Amtrak rider-in-chief Biden embarks on Rust Belt train tour

WILL WEISSERT
·4 mins read

LATROBE, Pa. (AP) — If America had an Amtrak rider-in-chief, Joe Biden would be it.

The former vice president, who estimates he's logged more than 2.1 million miles riding the rails in his lifetime, added seven more hours to that total Wednesday as his campaign chartered a nine-car private train to tour parts of eastern Ohio and western Pennsylvania — key areas to pick up votes if he wants to flip the states from red to blue in November.

Biden spent much of the trip inside a roomy, window-lined “conversation car" chatting with supporters he had picked up at stops along the way. He and his wife, Jill, also had their own all-glass space at the back of the train known as the “president's car.” It's an appropriate name considering the Democrat's task at hand: to defeat President Donald Trump in November.

Biden forged a political identity around being an avid Amtrak rider. Starting around the time his first wife and young daughter died in a car crash just before Christmas 1972, he took the train daily from Wilmington, Delaware, to Washington and then back again to be home with his two young sons. The roundtrip was 250 miles, and he made it every day the Senate was in session during his decades serving in the chamber.

His campaign has used the commute in ads meant to portray Biden as an everyman, and the Amtrak station in Wilmington was renamed in his honor.

It’s an image that fits well into Biden’s latest line of attack against Trump: that he, the former vice president, represents working-class enclaves like his native Scranton, Pennsylvania, while Trump embodies glitzy Park Avenue in Manhattan. Biden frequently says that blue-collar America is tired of being looked down upon — an issue Trump capitalized on in 2016, when many of his supporters believed Democrat Hillary Clinton had disdain for them.

Wednesday’s tour took Biden from Cleveland, the site of Tuesday night’s debate, to Alliance, Ohio, and then on to Pittsburgh. From there, he visited Greensburg, Latrobe (birthplace of the banana split) and Johnstown, Pennsylvania -- areas whose industrially dependent economies, Biden said, had been devastated by Trump’s economic policies.

“I used to look out the window -- like I did on the way down here -- and look into the homes,” Biden told a couple dozen cheering supporters on a train platform at Pittsburgh’s Union Station. “I’d wonder, ‘What’s going on in that house? What are they thinking about?'”

During the tour, Biden proclaimed, “I love being on the train,” and called it his “favorite means of transportation.” He also noted that, when he first started riding Amtrak, the service didn't have its own police force, and he recalled helping rectify that in the Senate.

“It’s not as fast as a helicopter, but I made a lot of family friends on Amtrak,” Biden said.

During the day’s first speech at Cleveland’s train station, Biden was interrupted by a freight train thundering by. In Alliance, he was jokingly asked if he had enough Amtrak reward points to cover the campaign train. His said he wanted to save his points for an excursion after the election is over.

During a press conference, he said his time was limited because the train conductor might leave him behind.

“We gotta get on this train, or all of you are going to have to run behind it,” Biden joked to reporters.

The conductor, 63-year-old Don Lewis, said Wednesday marked his final journey after 46 years with Amtrak. Lewis confessed to being a little nervous about meeting Biden when the candidate first climbed aboard the chartered train, but he also said he considered himself a Biden supporter.

Biden, making his third run for the presidency, announced his first campaign for the White House in 1987 at the train station in Wilmington. Then, he and his family posed for pictures off the back of the train. His 2020 campaign entertained notions of recreating a similar scene but were unable to, told that Amtrak no longer produces cabooses.

Instead, the Bidens’ private car on Wednesday featured a “Ridin’ with Biden” sign. His campaign also affixed Biden placards and signs urging supporters to text “Ohio” to the campaign, which staffers took down when the train crossed into Pennsylvania. Other signs billed the train as the “Build Back Better Express” a nod to Biden’s plan for post-coronavirus pandemic economic recovery.

According to the Amtrak website, the cost of chartering a private train begins at $30,000 and the journey must stick to existing rail routes. Wednesday’s followed the Capitol Limited, which runs daily from Washington to Chicago. Biden’s campaign wouldn’t publicly divulge how much it cost.

In his last stop of the night, Biden spoke alongside a train station in Johnstown as a giant freight train rumbled by.

“That train brought me back to my home base every night,” Biden said. “It kept me grounded.”