Eight years ago today, Jack Heard was still trying to figure out how his private passenger car, Georgia 300, became known as “the blue caboose” that carried President-elect Obama to Washington, D.C.
On Inauguration Day, while Donald Trump was about to become the 45th president of the United States, Heard and I talked on the phone about his Jan. 17, 2009, trip with Obama, campaign trains his car has been on, and the duties of a private car operator when it’s carrying the new leader of the free world.
The train for Obama was not the first for Heard, who has owned the 1939 Georgia Road business car since 1985 and keeps it near Jacksonville, Fla. He also hosted President George H.W. Bush on a campaign swing through the south in 1992, President Bill Clinton on a trip in the Midwest in 1996, and presidential candidate John Kerry and his running mate, John Edwards, on a multi-day cross-country trip from St. Louis to Kingman, Ariz., in 2004. His car was used for an Obama whistlestop tour between Philadelphia and Harrisburg in 2008.
That track record and the familiarity of Democratic Party officials with the car landed the Georgia 300 the job of carrying the president-elect from Philadelphia to Washington, D.C., on an all-day trip in 2009.
Heard says it took a week to deadhead the car from Jacksonville to Washington, have it checked out by the Secret Service, cleaned and washed at the Ivy City coach yard in the capital, and moved to Philadelphia early in the morning. Obama was recreating the journey to Washington that Abraham Lincoln had made in 1861.
During the trip, the train stopped to pick up Vice-President-elect Joe Biden and for a speech in Baltimore. “There weren’t a lot of crowds early on; it was a bitterly cold day,” Heard recalls. “But the closer we got to Washington, they picked up, and we slowed down, crawling along so everyone could see and wave.”
When Obama boarded the train, Heard greeted him: “Hey, you’re back again.” The two sat and talked for about 20 minutes, and Heard met Michelle Obama, who was celebrating a birthday. The Obamas ranged between the PV and a lounge car ahead in the Amtrak consist.
During the trip, Heard kept busy checking the car’s systems. Nothing could go wrong. At stops, he was in charge of the platform, the trapdoor, and the stepbox. “You’re always reminding them to watch their step,” he said, “even while they’re waving to the crowd.”
By the time the train reached Washington, it was dark. The train paused to discharge the press, and then pulled down to unload the VIPs. After another sweep of the train for lost or missing items, a switcher pulled the consist back into the yard, where the train was broken up. The next day, Heard and the Georgia 300 returned to Florida on a regular Amtrak train.
Heard and his car haven’t done another campaign train since, but he says he would consider it. He says he thinks the reason he didn’t do a special for Trump was because the new president prefers his helicopter. Campaign trains and inaugural specials are a lot of tense work. It is so much so that Heard never got to snap a picture while he was on board. He was always busy. Someone else made all the photos he has in his office of working these specials.
And about the “blue caboose”? A reporter on board who didn’t recognize the difference between a private car and a caboose started calling it that and other outlets picked it up. Even the Washington Post repeated the error. But it doesn’t diminish the memories that Heard has of that day now 8 years ago. “I am honored and humbled that I got to do that,” he said.