Democracy Soup

Making sense out of the world of politics

Obama/Biden ‘Whistle Stop’ train has to be more than just beautiful symbolism

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Originally published on on Wed, 01/14/2009 – 12:58pm

We are going from a president who has spent more time in golf carts than on a train (if he has ever been on an Amtrak train) to a president who will arrive in Washington by Amtrak train.

Of course, it doesn’t hurt that the vice-president to be is a 35-year regular rider of the route from the nation’s capital to Wilmington, DE.

As someone who does not own a car, and is otherwise a strong supporter of public transportation, the symbolic ride from Philadelphia to Washington, DC on Saturday is hope that the perception of trains and buses will be much improved in this White House.

The train on Saturday starts in Philadelphia’s 30th Street Station, makes a stop in Wilmington to pick up the Biden family, and will also make a stop in Baltimore before heading to DC.

This will be a charter train, so the guest list will already be determined. But it would be nice to include other regular riders who could suggest a few things on how to improve train service.

Gregg Weaver will be one of the passengers on the Whistle Stop train. Weaver has been a conductor on Biden’s route. Weaver, and his wife, Carol, are two of only 40 “everyday Americans” picked to come along for the ride.

The symbolism is also poignant since the trip is a replication of the final leg of Abraham Lincoln’s journey to the nation’s capital in 1861.

But once Inauguration Day comes, the transportation issues still remain. It’s been rather difficult for Amtrak to do its business when it has had to deal with 12-14 years of threats to shut it down.

As you can see from the map above (here’s a better version), many places in the country has little if any exposure to Amtrak’s services.

While technically 46 of the 48 contiguous states (Wyoming and South Dakota) have some connection to an Amtrak route, there are long stretches without service. The South and West (outside the West Coast) has very few routes; coincidentally, perhaps, these are red states more likely to want to dump Amtrak.

And the most used routes for Amtrak are in the heart of “blue country”: West Coast, Chicago and nearby Midwestern states, and the Acela high-speed trains from Boston to New York to Washington.

But there are a number of problems. Amtrak often doesn’t control the tracks it runs on. For example, if you’ve taken a train from Chicago eastbound through Northwest Indiana, you know the delays that come from waiting for freight trains to go by first.

This can become a problem in nightmarish scenarios as what happened last month on a Chicago to Grand Rapids, MI train where passengers had to wait an extra 3 hours on top of the long waits.

And while those high-speed trains sound great, they are slower compared to European and Japanese standards, yet faster than regular U.S. trains. The area of the country that really needs high-speed rail – the Midwest – hasn’t been able to truly get it started yet. The Midwest has a lot of close-by medium-sized cities that could use a quicker turnaround transportation option than flying.

More people would be willing to take Amtrak if there was an expectation that trains could keep the same schedule as say, planes or buses. In the above route from Chicago to Grand Rapids, MI, the route was 88 percent late in November, before the truly horrible winter weather kicked in.

I don’t know whether Obama took Amtrak from Chicago to Springfield during his days as a state senator. Hopefully, if he didn’t, he will learn something on this trip. Maybe Transportation Secretary designate Ray LaHood can come along for the ride and take notes.

Public transportation, whether that be inter-city buses and trains or inner-city buses and trains, have been ignored by Washington for far too long. They needs lots of work, and perhaps by coincidence, we have people who need to work (and pay taxes) and a president-elect who is willing to use government money to help people in this way. All aboard to the train that will get our public transportation in much better shape.

map via

Written by democracysoup

January 14, 2009 at 12:58 pm

Posted in Uncategorized

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