I am far from unique in looking at train travel as an option to air, bus, and car travel. Having ridden trains in a number of countries (most recently in China) I am favorably inclined to ride a train since I can get work done, it is less stressful, often less expensive, AND greener.
Yesterday I attended a meeting in Washington D.C. and decided to take the Amtrak Northeast Regional – it was $ 98.00 round trip. Taking Acela would have saved me less than one hour and was substantially more expensive. Driving made no sense and flying would have not saved much time at all if any. Amtrak offers ‘free’ Wi-Fi and some limited food service on board. Since I spend a great deal of time working on my computer and talking on the phone it ended up being a sort of mobile office. They also have a frequent traveler program with rewards – and yes I enrolled just to see how they might market to me and they have been doing an ok job of sending emails – not too many thank goodness.
The first thing that was good was that the train did not derail. I am not certain as to what percentage of Amtrak trains derail but it seems that it happens with some frequency.
Overall my impressions are that it was better than flying and car or bus travel. Perhaps it took a bit longer than flying, (3:20 from Penn Station to Union Station) but the low stress and ability to be productive was a plus but I was not nearly as productive as I could have been. Why? The main reason is because the free Wi-Fi service is spotty at best. There was not any option to upgrade to better service. I kept in mind that when I rode the regional train in China this past November the condition of the trains were similar (the Chinese trains were newer but get more use so appeared somewhat worn just like Amtrak) and there was no Wi-Fi service available. In fact aside from that my experience in riding the train from Guangzhou (formerly known by Westerners as Canton) to Hong Kong was remarkably similar – except for the price which was less about half in China and I made no advance reservation. That should come as no surprise to anyone.
The Chinese rail does move faster although there are a similar amount of stops. That is primarily due to the fact that the rail lines have been laid more recently and do not limit speeds for fear of derailment on the ancient tracks as is the case in the Northeastern U.S.
I had made a reservation to return to New York City at 7:10PM but arrived early at the Union Station at 5:45 and noticed there was a 6:05PM Northeast regional train. I inquired as to if I could get on that train and was told yes, but it would cost an additional $113.00! More than what I paid for the round trip in the first place. I will go out on a limb and surmise the reason was not that the train was overbooked. Managing to suppress my outrage I simply said no thanks and went and had a nice dinner and a beverage and took the 7:10. But really – how insane is that? I was not going to travel any less time on the train (the same 3:20) and there was room for me to sit without question. Just to be clear had I originally booked the earlier train the roundtrip price would have been … $98.00.
Amtrak is a viable alternative and I will ride it again but it still has a long way to go. From a marketing perspective Amtrak does not do much advertising but the messaging they do is ok. However to have a customer experience what I did in terms of attempted fleecing to move up my time by one hour undoes whatever good marketing Amtrak might put out. What happened to me should be easy to fix (but will they?) and the fact that they allow it to happen tells me there are many other problems that have to be repaired in order for Amtrak to continue to present itself as a truly worthwhile means of transportation.
Have you ridden Amtrak lately? Regional or Acela? I’d love to