Voters have come to expect this from Biden, the legendary commuter and devout train advocate. Biden launched his 1988 presidential bid from the back of a train. Two decades later, he promised that Barack Obama would preside over the “most train-friendly administration ever.” In 2009, Biden rode with Obama to Washington aboard a triumphant inaugural special. In 2017, he slipped out of town on Acela an hour after President Trump took the oath of office.
Biden estimates he has ridden over 2 million miles aboard 16,000 Amtrak trains. This transit odyssey began one month after a 29-year-old Biden won his Senate seat in 1972 when a car wreck killed his wife, Neilia, and infant daughter, Naomi. Biden entered the Senate the following January but chose to commute to Washington via Metroliner, 90 minutes each way, so that he could raise his surviving sons in Delaware.
Yet the Democratic nominee’s “love affair with Amtrak” extends beyond folksy nostalgia and personal tragedy. Amtrak epitomizes Biden’s ideological commitments to incremental governance, dealmaking and compromise. In fact, the country’s passenger rail system owes its survival to the same brand of consensus politics Biden learned in Newcastle, Del. This conciliatory approach to getting things done, known as “the Delaware Way,” held that personal rapport could overcome partisan division and that corporate benevolence could bring about economic justice.
The decades following World War II were the darkest in American rail history. Trains lost business to trucks, which rumbled over a freshly-paved Interstate Highway System, and airlines, ostensibly private outfits that enjoyed tax-funded runways and terminals.
Passenger trains lost riders as Americans dispersed from downtown urban cores into car-centric sprawl. Their neglect showed in scenes of desolate stations, weather-beaten coaches and weed-fringed track beds. Despite dwindling revenue and mounting maintenance costs, the Interstate Commerce Commission forbade railroads from dumping unprofitable routes, saddling a sick industry with the burden of delivering a public benefit. When questioned about his money-burning passenger system, one frustrated executive snapped, “I would be delighted to give it to you lock, stock and barrel … it’s a drag and a drain.”
Biden would have seen this decay firsthand growing up in Scranton, where the hometown Delaware, Lackawanna and Western Railroad was already sliding toward insolvency in the late 1940s as Northeastern Pennsylvania’s coal industry cratered. When his family moved to Claymont, Del., in 1953, Biden lived blocks from the tracks of the Pennsylvania Railroad (PRR). Once the largest corporation in the world, the PRR fell on hard times in the middle of the century. By the late 1950s, its board of directors was already plotting a desperate merger with the rival New York Central, a union that would precipitate the largest bankruptcy in U.S. history before Enron.
The story was the same across the northeast and Midwest, where venerable but cash-starved railroads suddenly vanished into history, abandoning tracks and customers in their wake.
Afraid that the entire rail industry would rust into oblivion on his watch, President Richard Nixon signed into law the National Railroad Passenger Corporation in 1970. This act allowed ailing railroads to jettison their failing passenger operations in return for investing in a new “quasi-public corporation” that would run those trains in their stead. Part joint-stock company, part socialized utility, Amtrak would be responsible for patching together a new nationwide passenger network and running it at a profit — something no railroad had achieved in decades. Congress would cover operating losses temporarily until Amtrak could put trains back in the black.
Amtrak was the culmination of a long debate over how to fix the passenger rail system. The hybrid solution of a government corporation that would “not be an agency or establishment of the United States government” assuaged Congressional Republicans wary of nationalizing trains and Democrats opposed to rescuing share-held enterprise. Amtrak, according to New York Times reporter Joseph Albright, was part of a “gigantic experiment in special interest socialism” that allowed the government to intervene in the rail industry to save it, then pull out whenever it chose.
With its futile profit mandate, tenuous subsidy and ragtag roster of hand-me-down trains, Amtrak struck many as a joke: a bleak parody of hapless bureaucracy and sad remnant of America’s storied railroad past. Even an Amtrak customer brochure implored riders to “please be patient. It’s going to take time.”
Against daunting odds (and Nixon’s own cynical belief that the railroad would collapse after he left office and was no longer on the hook), Amtrak survived. By slashing 50 percent of its inherited routes, Amtrak doubled down on a bare-bones system until passengers began returning. Amtrak purchased new locomotives, refurbished coach interiors and began slapping its jaunty American flag paint scheme on all trains. Between 1973 and 1976, Amtrak acquired most of the Northeast Corridor between Boston and Washington from the bankrupt Penn Central, which could no longer maintain the high-speed line’s tracks, bridges and catenary.
“There has been a tremendous improvement in the service … as compared with the time railroad passenger trains were being operated by private rail companies,” Biden reflected on the Senate floor in 1985. “Morale among workers has improved, track and equipment have undergone a multibillion dollar modernization, and trains are better than ever.” For Biden, Amtrak represented the flawed but fixable handiwork of a federal government willing to rescue free enterprise when it flopped: a corporate bailout — but one designed to further the common good by sustaining an industry that deserved public investment.
In keeping with the civic corporatism that characterized the Delaware Way, Amtrak would atone for capitalistic neglect to make free enterprise work for the American public again. Funding the National Rail Passenger Corporation, Biden argued, was a matter of preserving competition in domestic travel markets prone to monopoly control by buses and planes. He predicted that Amtrak would eventually shed its subsidy to become independent. After voting for a transportation appropriations bill in 1986, Biden addressed the railroad’s naysayers: “I look forward as much as anyone to the day when Amtrak states that it no longer needs any assistance.”
Like the Postal Service, federal mortgage companies and other government-owned corporations, Amtrak has proven abhorrent to its critics as it has grown indispensable to its users. Biden would lead congressional opposition against “numerous attempts … to wreck the Amtrak System,” ranging from Reagan-era budget cuts to George W. Bush’s attempt to privatize passenger trains. He defended Amtrak’s annually-imperiled subsidy against deficit hawks, “the cement folks and the asphalt folks” who favored roads to rails and his cross-aisle friend Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), who denounced Amtrak as “the great train robbery.” Critics complained that the government was over-investing in an antiquated mode of travel at a time when most Americans drove, flew and bussed between cities.
At the same time, Biden found unlikely allies among Senate Republicans, including Kay Bailey Hutchison (Tex.) and Conrad Burns (Mont.), legislative foes who found common ground in public trains (especially those that served their constituents). Sponsoring an $11.4 billion passenger rail bill in 2007, arch-conservative Trent Lott remarked (Miss.), “Preserving national passenger rail service shouldn’t be based on partisan ideology or Amtrak’s profit margins.” It is “about ensuring that America has a complete transportation system — one that includes planes, trains, lanes and ports.”
Today, in an era that has elevated partisanship to blood sport, Biden’s Amtrak advocacy suggests not only a new direction in transportation policy, but a blueprint for how a post-Trump government might provide for its citizens. Amtrak satisfies nether a left-wing desire for radical infrastructural development nor the right’s championing of free enterprise and austere budgets. Amtrak ensures that Americans will have trains to ride. It also guarantees those machines will never be mistaken for Japanese Bullet Trains or French TGVs. An uncompromising proponent of compromise, Amtrak Joe wagers that a “leaner, cleaner, greener 21st century” requires all the trade-offs and contradictions embodied by a corporation for the people.