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THE SAVVY TRAVELER

Tracking a Few Good Reasons to Go by Train : Survey: A new study reveals that when compared to going by plane or car, travel by rail costs less and can even be faster.

December 09, 1990|PETER S. GREENBERG

Not long ago I was in Washington, D.C., with some friends. We were all headed to New York. I naturally assumed we would all be taking either the Pan Am or Trump shuttle.

But one of my friends said he was taking the train.

When we heard this transportation blasphemy, a great gasp of surprise followed. The train ?

Our friend was obviously misguided. The shuttle departs every hour and takes only 45 minutes. We would clearly make it to our mid-town Manhattan hotel before him.

"Not necessarily," he said. "Not only will I get there before you, but I'll spend half the money you do."

We accepted the challenge.

We all left our Washington hotel at the same time. Our friend headed for the train station to catch the Amtrak Metroliner. It took him five minutes to get to the station, and he left for New York an hour before our scheduled flight departure.

We grabbed a cab and drove toward Washington National Airport.

First, we got stuck in traffic, though we did make our flight. Then we were delayed on the ground for 15 minutes. Later, on approach to New York's La Guardia Airport, we were delayed for 20 additional minutes. Total flight time from gate to gate was one hour and 40 minutes.

One of us had to wait for luggage. Another 15 minutes. We got into a cab and proceeded to get stuck in a traffic jam on the Grand Central Parkway, then we moved even more slowly across the Triborough Bridge into Manhattan, making it another 35 minutes before we arrived at our hotel.

The winner? Our friend, by about five minutes.

Surprisingly, the train can be faster than the plane. And a lot less expensive.

Consider these facts:

--Our friend's cab fare was $5 to the train station. His ticket on the Metroliner was $79. He didn't wait for luggage. And his cab from Penn Station to the hotel was $6.25, including tip.

--By comparison, our cab ride to National Airport was close to $10. A ticket on the shuttle was $139. We had to wait for luggage--and we got stuck in traffic. Our cab fare, including bridge toll and tip, came to $27.30.

--His total cost: $90.25.

Our total cost: $176.30. Nearly double.

--And he beat us to the hotel.

Interestingly, the results of our small challenge were matched on many other routes--primarily in the Northeast corridor--in a comparison survey undertaken by Runzheimer International, the Rochester, Wis.-based management consulting firm that specializes in travel-related issues.

In the Runzheimer survey, in terms of both cost and travel time, taking the train was more often the better choice.

"In the past," says Robert Vinatieri, the Runzheimer manager and senior travel analyst who ran the survey, "we have compared transportation costs, but like everyone else, we simply assumed people would take a plane to get somewhere. The results really surprised us, because in almost every case, the train beat the plane hands down."

For example, Vinatieri compared train, plane and driving costs between Providence, R.I., and New York. Assuming best-case conditions, the plane ride saved an hour and 15 minutes compared to the train, and an hour versus the car (a standard mid-size model was used). But the dollar difference was just as significant: Train travel saved $117 over the plane, $73.50 over the car.

Vinatieri factored in the cost and time of travel for planes and trains (including taxis), and both fixed (such as insurance) and operating costs for autos. He even added in a half-hour rest stop for any car trip lasting more than four hours.

The reason for the survey? "Most business trips are under 600 miles," says Vinatieri, "and because of fare pricing, shorter trips by air are quite inefficient."

For example, a trip by air between Boston and Hartford, Conn., costs about $207 and consumes 2 hours and 15 minutes, door to door. The same trip by train takes an hour and a half longer but costs only $25.

Between Baltimore and Philadelphia, traveling by air eats up 2 1/2 hours and runs $138. But the same trip by train takes only an hour and a half and costs just $39.

Not every comparison works in favor of the train. A trip from Albany, N.Y., to Washington, D.C., while costing only $67 by train, takes 8 hours as compared to only 2 1/2 hours by air at $187.

For most businessmen, the added $120 cost of the air fare almost certainly outweighs the extra 5 1/2 hours of travel time by train.

However, in almost every case when Runzheimer compared air travel to high-speed train travel, the train came out ahead in terms of both cost and time.

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Regarding costs, a round-trip Amtrak ticket between Kansas City and Albuquerque, N.M., costs $166. An Amtrak round-trip ticket between Los Angeles and Omaha runs $203. Both these fares are substantially less than the lowest advance-purchase airline tickets available on the routes.

In addition, Amtrak offers something called the "All Aboard America" fare--special round-trip fares between points within one, two or three regions of the United States. The fare also includes up to three free stopovers.

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