Monday, August 11, 2008

#1 With A Bullet

With the airline prices skyrocketing or their added ‘fees’ and my company urging everyone and their pet to save money, I decided to give the Acela train service a try.

For those unfamiliar, the Acela is the (fairly) new high speed train servicing the northeast. It runs from Boston through Providence, New Haven, Stamford, New York, a couple of seedy New Jersey towns (redundancy alert), Philly, Baltimore and finally DC to turn around and do it all over again.

Only – you know - from a different direction.

A few notes before I get to my experience. There were two reasons for taking the train:

1: The best price I could get for an airline ticket was $575 round trip to Philadelphia. I should note that the flight time between Boston and Philly is maybe 90 minutes. That’s a big maybe. I’ve flown twice to our sister city and on both occasions spent more time in security and waiting to board than I did in the air.

This wasn’t a last minute thing, either. I wanted to fly out on Saturday night and was booking more than two weeks in advance. 18 days to be exact. So either fuel is causing massive price hikes or the airlines don’t want people flying to Philly in August. Either reason is understandable.

Since I am a company man at heart (and they pay me to travel – score!) I researched cheaper options. One was the high speed train for $355 round trip. That’s right. I saved my company more than $200, which I promptly rung up in overly expensive meals consisting of many beers.

2: A coworker swears by the Acela since he takes it between Boston and New York frequently. I decided to test his advice giving abilities.

You know what? Let’s break this baby down old school style. Pros and cons of the Acela.


TRAIN

Pros: Clean and efficient. I rode in the business express car (which is slightly more expensive than coach) and, much to my delight, each row has it’s own AC outlet. I was able to plug in my laptop and watch ‘Vantage Point’ and some of ‘The Ruins’ before I realized there was some small children around and thought it a good idea to shut it off. No need to fill up the nightmare tank for some unsuspecting parent.

Also, they have a ‘Quiet Car’ where no cell phone conversations are allowed and they make sure nobody talks above a whisper. It was a thing of beauty.

Cons: The term ‘high speed’ is a bit misleading. There are parts of the track this train moves so fast I felt a bit queasy trying to watch the scenery. There are other parts where it crawls or is only able to do the standard speed due to incompatible bridge structures or heavily populated areas. Also, this tends to share tracks with other, older (and slower) trains, so we had to stop on occasion due to ‘congestion ahead’.

Still, Boston to Philly in 5 hours is nothing to sneeze at. It really cruises between New York and Philly, by the way. I got to Penn Station from 30th Street Station in less than 2 hours. That included two Jersey stops, too.


PEOPLE

Pros: Extremely helpful and friendly employees from Amtrak. All had a smile and hello for me and made sure I knew what to expect when I got on. Other passengers kept to themselves and only one elderly gentleman attempted to initiate a conversation with me.

For whatever reason, there were a pleasing number of good looking women going both ways (pun intended, thank you very much). No idea why, but I don’t question certain gifts from the goddesses.

Quick side story: On the way down there was a sultry looking brunette who kept glancing in my direction. She was ahead of me and on the opposite side of the aisle, so her looking back was making my self conscious. I thought I may have a booger hanging out of my nose or something. After a half hour of this I finally decide to stare at her until she does it again. She turns, smiles and motions to the sleeping man next to me and taps her shoulder. I look over and see a huge drool stain on the dude’s shoulder. I mean huge. I had my iPod on and also didn’t realize the guy was snoring so loudly it should have been shaking the seats.

And here I thought I still had the magic touch. Reality does bite!

Cons: The number of other passengers. Both ways this thing was completely sold out (please refer to airline ticket prices at beginning) and there was a struggle to get a good seat. This wasn’t that big of a deal as the business class seats give you plenty of room. However, the elderly gent mentioned early promptly fell asleep next to me and I wouldn’t have been able to get up without waking him. Still, it’s better than coach on an airplane.


SCENERY

Pros: Between New Haven and Providence is spectacular. We skimmed what I assume was Long Island Sound and the many marinas and views. I actually stopped my movie to take everything in during this stretch.

Cons: If you’ve ever taken a train, you are more than aware that it’s tracks are the nation’s dumping ground. I spotted mattresses, tires, old toilets (Note: I’m assuming the toilets are old as new ones should be put to use), car fenders and bumpers and, yes, even a kitchen sink. New York was the main offender in this area. Does that really surprise anyone? Didn’t think so.


SCHEDULE

Pros: The stretch between New York and DC has the best options with trains running nearly every hour during the weekdays. Not sure about the weekend runs, but there were plenty of times available when I wanted to change my train home. Both trains were also on time to the minute. Lot to be said for that.

Cons: Unfortunately, I live in Boston where I had three choices to get to Philly. 11 AM, 2:30 PM and 6 PM. Not exactly a bunch of options. This was the Saturday schedule, so maybe there are more during the week.


FOOD

Pros: Now we’re talking. In the middle of this train is the snack car that offers hot dogs, pizza (although it’s the lame microwavable kind, but still), a bunch of different sandwiches and of course….wait for it….

BEER!

Not just any beer, but you had your choice of Beck’s, Heinekein, Sam Adams, Amstel Light, Bass as well as the usual Bud, Bud Light, Coors Light. Add to that my company was basically paying for everything, it was glorious.

Cons: The prices. If I were paying for it myself I would be aghast. Aghast, I say!!


MOBILITY

Pros: Even with the seat in front of me reclined I had a good 18 inches of space between that seat and my knees. Anyone six feet and over knows that is the key to riding in comfort. It also means you can get into the aisle (in case you want to get more beer) without forcing the person next to you to stand.

Cons: The aisle is slightly wider than your standard airplane. That’s not good. Better, but not good. Plus when the train is really moving it’s tough to keep your balance, although to be fair, there may have been other factors impairing my balance.


RESTROOMS

Pros: Surprisingly, these were clean and large enough to fit comfortably. Well lit and easy to get to. They were even placed away from the rest of the passengers and kept separated by automatic sliding glass doors.

Cons: Other than it being a public bathroom, I can’t think of one. Well done, Amtrak. Well done.


LUGGAGE

Pros: Plenty of overhead space for larger cases, but more importantly there are racks just as you get in the door, so if you have a full size case, just tuck it in there and you’re good to go.

Cons: There were no instructions on what size suitcase goes where creating a free for all when many people boarded at once. It was suitcase anarchy at times.


SECURITY

Pros: No security lines at all. I left my house at 10:30, got dropped off at 10:45 or so, printed out my tickets via the many kiosks and got on board for my 11:05 train. Piece of cake.

Cons: The reason there were no security lines was because there was no friggin’ security. Considering 9/11 originated in Logan, you’d think South Station would trying to prevent the same thing happening on one of their trains. There were bomb sniffing (or drug sniffing or glue sniffing) dogs roaming around, but I got off at the curb, walked up to an outdoor kiosk and went straight to the train with barely a glance from anyone. As far as anyone knew I could have been rolling a suitcase full of C4 onto the train.

Um…YIKES?


Some Suggestions: Just a few for Amtrak’s consideration to improve the quality of the ride.

- Cut down on the number of stops. Do you really need a stop at Back Bay when it’s a two minute ride from South Station? There are three stops within the first 10 minutes when leaving Boston. You can’t eliminate one of them? I’m sure Back Bay passengers can jump on a subway and make it to South Station without much of a hassle.

- While I’m not sure of the logistics, wouldn’t it be possible to offer wireless internet service? I’d even pay for it. Think how much money Amtrak could make with that deal.

- A dedicated track. It makes no sense to make this high speed bullet train make frequent stops because a standard train is in front of it and slowing things down. Get the hell out of the way so we can fly!


BOTTOM LINE

I would recommend the Acela on the condition you would be saving a large amount of money and could set aside half a day to get where you’re going. It’s much more comfortable and less stressful than flying while carrying an entire car full or beer.

How can you go wrong?


Today's distraction: Build your own train. I know, it's for kids, but be a kid for a while.

2 comments:

Anonymous said...

Sign up for Amtrak Guest rewards.

www.amtrakguestrewards.com

Give them a call and you can get credit for rides within the last 3 weeks.

Lots of benefits. If you ride enough, they give you a pass to the 1st class lounge, coupons for free upgrades etc.

BeachBum said...

Sweet! Thanks, secret admirer.