WASHINGTON - Thousands of ordinary Americans lined the tracks yesterday to see Barack Obama travel the final stretch of his journey to the White House by train, cheering him on with fluttering flags, waves, and handmade signs offering prayers.

Bundled against bitter cold, they stood on overpasses, huddled in clearings and backyards, abandoned their cars on the side of the road, lifted children on their shoulders, and took cell-phone pictures from rooftops and ladders.

At a rally in Philadelphia's 30th Street Station at the beginning of the 137-mile trip, Obama vowed to dedicate his term as the 44th president to "perfecting our union," repeating themes of renewal and hope there and at stops in Wilmington and Baltimore before chilly yet exuberant crowds.

The journey was meant to evoke Abraham Lincoln's travel by train to his inaugural in 1861, and Obama, as he did throughout his campaign, paid tribute yesterday to his political hero by echoing his words. But just as much, he summoned the resilient fighting spirit of the nation's founders.

"While our problems may be new, what is required to overcome them is not," Obama said in Philadelphia. "What is required is the same perseverance and idealism our founders displayed. What is required is a new declaration of independence, not just in our nation but in our own lives, from ideology and small thinking, prejudice and bigotry - an appeal not to our easy instincts but to our better angels."

With his swearing-in 72 hours away, Obama was growing close to the end of his historic quest and soon would undertake the heavy burdens of office.

At the last event of the day, a rally of 40,000 in the War Memorial Plaza in Baltimore, Obama seemed to strike a more somber note, acknowledging that he will no doubt make mistakes in office.

"We recognize that such enormous challenges as the ones we face now will not be solved quickly," he said. "There will be setbacks. There will be frustrations and disappointments. I will make mistakes. But we will be called to show patience even as we act with fierce urgency."

Obama arrived in Washington at 6:30 p.m., just under seven hours after the 10-car train was pulled away from Philadelphia by two locomotives - one of which bore the number 44.

Obama was joined by his wife, Michelle, and their daughters, Malia and Sasha. They rode in the last car, a polished blue Pullman coach built in 1939 and draped in red-white-and-blue bunting with the inaugural seal on the rail of its rear platform.

Also on board were friends from Chicago and 41 people - billed as average Americans - whom Obama had met during the campaign.

In Wilmington, Vice President- elect Joseph R. Biden Jr. and his wife, Jill, joined the entourage at the station. After the train stopped, Biden pulled open the rear door of the Pullman, but closed it quickly and grinned. "They're not ready yet," he said of the Obamas.

When the soon-to-be first couple emerged, Biden said, "Happy birthday, kid!" to Michelle, who turned 45 yesterday. Later, as the train idled after the Baltimore stop, family and friends on the trip threw a birthday party for her in one car. Malia put a lei around her mother's neck, and the group sang "Happy Birthday." They had chocolate cake.

About 7,900 people crowded into a park behind the Wilmington train station, waiting for hours to see the president- and vice president-elect in temperatures in the teens. Children climbed trees on the edge of the crowd for a better view.

An emotional Biden, who has commuted to Washington on Amtrak for more than 30 years, thanked the crowd.

"I see the trust you've placed in us," he said. "It's a trust that we must and will honor. . . . We will not let you down."

Reggie Johnson, 47, of Wilmington, said he wept "worse than the women" when Obama took the stage. Children stared at him, he said.

"I said, 'Y'all don't understand,' " said Johnson, who added that he remembered whites refusing to wait on him at a candy store when he was a child.

Hundreds waited for the train to depart, and when Obama poked his head out to wave goodbye, squeals of excitement greeted him as if he were a rock star. As the train slowly rolled away, Sento Bangura, a 23-year-old immigrant from Sierra Leone, started to cry.

Referring to the Capitol, she said as she swelled with emotion, "The steps that were built by slaves - to have a black man going to be the president . . . on Tuesday."

Bangura, of Coatesville, came to the United States when she was 15. She studies political science at Delaware County Community College and hopes to be a lawyer. She said she worked two jobs to help pay for her education.

"You know that American dream that we crave, especially for people like us, the immigrants," she said. "When I'm in my room and I want to cry and give up . . . I see he can do it. I can also do it."

Obama, whose day began with a workout in the Sheraton City Center Hotel's gym, began with a town-hall style rally beneath the Spirit of Transportation mural in a waiting room off the main concourse of 30th Street Station. Malia used a digital camera to take pictures of her father and the 250 boisterous supporters in the room, who chanted for the Eagles as they waited for Obama.

Also in the crowd was the group from the campaign, Americans struggling with one issue or another: poverty, health problems, reentry after serving in Iraq.

"As I prepare to leave for Washington on a trip that you made possible, know that I will not be traveling alone," Obama said. "I will be taking with me some of the men and women I met along the way, Americans from every corner of this country, whose hopes and heartaches were the core of our cause, whose dreams and struggles have become my own."

He added, "Theirs are the voices I will carry with me every day in the White House."

Weather Outlook For Washington

Today: Cloudy, with a high near 40. Chance of snow tonight, with a low around 27.

Tomorrow: A chance of snow early, with a high near 35. Cloudy tomorrow night, with a low around 21.

Tuesday: Party sunny, with a high near 32. Mostly cloudy at night, with a low around 21.

- National Weather Service EndText