MIAMI — The third in a four part series (read part one here!), we take a in-depth, deep-dive look at one of the most interesting transportation markets on the planet: New York to Washington DC. Long enough to fly, short enough to drive, the market is one of the more unique in the US if not the world. Today the race unfolds as the Acela train is pitted against the air shuttle from NYC to DC (note that the race was run back in September, 2013). Read part one, on history, here! Dive into the numbers behind the route and read part two here!
The parameters for our race (to and fro) were as follows. We would begin at the steps of the New York Stock Exchange (or as close as possible) at 3:15 pm. Each of us would take a cab to our departure point (Penn Station and New York La Guardia), and we had to travel on our scheduled flight/train. Since I arrived at Union Station in Washington, I could walk to the Capitol steps – Jason had to take a cab. On the return, we would depart the Capitol Steps at 8:15 am. I would take a cab to Reagan Airport, while Jason would walk to Union Station. Once again, each of us had to travel at our scheduled time, and we would return to meet up at the steps of the New York Stock Exchange where we started.
On the Ground in New York City
After departing the NYSE at 3:15, Jason and I immediately went east to Water Street to find cabs. We had a reasonably short waiting period, and we got into our respective cabs around 3:18 pm. This was where our assumptions got flipped on their heads. Traffic up and down the West Side was heavy, and it took me 27 minutes to get up to Penn Station. Meanwhile, Jason actually beat me from the same stating point in lower Manhattan to La Guardia by three minutes. FDR Drive, the Brooklyn Bridge, the BQE, and the Grand Central Parkway were all essentially devoid of traffic. Jason and I had configured GPS tracking through Google Plus to keep abreast of each other during the race, and I was literally laughing out loud as I crawled along and saw Jason’s little GPS dot jumping across the map, drawing many odd glances from the taxi driver in his rear view mirror.
Vinay’s Review – Acela Express
I made it to Penn Station with about 15 minutes to spare, and this was probably the best part of the experience; there was no TSA or security to slow me down – no need to take out my laptop or remove my shoes. Having printed out my ticket beforehand, I found enough time to visit a Dunkin Donuts and grab a cup of coffee before settling in to wait in the middle of the Amtrak concourse. That’s where I had a minor issue with the experience. The track assignments for the Acela are not announced or put onto the main display screen until essentially the last possible moment, which creates a mad rush of passengers queuing up in the concourse. And while you do avoid the lines for the TSA, the line to get your ticket checked before boarding the Acela is perhaps even longer than the line for boarding an airplane. After about a 10 minute wait, I finally strolled down the escalator to my first ride on the Acela Express.
My first impressions of the Acela’s business class interior were highly positive; the cabin was bright and airy and the floors, seats, and overhead bins were clean (though there were a few slight dings on the insides of the overhead bin). Overhead bin space was adequate, but I had to struggle a bit to fit in my standard roll-aboard suitcase (it fits comfortably into airline storage bins).
The Acela has a couple of seating options. There are the standard two seats facing forward that you find on most trains/planes (3-seat), but you also have the option of sitting in a train style foursome: two seat pairs facing one another with a table in between.
As I settled into my seat, the first thing I noticed was the legroom – it was much better than what you’d get on an airplane – nearly ten inches more of seat pitch and three to four more inches of seat width than an economy class airplane seat. And the leather seats were more comfortable than those on airplanes, though I’ve seen more comfortable seats and better legroom on almost any train in Europe (Switzerland in particular has a great train system).
After I settled in, the conductor came on over the intercom to announce a 15 minute delay due to “mechanical issues.” This is another space where Amtrak could improve the experience; transparency in communication. Jason had a very similar delay on his return Acela trip, and the conductor was similarly cryptic. Airline pilots are usually very good about giving specific reasons for delays, whether it’s explaining the type of mechanical issue, or relaying a ground stop. Amtrak conductors could improve their communication in this area.
Once we got out of the underground maze that is the entrance/exit to Penn Station, I immediately connected to the Amtrak WiFi network. Going into the experience, I had heard mixed reviews of Amtrak’s wireless internet. Amtrak restricts the speed of its WiFi (streaming/video chatting are out of the question), and I’d heard that in addition to slower speeds than promised, the Amtrak WiFi tended to drop out frequently.
But except for a three minute stretch near Wilmington, Delaware, I was able to stay connected to the WiFi almost the entire time. The speed was nothing special, but it was better than what you can get with GoGo in flight internet. And I was very productive, which I think was the best part of the experience on the Acela side; the productivity. I got plenty of work done, writing up a blog post (non-aviation), cleaning out my inbox, and even Skyping (voice only) with a client for more than thirty minutes. I also pulled up FlightAware to keep track of Jason’s location throughout the ride, and the WiFi was able to handle all of these separate processes without a hitch.
About halfway through the ride, I decided to get up, stretch my legs, and visit the Café Acela. One qualm I had with the Café Acela car is that there wasn’t enough seating and the early evening is hardly a peak meal time. And the metal seats are extremely uncomfortable, though I suppose the metal is necessary for the high turnover through the car. The menu for Café Acela is reasonably diverse, with a good mix of Entrees, side dishes, snack items, and desserts. The best way to categorize this (if you don’t feel like reading through the pictures below), is to say that the offering is more varied than what you’d get on a domestic flight in terms of buy on board, but not as high of quality. After perusing the menu, I settled on the Vegan Burger, which appeared to be made of some sort of soy. It was rather tough to chew, and pretty tasteless as is, but liberal use of mustard and relish turned it into a passable snack.
I spent most of my time during the ride working, but I did glance out of the window from time to time and the views are certainly more picturesque than those from an airplane window. That being said, there’s something special about the view at takeoff, climb, descent, and landing; witnessing all of the activity on the ramp, seeing buildings get smaller after takeoff and larger after landing. But that’s probably just the aviation geek in me talking.
We pulled into Union Station about fifteen minutes late, and from there it was a short ten minute walk over to the Capitol Building.
Jason’s Review – Delta Shuttle: LGA-DCA
The Delta Shuttle out of New York’s LaGuardia airport is not your typical experience. For starters, the shuttle routes operate exclusively out of the historic Marine Air Terminal, which not only expedites the entire process, but adds a certain level of prestige. Passengers enter via the picturesque rotunda and approach a rather small security area. When I arrived to the terminal at about 4pm for my 5pm flight, there were about ten people waiting to clear security. The TSA is the TSA, and there is nothing Delta can do to speed up that process. Just a note, TSA Pre Check is not available at this terminal.
Once through security, the Marine Air Terminal feels more like a Delta SkyClub than an ordinary terminal. Comfortable chairs, plentiful charging stations, work stations, and a bar await passengers. The iPads found throughout concourses C and D at LaGuardia are not available here, however. While waiting for my flight, several announcements were made inviting passengers on later flights onto earlier flights for no charge, which is a major selling point of the shuttle service: No same-day change fees here. Though I could’ve taken an earlier flight, I passed, per the rules of our race.
My flight to Washington DC boarded exactly on time. The gate agent taking tickets greeted me by name, which adds a level of personality many airlines skip over these days. On board, Delta utilizes an open seating system, and I picked out an over-wing window seat. The flight was not full, and I had the row to myself. At 5pm, we pushed back from the gate, exactly on time. Thankfully, the line for takeoff was not very long, which is normally the reason this flight has an under 50% on-time rating. Shortly after 5:15, we were in the air.
Minutes after takeoff, I powered up my phone and connected to Gogo WiFi. For $2, I was able to get 30 minutes of WiFi, which is all you need on this flight. The service worked decently throughout the quick flight, at speeds comparable to a 3G connection. Enough to browse the web, but picture uploading struggled unless I used heavy compression.
Drink and snack service started immediately after takeoff. Soft drinks, beer, and wine are complimentary on this route, which is a lovely perk. Oh, and Biscoff cookies! Although the flight attendants did their best,we were on final approach by the time they were able to reach the rear of the aircraft. Sit up front or you might not get that beer you’ve been craving.
After touching down at DCA, we pulled right up to a gate in a few minutes, and before I knew it we were in the terminal. No waiting for a gate, ground crew, or jet bridge. In fact, we reached the gate fifteen minutes ahead of schedule. Easy as pie.
On the Ground in Washington D.C.
Reagan Airport has reasonably short walks, and Jason was off his plane and into a cab in no time. Mirroring the experience on the ground in New York, Jason literally sailed through what should have been rush hour in Washington D.C. (though admittedly he was going the against traffic flow) and got to the Capitol Building within twelve minutes. At that point I was just entering the D.C city limits. The walk from Union Station to the Capitol Building isn’t long; about 10 minutes, but it’s important to note that public transit options at Union Station are rather weak; just one Metro line as opposed to six at Penn Station – and it does not head toward the Capitol. This would be a relevant factor if our final destination was a different part of DC, say Georgetown or Berkeley, but because it was the Capitol, that wasn’t much of a factor. Jason ended up beating me to the Capitol steps by around 30 minutes, but the margin would have been much closer if not for a perfect storm of traffic, non-delays, and maintenance issues on the Acela. We met up, chatted for a bit and went off to our respective sleeping locations for the night.