PART ONE: The ins and outs of traveling America’s rail superhighway.
By WALT BARANGER
ABOARD THE AMTRAK ACELA — At first blush, travel in the Northeast is not that attractive, unless you enjoy overcrowded highways, airports and railroad stations.
Driving Interstate 95 means tolls of $20 or more each way for a six-hour journey. Buses can take forever, especially in foul weather. Flying is so unappealing that the legendary Washington shuttles run by Delta and US Airways are struggling.
That leaves trains. Amtrak, together with regional railroads, have created the Northeast Corridor, a rail superhighway from Boston to southern Virginia. There’s nothing else like it in North America.
If you’re new to it, though, Corridor travel can be tricky, starting with your ticket.
RESERVED…BUT NOT RESERVED
Amtrak trains between Washington and Boston are reserved, but that doesn’t mean what you think it means. The train is reserved; your seat is not! Worse, some trains starting outside the Northeast Corridor are unreserved (any ticket for that specific route will do). They become reserved trains when they enter the corridor.
Rail novices don’t understand how an unreserved train can magically transform its status en route. It especially boggles foreign tourists, who are used to getting a reserved seat with their reservation.
Regional railroads in the corridor lack reservation systems, so plan on standing instead of sitting on so-called peak-of-peak-hour regional trains.
Some stations are nightmares at rush hour: Union Station in Washington DC, New York Penn Station and Boston South Station. I board Amtrak in Stamford, CT, just to avoid NY Penn.
Philadelphia 30th Street Station is also very busy, but manageable.
Another alternative to Manhattan is to use Newark Penn Station in New Jersey, easily reached via New Jersey Transit or PATH trains.
HIGH SPEED, HIGHER PRICE
Amtrak’s premiere service in the corridor is the Acela, the high-speed train geared toward business travelers. But curvy track and other technical issues limit Acela’s speed on some stretches, especially north of New York City.
I’m writing this from a southbound Acela crawling along somewhere in New York.
Corporate customers on Acela pay as little as $105 each way between New York and Washington. Everyone else pays $160 or more. (Acela First Class, which includes meals, can cost more than $300 each way.)
Amtrak Northeast Regional train service is almost as fast as Acela between Washington and New York (or New York to Boston), and fares can be less than $50 with advance purchase and AAA auto club discount. Business Class offers more legroom and free beverages. It’s well worth the extra fee during rush hour.
Amtrak recently launched free wi-fi in major Northeast Corridor stations and on Acela trains, and plans to expand service to all Northeast Corridor trains — maybe free, maybe not. You can’t stream videos, but it’s fine for e-mail, Facebook and the like.
The main cities along the corridor are Washington DC; Baltimore; Wilmington, Del.; Philadelphia; New York; New Haven, Conn., Providence, R.I.; and Boston. But wedged in between (or nearby) are some surprises.
Amtrak directly serves two major airports along the corridor, Newark Liberty (EWR) in New Jersey and Baltimore/Washington International Thurgood Marshall Airport (BWI). It’s a good way to avoid expensive limousine or parking fees, and gives you more options when shopping for airfares.
Local commuter trains serve both airports, and Amtrak ticket holders can transfer free to and from the AirTrain light railway at EWR, saving $5 each way.
My advice for traveling the Northeast by train:
- Buy tickets early to get cheaper fares, and use the Amtrak web site. Tickets not purchased on the web site can only be changed or canceled by phone or at the station.
- Fares vary widely by time and day, so use the Amtrak web site to shop around. Members of the AAA auto club and military can get discounts on tickets purchased a few days ahead.
- Don’t get the paper ticket until you arrive at the station. Convenient machines dispense tickets in less than a minute, and Amtrak’s liberal change/refund policy makes early possession of the paper ticket undesirable. Lost tickets are a real pain to replace.
- Join the Guest Rewards frequent traveler program. Obtaining reward tickets and upgrades on Amtrak is much easier than on most airlines, and many short Northeast Corridor rides earn the 100-point minimum, which is a good deal.
- Avoid checking baggage. Many Northeast Corridor stations don’t handle checked baggage anyway, and there’s a large open area for luggage in most coach cars.
- Most Corridor trains provide one or two electrical outlets at each seat. Rail veterans carry small electrical outlet cubes that turn one outlet into three or four.
- If you want to sleep, either look for the “quiet car” where cell phones and conversations are banned, or buy seats on long-distance trains that pass through the corridor, such as the Amtrak Cardinal.
- To avoid direct sun, northbound passengers should sit on the left side in the morning and the right in the afternoon. Southbound passengers should do the opposite.
- Amtrak trains can sell out, especially if foul weather is forecast; ticketed passengers at Washington, Philadelphia, New York and Boston should arrive at least 30 minutes before departure in fair weather and 45 minutes ahead during winter storms.
- Before heading to the station, check your train’s status with “Julie,” the automated voice at 1-800-USA-RAIL. That’s what the regulars call her (as in “Julie says Train 2100 is running 8 minutes late.”).
Don’t forget the regional railroads, which are usually cheaper and more frequent than Amtrak: VRE in northern Virginia; MARC in Maryland; SEPTA in eastern Pennsylvania; NJT in New Jersey; PATH along the Hudson River; Long Island Rail Road; Metro-North in New York and western Connecticut; Shoreline East in central coastal Connecticut; and MBTA in Rhode Island and Massachusetts.
New Jersey Transit, PATH and Metro-North run to New York City, and MBTA terminates in Boston.
Two quieter gateways to Washington DC are L’Enfant Plaza and Alexandria, small stations visited by only a handful of Amtrak trains but still good alternatives to crowded Union Station. Both connect to the Washington Metro subway and Virginia Railway Express regional trains.
What’s more, Alexandria hotels, in northern Virginia, are often much cheaper than those in DC.
Another alternative to Union Station is to connect with Amtrak at New Carrollton, MD, at the north end of the Washington Metro’s Orange Line.
The choke point for the Northeast Corridor is the trans-Hudson tunnel system between New Jersey and New York Penn Station. The two century-old tunnels are too low for Amtrak’s double-deck Superliner cars to New York City.
The tracks are also jammed to capacity, so trains that arrive or depart off-schedule must often wait, exacerbating the delay.
Taking advantage of regional train service to reach smaller or outlying stations demands very careful research. There is almost no cross-ticketing — nor even online links — between Amtrak and the regional railroads, and virtually no schedule coordination.
Things like electronic ticketing, on-board upgrades and universal wi-fi are still years away. New railcars won’t be delivered until at least 2012, and Amtrak must wait while New York remodels its dreadful Penn Station to accommodate more passengers.
In our next episode, we’ll review the sights along the corridor and find some out-of-the-way train destinations.
Text and images by W. Baranger. All rights reserved.