Memories from George H.W. Bush's 1992 presidential campaign train

Posted by Jim Wrinn
on Tuesday, December 4, 2018

The death of President George H.W. Bush and the planned funeral train for him on Thursday brought back memories of a day some 26 years ago, when Bush and railroading were together, and I was a witness to it.

Oct. 21, 1992 was not an ordinary day at work for me. I was a newspaper reporter for the Charlotte Observer’s bureau in Concord, N.C. But instead of calling on residents of Cabarrus County, N.C., for their news, I was standing in a bored and restless crowd along a double track main line in Kings Mountain, N.C., on the other side of Charlotte. We were all waiting on something I’ve never seen before or since: a presidential campaign train.

Bush was on a multi-day campaign swing through Georgia and the Carolinas and his train was due to pass through here on Norfolk Southern’s former Southern Railway main line between Atlanta and Washington, D.C. I recalled that the train came in three sections: An advance train, which we were told was there to make sure the tracks were untampered with and that nobody had sabotaged them. That train came through with two NS units and a single coach that belonged to the Georgia Building Authority’s New Georgia Railroad, a tourist railroad in Atlanta operated on mainline tracks.

Then there was the presidential special train with mostly Union Pacific cars and a sprinkling of CSX, New Georgia, and private cars, including CSX heavy weight office car Baltimore.  It was from the back of the office car that Bush smiled and waved to the crowd in a scene that recalled the pose that Harry Truman struck did in 1948 on the back platform of the Ferdinand Magellan office car. Among the cars in Bush’s train was an odd UP passenger car with white cones on top – a communication car, so we were told. Power for the main train was a six-axle CSX unit with a giant American flag replacing the CSX markings; in fact, the unit had zero railroad identification and was renumbered 1992. With it was an NS Operation Lifesaver unit. I could not find any slides that I took of the following train, but I do remember it was there.

As the train came through Kings Mountain, an NS hi-rail truck paralleled the back platform a few feet back on this section of double track. I believe there was a videographer in the truck recording Bush’s time on the back platform. The president smiled and waved. The train was here, and then gone in a matter of seconds. I moved on to Gastonia, where I photographed the train once more.

Bush’s train later stopped so he could make speeches in Ranlo in Gaston County and Kannapolis in Cabarrus County, and that was where I caught up with the train once again. I went back to the office and contributed to the report on the President’s visit by train. Our political reporters carried the bulk of the report; my job was to add to the understanding of the campaign train. That same campaign season, Bush also campaigned by train in Ohio, Michigan, and Wisconsin.

I felt honored and privileged to witness a presidential campaign train on the main line. They are rare moves, and I suspect they will be even more scarce in years to come: The security efforts and costs are staggering. I heard tales of efforts to run campaign trains in the 2016 race between Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton (remember the “Trump Train”). But, as we all know, nothing came of them. I’ll be surprised, in my lifetime, if I ever see another presidential campaign train.



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