Well, if you ask me, it's about damn time. Parisians and Londoners have been zipping between their respective cities in high-speed style for years. Tokyoites and Berliners have long been able to duck airport weather delays and lost baggage by turning to the rails as well. Meanwhile, the most exciting regional-travel innovation to hit New York in a decade has been the fact that you can now catch Me, Myself and Irene on Peter Pan's 5 p.m. motorcoach to Beantown.
So when I heard that Amtrak had finally launched its high-speed Acela Express service between New York and Boston (and D.C., too), I couldn't wait to take it for a test run. While I've taken the train to Boston before, the nearly five-hour travel time can be torturous. As a result, I normally take the ultraconvenient Delta Shuttle even though, like several travelers I've run into, I am not all that crazy about flying to begin with.
For this test I flew up in the morning on Delta and returned on the Acela Express. For the purpose of comparison, I traveled during rush hour on both trips, and because Acela Express bills itself as the choice for "discriminating travelers," offering only business and first-class options, I traveled first-class to see if the amenities helped outweigh the extra travel time.
Taking the Jet Out of Jetsetting
With Amtrak fighting for its financial life (the government will soon stop subsidizing it), the train king is going all-out to lure travelers away from its winged competitors. And the airlines are fighting back. Last summer, for example, Delta upgraded all its shuttle planes from old Boeing 727's to new 737-800's, which have plenty of leg room. Their airport lounge is also a big selling point for Delta. As you walk in, you have nearly 100 free magazines and newspapers to choose from (being a magazine junkie, I usually bring an extra bag). The lounge has two Bloomberg machines, a business center (with conference rooms, faxes, etc.), and complimentary coffee and juice until 10:30 a.m.
Since the Acela can't beat the competition on pure speed, it tries harder to please. Its first-class service not only offers a special club lounge (the one in Boston deserves a spread in Wallpaper) but also includes unlimited drinks on the train (everything from iced lattes to single-malt scotches) and a full meal, served with real metal forks and real plates, that beat the hell out of the hard raisin bagel with light cream cheese that I got on the shuttle.
After a snack of nuts served in a small ceramic bowl, we were brought hot towels for our hands, and then dinner, which turned out to be better than any airplane food I've ever had. It began with duck confit over a mesclun salad as an appetizer, and for the main course I selected the pan-seared peppered fillet of salmon served over corkscrew pasta with an aïoli cream sauce. Dessert was "opera cake" and coffee. The three businessmen sitting around the table in the dining car were equally impressed with the food. In fact, all three of these guys, each with a cell phone in front of him, happily sang the praises of the train. Most of all, they loved the fact that they could use their phones the entire trip. Then there are the power outlets at every seat to run your computer (some passengers were watching DVD movies on theirs) or charge your phone; the bathrooms are huge; and the café car has draft beer and TVs with CNN.
Go, Speed Racer, Go!
The biggest selling point of the new Acela Express, of course, is that it cuts about 45 minutes from the old time by reaching speeds as high as 150 mph. The conductor actually makes an announcement when the train reaches top speed. While the plane itself is obviously faster (45 minutes of actual flying time versus 3 hours and 28 minutes of rail time), in my case I actually saved only about an hour by flying because of all the time spent commuting to the airport, boarding the plane, and waiting on the runway. A cab to the airport took 30 minutes, whereas the subway to my apartment from Penn Station took 15. I also had to get to the airport early, because there are no seat assignments (unlike with the Acela's first-class service), and I didn't want to have to schlep to the back of the plane, praying for an empty overhead bin, as a late-arriving (and seemingly frustrated) Susan Sarandon was forced to do.
And while my train was actually stopped for a few minutes due to a "police matter" on the tracks ahead of us (and what New Yorker's not used to that?), trains are rarely delayed by weather the way planes often are. One 29-year-old salesman on the Acela told me he was taking the train because the last time he took the shuttle, the plane circled La Guardia for an hour before landing. A fellow Delta passenger complained about a recent flight that had been canceled because of snow, resulting in his having to take a bus back to New York. In fact, last month La Guardia was named the worst airport in the country for weather- and congestion-related delays. The skies were clear on the day I flew, but soon after we boarded, the captain announced that there were fifteen planes ahead of us, and so we'd be on the ground for another twenty minutes (audible groans followed). Another bonus for trains: While airlines thread all passengers through a single exit, trains have two doors per car, making embarking and disembarking much easier.
Time Is Money
Of the two trips I took (the shuttle up and the train back) the plane was a little more expensive. My last-minute ticket on the Delta Shuttle was $202 one-way, and a one-way first-class ticket on the Acela Express costs $187. But because I took a $35 car service to La Guardia, and because Boston cabdrivers charge fare, toll, tip, and an "airport fee," flying relieved me of about $250 total, compared with about $200 for the train, since the short subway ride from Penn Station to my Upper West Side apartment set me back only $1.50. (The New York-Washington one-way trip, incidentally, costs $217 first-class and $143 business-class.)
You can get away with paying less if you book ahead on the shuttle or travel by business-class on the Acela. For the shuttle, they quoted me a price of $105 one-way with a seven-day advance purchase, $89 with a fourteen-day advance purchase. There are no discounts for buying in advance on the Acela, but business-class travelers pay only $120 each way.
For now, the Delta Shuttle beats the Acela in the frequency-of-departure department hands-down. It departs every hour on the half-hour from 6:30 a.m. to 9:30 p.m. Missed your flight? Simply hop on the next one. The Acela Express, on the other hand, currently has only one trip a day from New York to Washington and Boston, respectively. The Boston leg leaves Penn Station at 8:03 a.m. and returns at 5:12 p.m. But Amtrak will add one more daily train to each city on March 5 and expects to offer hourly departures this fall. It also expects to shorten the travel time to three hours and five minutes over the next few years.
In years past, anyone who yearned for the fun and romance of train travel had to sacrifice a great deal in time and comfort. And while the Acela may not be the Orient Express, looking ahead it's very hard for me to imagine, especially during bad weather, not opting for the train. Sure, I'll still yearn for the free magazines, but I definitely won't miss that bagel.