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Keith Alexander

Acela Riders, Missing the Fast Track

By Keith L. Alexander
Tuesday, April 19, 2005; Page E01

For the past four months, real estate adviser Ken Hoskins left Union Station every Monday morning aboard the Amtrak Acela Express to New York's Penn Station for three days of work, with a return to Washington on Wednesday.

But yesterday, Hoskins found himself at Washington's Reagan National Airport waiting to board a US Airways shuttle to New York, and he wasn't happy about it.

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Only one of Amtrak's 20 Acela trains left Union Station yesterday -- the first departure since Amtrak suspended all Acela service on Friday because of brake problems. Routine tests and inspections found cracks in brake components of cars in the premium-priced train service that connects Boston, New York and Washington. But after running that one train, which had received undamaged brakes from other trains, Amtrak officials decided last night to suspend Acela service through this Friday, according to spokeswoman Tracy Connell. Officials will evaluate on Friday whether to restore service, she said.

Hoskins said he preferred the nearly three-hour train ride to a flight of less than an hour partly because of the heightened security at the airport. "I had to get undressed just to get through security," he said. The Bowie resident said he gave himself an extra 45 minutes to cover the additional time at the checkpoint.

The Acela's problems were the topic of discussion among many passengers waiting to board the 10 a.m. US Airways shuttle for New York's LaGuardia Airport. Some were grateful they rarely took the Acela, especially in light of its current troubles. Others, such as Hoskins, looked forward to climbing back aboard the roomy trains when they return to full service.

Hoskins said he paid $170 for his one-way fare on the US Airways shuttle, compared with $157 one-way on Acela. Once you add on a $60 cab ride from LaGuardia into midtown Manhattan, the Acela was a "bargain," he said.

Amtrak spokesman Clifford Black said regular trains are running two-thirds of the Acela's usual, scheduled service. The regular trains are about 15 minutes slower than the Acela, he said.

The Acela's absence was a boon to at least one airline that operates a New York shuttle. Delta Air Lines carried 10 percent more shuttle passengers on Friday, compared with Friday a week earlier, said Delta spokeswoman Benet J. Wilson.

US Airways spokesman David A. Castelveter said the airline saw a "slight uptick" in shuttle passenger loads yesterday and Friday, but he was unable to determine whether that was due to the Acela.

Since its launch in 2000, the Acela -- which has both business and first-class sections and fewer stops -- has become a popular alternative for leisure and business travelers. Equipped with electrical outlets, the trains allow passengers to use laptop computers without draining their batteries. Travelers also are free to talk on their cell phones -- unlike airline passengers, who must turn off phones during flights. For those seeking refuge from the chatter, each train also has a quiet car where cell phone conversation is prohibited. Acela accounts for about 20 percent of Amtrak's service in the Northeast corridor between Washington and Boston.

One of the biggest complaints from Acela passengers since the train's brake problems were discovered was that Amtrak failed to notify many of them before they arrived at the train station.

Pat Shanahan of Philadelphia arrived at Union Station late Friday afternoon only to find that instead of catching the Acela, he had to catch Amtrak's regular train. He takes the train each week to Washington and was surprised that no one from Amtrak contacted him.

Amtrak's Black said train reservation agents were calling travelers and encouraging them to visit Amtrak's Web site for updates.

Question of the Week: Are you traveling overseas more this year than last year? If so, where are you flying most and why? Is international travel any better or worse than domestic air service? Please tell us why. Send your thoughts to alexanderk@washpost.com, along with your name and a daytime telephone number.

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