With all the pomp of a royal visit, U.S. Secretary of Transportation Elizabeth Hanford Dole marched into Washington's Union Station yesterday and stepped aboard a train.
The train was a Baltimore-bound Amtrak special that carted her, a United States senator, the president of Amtrak, reporters and assorted aides on a tour of highly touted railroad improvements along a short stretch of the Northeast corridor.
The trip also served as a platform for Dole to announce $1 million in federal grants for further improvements to Baltimore's Pennsylvania Station.
Stewards in starched white jackets, clean windows, fresh food and a plush club car in the caboose of the three-car train made it a rare Amtrak trip, in which getting there really was half the fun.
The other half, however, was pretty much a media circus. Television crews and newspaper photographers jostled each other for pictures of Dole, Sen. Charles McC. Mathias (R-Md.) and Amtrak chief W. Graham Claytor while the dignitaries discussed signal lights and other improvements, part of a $2 billion project from Washington to Boston due to be 75 percent complete this year.
With aides in tow, Dole appeared at Union Station a few minutes late for the train's scheduled departure, but this was one Amtrak locomotive that actually waited for a passenger. Not only that, but the train was conveniently located at a gate near the station's entrance, causing several passengers waiting for other Amtrak trains to grouse about the VIP treatment.
"Gee, I gotta walk all the way to the other end of the station to get my train," sighed Dora Simpson, an elderly woman bound for Philadelphia, as she surveyed the hubbub of reporters and security men near the special train's gate. "Maybe one day they'll treat senior citizens like this."
At the gate, an Amtrak clerk posted a sign saying Dole's train would depart at 1:35 p.m.
When someone suggested that everyone present knew what time the train was due to leave, the clerk answered, "I know, I know. It's just my boss told me to look busy."
The sometimes-slapstick trip, which kicked off National Transportation Week, ended on time in Baltimore with a robust greeting by Mayor William Donald Schaefer, who met the train at Pennsylvania Station with a jolly smile on his face and a carnation in his lapel.
En route to Baltimore, Dole talked about how happy she was to see the railroad facelift, which includes concrete tie installations and work in progress at the Baltimore and Potomac Tunnel.
Asked whether she had ever ridden Amtrak before, Dole paused and replied, "Oh sure. Many times. I always have and I always will."
Mathias, meantime, chatted about the old days of railroad travel when, he said, one could go from Baltimore to New York for $8 and see stewards polish brass rails at each stop. Relating the importance of Baltimore to the Northeast railroad corridor, the senator quoted Baltimore poet Ogden Nash: "I could not love New York so much, loved I not Baltimore."
Later Mathias quoted another Nash stanza having to do with the fertility of turtles. "Wonderful writer, Nash," he said, as the train chugged toward Odenton.
Across the aisle Claytor boasted about Amtrak's on-time record, which he said has improved dramatically in the last four years. "Four years ago our record was 40 percent on time," he said. "Now, it's 90 percent." When a reported asked why 10 percent still arrive late, Claytor quietly deferred to an aide who replied succinctly, "Oh, a whole lot of causes."
The trip's highlight was the stop at Pennsylvania Station, where the dignitaries toured $8 million worth of reconstruction, including oak benches, antique ceramic tiles, marble walls and the pie ce de re'sistance, a stunning stained-glass skylight. The skylight had been painted black during World War II as part of a blackout program throughout the city, and was only recently restored to its original conditon.
Beneath the skylight, Schaefer, Dole, and Mathias took turns at a microphone congratulating the city of Baltimore, the federal government and each other for the money and work that went into the improvement projects. Afterward, an aide to one of them announced to the pack of reporters and camera crews on hand that all three were open to questions.
There were none.
"How did you do that?" Schaefer, breaking out in laughter, asked Dole. "No questions! Sheesh."
Then the press, Dole, Claytor and assorted others returned to the train for the trip back south, leaving several dozen waiting passengers and station employes confused about all the fuss.
"What's goin' on, Petey?" one man in a yellow hard hat asked another.
"Ah, just the mayor," his friend answered, "and some woman."