Biden's on the right track

Posted: February 10, 2014

AMTRAK CHOSE 30th Street Station - midway between the nation's financial head and its government seat - to unveil 70 new electric locomotives. But the star of the Thursday show, the high-tech, new-to-the-rails Cities Sprinter, strangely was not shown to the press, which got Vice President Joe Biden instead.

Known as the president of the Amtrak Fan Club, Biden was supposed to crow about rail transportation to an invited audience of those working on the railroad all the livelong day.

Biden was coming directly from the National Prayer Breakfast in D.C. (where maybe he prayed he'd get to Philly on time via Amtrak). He did, but . . .

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To entertain guests before the ceremony, the behind-the-scenes producer ordered up big band music - Harry James, Tommy Dorsey, etc. - sounds that coincided with the crest of American railroading. The names, once legendary, now are cemetery: Pennsylvania Railroad, Southern Pacific, New York Central, Baltimore & Ohio, Atchison, Topeka and Santa Fe.

Scheduled for 1 p.m., the event began at 12:59, with brief opening palaver from a Big Shot from Amtrak (the customer) and a Big Shot from Siemens (the manufacturer), which should have paved the entrance of the Veep. But when he was introduced - no Biden. Awkward silence. Big-band music started up again.

What guests and press didn't know was that the Senator from Amtrak was getting his hands on the shiny, new locomotive from the engineer's seat. It was like giving a kid a puppy. They couldn't get him to stop playing with it.

While we're waiting for the Veep, an Amtrak anecdote.

I like Amtrak, but have two complaints. First, some fares are too high (which can be skirted by selecting cheaper departure times). Driving is often cheaper.

Second, harder to fix, dumbass passengers.

A couple of Fridays ago, on the afternoon train to D.C., a guy is in the window seat in the Quiet Car reading a newspaper. A brawny, baldheaded guy sits down on the aisle seat armrest and starts talking to a man across the aisle. It wasn't too loud, but it was annoying to Window Seat. Conversation in the Quiet Car is supposed to be hushed - and brief.

After a couple of minutes, Window Seat politely reminds Baldie it's the Quiet Car. Baldie turns, glares and wants to know what that means.

Conversation isn't permitted, says Window Seat. Why not move to the next car, where it is?

"What are you going to do about it," Baldie growls to Window Seat. That's pretty much a challenge to fight. He wants to duke it out on the train? Is this the seventh grade?

"I'll stop talking when I'm finished," Baldie sneers. Window Seat says, "That's really funny."

After a few minutes, Baldie moves to the head of the car with the guy he was talking to.

I learn Baldie is Atlanta Falcons assistant coach Terry Robiskie. On Monday, I call the Atlanta Falcons PR guy and invite Robiskie to talk about his behavior.

Suddenly Baldie is silent. And he's not in the Quiet Car.

Play by the rules, coach Robiskie, don't act like a jerk and you won't draw a penalty flag.

Oh! Here comes the Veep.

Standing on a platform in a roped-off area of the massive station, Biden is in front of a huge bas-relief of what looks like a stallion-pulled Roman war chariot. (Editor's note: The art is "Spirit of Transportation" by sculptor Karl Bitter, created in 1894 inside the great gothic Broad Street station, which stood across from City Hall.)

Slim, with every hair and tooth in place, Biden is beneath warm yellow Art Deco chandeliers while washed by harsh white lights needed by TV. There are about a dozen TV cameras focused on him from a riser, with the stooges from radio and print seated at cheap wooden tabletops behind the camera ledge so they couldn't see the man they were sent to cover.

Never known for brevity, Biden rattled on for 28 minutes, longer than the Amtrak ride from Wilmington to Philly, his second-favorite city.

During his 36 years in Congress, Biden famously went to and from D.C. every day by train, logging 8,000 round trips - equal to 70 times around the globe.

Without Amtrak, Biden said, "I-95 would be a parking lot" and already crowded skies in the Northeast Corridor would be a nightmare. A worse nightmare.

Amtrak covers about 80 percent of its cost and Biden passionately defended the government subsidy it gets.

At times, he veered into a stump speech linking Amtrak with creating jobs, reducing income inequality, reviving the middle class and maybe fighting tooth decay.

I like rail, but let's not be silly.

The Cities Sprinter locomotives are U.S.-made, lighter, more fuel efficient and - this part's amazing - their braking system returns electricity to the power grid.

But they will not run any faster than what we have now.

Biden aches for trains running at 240 mph, as in Asia and Europe, saying it would "revolutionize" rail traffic. "We have the technology," he said. But do we have the will - and the dough?

He closed smiling, saying, "Amtrak is on the move."

Then, flanked by Secret Service, so was he.


Email: stubyko@phillynews.com

Phone: 215-854-5977

On Twitter: @StuBykofsky

Blog: ph.ly/Byko

Columns: ph.ly/StuBykofsky

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