By Vinay Bhaskara & Jason Rabinowitz / Published February 4, 2014
*Editors note: The fourth installment in this four part series, we take a in-depth, deep-dive look at one of the most interesting transportation markets on the planet: New York to Washington DC. Long enough to fly, short enough to drive, the market is one of the more unique in the US if not the world. Today the race end as the Acela train is pitted against the air shuttle from DC back to NYC (note that the race was run back in September, 2013, and read part three, NYC to DC, here!). Read part one, on history, here! Dive into the numbers behind the route and read part two here!
The next morning I woke up at 5:30 am to try and get to the Capitol Building in time for our 8:15 am start. The Washington D.C. metro system is fantastic, or at least much cleaner and more comfortable than the New York City subway or the CTA trains in my new hometown of Chicago. Jason jumped onto his ten minute walk to Union Station, while I pulled out my phone and pinged the Uber app for a car. I suppose calling a car on Uber is the modern day facsimile of getting out on the street corner and hailing a taxi, but it’s much more convenient and guaranteed to accept credit cards, unlike most taxis in DC. Regardless, it only took me about 21 minutes to make it to the airport from downtown, though at that time of the day DC traffic is coming into the city from Virginia.
Jason’s Review – Acela Express WAS-NYC
On the way back from Washington to New York, we switched roles and I rode Amtrak’s Acela Express service. While Regan Airport may be close to the city center, Union Station is pretty much is the city center. The station is pretty much within walking distance of anything downtown, so catching a train right after a meeting is no problem.
Inside Union Station, a remarkable transit hub. (Credit: Jason Rabinowitz)
Union Station is a beautiful transit hub, a truly classic rail terminal. High decorative ceilings, shops, and eateries make it an ideal place to spend some time before your train. Once at the gate for the 9am Acela, all the great points about the place are lost: Travelers are packed into a tiny waiting area with minimal seating, non-functional (but free) WiFi, and a looping security video. The boarding process did not begin until just a few minutes before the scheduled departure; however, we did depart on time.
Amtrak does not allow passengers on a later train to travel standby on an earlier train, even if there is room onboard. Several announcements were made that only passengers with a ticket for the 9am train would be allowed on board, with no mercy for those who arrived early. This is in stark contrast to the Delta Shuttle, where passengers on any later flight may fly standby for free if there are empty seats. This alone may be enough to convince passengers to fly.
Just like the Delta Shuttle, Amtrak uses an open seating policy. I decided to try out the quiet car towards the rear of the train, and settled into a window seat. The quiet car, marked with hanging signs from the ceiling, discourages any cell phone conversations, loud music, and dims the lights so passengers can get some sleep. This is a great amenity for those who want to rest, or focus on getting some work done on the journey.
With several different seating configurations, there is something for everyone on Acela. (Credit: Jason Rabinowitz)
My seat had plenty of legroom, a foot rest, massive tray (and stable) table, two 120V power outlets, and an overhead reading light. I could not possibly expect this level of comfort out of an economy class cabin on any airline running between New York and Washington, which gives the Acela a nice advantage. I was also able to set up my laptop and start working immediately after sitting down, all the way through arrival in New York. No wasting time waiting for 10,000 feet, and that provides Amtrak with a leg up in productivity. Because the shuttle flights are so quick, you are unlikely to get any work done.
Acela WiFi Speeds (Credit: Jason Rabinowitz)
Speaking of getting work done, passengers expect WiFi on this route, and Amtrak did not disappoint. While GoGo WiFi on the Delta Shuttle was available, it was quite slow and not free. Amtrak provides a free WiFi service, and the Acela was recently upgraded to a 4G connection that should theoretically be faster than GoGo. Amtrak WiFi relies on cellular carriers like AT&T and Verizon, so its coverage will only be as good as those services. I found the speeds to be pretty good, but that may be because they block all video and most streaming audio services. That is annoying, but for the greater good to ensure everyone gets decent speeds.
Amtrak arrives at Penn Station in midtown Manhattan, which is pretty much the opposite experience of Union Station. Dark, dingy, and generally overcrowded, Penn Station’s best quality is that it usually gets the job done. What Penn Station does provide, however, is direct access to the core of New York City, and you just can’t beat that. Taking a cab into midtown from LaGuardia could be quite a process in rush hour.
Vinay’s Review – US Airways Shuttle DCA-LGA
After disembarking at the far end of Terminal C (in front of gates 23-34), I walked down to the security checkpoint for gates 35-45. Regardless, I made it through security painlessly though not without waiting in a line for about fifteen minutes only subject myself to the trained monkey routine that is called “security” by the TSA. For someone who’s offended or annoyed by the process, I suppose that’s a point in favor of the train, but I don’t really mind the whole charade so it wasn’t awful. Still, the relative convenience of the Acela purely from a time perspective (given the variability in security waits), does merit mentioning as an attractive factor for those who travel the route frequently.
Inside Terminal C at Washington Reagan
Once I cleared security, I had about an hour and a half left before my flight, so I made a beeline straight to the US Airways Club in Terminal C, which is nothing special, though certainly above average by US standards. At that time of the morning, after the early morning rush subsided, the club was relatively emptied, though it had begun to fill up rapidly by the time I left 45 minutes later. As far as the productivity factor for Acela over the Shuttle, the potential to get some work done in the lounge can offset that to some degree. Then again, as an international Star Alliance Gold member, I get free access to US Airways Clubs (a privilege I’ll be losing soon), so for those who have to pay the annual fee, it might not be that attractive of a perk. Regardless, with comfortable seating and plenty of outlets, I would have been able to get lots of work done. Since I had nothing urgent to work on that day in advance of several client calls that night, I instead settled down with a copy of The Economist and grabbed a bagel and some cereal for breakfast.
The US Airways Club at Reagan Terminal C
*Unrelated Tangent: My routine for flights has traditionally been to read the latest weekly edition of The Economist, while underneath the electronic device ceiling, and switch to other forms of passing the time once in the air. Looks like that will effectively end (at least the mandated part of it) thanks to the FAA.
They had one of those rolling bagel toasters (like the ovens you see at a Quiznos), and it was set too high, so the bagel came out almost burnt, but otherwise the food spread was decent. Certainly better than most domestic United Clubs (including the one that I frequent in Terminal 1 on Concourse B at O’Hare, where all you get are snacks. I think there’s a club in San Francisco where I saw a couple of pastries once, but much like United’s profits, they were marginal at best (rimshot?…. I kid… I Kid…). But regardless, the food spread was decent and I managed to get through around 70% of the magazine and a good chunk of The Wall Street Journal.
Snacks at the US Airways Club
At t-minus 45, I left the lounge and went out to Gate 42, stopping to pick up brunch at California Tortilla. While in line, who happens to walk up but Scott Kirby, then president of US Airways and now president of American Airlines? For most people, seeing an airline executive up close in an airport is nothing special, but for avgeeks like me, it’s the equivalent of seeing Jack Nicholson at a Lakers game or Justin Bieber at a Heat game.
Boarding was relatively orderly, thanks to my Star Alliance Gold status (and thus early group access), and I settled into the aisle seat of the bulkhead on a full flight. Lacking my preferred window seat, I once again jumped into The Economist as we pulled back from the gate on time and waited in the customary fifteen minute line. Once we got in the air, the beverage service immediately began. Unlike the Delta Shuttle, the US Airways Shuttle does not feature free newspapers, though snacks, beer, and wine are all complimentary. Since it was the morning (and I don’t drink on flights anyway), I stuck to the snacks and my customary can of ginger ale as I thumbed through US Airways’ inflight magazine.
Once I finished the beverage service, I pulled out my phone and attempted to connect to GoGo’s inflight internet so that we could continue with the live tweeting of the race. No dice. So I tried again…. And again…. And again. After my fourth attempt, I gave it up settled down to try and take a nap after a late night with friends the previous evening and an early (at least contextually) morning in DC. Naturally, there was a baby with her mother seated to my left, and while there was no crying, the silence was overshadowed by the incessant kicking. Feeling magnanimous, I let it go and managed 25 minutes worth of fretful shut-eye before waking up when we touched down at La Guardia.
And then there was La Guardia. Unlike Jason, I was not flying out of the serene, Sky Club-esque Marine Air Terminal but rather Terminal C. Of course La Guardia as a whole is a dump, and that goes for every terminal there (though Delta is trying hard to change that), but I guess you could say that Terminal C is the common landfill to the Superfund site that is the Central Terminal Building. Being seated in the bulkhead, I was out the door within 15 minutes.
On the Ground in New York City
If the traffic gods smiled on Jason the day before, what I had to deal with would probably be described as mild frowning. The traffic was not awful but it was slow moving enough that I could see Jason steadily gaining on me on the Google Plus map. Because there were no delays for the Acela this time (and of course because Manhattan was unseasonably devoid of cars in mid-afternoon), the race came down to the wire, though I eventually made it to the NYSE around 8 minutes ahead of Jason.
Social Media Interaction
A key part of the race was the social media involvement. Airchive’s followers and other Social Media friends were invited to follow on Twitter (up against the 787-9’s first flight on the same day) using the hashtag #PlaneVsTrain, and the response was amazing. In addition to responses from Delta (through spokesperson) and Amtrak themselves, the #Avgeek community on Twitter became really invested in the train (rooting heavily for the plane of course), with over 1,000 tweets being sent using that hashtag over the course of the two day race. Though everyone followed along breathlessly to the finish, we didn’t reveal the winner, until now.
Race Conclusion/Implications and Future Predictions
While the plane won the race we were able to see why the Acela has become an extremely attractive option. In particular, the free WiFi and enhanced productivity (time isn’t tied up in boarding and deplaning or in flying under the 10,000 feet ceiling for) of the Acela, along with the option to avoid the TSA made the Acela a really attractive value proposition. Under normal conditions, of course the plane is still likely to win given its heavy speed advantage, but given the extreme variability of New York City traffic, the train can actually get there faster (as our second race showed). On the flip side, Jason made it to the airport so quickly before the Delta Shuttle that he could have stood by on the earlier flight, which would have torpedoed the race before it even started. So even today, there’s probably a clear advantage to the Shuttle.
But more importantly, the success of the Acela and its relative competitiveness bodes well for the future prospects of high speed rail in this country. Keep in mind of course that the Acela is nothing close to high speed rail with a maximum speed of 150 miles per hour, which is only achieved at select locations along the route due to rail gauge limitations. But if the Acela has been able to achieve success at this level despite only limited speeds, imagine what it could do if the proposed 220 miles per hour speed (targeted by 2040) was achieved? Therein lies the attractive potential of the Acela and thus the train
Moving forward, we believe that the balance of power will continue to shift towards the Acela Express, which is critical given that is the only profitable segment of Amtrak’s entire portfolio of services. US Airways will likely eventually reduce its services to 70 seat regional jets like Delta, and the two carriers will persist with the route at those levels. Given the corporate contracts tied to a presence on the route, neither Delta nor US Airways will be able to leave entirely. Still in the battle of Plane Vs. Train, it is the Train who appears to be the long term winner.