Tuesday, December 23, 2008


The centuries-old right of way between Philadelphia and the District 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 the District’s Union Station on Jan. 17, three days before he takes the oath of office.

But the 135-mile route will be exactly the same, and the views should provide Mr. Obama with more context for his inaugural theme of “Renewing America’s Promise,” frequent riders say.

Gifty Kwakye, a student at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health who commutes daily from Philadelphia, says the need for such renewal will be clear in the five minutes before Mr. Obama’s train pulls into Baltimore‘s Penn Station.

“You see those deserted houses, and you know you’re in Baltimore,” said Miss Kwakye, 27.

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 also could remind Mr. Obama, Illinois Democrat, 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,” he 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,” Mr. Walker said.

The landscape has transformed since Abraham Lincoln‘s inaugural train ride. But Lincoln, 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.

The transfer point became the site of some infamous subterfuge by Lincoln. His security chief, Allan Pinkerton - founder of the Pinkerton National Detective Agency - feared an assassination attempt on Lincoln in Baltimore, a city that in 1861 was divided between Northern and Southern sympathizers.

Mr. Pinkerton arranged for Lincoln to hide at President Street Station before “his car was pulled through Baltimore under the darkness of night,” Miss 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.

By contrast, Mr. Obama will be making a speech before what is sure to be a huge crowd in a city that overwhelmingly supported him.

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, Mr. Obama will be emphasizing the historic nature of his own election as the first black president.

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

Mr. 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.

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