Signs of hope, joy greet train through heart of Mid-Atlantic

The Baltimore Sun

ABOARD THE 2009 INAUGURAL SPECIAL - They turned out by the thousands along the steel rails yesterday, bundled against the cold, waving American flags, toting digital cameras and homemade signs, sometimes alone, often by twos and tens, occasionally in larger throngs.

Through the icy heart of the Mid-Atlantic, from Philadelphia to Wilmington to Baltimore, they offered hearty waves, broad smiles and best wishes as President-elect Barack Obama's inaugural train rolled past.

A bedsheet on a fence at a bayside park north of Wilmington carried the message "GO-BAMA." "We are praying for you," read a hand-painted sign by the tracks as the train slowed in Edgewood.

Obama rode a vintage train car back to Washington, where he's already been hard at work as a virtual co-president with the outgoing George W. Bush. The scripted symbolism marked the official start of four days and nights of celebrations expected to draw record crowds to the capital.

Accompanied by longtime friends, VIPs and the families of ordinary citizens he encountered on his White House run, the 47-year-old president-elect reprised campaign themes and previewed a message he will likely elaborate upon in his inaugural address.

The country is at a "crossroads," he said, "at war, an economy in turmoil, an American dream that feels like its slipping away." Now, "the time has come to pick ourselves up once again."

Under a leaden sky in Baltimore, where the day's largest audience filled War Memorial Plaza, he largely repeated a line delivered hours earlier in Philadelphia, including words borrowed from Lincoln's first inaugural address.

Americans, he said, need a fresh start, "a new declaration of independence, not just in our nation, but in our own lives, our own hearts - from ideology and small thinking, prejudice and bigotry and narrow interests - an appeal not to our easy instincts but to our better angels."

It took almost seven hours to complete the roughly 135-mile trip to Washington from Philadelphia, as Obama traced the final leg of Abraham Lincoln's 1861 pre-inaugural journey. At two points along the way, in Delaware and in Maryland, the 11-car train - pulled by engine Nos. 44 and 120, for the soon-to-be 44th president and his inauguration date, Jan. 20 - braked to a previously announced crawl, and Obama emerged on a rear platform to greet well-wishers.

"See you at the next stop," he said, as his wife playfully pulled the whistle cord when the train pulled out of Wilmington for Baltimore.

The journey was carefully orchestrated for security reasons and maximum political impact. A film crew from Obama's campaign captured images from the trip, which will be flashed on giant screens on the national Mall to warm up the audience, figuratively if not literally, before today's opening celebration at the Lincoln Memorial.

At each stop, Obama rarely improvised from prepared remarks read from a prompter device.

"Pray for us," he said in Wilmington, hometown of Joe Biden, where several thousand gathered for a rally outside the train station and the vice president-elect and his wife, Jill, climbed aboard.

At the midday rally, an Amtrak conductor, Gregg Weaver, introduced the veteran Delaware senator, whose decades of daily trips to Washington made him, in Weaver's words, "Amtrak's No. 1 commuter."

The crowd serenaded the incoming first lady, Michelle Obama, with an impromptu chorus of "Happy Birthday" on her 45th birthday. Later, while the train was parked at Baltimore's Pennsylvania Station, she celebrated aboard in a car festooned with birthday banners, dancing with her daughters and other children along for the ride.

In Wilmington, as at every stop along the way, people began arriving hours early, wrapped against biting wind-chill temperatures that reached into the single digits.

Cindy Brown, 75, rode an hour from her house in Sicklerville, N.J., then stood for more than four hours to hear Obama deliver a nine-minute speech.

"I never thought that I would see this day. I thought my grandchildren would see it, but I never did," said Brown, an African-American. "It's worth standing out here in the cold."

The Obamas rode in a vintage platform car at the rear of the train, hitched to modern passenger carriages used on Amtrak's regional line. Daughters Malia and Sasha came along for the ride and appeared at the initial, indoor event, in Philadelphia but were not onstage at the outdoor rallies.

Guests included Bill Daley, the brother of Chicago's mayor and former Clinton Cabinet member, and first friend Eric Whitaker, plus more than 40 family members of ordinary people the president-elect met during his campaign.

Security for the trip was extremely tight, and Amtrak left little to chance. Two diesel locomotives were used, instead of the standard electric equipment. A second train, either a backup or a decoy, was also equipped with a rear car that had a platform covered in flag bunting. It passed the Obama special just north of Baltimore and was parked alongside the president-elect's train at Penn Station.

Like the train, which linked old and new rail equipment, the trip bridged Obama's presidential candidacy and his incipient presidency.

In Philadelphia, Obama, his wife and daughters were greeted by a shout of "Yes, we did!" from a man in the audience when he arrived at his first stop, a campaign-style rally for several hundred invited supporters inside a marbled waiting room at the 30th Street Station.

A few minutes before noon, and ahead of schedule, the train pulled slowly away from the city's underground station platform into the sunshine.

Supporters waved from an elevated highway overlooking the tracks, with some dangling hand-made signs with distinctly liberal sentiments. "Healthcare not warfare," read one. "Retire the empire," said another.

"We [heart symbol] you," read another hand-drawn sign, decorated with Obama's campaign logo.

Helicopters whirred overhead, including a military Chinook, which trailed at a respectful distance. Hundreds of police vehicles and officers on foot were stationed along the roadbed. Underpasses were closed. Coast Guard and police boats patrolled the ice-fringed Delaware Bay.

The most common sights were the countless well-wishers, of all races, ages, sizes and backgrounds. They stood in backyards, ballfields and parking lots, or watched from the rear doors of their trackside homes or outside businesses near the track bed.

Some jumped up and down, perhaps from excitement, or maybe just to stay warm. A few applauded. Most simply waved. Some stared impassively.

Crossing into Maryland and cruising above the ice-coated waters of the upper Chesapeake Bay, the train passed hundreds of well-wishers in Havre de Grace. A little farther along, the Aberdeen Middle School band played as the train sped by.

By the time the train left Baltimore, just before 5:30, darkness had fallen. A cluster of people, their American flags illuminated by car headlights, greeted the train as it crept through West Baltimore, then gathered speed.

Obama left his train at Washington's Union Station about 6:30 p.m. behind a shield of security and with no fanfare. It was almost, but not quite, as anonymous as the arrival of the man who inspired his trip.

Lincoln, spirited incognito through Baltimore because of an assassination threat, stepped quietly from the train at dawn and was quickly hustled downtown by an Illinois congressman to the Willard Hotel. "Like a thief in the night," Lincoln was later said to have remarked, ruefully.

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