Trip Report: My Trip to Washington DC

I left for my trip on Saturday. On Sunday I took a side trip, more on that later. On Monday I was happy to finally get to my room in Alexandria Virginia. I attended my first meeting of the Rail Passengers Association and came out alive. At least I didn’t go to sleep. 

Speaking of not sleeping, I find it pretty useless to try to sleep on an airplane. Throughout the trip I was on four airliners and I couldn’t[t rest on any of them. The issue was small seats and no real room. I started to show some pictures of the room I had in various seats from a Boeing 717 to an Airbus 320 to an Acela High Speed Train to an Amtrak refurbished regional passenger car. But the pictures I took didn’t do justice to the amount of room I had. So let’s do this, the hand width measure. 

Flying back into XNA I flew Main Cabin which is Economy or Coach on other airlines. My knees were right against the seat back of the chair ahead of me. Zero hand width. On the way to Washington DC I flew Comfort+, which is Business Class in other airlines. I had one hand width of knee room. In all the airliners I flew in, I was in a narrow seat. Just like all airliners I have ever flown in. 

On Sunday I took the Acela to Baltimore MD to see a friend of mine. I had two hand widths of knee room. On the Amtrak Regional train for the return trip I also had about 2 hand widths of knee room. In the Amtrak trains I had more seat width – wiggle room. In the refurbished regional train the seat was very comfortable. And in the train one can get up and walk down the aisle with little to no hassle. On an airliner the aisle is narrow so one bumps into many of one’s fellow passengers. 

On my trip to Boston from DC, about 450 miles, I rode the Acela again. Here is a word of explanation. The Amtrak Acela is based on the French Bullet Train built by Alstom. Alstom has a factory in New York where they build the trains for the American market. I rode the older model Acela which is based on the French TGV train. These are coming to the end of their service life having been on the tracks for over 20 years. There is a brand new Alstom HSR passenger train called the AGV. The new Acela Liberty will be based on the AGV. I want to ride on the Liberty based AGV and so do you. Several of the Acela Liberty trains have been delivered. They are undergoing final fit and finish and are coming out in the next year or so. 

Another factor in comfort is noise, vibration, and harshness; three measures automotive engineers use to evaluate cars and trucks. On the airliners the smaller regional airliners you feel turbulence more than a bigger airliner like the Airbus 320. In the lower part of the Northeast Corridor, the ride on Amtrak is noticeably bumpy. Part of this is due to the rail bed which was laid down in the 1830’s and completed by 1917. These old rail beds need to be completely rebuilt. Part of the vibration and harshness may be due to the older Acela trains. Newer trains may run more smoothly. I am a bit hard of hearing so take this with a grain of salt but the Acela and the Regional train were much quieter than the airliners. The Amtrak trains in the NE Corridor use overhead wires to supply electricity to the trains so the diesel whine in other trains is absent. The airliner has a high pitched whine from the turbine engines.  

Now let’s talk cost and convenience between airlines and passenger rail. When I booked my Amtrak trip from DC to Boston the ticket I bought over a month in advance was $97. An airline ticket would have been between $134 and $400. Cost like this is a bit tricky. Amtrak and the airlines offer points when you purchase tickets. If you get the Amtrak app, for free through the app store, you not only build up points but you can buy points for a discount. This is like prepaying for a ticket. And with Amtrak you can get discounts if you are a senior citizen, a student, a military service member, or a member of the Rail Passengers Association. Airlines partner with credit card companies to allow you to build a points relationship with them. I have an airline credit card which gives me points for shopping, buying gas, or eating out. Airlines also allow you to build points with them without a credit card if you join a points program. Which is to say your ticket price may vary. And there are lots of ways to save by buying tickets off season, or months ahead of time. Today if I wanted to choose between the Acela or an airliner the Acela would be $288 and the airline would be $250. Choose wisely Grasshopper. 

As for the frequency of boardings, both Amtrak and the airlines have multiple journeys during the day. On the Sunday when I rode I was surprised that the trains were full. Wow. People really use them when they are available. But Amtrak doesn’t have long intrusive security lines. And airports are long subway, light rail, and bus rides. Or you take an Uber or Lyft and spent about $50 bucks, $60 bucks on a taxi. Though I didn’t do this, it is based on prior experience. Or drive your car and pay for parking for a week. The mass transit rides were generally $2 per trip. 

Take that $2 light rail to the Amtrak station and it is a faster trip. Amtrak stations in the bigger cities are like American malls back in the 60’s, through the 90’s. Lots of shops, lots of places to eat. And when it comes time to board, it is easier to board a passenger train. 

When it comes to expense a ride share like Lyft or Uber tends to be both a longer ride and much more expensive than metro rails. When I got to DC I had a hotel in Silver Spring MD. I took a ride share and it was a full $50 and took over 45 minutes. The next day I found out I could have taken the DC Metro light rail and spent $10. $8 on a refillable card and $2 on a ride that would have taken 25 minutes. It was then a 10 minute walk to my hotel. The light rails in the Metro were like subway cars, and they did go underground for part of the trip. The light rail for the Boston area also takes you to surrounding towns. I stayed in Salem Mass while I was there. The light rail was faster there too. 

Some criticism of the rail system though. As I noted above the Amtrak was at times bumpy. And the trip from DC to Boston took around 6 hours for a 450+ mile route. We were held up by an accident so my trip was more like 7 and a half hours. As comfortable as the seats were, I was ready to get off the train. In comparison an airline can take from 2 and a half hours to 4 hours depending on layovers. As I stated above, the Northeast Corridor railroads need to be rebuilt. This rebuild will not only make the rides smoother, but the trains can go faster. The Acela trains are capable of going over 200 mph but now they manage an average speed of 70 or so. In parts of New England the Acela did reach 150 mph. The new Liberty trains will make 160 mph in the same sections. Some improvements are being carried out but really a complete rebuild is in order. 

Also the Metro station ticket kiosks were a little hard for me to figure out. And I wonder if Amtrak can’t update the way they “punch tickets”. I have a smart phone and I would like to just have a reader confirm my ticket as I enter the train. 

Last but not least, I found that Salem Mass, with a population of 43,000 or so, was very easy to get around. You can walk anywhere in about 30 minutes. There was vehicular traffic but it was light. Why drive when you can walk where you want to go? This is good news for the walkable neighborhoods crowd. 

To sum up, I enjoyed my trip to the Northeast and Washington DC. I met a lot of great people. I rode some great trains, and saw some great sites. I have hope that we can accomplish our goals of green mass transit and connect Arkansas to a national passenger rail grid. 

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