Much has changed along presidential train route

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The centuries-old right of way between Philadelphia and Washington is marked by shimmering waterways and industrial sprawl, well-kept suburbs and urban blight.

President-elect Barack Obama won't be sharing a ride with thousands of long-distance commuters when he travels on a private charter train from Philadelphia's 30th Street Station to Washington's Union Station on Jan. 17, three days before he takes the oath of office. But his route will be exactly the same.

In fact, it hasn't changed much since Abraham Lincoln rode the rails before his inauguration.

Evidently Obama has thought deeply about the symbolism of the 135-mile journey, something that regular riders typically aren't inclined to do. Nonetheless, they develop a feel for the changing landscape.

"You see those deserted houses, and you know you're in Baltimore," said Gifty Kwakye, 27, a student at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health who commutes daily from Philadelphia.

The theme for Obama's inaugural is "Rewewing America's Promise," and as Kwakye noted, the need for such renewal will be clear in the five minutes before Obama's train pulls into Baltimore's Penn Station. The tracks pass through some of east Baltimore's most impoverished neighborhoods, where abandoned and burned-out row homes seem to outnumber inhabited ones. The city has nearly 30,000 abandoned properties...

The act of riding the train -- along with events in Philadelphia, Wilmington, and Baltimore -- expands the inaugural festivities to include more people, something that previous presidents with a mandate to change Washington have done.

"It does remind me a bit of Jimmy Carter jumping out of the limo on his inauguration, walking through the streets, and through the act reminding Americans this presidency would be different," said Julian E. Zelizer, a presidential historian at Princeton University.

And by beginning his trip in the nation's birthplace, Obama will be emphasizing the historic nature of his own election as the first black president -- "reminding voters how, unlike almost any other election, the choice voters made in itself was a watershed," Zelizer said.

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