At 6:51 a.m. Thursday, Phyllis D. Altrogge, an economist with the Federal Trade Commission's Bureau of Economics, joined a file of sleepy-eyed passengers who boarded the Eastern Airlines shuttle at National Airport, bound for New York.

A half-hour later, Martin Adams, a project manager whose company is in charge of the $12 million renovation of the Watergate, and other passengers on the Pan Am shuttle pulled away from a gate at National, also headed for New York's La Guardia airport.

And at 7 a.m., Stephanie Garber, a Washington area branch manager for Westvaco Corp.'s envelope division, settled into her seat on Amtrak's new Express Metroliner as it left New Carrollton, Md., for New York.

The Great Race from Washington to the Big Apple, an early morning, self-inflicted ritual for hundreds of commuters every work day, was off and running. At issue was whether a hurtling Amtrak Metroliner could make the trip to Manhattan in time to compete with the shuttles. At stake: bragging rights in perhaps the most hotly contested transportation route in the nation.

Amtrak's latest bid in this seemingly unequal competition is its Express Metroliner, which leaves Union Station at 6:50 a.m., makes one stop at New Carrollton, and then goes nonstop to Manhattan's Penn Station. Promised arrival time: 9:30 a.m. -- plenty of time to make a 10 a.m. meeting in Manhattan.

The 7 a.m. Eastern shuttle and the 7:30 a.m. Pan Am shuttle are the traditional departures of choice for travelers with 10 a.m. meetings in Manhattan -- at least for those with an ounce of experience in the things that can go wrong.

To cover the race, Washington Post reporters accompanied passengers on the shuttles and the train Thursday who were headed for the same general area in Manhattan.

On Thursday, the shuttles delivered travelers to New York in plenty of time for 10 a.m. meetings. So did the Express Metroliner, which pulled into Pennsylvania Station at about 9:20 a.m.

The critical difference in when those travelers arrived at their ultimate destinations turned out to be what happened next.

Altrogge, the Eastern passenger, arrived at the gate at New York's La Guardia Airport at 8:10 and stepped into a long taxicab line at 8:20 a.m. A short three minutes later, she was in a cab. At 9:03, Altrogge stepped out of the taxi at 42nd Street and Fifth Avenue.

Pan Am passenger Adams arrived at the gate at Pan Am's Marine Terminal at 8:23 a.m., stepped off the plane a minute later and walked briskly to the taxicab line. Adams, too, found a cab in three minutes. Adams stepped out of the cab at Fifth Avenue and 46th St. at 9:15 a.m.

Garber was in a relatively short cab line at Pennsylvania Station on 8th Avenue between 31st and 33rd streets by 9:25. She had worn sensible shoes for walking, in case finding a cab proved impossible. But the line didn't appear daunting, and it was cold outside.

Instead of the line of waiting cabs that passengers at La Guardia encountered, however, Garber faced a wait -- as cabs arrived singly at three and four minute intervals. Her turn didn't come until 9:55, and then plowing through the thick midtown traffic took another 25 minutes.

"I wouldn't wait 35 minutes again," said Garber, as the cab passed people who had walked outside of the station to try to flag cabs. "I would do that."

In addition to looking for a cab outside of the station, passengers arriving at Penn Station have the option of the subway -- tokens are sold on board the train -- or walking, as Garber had contemplated. Another passenger on the same train, David Anderson of Bowie, who works for the Naval Sea Systems Command, was attending a meeting with a naval design firm with offices just two blocks from the station. He arrived at about 9:40 a.m. -- early for a 10 a.m. meeting.

This is how the three trips to Manhattan went:

Altrogge left home in McLean at 6:05 a.m., for the 7 a.m. Eastern shuttle, arriving at Washington National Airport at 6:25 a.m. She was traveling to New York to question corporate executives about a proposed merger as part of a review to determine whether the FTC should oppose it. The meeting was originally scheduled for 10 a.m., but had been pushed back to 11 a.m.

She usually goes to New York twice a year on business, Altrogge said. She goes once or twice a year for personal reasons as well, she said. "Last time I went on business, I took Amtrak. I know it was very comfortable," she said. "You just get out, and you're there at Penn Station." But Altrogge noted that Union Station isn't very convenient from her home in McLean.

The shuttle was full and was designated by Eastern as a nonsmoking flight, which pleased Altrogge. At 7:05, the flight pushed back from the gate, and at 7:15 it was airborne. On board, Altrogge received a plastic orange-and-white "Snack Pack, air shuttle plus" that contained a sticky, cold piece of pastry. "This would be fine, if it were warm," said Altrogge, who washed it down with a cup of black coffee.

The cab driver who picked up Altrogge at La Guardia gave his passengers a choice of routes -- the Midtown Tunnel, which offers an express lane, or the Tri-Borough Bridge. The Midtown Tunnel "saves time," said driver Mahmud Nustraty. "That one makes money," he said. The passengers chose the Midtown Tunnel.

Even so, it wasn't rapid transit. Traffic was slow on the Long Island Expressway. "I hadn't even thought about getting into New York at rush hour," said Altrogge. "In Washington, you can take the subway to the airport."

At 8:42, it was bumper to bumper, and the cab had been passed by an impatient driver in a Jeep, who took to the median. "We are moving," Altrogge said optimistically. At 8:55, the cab entered Manhattan, and eight minutes later, Altrogge reached her destination.

Adams works for Trafalgar House Construction Management Inc., a subsidiary of Trafalgar House PLC, a giant British conglomerate with interests in construction, shipping, engineering and mining. The company also owns Cunard Lines, which operates the Watergate and is overseeing its renovation. Adams, an Englishman, is in charge of that project and has been living in the Watergate for about 14 months.

Adams was headed for a 10 a.m. meeting with the purchaser for his project, the interior designer and an attorney. "You can't go anywhere in America without seeing a lawyer," he joked. Adams was very concerned that he be on time to the meeting, the first of a series. "If I don't make it on time, I can't get all my business done and I'll have to be back here next week," said Adams, who left the Watergate at 6:30 a.m. to catch the 7:30 shuttle. The cab that he took to National Airport broke down on the way, giving him a slight scare. But the cabbie was able to get it started again.

Adams usually goes to New York once or twice a month. In the beginning, he often took the Eastern shuttle, but his preference is Pan Am, he said. "It's clean. The aircraft appears to be well maintained ... and they've never let me down."

The boarding call for the shuttle came at 7:07. At 7:33, it began its taxi down the runway, and at 7:36, it was airborne. Adams took apple juice when the flight attendant offered him breakfast and settled down with the free Washington Post that he picked up in the boarding area.

After a little turbulence, the shuttle landed at La Guardia. Adams had calculated the ride into Manhattan at 40 to 45 minutes, and 45 minutes later -- despite a few clots of traffic along the way -- he was at his destination.

Adams has thought about the train, but "you can't get a 7:30 train to get to a 10 o'clock meeting. ... There's a terrible fight to get a cab at Penn Station. I don't bother. I just walk," he said.

Garber, who has worked for Westvaco for nearly nine years, was on her way to a 10:30 a.m. meeting at the company's headquarters at 49th Street and Park Ave. to interview a prospective sales representative. She left home in the Four Corners area of Silver Spring at about 6:25 and drove to New Carrollton, where she parked and bought a ticket, catching the train at 7.

On board, she picked up a free Wall Street Journal and bought a danish and milk from the dining car and settled down in one of the five cars. The train was less than half full. The service, which started Oct. 26, has been carrying an average of 90 passengers to New York -- or about a third of its 275 capacity, says Amtrak's manager of public affairs, R. Clifford Black IV. On the way back, as the southbound 10 a.m. train, it fills up by Philadelphia, he said. The service is attracting new passengers, he said, noting that traffic on the 6 a.m. and 7 a.m. trains to New York has not diminished.

On Thursday, passengers picked up breakfast and newspapers and settled down in their seats, gathered in the dining car for onboard meetings and made calls from the telephones -- one in each car. The seats were the size of first-class seats on most flights, with lots of leg room. Several passengers also grabbed blankets from overhead and settled down for what appeared to be comfortable naps.

Garber usually catches a Piedmont flight from Baltimore-Washington International Airport to La Guardia, she said. But, an uneasy flier, she was happy to have the alternative of the train, which she also noted was cheaper.

The train rumbled past frost-covered fields and across rivers, reflecting the early morning's pink light. It slowed past suburban and urban backyards, freight yards, townhouses and warehouses.

At 9:15, the conductor walked through. "New York in about 10 minutes," he said. Five minutes later, he passed through the car again. "New York will be next," he said -- a message quickly echoed on the train's intercom. "Penn Station will-l-l-l be next."

Despite the problems catching a cab, "I was really pleased," Garber said. The time from her door to her destination was about the same as when she flies, she said. Taking the train was much pleasanter than "the hassle" of the airport. "I'd do it again. I'd definitely do it again.