Five reasons why the Amtrak Acela Express is far superior to flying

There are four basic ways to travel among Boston, New York and Washington, D.C. You can fly, drive, ride a bus or take a train. Every traveler has his preference, but having played with all four options, I’ve found that hitting the rails is the right one for me, an increasingly popular position. I hate to be behind the wheel (a side-effect of living in Manhattan), and buses do tend to be slow, uncomfortable and unpleasant (though incredibly inexpensive). Flying … well, flying is everything a bus is only more expensive, a little bit faster and still slower, usually than driving or taking the train.

Usually, my decision on how to travel these routes comes down to flying versus rail. There’s no choice any more. Last weekend, I took the Amtrak Acela Express on a Boston-to-New York round trip, my second this year, and I was thrilled with every aspect of the experience.

Here are five reasons why the Acela is far, far superior to air travel in the Bos-Wash corridor:1. Save time up front: whether you’re in Boston or New York, you don’t have to leave the middle of the city to get to your transportation, and the same holds when you arrive at your destination. In New York, you get on at Penn Station, and in Boston, you can choose either South Station or Back Bay Station.

2. Save more time up front: the track isn’t announced until around 15 minutes before your train departs. So, don’t worry about having to get there an hour early or longer. I know, I know: for the Delta Shuttle, you don’t have to get to Marine Air Terminal an hour early, either. If you’re flying at a peak time (think Friday at 5 PM or Monday at 7 AM), you really do need to get to the terminal more than an hour ahead of time. They’re “peak” for a reason.

3. Stretch your legs: business class is the minimum on the Acela Express, and I won’t even begin to fantasize about what first class is like. Everything is comfortable, from being able to recline (and have the person in front of you do so) to the clean, spacious bathrooms. It can be difficult to get up and walk around when the train is moving at its top speed, but you are free to do so – with no “fasten seatbelt” light to slow you down.

4. Service with a smile: several of the announcements on the ride came with the simple yet highly effective suggestion, “Have a positive day.” It worked. I’ve hear similar announcements on planes before, but not often and not with the same voice (this guy was good). The food options weren’t great, and you do have to pay for them, but again, there was that smile involved.

Note: I have no problem with airlines charging for food and think they should have moved to this model a while ago. A la carte just makes sense to me. The differentiator for the Acela is the service that puts it into your hands.

5. There’s no dehumanizing security process: first, there’s no reason not to feel safe, and there are security measures in place to protect Amtrak’s customers. That said, you don’t have to squander your youth waiting to get wanded by someone from the TSA. You just carry your bags on board and take your seat.

[photo by Mr. T in DC via Flickr]

New England is barrier to high-speed trains

Nothing was more exhilarating than hearing the announcement on the Acela Express last weekend: we were traveling at the train’s top speed of 150 mph. I was comfortable, and I was moving quickly. I was also pretty psyched about the incredibly friendly service (airlines, you could learn plenty from the Acela). So, I’d love to see more high-speed rail travel, not to mention a greater number of faster stretches on the existing Acela routes.

An increase in triple-digit time seems unlikely in parts of New England, despite the feds are committing $8 billion in stimulus cash to put more high-speed trains on the rails nationwide. According to the Associated Press:

But in populated areas of New England where city streets and railroad tracks intersect and trains must negotiate curves, hills and tunnels, travel at speeds as high as 150 mph are out of the question.

As early as this decade, passengers will instead board trains moving at between 65 mph and 80 mph. That’s slower than true high-speed trains.

This should be sufficient to cut driving, though, which is the main objective. Hey, it’ll also give us another alternative with flying, which I’m pretty happy about.

[photo by Mr. T in DC via Flickr]

Hell train hits Chicago 19 hours late

Visit for breaking news, world news, and news about the economy

The passengers who got stuck in the Channel Tunnel recently had an awful situation, but was it worse than what the passengers who just pulled into Chicago endured? Those who endured the Eurostar incident were stuck for 15 hours without food, water or information. The passengers on Amtrak‘s California Zephyr reached Chicago 19 hours late. One called it “the train from hell,” with local news outlet WMAQ saying the passengers hit town “tired, hungry and stinky.” Severe weather was among the problems that caused the delay, with a pass between two hills in Nebraska suffering from snow drifts more than two stories high. Also, the train hit a pickup truck that got in the way in Iowa.

Food were in short supply on the train, and some of the passengers were pissed that the information from Amtrak flowed about as readily as the water on the train (there wasn’t much). And, it seems goodwill still remains scarce. Though Amtrak is offering hotel rooms to passengers who need them, refunds will only be paid on a case-by-case basis.

1940’s StyleTrain Travel

Lovers of travel by rail prepare yourself for what I’m about to say. It will sound like an opportunity of a lifetime – something that should not be missed! Imagine zipping through time and space the very same way they did in the olden days when luxury and class was everything and the ladies wore such pretty hairstyles, not the big stuff you see in the south.

According to the folks over at Chicagoist a new train venture from Train Chartering is offering those who can afford this trip of a lifetime the chance to ride in a Mount Vernon rail car from NY to Chicago. The Mount Vernon was built between December 1949 and June 1950 for Pullman service on the Union Pacific Railroad, but has since undergone some minor renovations. Think private rail car with TV, DVD, CD, XM satellite radio receiver, full kitchen, marble-tiled shower and so-on. All this can be yours for the low-cost of $17,500 for full-service which also includes fine dining and beverages.

Go check out the 2007 itinerary if you think it’s a good fit. I’d love to do it myself, but well, I have some other places my $17,500 has to go towards. Perhaps you’ve heard of Sallie Mae’s student loan rail services? Not quite as luxurious, but just as expensive.

Train Ride to Mexico’s Copper Canyon

Searching for a unique way to get to Mexico this summer with a few pals or significant other? Not in the adventurous kind of mood to plan the whole trip point-to-point on your own? I understand – it’s the heat. Well, here’s an idea a nice fella passed onto me just days ago knowing I’d want to hop all abroad – train travel from El Paso, TX into Mexico’s Copper Canyon. There are a number of companies that offer rail tours into the area and this is just one from Caravan Tours that seemed pretty good. Their 8 day roundtrip excursion out of El Paso takes you to a bustling border town of Juarez, to trading posts with handicrafts made by Tarahumara Indians and the town of Chihuahua for rates as low as $995. What I’ve mentioned here isn’t nearly the full scope of what’s included in a package like this one. I’m normally not the type to trhow out packaged tour ideas either, but this one happens to sound very promising. Something to consider for summer…