Trains run full as hassles of air travel irk East Coasters
Taking the train has become more popular in the New York-to-Washington corridor as high fares, flight delays and security hassles have cut into airline dominance.
The New York Times
WASHINGTON — Long a punch line for harried Northeast travelers, Amtrak has come to dominate commercial travel in the corridor connecting Washington, New York and Boston, and this summer its trains are packed.
A decade ago, Delta and US Airways shuttles were the preferred mode of travel between the cities. But high fares, slow airport security and frequent flight delays — along with Amtrak's high-speed Acela trains, online ticketing and workstation amenities — have eaten away at the airlines' share of passengers.
Between New York and Washington, Amtrak said, 75 percent of travelers go by train, a huge share that has been building steadily since the Acela was introduced in 2000 and airport security was tightened after 2001. Before that, Amtrak had just more than a third of the business between New York and Washington.
In the same period, Amtrak said, its market share between New York and Boston grew to 54 percent from 20 percent.
Nationally, Amtrak ridership is at a record 30 million people; the Northeast accounts for more than a third of that and is virtually the only portion of Amtrak's system that makes money.
"On the train, you've got power outlets and Wi-Fi, you can talk on the phone — it's usable time," said George Hamlin, an aviation writer and airline consultant who frequently rides Amtrak between Washington and New York. "Even I'm guilty of it," he said of taking the train.
By 2040, given the trends, Amtrak said traffic in the corridor could reach 43.5 million passengers, almost four times the level today.
But success is taking a toll. Most days, trains in the Northeast are full. Several locomotives and railcars are 30 years old or more. Aging rails, bridges and tunnels hold down top speeds and limit expansion of the network.
Last month, Amtrak unveiled an ambitious $151 billion proposal to speed up trains and upgrade bridges and tracks.
But the plan is opposed by conservatives in Congress who say the government-subsidized railroad has been a failure and should be privatized. Amtrak gets about $1.3 billion a year from the government but still loses money — $1.2 billion last year.
"Money has always been an issue, and it will be," said Joseph H. Boardman, president and chief executive of Amtrak. "But we realize we can't stand still. We have a plan in place, and we have to keep moving forward."
Part of Amtrak's success reflects the inconvenience of air travel, experts say, which does not easily allow travelers to work as they move.
Even if the air shuttles worked perfectly, there is still the cost and time of traveling to the airport, waiting at the gate, sitting on the taxiway and finally getting into the air.
Amtrak's fastest train makes the trip between Washington and New York in 2 hours 45 minutes, while planes travel the distance in 1 hour 20 minutes. Equivalent times for the New York-Boston trip are 3 hours 40 minutes by train, and 1 hour 15 minutes by plane. But transportation experts say adding in the ground travel and waiting times for air travel erases the difference.
On a recent trip to Boston from New York, Fernando Valdes, a management consultant, said airport security was a main reason he decided to take the train.
"It's easier. I don't have to take my shoes off," he said as he shared a drink with a friend in the Acela cafe car.
Frequent flight delays, often caused by weather or congestion, have also played a role in the switch from planes to trains. Amtrak arrives on time 90 percent or more of the time, according to its data. Delta said the shuttle's on-time percentage was "in the mid-80s," and US Airways said its record was a little higher.
The Acela has played a big role in attracting passengers in the Northeast. The trains averaged about 80 percent full and earned an operating profit of more than $200 million last year on nearly $500 million in revenue.
The railroad spends about $350 million a year to keep bridges, tunnels and rails in working condition, said Drew Galloway, chief of Northeast Corridor planning and performance for Amtrak. It has replaced some older bridges like the 100-year-old Niantic River bridge in Connecticut so trains can operate at greater speeds.
Still, Amtrak faces a $6 billion backlog in maintenance projects nationwide. The Obama administration has pushed for more money for Amtrak. But Congress has been less accommodating.
The transportation bill passed last month did not include money for rail projects. Transportation advocates like Jim Repass, president of the National Corridors Initiative, said this left Amtrak's budget subject to annual appropriation bills in Congress. The most recent transportation bill has not been approved.
The lack of money, an aging infrastructure and congressional opposition could provide an opening for Amtrak's competitors.
BoltBus and MegaBus, two downtown, curbside services in the Northeast — with BoltBus recently expanding to the Northwest — have increased ridership since they began operating in 2008. The buses generally make the New York-to-Washington run in 4 1/2 hours and offer free Wi-Fi. Tickets range from $1 to $40, far less than Amtrak or the airlines.
Research suggests that they are eating into Amtrak's market share. According to a study by the Chaddick Institute for Metropolitan Development at DePaul University, 34 percent of bus riders said they would have taken Amtrak if not for the bus.
"This has been the fastest-growing mode of travel in the last four years," said Joseph P. Schwieterman, director of the institute and the author of the study.
Delta and US Airways are also making bids to get passengers back.
Still, many Northeast passengers said that security lines and the potential for weather delays enhanced Amtrak's appeal to them.
On a recent trip to New York, Peter G. Mirijanian, a Washington public relations consultant who usually takes Amtrak, took a plane instead to make a morning meeting.
"I get to the airport and get on the plane, and it's delayed for two hours because of weather," Mirijanian said, describing his trip, "so I missed the meeting. I called to say that I would not be able to get to be there, and the first thing they say to me is, 'That's why you should have taken the train."'