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ROBERT SIEGEL, host: And I'm Robert Siegel.

Whenever President Obama hits the road, The Beast is there. That's the nickname for the specially designed limousine that carries the president. But this week, President Obama is striking out on a road trip, a Midwestern bus tour, and the Secret Service has rolled out a vehicle that makes The Beast look puny.

NPR's Ari Shapiro reports on the president's big, black bus.

ARI SHAPIRO: For gearheads and car junkies, the presidential limousine is an object to fetishize. Nearly every part is made from scratch. Ronald Kessler is author of "In the President's Secret Service."

RONALD KESSLER: The doors, for example, are five inches thick. The windows are totally bulletproof. It has its own supply of oxygen, tires that can't be punctured with a bullet.

SHAPIRO: Not to mention the world's most important passenger. To make a presidential bus, take those features from the limousine and supersize them.

Ed Donovan is a spokesman for the Secret Service.

ED DONOVAN: We've had a demonstrated need for this for some time. If you look back, we've had protectees - presidents, vice presidents, presidential candidates - that have participated in bus tours since at least 1980.

SHAPIRO: Those tours were a big headache for the Secret Service. They would take a commercial tour bus and add bells and whistles that put the old show "Pimp My Ride" to shame.

Ralph Basham is with Command Consulting Group, and he was director of the Secret Service under President George W. Bush.

RALPH BASHAM: It was extremely expensive to lease one of these buses and then put in proper armoring, proper communications and equipment. And then at the end of the contract, you had to restore those buses back to their original state.

SHAPIRO: That didn't make sense logistically or financially, and spokesman Donovan says the need for buses grew steadily.

DONOVAN: I think probably in the past 10 years or so, we've really seen every candidate and every president go on these tours.

SHAPIRO: So this year, the service finally decided to build two specialized buses from the ground up. Today was the debut.

In St. Paul, Minnesota, this morning, Air Force One rolled to a stop, and the bus was waiting at the bottom of the stairs. It has pitch-black windows;Washington, D.C., tags; and communications equipment sprouting off the top like weeds. No presidential insignia, campaign banners, or slogans on the side.

Former Secret Service director Ralph Basham says it's about time.

BASHAM: To me, this makes ultimate sense. The only regret I have is that I didn't do it myself when I was the director.

SHAPIRO: It's not only a vehicle for presidents. It may also carry candidates or the vice president. Spokesman Ed Donovan says the drivers had to get a special license from the DMV.

DONOVAN: Yeah. You or I could not just step onto a bus and start driving it. You have to have the proper training, and you have to have a commercial driver's license.

SHAPIRO: And, of course, there's some training that Greyhound drivers don't get. Author Ronald Kessler watched Secret Service drivers train at the facility in Maryland.

KESSLER: Agents will be taught to back up at very high rates of speed, just using the mirrors on either side. It really takes a lot of guts to do that.

SHAPIRO: White House spokesman Jay Carney sounds like a fan. As he was flying to Minnesota on Air Force One, he told reporters, the president needs to get out in the country and meet with real folks in real places and as you know, a plane this size is hard to get into small communities.

Ari Shapiro, NPR News, Washington.

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