Our first event was a tour of rail facilities,” says Coston. “We advertised in the rail publications and chartered buses that took us from the LaSalle Street Station to the Santa Fe coach yards, which were near Chinatown. We toured the cars and ate in a double-decker dining car. We stayed up all night making sandwiches to feed everyone.”

To their surprise, over 50 people attended the outing, including Fritz Plous, then a young reporter with the Sun-Times. “I wrote a little filler for the bottom of the paper and went along to see the show,” says Plous. “I remember sitting in the Santa Fe dining car at a bare table. It was a bleak spring day, and I’m munching on a roast beef sandwich watching Jim and thinking, ‘Who the hell is this kid that he can get all these adults to show up and pay attention?'”

While attending Northwestern University, Coston worked holidays as an Amtrak ticket agent and baggage handler. After college he expanded the club, which began to sponsor such excursions as the 1986 Bears Super Bowl run to New Orleans.

“That was a hugely successful event, and it almost didn’t come about. Amtrak only gave us the go-ahead after we got the entire Illinois congressional delegation to pressure them,” says Coston. “We had eight or nine cars and no trouble filling them. New Orleans is not a big air market. I heard horror stories about people who were getting from Chicago to New Orleans by flying through Canada. The train sold out with almost no notice.”

By the late 1980s Coston was practicing law full-time. “It was hard going, getting those events to go off,” he says. “We were entrepreneurs, and Amtrak is the antithesis of an entrepreneurial organization. They could be very difficult to deal with. Not the people on the front line–they were always cooperative–but the upper management. They always made us clear so many hurdles. They were always so slow and cautious. They just didn’t see it as I did. I always thought that Amtrak could be hugely popular. I never saw it as a dying industry. People love trains even though they don’t ride them that much. There’s something about the joy of movement, something about eating dinner in the club car as the country passes, that’s so romantic, so thrilling. I challenge any family in Chicago to take the overnight to New York with their kids. How can you not love the white tablecloth service in the dining car? How can you not enjoy the time alone with your family?”

He’d been out of the train business for almost five years when, in 1992, he had lunch with his old friend Fahrenwald.

“Bill mentioned that with a new Democratic president maybe I should think about getting on Amtrak’s board,” says Coston. “I decided I could make a difference.”

So he let it be known that he wanted to be appointed to the board. It was a long shot. In those days most of the nine slots were set aside for union and government officials. He was up against some powerful insiders, and few politicians knew who he was.

So he began to campaign, writing or calling environmentalists, union activists, reporters, politicians–any potential allies. His message to all was that Amtrak could do a much better job of promoting rail travel, particularly in the midwest. There were, for instance, only two daily runs to Detroit. The run to Cleveland arrived at four in the morning, which would discourage even a fanatic from taking it. The line to Milwaukee didn’t have a club car. It was as though Amtrak wanted its midwest service to die.

“There’s not enough lines to any of these cities, and the lines they have aren’t comfortable enough,” says Coston. “The trains don’t move fast enough because the tracks have to be upgraded. By raising the speed of the train to Milwaukee from 70 to 90 miles an hour there’s no reason you can’t get the time of travel down from 90 to 75 or 80 minutes. It can be done if you’re willing to spend the money. You have to say it’s worth it. You have to believe in your service. People now look at Amtrak as a nice alternative. Well, it shouldn’t be an alternative. It should be the main choice.”

By offering better service, he said, Amtrak could exploit growing dissatisfaction with air travel. Only the inertia of travelers mindlessly doing what they’ve always done can explain why they put up with crummy treatment by airlines that herd them into tight compartments and dump them in airports inconveniently located on the outer edges of most cities.

Coston points to the success of Amtrak’s eastern corridor. “You have almost as many businessmen taking the train from New York to Washington as you have flying–it’s an immensely popular and profitable run,” he says. “But that’s because they’re constantly improving the service, making it faster. They understand that’s how to build service. For some reason they haven’t made the connection with midwest travel.”

Coston’s chance for an appointment came last year when Congress ordered the old board ousted in return for a $2.3 billion bailout. President Clinton was supposed to fill the seven vacancies by the end of last month. And according to press reports in the Sun-Times, Coston’s at the top of the president’s list.

So he’s revived his campaign, hammering away with his favorite refrain: the midwest’s getting a bum deal. As Coston points out in his latest letter to supporters, none of the $360 million Amtrak allocated for capital improvements in 1998 is coming to Illinois. Amtrak will add daily and weekend runs between New York and Albany, rehab stations in New York and Virginia, and add luxury cars on several east- and west-coast corridor runs.

“We have identified the key midwest corridors. Now we need to fund them,” says Coston. “We have to provide the infrastructure just as we did for the highways and commercial aviation. Amtrak can attract all kinds of travelers.”

Amtrak officials have no comment on pending board appointees. “Nothing’s really changed in the five years that I’ve been campaigning for the board–Amtrak’s still targeting the northeast and the Pacific northwest,” says Coston. “I don’t take issue with that. I just keep saying we should not overlook the midwest. We need more regional parity. I’m not going to sit back and pretend I don’t want this appointment. I know the system. I love trains. I’ve been waiting for this almost all of my life. Not many people can say that.” o

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo by Randy Tunnell.