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Oracle of Delphi

Much has changed on presidential train route

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I like trains and I like history, so I found this story to be interesting. Plus I've lived in this area of the country for years. I also have ridden the Amtrak train to Washington quite a few times in my life.

updated 11:17 a.m. ET, Sun., Dec. 21, 2008

ABOARD AMTRAK 181 NORTHEAST REGIONAL - The centuries-old right of way between Philadelphia and Washington is marked by shimmering waterways and industrial sprawl, well-kept suburbs and urban blight.

President-elect Barack Obama won't be sharing a ride with thousands of long-distance commuters when he travels on a private charter train from Philadelphia's 30th Street Station to Washington's Union Station on Jan. 17, three days before he takes the oath of office. But his route will be exactly the same.

In fact, it hasn't changed much since Abraham Lincoln rode the rails before his inauguration.

Evidently Obama has thought deeply about the symbolism of the 135-mile journey, something that regular riders typically aren't inclined to do. Nonetheless, they develop a feel for the changing landscape.

"You see those deserted houses, and you know you're in Baltimore," said Gifty Kwakye, 27, a student at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health who commutes daily from Philadelphia.

Need for renewal clear

The theme for Obama's inaugural is "Rewewing America's Promise," and as Kwakye noted, the need for such renewal will be clear in the five minutes before Obama's train pulls into Baltimore's Penn Station. The tracks pass through some of east Baltimore's most impoverished neighborhoods, where abandoned and burned-out row homes seem to outnumber inhabited ones. The city has nearly 30,000 abandoned properties.

A gaze out the window could also remind Obama of the troubles of the auto industry, the decline of American manufacturing and the strain on the military.

Johnnie Walker, a 60-year-old Amtrak operations supervisor from Middletown, Del., who has been with the railroad for 29 years, finds profound scenes throughout the journey.

At the Chrysler plant outside Wilmington, Del., "you see it's in the process of closing, and you wonder what's going to happen to all the employees there," Walker said. At Maryland's Aberdeen Proving Ground, "you start thinking about the military personnel in Iraq or Afghanistan, wondering where they're being deployed to.

"There's a lot of emotion when you travel on these trains," Walker said.

A transformed landscape

The landscape has transformed since Lincoln's inaugural train ride. But Lincoln, just like passengers today, made the dramatic crossing at the mouth of the Susquehanna River, where it empties into the Chesapeake Bay.

"That's my favorite scene," said Amtrak employee Peggy White, 50, as she served coffee to groggy commuters. "I have to leave my counter just to look out. It's a beautiful scene."

The tracks also cross the Bush River and the Gunpowder River as the train zips down to Baltimore. It was just south of the Gunpowder, in Chase, Md., where one of the worst crashes in Amtrak history occurred. In January 1987, a Conrail engineer under the influence of marijuana sped through a warning signal and the locomotive collided with an Amtrak train. Sixteen people were killed.

Closer to the city line, the path begins to divert from the one Lincoln took.

"In that day, Baltimore had three different railroad stations. None of them were connected," said Courtney B. Wilson, executive director of the B&O Railroad Museum in Baltimore. Rail cars were pulled through the city by horses, then hooked up with a different locomotive at the next station.

That transfer point became the site of some infamous subterfuge by Lincoln. His security chief, Allan Pinkerton — founder of the Pinkerton National Detective Agency — suspected that someone would make an attempt on his life in Baltimore, a city that in 1861 was divided between Northern and Southern sympathizers.

Pinkerton arranged for Lincoln to hide at President Street Station before "his car was pulled through Baltimore under the darkness of night," Wilson said. The maneuver was denounced in contemporary newspaper accounts as cowardly and inspired a political cartoon that showed the president-elect furtively peeking out of a freight car, wearing a nightshirt.

Huge crowd expected for speech

By contrast, Obama will be making a speech before what is sure to be a huge crowd in a city that overwhelmingly supported him, both in the Democratic primary and the general election.

The act of riding the train — along with events in Philadelphia, Wilmington, and Baltimore — expands the inaugural festivities to include more people, something that previous presidents with a mandate to change Washington have done.

"It does remind me a bit of Jimmy Carter jumping out of the limo on his inauguration, walking through the streets, and through the act reminding Americans this presidency would be different," said Julian E. Zelizer, a presidential historian at Princeton University.

And by beginning his trip in the nation's birthplace, Obama will be emphasizing the historic nature of his own election as the first black president — "reminding voters how, unlike almost any other election, the choice voters made in itself was a watershed," Zelizer said.

For Amtrak riders, the trip makes another strong point, about the importance of mass transit — particularly given the participation of Vice President-elect Joe Biden, who will hop on Obama's train when it stops in Wilmington.

Biden, famously, decided to commute daily from his Delaware home after his wife and infant daughter were killed in a car accident in 1972, shortly after his election to the Senate. The train rides allowed him to spend more time at home with his young sons, and he stuck with the routine throughout his 35 years in the Senate.

Other elected officials ride the rails

Biden's Amtrak trips are likely to be confined to weekends for at least the next four years, but he's not the only elected official who rides the rails.

Rep.-elect Leonard Lance, R-N.J., was aboard the Northeast Regional on Tuesday for an apartment-hunting trip to Washington. He lives in Clinton Township, N.J., and boarded the train in Trenton, a 2 1/2-hour journey.

"I commend the vice president-elect because I think he put his family first," said Lance, who, like Biden, plans to advocate for improved rail service.

"Amtrak is important to people in the Northeast, and of course we need to become more energy efficient and support mass transit," Lance said.

Praising mass transit aboard an Amtrak train is as politically astute as pushing for education money at a teachers' convention. As they doze off, peck away at laptops or bury their noses in newspapers or novels, the passengers look like they are in on a secret.

"It's convenient. It's kind of expensive," said Kwakye, echoing the comments of a half-dozen other passengers. "But it's better than driving."


Edited by Pontiac Custom-S

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Riding on the City of New Orleans,

Illinois Central Monday morning rail

Fifteen cars and fifteen restless riders,

Three conductors and twenty-five sacks of mail.

All along the southbound odyssey

The train pulls out at Kankakee

Rolls along past houses, farms and fields.

Passin' trains that have no names,

Freight yards full of old black men

And the graveyards of the rusted automobiles.


Good morning America how are you?

Don't you know me I'm your native son,

I'm the train they call The City of New Orleans,

I'll be gone five hundred miles when the day is done.

Dealin' card games with the old men in the club car.

Penny a point ain't no one keepin' score.

Pass the paper bag that holds the bottle

Feel the wheels rumblin' 'neath the floor.

And the sons of pullman porters

And the sons of engineers

Ride their father's magic carpets made of steel.

Mothers with their babes asleep,

Are rockin' to the gentle beat

And the rhythm of the rails is all they feel.


Nighttime on The City of New Orleans,

Changing cars in Memphis, Tennessee.

Half way home, we'll be there by morning

Through the Mississippi darkness

Rolling down to the sea.

And all the towns and people seem

To fade into a bad dream

And the steel rails still ain't heard the news.

The conductor sings his song again,

The passengers will please refrain

This train's got the disappearing railroad blues.

Good night, America, how are you?

Don't you know me I'm your native son,

I'm the train they call The City of New Orleans,

I'll be gone five hundred miles when the day is done.


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