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A Train To Yesteryear

It might have been 1931 or even 1951, but nothing about the scene smacked of 1981. There I was in my own mahogany-paneled private railroad car, flying down the tracks to Washington, D.C., looking forward to a meeting with Bernard Baruch , and hoping to see Babe Ruth hit a home run that night at Griffith Stadium.

If I was dreaming long-ago dreams it was only because this train to yesteryear had so effectively blotted out the present and even the recent past of American rail travel. Yet it was only a whiff, a preview. Next April a series of 10 luxury tours will cross and recross the continent between New York, New Orleans, Phoenix, and Los Angeles using the kind of service and equipment a pin-striped financier would have expected decades ago, and adding a few wrinkles he might not have dreamed up himself.

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The show - and it is something closer to entertainment than travel - will be run by American Express and 20th Century Rail Tours, an ambitious young company that has scoured US tracks to find privately owned cars worthy of the 10 glamorous and expensive tours. Each meandering nine-day cross-country trip, with stopoffs at deluxe hotels in New Orleans and Phoenix, will cost $2,295 per person (double occupancy). That comes out to $500 a day per couple, a rate that frankly had me dizzy until I deduced that $500 a day will buy only an inside, economy double cabin - no view, in other words - on the Queen Elizabeth 2. Each rail tour will carry 40 passengers, so it isn't a mass market the operators are after. ''Upscale'' is what they call it.

''Upscale'' was not exactly how I felt the other morning at New York's Pennsylvania Station when a group of previewing passengers descended a flight of sooty steps to the waiting train. Already I knew that the four vintage cars would not be pulled by a highballing old locomotive but would be hooked on the back of a regular Amtrak run, a modern Amfleet train called The Bankers. (Amtrak will also haul the 1982 cross-country tours on its standard runs.) Things brightened considerably as we stepped onto a red carpet, the women receiving corsages, and climbed aboard this train of yore.

I found my level immediately - the mahogany-walled rear parlor car with the kind of open platform Harry Truman once used for his whistle-stop campaigns. Gary Lumsden, the young president of 20th Century Rail Tours, said the car was built in 1926, had carried such royalty as King George and the Queen Mother, and had toiled on Canadian National tracks before being bought by a private individual. The car had been upgraded in recent years with gray flannel wall panels, oatmeal-tweed sofas, chrome and mirrors. Mr. Lumsden said his company has a pool of cars to choose from, among the 400 or so owned by individuals or small corporations in the US.

For a price - again, about $250 a day per person - 20th Century will also rent you and your friends up to five private cars for trips of 1,000 miles or more. In addition to these free-lance trips and the 1982 cross-country tours, 20 th Century is hoping to book a deluxe excursion to Mardi Gras in New Orleans next year, with Bobby Short aboard to play piano. ''We're trying to rush it into Bloomingdale's Christmas catalog,'' said Mr. Lumsden.

We were swaying somewhere south of Newark, and I was enjoying the ministrations of a white-jacketed waiter bearing pastries and juice, the chance to step onto the rear platform for a heady moment or two, and in general the power of behaving like a 1940s executive with his rolling lounge beneath him. After a while, I headed forward and in the circa 1950 sleeping car met Jesse Mitchell, one of two veteran Pullman porters recruited to work the long tours. There were cut flowers in the room he was tidying up and terry cloth towels laid out, an eye-opener for one who has survived many overnight rides with a standard railway towel the size and consistency of a dinner napkin.

Mr. Mitchell, who had started working on Pullman cars in 1939, had served on whistle-stop campaigns with Presidents Roosevelt and Eisenhower - ''Mr. Carter, too'' - and had retired only to find life too slow and stationary, said he was thrilled to be back at work on a deluxe train. ''In the old days,'' he went on, ''we carried a shoeshine kit, hat brush, and a switch broom to clean the suits - that was standard equipment.'' He pointed to a little receptacle - no longer part of sleeping car design - in which 20th Century customers may place their shoes before bed so that Mr. Mitchell can pull them out through a lid in the corridor and apply an overnight shine.

It is such extras that will set the 20th Century tours apart from all others, the operators feel. There will be a manicurist and ladies' maid, entertainment and dancing after dinner, 24-hour room and beverage service, a single shower attended by a sleeping-car steward, and dining service to bring back mouth-watering memories of the Orient Express.

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As lunchtime approached in the pine-paneled diner, I sat on a stool beside Joel Raney, the mustached young entertainment director who was playing ''Satin Doll'' on a slightly swaying piano. Mr. Raney and several of his colleagues from Once Upon a Stove, a restaurant and nightclub in Manhattan, will divide their time aboard the train waiting on tables, serving beverages, and delivering musical numbers from an era when trains were tops.

Lunch was bisque or borsch for starters, duck salad compose or roast beef au jus, ice cream or sherbet for dessert - not her best effort, admitted the chef, Susan Greenlick, but one she will improve on when she learns the strange, bouncing ways of railroad galleys. All too soon we were pulling into Union Station and the present was overtaking the past. It seemed too soon to say goodbye to the silvery old cars, but it was nice to know they were still alive and well and bound for more glory.

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