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Is Amtrak a Viable Solution for Business Travelers?

Is Amtrak a Viable Solution for Business Travelers?

By David Grossman | USAToday, Business Traveler

With rising fuel costs and concerns about my carbon footprint, I decided to take the train on a recent business trip. Although I’ve often used high speed trains in Europe and Japan, riding the rails in America outside the Northeast corridor promised a new adventure.

When visiting the East Coast I often use Amtrak to traverse the Northeast corridor between Boston and Washington, D.C., instead of flying the air shuttles or driving the toll roads of I-95. The Acela Express and even the regional trains on those routes are often quicker than flying or driving, particularly if your origin and destination are within the city centers.

Train travel also bypasses the hassles and rigors of airport security and traffic-clogged highways. There are no middle seats, no seat belts, no forbidden electronic devices, no fuel surcharges, no fees for seat selection, no liquids ban, and train seats offer far greater comfort and personal space than any economy seat in the sky. Snacks and full course meals are available for purchase and the relative serenity of the railroad car provides an uninterrupted environment for working, sleeping, reading, iPod listening or DVD viewing on the entire length of the journey.

In inclement weather, when the air shuttles are grounded, I often see commuters dashing for the airport exits, heading to the train station and the prospect of getting to their destinations that same evening. The trains are often still running long after the airports have closed and snow and ice have blanketed the roads. The two-and-a-half-hour Acela trip between New York and Washington, or four hours between New York and Boston, is hard to beat. That’s why Amtrak carries 27,000 passengers each day in the Northeast corridor and carries nearly half of the air/rail passengers between New York and Boston and more than 60% of the air/rail passengers between New York and Washington, D.C., according to Amtrak spokesman Cliff Black.

But that is only the Northeast corridor. In California, where I reside, and most other parts of the country, Amtrak is a completely different product offering. In the Northeast, trains attain operating speeds of 125 to 150 miles per hour, according to Black. On the 423-mile stretch between Oakland and Los Angeles aboard Amtrak’s daily Coast Starlight train, the scheduled travel time is more than 13 hours. Though the train reaches 79 miles per hour on some segments, the average speed on this day-long marathon ranges between 25 to 35 miles per hour.

Slow travel speeds are caused by a combination of mountainous terrain and sharing the tracks with freight trains. Outside the Northeast corridor, freight railroads generally own the tracks. In most places double tracks have been removed because they are too costly to maintain. As a result Amtrak must continually wait on sidings for other trains to pass, and the freight trains operated by the host railroads that own the tracks often take priority over passenger trains.

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