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DEMOCRATIC CONVENTION '96

Riding the Rails Is Cramped, Disruptive--and Fine by Clinton

Campaign: Aides and media trip over each other, and other trains must alter their schedules. But president finds his journey a gratifying experience.

August 28, 1996|PAUL RICHTER | TIMES STAFF WRITER

COLUMBUS, Ohio — With his "21st Century Express" helping pump some excitement into his campaign, President Clinton has been captivated by the poetry of the rails and is proclaiming the iron horse his favorite way to meet constituents.

Easy for him to say.

Setting up this four-day, 500-mile trip was no easy matter for the president, who is making his way to an expected triumphal reception at the Democratic National Convention in Chicago this evening. The train's restless crowds, physical limits and security needs have complicated life on the rails as the gleaming campaign caravan has wound its way through the Midwest.

The 13-car rail caravan is a sort of rolling palace. The president's two private cars are laid out to serve as a parlor, a dining space, and other living and sleeping facilities.

Further forward there is space for public gatherings, studio space for TV interviews and other cars that are laid out as first-class coaches and office space for a huge network contingent.

White linen food service is almost always in progress for the 75 White House staff members, 50 VIP visitors and 150-plus journalists and media technicians.

Yet with 275 or more bodies laboring in a confined space--plotting political strategy, making announcements, reporting and filming those announcements and protecting the president--people inevitably get in each others' way.

Indeed, the constant shuffling of travelers back and forth between cars makes the "21st Century Express" almost as much like the train station as the train itself.

Joe Lockhart, Clinton's deputy campaign press secretary, found it a bit distracting to have chatty visitors wandering nearby while he was interviewed by a Miami television station. "People keep coming through the car: 'Hi! Is that your beer?' " Lockhart said.

Due to the many travelers on the train, small problems threaten to become big ones. One night the Amtrak kitchen crew discovered to its chagrin that it had exhausted all its water supply as it served more than 200 diners. "I guess we'll be carrying these dirty dishes down the line a ways," said Venson Brown, a cook.

Meanwhile, in the rush to attend to on-board problems, some of the mundane campaign tasks of preparing rallies apparently have not gotten sufficient attention.

The peaceful residents of Bowling Green, Ohio, seemed near an uprising during Clinton's evening visit because aides had put up a platform for television cameras that blocked the view of dozens of Democrats who had endured a lengthy wait in line to see the president.

"Media get down! Media get down!" chanted the crowd. Aides, fearing that the incident could cause problems for the president's first speech from the train's rear car--a prime photo opportunity for the media--hastily moved the unhappy group closer to Clinton.

The whistle-stop venues also have posed difficulties. In Chillicothe, Ohio, the president was bothered by a swarm of insects as he began his speech.

He gamely tried to ignore them as he charged through his list of first-term achievements but eventually began wiping the bugs from his mouth and face. When he finished his remarks, an aide wiped a coating of the bugs from his jacket.

Officials learned later that a contractor had been urged to spray for insects before the train arrived but decided that he would save money instead.

The greatest complication of Clinton's whistle-stop journey has been fitting the unusual train into a busy rail network.

"This is a very complicated business we're in," acknowledged Debbie Hare, a spokeswoman for Amtrak.

The Secret Service does not allow other trains to move on the same rails that the "21st Century Express" uses, and less-traveled routes have been chosen. Amtrak and the CSX, Conrail and Grand Trunk Western freight lines have rerouted some of their traffic around the president's train.

Spokesmen for the freight lines played down the disruptions. "We don't expect much noticeable inconvenience to the shipping public," said Bob Walker, a vice president with Grand Trunk, a subsidiary of Canadian National.

But railroad industry sources said delays of hours or even days could not be avoided. Perhaps as many as 1,500 rail passengers will be forced to take buses today, when the presidential caravan crosses into Michigan and interrupts lines serving Detroit.

The presidential planners had to switch Clinton to a helicopter for the last leg into Chicago tonight to avoid disrupting carefully timed schedules for commuter rail lines in the city.

Aides will not discuss security in any detail but acknowledged that they have a tougher job ensuring presidential safety on a train, which allows far less maneuverability than a limousine or aircraft.

To provide a buffer, the Secret Service has put one train ahead of the "21st Century Express" and one behind it. The lead train is supposed to spot danger and act as a decoy, while the train in the rear can couple to the president's train and pull it to safety in the event of a mishap.

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