Amtrak Joe: A brief look at President Biden’s long history of supporting America’s railroad

Vice President Joe Biden Amtrak Logo 2009.JPG
President Joe Biden at an event announcing funding for Amtrak as part of the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act in 2009.

  • President Joe Biden’s long political history included years of advocating for Amtrak funding.
  • Biden earned the nickname “Amtrak Joe” as he commuted between Delaware and Washington for decades.
  • The nickname hit mainstream media in 2008, starting with CNN.
  • See more stories on Insider’s business page.

When President Ronald Reagan in 1981 moved to trim $884 million from a budget used by Amtrak, Senator Joe Biden was the only member of the Senate Budget Committee to vote against Reagan’s plan.

“You can’t come back next year or the next year and change it,” Biden said, according to a report from United Press International. “Those railroads will have gone.”

Now, four decades later, Biden’s in the seat once held by Reagan. And he’s announced a $2 trillion infrastructure plan, which would include $80 billion for Amtrak. The money would go toward expanding and fixing the country’s crumbling railway infrastructure, which he’s fought in favor of for his whole career in Washington.

It’s often said that Biden’s nickname is “Amtrak Joe,” although it’s difficult to pinpoint when that nickname started to solidify.

In the late 2000s, as Biden joined Barack Obama on the presidential ticket, the nickname started popping up regularly on CNN. The first record that Insider could find of a prominent news outlet using “Amtrak Joe” was from August 2008, when CNN’s Soledad O’Brien called him by the nickname on air.

“Coming up next, more on the Washington insider who is also a proud Delaware outsider. They called him the Amtrak Joe Biden. God, I have seen him on Amtrak a lot,” O’Brien said as she threw to a commercial, according to a transcript.

The following month, The New York times published a blog post using the nickname.

We’ve combed newspaper archives dating back to Biden’s early days as a senator, pulling some of his long-ago quotes about Amtrak. Here’s a brief history of Biden’s interactions with Amtrak.

In October 1970, President Richard Nixon signed the Rail Passenger Service Act to create Amtrak, which was then called the National Railroad Passenger Corporation, according to Amtrak’s official history.

Three years later, Biden entered office.

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Biden wearing aviators on a train.

During his decades in the Senate, Biden commuted home to Delaware each day via Amtrak to be home with his sons at night. CNN estimated he took about 8,000 round trips on the same route.

Throughout the 1980s, Biden’s name popped up in budget stories about Amtrak. He often butted heads with Reagan about railroad spending. In May 1985, for example, Reagan had proposed slashing Amtrak’s budget. Biden at the time said the cuts were “a creeping regionalism,” according to The Providence Journal.

“I’m really beginning to wonder if we’re seven regions or one country,” he said. “Why should we help? I’ll tell you why we should help: We’re Americans. A simple reason.”

In 1987, when Biden launched his bid for the Democratic nomination for president, he chose a Delaware train station as his backdrop, according to UPI.

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This artist’s 1999 rendering of the Acela.

Amtrak announced in the late 1990s that it was developing a high-speed rail for the north-east, called the Acela. Biden said it was “the single most important transportation need in America,” according to an article in the Philadelphia Inquirer.

“That would be hundreds of thousands of tons of pollution,” Biden said, according to the report. “Amtrak is important not only because it helps our quality of life. It literally impacts our health.”

A few years later, after Obama won the presidential election, the first and second families travelled together via the railway to the inauguration.

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The Obamas and Bidens on their way to Washington for Obama’s inauguration in 2009.

As vice president, Biden was often sent to blue-collar states to campaign for Obama’s reelection, using the political skills he’s honed riding the train for all those years, as The Daily Beast reported in 2012.

“This is, after all, a guy famous for making friends with anyone and everyone – fellow travelers, train conductors, red caps – he crossed paths with on his old Amtrak commute from Delaware,” the magazine said.

Biden’s 2020 presidential campaign was also interwoven with Amtrak. During 2020, he travelled by train to several states, making whistle-stop speeches as he went.

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Biden speaks to supporters during a campaign stop in Ohio in 2020.

He’d planned to take a train to Washington, as he’d done with Obama 12 years earlier but cancelled the trip amid security concerns, after rioters mobbed the Capitol.

In a statement, Biden’s team said: “In the week since the attack on Congress by a mob that included domestic terrorists and violent extremists, the nation has continued to learn more about the threat to our democracy and about the potential for additional violence in the coming days, both in the National Capital Region and in cities across the country. This is a challenge that the President-elect and his team take incredibly seriously.”

When Biden and UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson held their first trans-Atlantic phone call, some of their conversation reportedly focused on a mutual love of train travel.

More recently, a few days after announcing the infrastructure deal, he said. “Imagine a world where you and your family can travel coast to coast without a single tank of gas, or in a high-speed train, close to as fast as you can go across the country in a plane.”

Amtrak Connect US Map 2021 March
Amtrak Connects US, the railway’s vision for train travel in the US in 2035.

Amtrak published a map of an expanded US rail network based on Biden’s funding proposal. Materials prepped for the announcement said the plan would bolster transportation options for diverse populations throughout the country.

The new routes include cities that haven’t before been connected to the national rail service, including western outposts like Las Vegas and Phoenix.

It would also break ground on routes throughout the southern US, including ones to Nashville, Tennessee; Montgomery, Alabama; and Macon, Georgia. Materials prepped for the announcement said the plan would bolster transportation options for diverse populations throughout the country.

“Millions of people, including large populations of people of color, do not have access to a reliable, fast, sustainable, and affordable passenger rail option. This is neither fair nor equitable,” the railway said.

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Biden’s infrastructure plan should supercharge growth over the long term, Dallas Fed president says

Robert Kaplan
Dallas Federal Reserve Bank President Robert Kaplan.

  • Biden’s infrastructure plan can fuel a permanent boost to growth, the Dallas Fed’s president said.
  • Where stimulus will fuel a sudden rise, infrastructure is a “long-term investment,” Robert Kaplan said.
  • Inflation will still likely trend within the Fed’s comfort zone amid the new spending, he added.
  • See more stories on Insider’s business page.

President Joe Biden’s infrastructure proposal can permanently lift the country’s economic output and drive stronger growth for years after the recovery, Robert Kaplan, president of the Federal Reserve Bank of Dallas, said.

The president rolled out the American Jobs Plan in a Wednesday speech, marketing the measure as a critical next step for his plan to revive the US economy. The $2.3 trillion spending package includes investments in traditional infrastructure like roads and bridges, nationwide broadband, clean water, and affordable housing.

The plan’s unveiling comes just weeks after Biden approved a $1.9 trillion stimulus plan. The March bill was necessary to breathe life back into the economy, but the “bump in GDP” expected from the stimulus will wear off over time, Kaplan said in a Bloomberg TV interview.

In contrast, the president’s new spending plan would provide a longer-lasting boost to economic growth as the country emerges from the pandemic, he added.

“The nice thing and the desirable thing, for me, about infrastructure spending: it’s that it’s a long-term investment,” the central bank president said. “It should help, in the future, create higher potential GDP growth, higher sustainable growth, better productivity.”

The American Jobs Plan is only the first half of the White House’s new spending push. Biden said Wednesday he aims to reveal the American Families Plan – a spending proposal with funds for public education and care facilities – in the coming weeks. Combined, the two packages will reportedly cost up to $4 trillion.

The additional spending measures come as economists debate whether Biden’s stimulus risks fueling rampant inflation. Where progressive economists see the plan as necessary, others fear the plan will overfill the hole in the economy.

The Fed has signaled it will allow inflation to rise above 2% as the economy recovers in hopes of reaching maximum employment. The stimulus could drive a sharp rise in inflation, but the impact will likely be temporary as the growth rate similarly slows, Kaplan said.

“I think you’ll see inflation moderate as we get into 2021 and into 2022 and 2023. But I also think it’s wise as a central banker to have a good dose of humility and an openness to learning as this all unfolds,” he added.

Kaplan isn’t a voting member of the Federal Open Market Committee and is set to become one in 2023.

The outlook is similar to that held by Fed Chair Jerome Powell. The central bank chief said the Fed aims to maintain its ultra-easy monetary policy stance well into the future due to lasting uncertainty around the coronavirus recession. Any stimulus-fueled jump in inflation is likely to be transitory, he added in a press conference.

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