Shared love of trains brings Johnson and Biden together

Unusual transport choice set the US president off on reminiscence of his own commuting days

Andrew Woodcock
Political Editor
Wednesday 22 September 2021 12:43
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Boris Johnson paid tribute to Joe Biden’s well-attested love of the railways by choosing a sleek silver Amtrak train to travel between New York and Washington for his first White House visit as prime minister.

The mode of travel was not only a hat-tip to Mr Biden’s decades of rail commuting as senator and vice-president between his Delaware home and the capital, but also a physical reminder of the main purpose of Johnson’s US trip - to drum up support for reductions in carbon emissions and polluting car use.

He was rewarded for his gesture with a rambling anecdote from the president as the two of them sat down together in the Oval Office.

In comments which bore the hallmark of having been rehearsed many, many times over the years, the president told Mr Johnson how an Amtrak conductor had approached him to say that he and his colleagues had calculated that over the years, he’d covered more than 2 million miles on the route.

As panicky reporters shuddered at the thought that their precious few minutes with the two leaders were about to be swallowed up in their entirety by the older man’s reminiscences, the PM stepped in to steer the conversation back onto matters of policy, telling the president how much he shared his “belief in transport infrastructure”.

The three-hour, 225-mile journey from New York to Washington, snaking through the stunning countryside of coastal Maryland with stops in Philadelphia and Baltimore, was a rare break from the conference room and debating chamber for the prime minister in a three-day trip which has been totally dominated by climate change.

Unlike on previous trips, the deadly serious purpose of his visit prevented Mr Johnson from indulging in the usual photo-opportunities which have seen him don hard hats, try his hand at various sports or dance with local beauties in the hope of a bit of positive publicity.

Instead, his attendance at the United Nations General Assembly has involved an endless sequence of 30-minute bilateral meetings with countries ranging from Ukraine to Colombia, along with a roundtable discussion with countries threatened by the impact of rising temperatures and topped off by a keynote speech on Wednesday in which he will plead with fellow leaders to come up with the emission-cutting pledges he needs to make his COP26 summit in Glasgow a success.

There was palpable relief in the UK contingent when Biden doubled his $5.6bn climate finance and the Chinese promised not to build any more polluting coal-fired power stations abroad (though notably not halting the construction of a plant a week at home). Normally poker-faced COP26 president Alok Sharma could barely suppress a smirk as the news of the American offer seeped out.

Johnson himself has been in ebullient mood, visibly relieved to be freed of the bounds of Covid restrictions and allowed back into the hurly-burly of in-person political life on which he thrives.

Though both he and the president wore black face-masks for their 90-minute chat in the Oval Office, Johnson’s first major international trip since the Biarritz summit of 2019 was characterised by a level of mingling and face-to-face interaction which feels unusual after the era of the Zoom conference.

The fact that in his public comments, Biden effectively sounded the death-knell for Johnson’s long-cherished dream of a UK/US free trade deal, as well as admonishing the PM once more for allowing Brexit to put stability in Ireland at risk, did not appear to have soured the prime minister’s trip.

He presented the president with a signed copy of astronaut Tim Peake’s plea for the protection of the planet Hello, Is This Planet Earth, while Mr Biden gave him a framed photo of their earlier meeting in Cornwall in June and a White House-branded watch

As he departed the White House for dinner with Australian counterpart Scott Morrison, the mood in Johnson’s camp was that he was delighted to be back on the world stage and to have been given reason to hope that his next major appearance - as chair of the Cop gathering - will end in success.

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