Thursday, December 18, 2008

Trains, Planes and Automobiles

Yesterday I was in New York, today I'm in Washington, and tomorrow I'm in Boston.

I travel 400,000 miles a year. Flying in 2008 is not fun and certainly not easy.

I'm learning to travel less and to travel differently. Ideally WebEx, iChat, and Teleprescence will eliminate 50% of my travel in 2009, but when I must be at meetings in person, I strive for more green approaches than flying - driving my Prius to the train station and taking regional rail.

Today, I'm on the Acela Express, the Amtrak service from Washington DC to Boston.

Acela Express is the name used by Amtrak for the high-speed tilting train service operating between Washington, D.C. and Boston via Baltimore, Philadelphia, and New York. The tilting design allows the train to travel at higher speeds on the sharply curved New England tracks. High speed has made the trains very popular and Amtrak has captured over half of the market share of travelers between Washington and New York.

Let's take a look at my alternatives:

Travel Plan 1 6:00am Shuttle to LaGuardia

4:00am Get up
4:45am Drive to Logan Airport
5:05am Discover that the Mass Pike is partially closed due to some random roadwork that never seems to be done. Take detour through South Boston
5:15am After getting hopelessly lost in South Boston, arrive at Logan to discover that no parking is available in the Terminal B lot
5:20am Park in Terminal C lot and run to Terminal B
5:30am Discover 200 people in the security line (note that previously I would have included waiting behind 50 people for boarding passes due to out of order check-in kiosks, but now I check-in via the web and bypass check-in lines). I beg to go to the front of the security line to avoid missing my flight
5:40am Get selected to have my laptop scanned for nitrates
5:45am Get into the gate area and run to the plane. Do battle with the other passengers who have chosen to bring Steamer trunks as carry on baggage onto a commuter shuttle.
5:50am Asked to turn off my laptop and blackberry by a flight attendant who is convinced I will unilaterally bring the plane down
6:10am Captain announces that (choose one) a. baggage compartment door will not close b. some flashing light in the cockpit indicates a major equipment problem c. crew needed for the flight is stuck on the tarmac in Pittsburg, which will result in a 30 minute departure delay.
6:45am Flight leaves
7:30am Captain announces that airspace over New York is hopelessly congested and we'll circle for a while
8:00am Flight lands and I run to the taxi line. My driver does not speak English and is not familiar with my destination, but is sure he'll find it. We nearly plow into a few other cars as he pretends to be an Indy 500 driver on the way to the Expressway.
8:15am The commute from LaGuardia to Manhattan is a complete traffic snarl. My driver has one foot on the accelerator and one hand on the horn, as is required for New York driving
9:00am Arrive at my meeting a complete emotional wreck due to the traumatic taxi ride. I have not accomplished anything productive during my 5 hour commute.


Travel Plan 2 5:24am Acela Express to Penn Station

4:30am Get up
5:00am Drive a few leisurely miles down 128 to the University Avenue train station in Westwood. Park in the ample free parking.
5:24am Walk onto the ontime train and choose a spacious seat with laptop power and a work table.
5:30am Grab a cup of hot tea, spread out and complete my prep for the day's meetings on my Macbook Air. Enjoy the sites of passing cities as we cruise through Providence, New Haven, Stamford, and NYC.
8:45am Arrive at Penn Station in the heart of Manhattan. Take a stroll down 7th Avenue to my meeting
9:00am Arrive at my meeting refreshed, prepared, hydrated, and with the physical benefits of walking.

As you can see, although the flight time is 1 hour and the train time is 3 hours, there is no real difference in end to end travel time due to security and taxi time when flying to NYC. If it's raining or snowing, LaGuardia will generally close, making the flight even more problematic.

After my meeting in NYC, I'll walk back to Penn Station, take the train to Washington DC and arrive at Union Station in just 2 hours, right on the Metro Red line, making for an easy commute anywhere in town.

For this traveler, it's goodbye Logan and hello Acela.

9 comments:

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Robert Horn said...

Free parking? I use Acela a lot from RTE and I've always had to pay. Other than that, you're analysis is entirely correct.

Even for Washington DC, it can be a better alternative for multiday meetings. The true time is about 2hrs longer each way than flying, but if you have work to bring and do it is a viable alternative.

Dan Keldsen said...

John - absolutely agree. Last few trips I've made from Boston to NYC for work have been on the Acela. Benefits far out-weigh any minimal time savings.

If only all of the power outlets actually worked on the Acela trains, THEN I'd be a happy(ier) man.

Ah, and if the Acela could actually travel at it's fastest for the majority of the trip, instead of for a mere 15 minutes or so, the time difference would be even less noticeable. The bullet train I'd taken in France 12 years ago makes the Acela look like it's moving in slow motion. C'est la vie!

Cheers,
Dan Keldsen

SchunkFamily said...

I accept the sarcasm and the benefits of the train but you missed a relevant means of transportation.

I frequently travel from Buffalo to Manhattan to meet with DOH. I take a very nice public bus from LGA to Penn Station and then take the subway to my final destination.

thanks for the blog!

Judy F.

Robert Horn said...

Dan, the next big speed improvement is still years of financing, politics and construction away. From New Haven to NYC is owned by the MTA (Amtrak just pays a usage fee).

To exceed 90mph they must 1) replace all the overhead wiring, including pickup equipment on all commuter trains, because it has a 90mph design speed limit; 2) replace all the traffic control signals and systems, including all those on commuter trains, which also have a 90mph design speed limit; and 3) upgrade all the track.

The engineering for this is understood. The financing needs to be found, and it affects all the commuter and freight usage, not just Amtrak. The ownership politics need to be resolved.

I think it will happen, but it will take many years. The commuter system gains much less than Acela from all the expense and disruption, which greatly complicates solving the politics and finance problems.

Matthew M. Miller said...

I 100% agree. I live in Providence and frequently travel for work to Boston, New York, and DC. I recently switched to the Acela and will never go back. The productivity gains from having access to my laptop, BlackBerry, and the internet (via tethering) throughout the trip far outweigh the time difference.

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