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Selling Sizzle 

by Kevin Taylor


You are being taken for a ride." As protest signs go, this placard held up by Donna Hollister was hardly a dire pronouncement that the drumming hoofbeats of the apocalypse were just around the corner. And the gates to the BNSF Railway's locomotive refueling depot at Hauser, Idaho, on a breezy June afternoon hardly appeared to be the Gates of Hell.


But maybe it's all in how you pitch it.


More than 350 people drove past Hollister and a knot of about 20 other protesters on June 10, cheerfully acknowledging that -- indeed! -- the railroad was taking them for a ride. And if it came with a steady supply of food and paper engineer hats, well, so much the better.


"What a nice thing to do on a Friday afternoon," exclaimed Pat Hanson, who turned out for the ride with her daughter Heather, and granddaughter, Kaitlyn.


The railroad suffered an expensive and embarrassing series of leaks and construction flaws last winter at the brand-new depot, which stores and dispenses 500,000 gallons of diesel. And this after running roughshod over local opposition to build a refueling facility atop the region's main source of drinking water in the first place.


The Hansons said they support the depot for providing jobs in Hauser, but "It's not like we're saying Pollute Mother Earth," Heather Hanson said.


Placating irate residents and soothing concerns about possible fouling of the Spokane Valley-Rathdrum Prairie Aquifer had nothing to do with the mysterious appearance Friday of a gleaming silver line of coaches and observation cars from the heyday of transcontinental passenger service.


Even though the tickets appeared just as the depot was reopening after a court-ordered shutdown for repair, the excursion was scheduled a year ago, insists railroad public relations man Gus Melonas: "We have done these in the past, and we will do them in the future."


"The last time they stopped at Hauser was in 1889," said Hauser Mayor Ed Peone. "I was looking at a picture just the other day."


Peone said the old photograph was taken right after the railroad reached Hauser and shows local dignitaries riding on a bunting-bedecked flatcar.


Peone was among the local dignitaries especially invited to ride along on this latest trip. But he and Rathdrum Mayor Brian Steele decided to skip the ride when they learned they would be served steak in a wood-paneled executive car when everyone else would be getting Lunchables.


The mayors didn't want to appear to be tools of the railroad, Peone said.


"I'm into trains a lot. I had friends tell me I shouldn't go because this is just PR for the railroad," Rathdrum resident Howard Kuhns said, swaying in his seat in the Colorado River coach as the train rocked gently along the rails. "I said, sooooooo...."


When the $42 million depot opened last September, BNSF and construction officials hailed it as "virtually leakproof" and "state-of-the-art." They offered tours and free hot dogs along with reassurances the aquifer was well protected.


The PR stakes went up after the embarrassing series of leaks and construction flaws followed hard on the heels of the grand opening. By February, the leaks posed a potential public health threat to the aquifer, a judge ruled when he shut down the depot.


After a frenzied $10 million in redesign and repair, tickets to a free excursion suddenly became available.


Most of the 354 people aboard last week's train bluntly -- even cheerfully -- considered the excursion a bribe of sorts as BNSF tried to regain good will with a free lunch, nuts, candies and tiny cheesecakes.


"It just keeps on coming, doesn't it?" said Bob Lyons, a redheaded railroad worker who hustled up and down the coaches with various foods.


"My good will? It can't be bought ... but I do take gratuities," said Ronald Johnson, a depot critic and engineer who has worked remediating soils at nuclear sites.


"So far, we haven't been greased enough," added Johnson's friend, Leilani, who did not wish to give her full name for fear she'd get in trouble at work for dodging out and taking the train ride.


Lyons and other train workers began the food service with little boxes of lunchmeat, cheese and crackers for most of the riders.


Back in a private executive car, the Fred Harvey, chefs Lynda McDevitt and Gary Andrews had prepared filet mignon, shrimp, garlic mashed potatoes and apple turnovers to be served to 29 dignitaries at a long table set with linen and crystal.


Most of their work went for naught when local dignitaries decided not to attend and most of the visiting media also declined the free meal despite plaintive pleas from Melonas to come eat.


Back in the coaches, it was a different story.


"When the guy came out with lunch, I said `No thank you. I'm waiting for the filet mignon,'" Johnson jokes.


When he and his companions heard there really was filet mignon, they felt pained.


"They can't grease us with Lunchables," Leilani said.
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