PHILADELPHIA (AP) -- Vice President Joe Biden got a peek at Amtrak's newest locomotive Thursday and used the occasion to call for more infrastructure investment, stressing the importance of an improved transportation system.
Biden visited 30th Street Station in Philadelphia to unveil the rail system's Cities Sprinter electric engine, which will power trains along the Northeast Corridor between Boston and Washington beginning Friday.
Biden's remarks focused mainly on Amtrak, but he also mentioned the need to update the country's ports and airports. He cited Hong Kong's airport as a modern transport hub while likening the facilities at New York's LaGuardia Airport to "some third-world country."
"We need to modernize in order to compete," Biden said.
Amtrak bought 70 new engines using a $593 million loan from the Federal Railroad Administration, a figure that includes money for other system enhancements. Built by Siemens in Sacramento, Calif., the locomotives are safer, smoother and more efficient than the current fleet, Amtrak president Joseph Boardman said.
The new equipment, which will save $300 million over 20 years in electricity costs, replaces engines that average 25 to 35 years old, Boardman said.
"We're rebuilding this railroad so that we have a global competitiveness," he said.
The nation's passenger railroad network carried a record 31.6 million riders in 2012-13, despite Northeast service that was temporarily knocked out by Superstorm Sandy. Amtrak relies on federal subsidies for a small share of its operating expenses.
Thursday's boost from Biden came at a somewhat difficult time for Amtrak: Service between Philadelphia and Harrisburg remained suspended because of downed trees from an ice storm a day earlier. The new locomotives eventually will be used on that rail line, as well.
Biden is an unabashed fan of the trains, which he frequently used to commute to Washington from his home state of Delaware during his long tenure in the Senate — making an estimated 8,000 roundtrips.
But he stressed that his enthusiasm is supported by facts, saying trains are 17 percent more efficient than planes and 37 percent more efficient than cars.
Biden called the Northeast Corridor "a critical artery" supporting the nation's growth and commerce. He said the U.S. loses $51 billion in productivity each year to highway traffic jams.
Biden toured the locomotive on the station platform before making his remarks inside. He sat in the conductor's seat and maneuvered some levers, asking an engineer about various features. The engineer, he said, wondered how Biden knew so much.
"Well, lots of times I rode up in the cab," Biden said.
Follow Kathy Matheson at www.twitter.com/kmatheson .