- The New York-Boston sector of the Northeast is short enough where train travel actually rivals air travel in time and cost.
- Five airlines now fly between the two cities from three airports in the New York area and compete with Amtrak’s Northeast Regional and Acela services.
- While each traveler has their own preference, the pandemic has forced flyers and riders to factor in health and safety when making their travel choices nowadays.
- I flew up to Boston and took the train back and saw why Amtrak is the better option during the pandemic.
- Visit Business Insider’s homepage for more stories.
Less than 200 miles separate New York and Boston, and there’s no shortage of transportation options to get between the two cities.
Travelers can drive, fly, take the train or a bus between the two cities and each will often cost less than $50 in each direction.
The two fastest methods, however, come to to flying or taking the train. Flights routinely take less than an hour once airborne, while taking the train is a four-hour affair.
But when factoring in externalities such as getting to and from the airport and delays, both modes often even out time-wise. And during the pandemic, travelers now have to weigh the health and safety aspects of each mode of transportation while booking, which greatly varies between Amtrak and the airlines.
Read more: Airline CEOs say it doesn’t matter how well they protect passengers from COVID-19 – travel demand won’t bounce back until the pandemic ends
The New York-Boston corridor now has a new entrant bringing prices way down, below even Amtrak’s fares. Spirit Airlines now serves the two cities with flights from Newark Liberty International Airport and the lowest fare is $18, rivaling the $39 fare for the Northeast Regional and $79 for Acela.
On a recent trip from New York to Boston, I flew up and took the train back to see which one was a better option during the pandemic, and surprised even myself by preferring the rail journey over flying. As an aviation enthusiast first and foremost, I never thought I’d be singing Amtrak’s praises as the company and its services aren’t always perfect, but I am going to.
Here’s why I’d choose Amtrak again for the 200-mile journey.
Amtrak has better social distancing policies than most airlines
Amtrak is blocking capacity on its trains at 50% so all adjacent seats are blocked and riders don’t have seat neighbors. On the other hand, only one airline serving the busy Northeast Corridor is blocking seats, Delta Air Lines, while the rest are allowing their aircraft to be filled to capacity in 2021.
On its higher-speed Acela trains, Amtrak is now assigning seats that can be changed through departure to ensure getting a seat away from other passengers. I even witnessed a passenger being moved back to his assigned seat by the conductor on a separate trip.
Passengers can also see how full their train is when booking. Mine was less than a quarter booked when I checked the night before.
Face coverings are currently required on both Amtrak and airlines.
Getting to a train station was more convenient than going to an airport
I live about 20 minutes from my nearest airport – John F. Kennedy International – by car, and 45 minutes by rail. LaGuardia Airport, however, has the most flights to Boston and that’s 45 minutes away by car, or over an hour by a combination of trains and buses that I prefer to avoid. Parking at both is also an expensive proposition.
Gallery: I rode Amtrak up and down the Northeast Corridor during the pandemic and found it surprisingly clean, cheap, and stress-free – here’s what it was like (Business Insider)
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I rode Amtrak up and down the Northeast Corridor during the pandemic and found it surprisingly clean, cheap, and stress-free – here’s what it was like
- Amtrak has been muddling through the pandemic with reduced ridership but is still full steam ahead of health and safety protocols.
- Face masks are required and capacity is blocked at 50% on all trains, and Amtrak now tells riders how full their train currently is during booking.
- I rode on Amtrak’s Northeast Regional and Acela services to see how the rail company is tackling the pandemic.
- Visit Business Insider’s homepage for more stories.
Although a life-long flyer, I’ve always enjoyed the occasional train trip.
Traveling by rail long has been overlooked by the public, including myself, as airlines have been able to provide faster, and often cheaper service. But Amtrak’s new health and safety protocols should have travelers giving it a second chance for regional travel, at least during the pandemic.
Face masks are required onboard all trains and Amtrak has kept its loads consistently capped at 50% by blocking all adjacent seats even while some airlines have buckled on their commitments to block middle seats. Travelers can even see how full their trains are by checking Amtrak’s website so they know exactly what to expect when stepping aboard.
Read more: Airline workers have lower rates of COVID-19 than the general population – and airline CEOs say it’s proof that flying is safe
And that’s even while keeping its fares pretty low on its most popular routes. The 3-hour hop from New York to Washington still starts at $29 on the Northeast Regional while the slightly longer journey from Boston to New York is often the same price, with all the nostalgia of inter-city train travel included.
On a weekday recent trip to Boston, I took Amtrak to and from New York’s Pennsylvania Station. I started on the Northeast Regional and returned on the high-speed Acela to get adequately acquainted with the service.
Here’s what it’s like riding on Amtrak during the pandemic.
My journey started in the heart of Amtrak’s Northeast Corridor at New York’s Pennsylvania Station underneath Madison Square Garden.
It’s definitely not as grand as Washington, DC’s Union Station, Los Angeles’ Union Station, or even Chicago’s Union Station, but is still more convenient than heading to anyone of my local airports.
Surprisingly, it was quite empty on the Wednesday morning of my visit, which echoed on my train.
One of the perks of traveling by train is being able to arrive mere minutes before your train’s departure and still having time to spare. My Northeast Regional train was scheduled to depart at 9:35 a.m. and I arrived just 10 minutes prior to departure thanks to a delay on my inbound commuter train.
I quickly got my ticket from one of the self-serve kiosks. Amtrak also has a mobile app from where the conductor can scan a ticket, similar to a mobile boarding pass when flying, if travelers prefer not to use the machines.
Ticket in hand, I stopped by the Amtrak waiting area available only to Amtrak and NJ Transit riders.
Social distancing placards lead the way into the area compounded by signage reminding visitors to social distance and of Amtrak’s face-covering policy.
Seats weren’t blocked, as I’ve seen in airport waiting areas, but the space wasn’t nearly crowded enough for concern.
The station is open to the public but this waiting area is only open to Amtrak and NJ Transit passengers, making it the ideal place to wait before the journey away from the general population.
Soon enough, it was time to board the 9:35 a.m. Northeast Regional to Newark Liberty International Airport where I’d catch a flight to Boston. It sounds counterintuitive but I had an important flight to catch.
Read More: I flew on Spirit Airlines’ first ‘shuttle’ flight from Newark to Boston for $25 and still overpaid – here’s why it’s a great budget option
Just like with the waiting area, social distancing placards created a path to the platform.
A quick ticket check and I was on my way to the train with no invasive security checks or unnecessary waiting. Train travel was already beating airplane travel.
I was riding in coach for the 24-minute journey to Newark, having paid $24 for the trip. It’s more expensive than taking NJ Transit but the seat-blocking guarantee appealed more than riding on another commuter train.
The train was less than half full and finding a seat in the car was quite easy. Amtrak’s website showed this train was 20% full when I checked the night before the journey.
I sat in the first pair I found, with these large gray leather seats becoming my home for the next 24 minutes.
The seats were comfortable, the legroom was more than adequate, and with every adjacent seat blocked for social distancing, I didn’t have to worry about getting a neighbor.
Each pair also comes equipped with two 120v AC power outlets, ideal for working on a laptop during the longer rides or charging a phone.
As soon as we got out of the tunnel into New Jersey, the nostalgia of train travel was all around. I suddenly wished I was taking the train all the way to Boston instead of just to the airport.
The car was clean and quiet, offering a truly relaxing and stress-free environment.
These placards were spread throughout the train, furthering the social distancing messaging, and masks were required at all times.
Moving between the cars, I noticed that the doors already had foot releases so that passengers didn’t have to touch the button with their hands. That nifty functionality certainly comes in handy during the pandemic.
In the cafe car, the dining area was closed for all riders as part of pandemic-related safety precautions.
But the cafe was open, though outfitted with some new safety measures including a plexiglass partition and social distancing placards on the floor.
And even the lavatory was clean, a surprise for any mode of public transportation.
After saying goodbye to the Northeast Regional, I then flew to Boston to meet up with the Acela.
In Boston, trains depart from Amtrak’s terminus at South Station, a truly grand station in the heart of the city.
This time, I’d be riding on Acela, Amtrak’s high-speed rail that only serves the Northeast Corridor.
Amtrak’s ticket counters had been upgraded with new plexiglass partitions…
But I once again visited the self-serve kiosks for my ticket.
We boarded at 4 p.m. for the 4:15 p.m. Acela to New York. The high-speed service made only four stops with a scheduled travel time of three hours and 45 minutes.
It was my first time on the Acela and although the service is celebrating its 20th birthday this year, the trains still seemed new to me, but only to me.
These trains will eventually be upgraded to newer, faster trains in 2021.
Read More: The history of Amtrak’s new Acela trains, which will likely be delayed beyond their 2021 estimated date
Unlike the Northeast Regional, all seats are now assigned on the Acela as a result of the pandemic so I didn’t have to worry about finding the right seat.
The train was noticeably older and tired-looking. But thankfully, it was a lot emptier than the Northeast Regional train I took earlier with Amtrak also showing this service as 20% full the night before the journey.
Seats on the Acela trains are split between pairs and tables.
I chose a window seat for the journey. It was clean and ready for me to enjoy for the next four hours.
The seat had a similar size to the Regional and the legroom was similarly generous.
Seats also come with a tray table, the functionality of which was quite interesting but the surface was clean, nonetheless.
Above the seats were personal reading lights, much like on a plane, but no air vent.
And on the floor, there are two 120v AC power outlets.
As this was going to be a long ride, I quickly reclined and got comfortable.
I was lucky as there was nobody around me for rows in each direction on this Wednesday evening run from Boston to New York.
I must’ve been one of less than five people in the car.
I recommend the quiet car as it was the most empty and made for a tranquil environment in which to relax.
Other cars were more full up and seats can be changed via the Amtrak mobile app or website up until departure for the most accurate depiction of each car.
As we settled in for the longer stretches of the journey, Acela staff turned down the lights so we could get some rest.
Almost as if they read my mind, it was exactly what I needed to get comfortable and eventually drift off between Providence, Rhode Island and New Haven, Connecticut.
When I woke, I went to tour the rest of the train, starting with the lavatory. Just like on the regional, the lavatory was clean but this one, however, was more spacious.
Acela has these personal water cup dispensers, which was a nice touch as I was very thirsty after stepping onboard.
Eventually, I stumped upon the “Cafe Acela.”
A hand sanitizer dispenser and social distancing placards guided me into the empty cafe car.
Just like on the Regional, the seating area in this car was closed and riders weren’t allowed to linger here.
The slightly more stylish space didn’t seem ideal to hang out in, however, as the bar stools didn’t seem as comfortable as the Regional’s cushioned cafe car bench seats.
But the cafe was open with a full menu.
Food items were reasonably priced for a premium train service and Amtrak could probably charge more considering the normal high-end clientele. A cheese and cracker tray was $5.75, a cheeseburger was $7.50, and coke products were $2.75.
I returned to my seat for the last hour of the journey for a Zoom meeting, in which Amtrak’s free WiFi performed most excellently.
We ended up arriving in New York around 10 minutes ahead of schedule.
This would be the last stop for the train as it wouldn’t, in fact, continue on to Washington.
And just a few minutes later, I was in the heart of New York City once more.
Both of my train trips were highly enjoyable, to say the least, and showed how Amtrak is a hidden gem for regional travel during the pandemic. I didn’t once have to worry about social distancing or the cleanliness of the cars while onboard.
The key advantage Amtrak has over the airlines, even on a short trip to Boston, is that traveling by train is often a more stress-free experience than flying when everything is going right. Case in point, I didn’t have to arrive two hours before my train, go through a security checkpoint, or line up in a jetway to board.
On the Northeast Regional, I arrived just a few minutes before my train was to depart and didn’t have to wait in line at all. On the Acela, reserving a seat ahead of time also allowed me to sit as far away from others as I could without having to worry about finding the perfect seat upon stepping aboard.
Train travel, unfortunately, isn’t fast or luxurious but that might change come January. Amtrak will soon have an ally in the White House to help fund much-needed improvements and infrastructure projects that will make the railroad company more competitive with the airlines.
Despite the system’s greater shortcomings, however, Amtrak is a great option for regional travel thanks to its new health and safety protocols. And I’ll certainly be looking forward to my next train trip.
New York’s Pennsylvania Station, however, is just a one-hour drive or train ride away, and it’s cheaper (free) to park at my local train station than it is to park at an airport. Each traveler is different, but train stations usually have the benefit of being more centrally located in big cities, making them more easily accessible.
Plus, I didn’t have to pack extra time into my trip to account for going through security and boarding at least 15 minutes before my departure. Boarding on Amtrak usually starts 15 minutes before departure and travelers can pretty much board right up until the train starts moving, just like a commuter train or subway.
There’s no reason to show up extra early and that meant more time at home and in bed, getting some extra hours of sleep.
Taking the train is less invasive than flying
Not having to go through security saves time and a lot of hassle. Screening involves emptying one’s pockets into shared-use bins and getting into close proximity with fellow travelers – even with programs like TSA PreCheck that allow some passengers to leave their shoes and jackets on.
Taking the train means skipping the security screening and walking right into the station and onto a train without even having to show a ticket in most cases. Amtrak staff doesn’t typically don’t check tickets until after passengers are on the train and even then, there’s often no identification check and the conductor simply scans the ticket without touching it.
There’s more time to work or relax when riding the rails
I was constantly moving on my journey from New York to Boston going from one train to another, followed by a short plane trip, and then a city bus. While I had some downtime, it never amounted to more than an hour of pure rest.
The Amtrak journey was completely the opposite and consisted of four-hours of pure relaxation as we made our way down the coast. There was no turbulence to worry about and I could shut my eyes for more than just a few minutes. Case in point, the nap that I took was longer than my flight from Newark to Boston.
For a business traveler, that time could be used to finish up a presentation or using Amtrak’s free WiFi to listen in on a meeting. I even tuned into a Zoom meeting towards the end of my ride using the 120v AC power outlets to charge my laptop.
Trains offer unbeatable downtown-to-downtown service
Pennsylvania Station is located in the heart of Midtown Manhattan just eight blocks from Times Square. Most office buildings are less than a half-hour away by subway and many suburbs are conveniently accessible by commuter rail services with easy transfers that don’t require stepping outside.
The situation is similar in Boston as South Station and Back Bay are also located in the city center with connections to MBTA Commuter Rail and subway lines. For travelers that live in the suburbs, Amtrak offers local trains that make stops outside the city in places like Stamford, Connecticut; New Rochelle, New York; and Westwood, Massachusetts.
Airports along the Northeast Corridor are typically located near the city center but getting from the gate to the city is often an expensive and time-intensive endeavor. Trying to get from LaGuardia Airport to Times Square could very well take longer than the flight from Boston.
There are downsides to Amtrak
While the train is undoubtedly a great option, Amtrak isn’t without its problems. Perhaps most notably, the Northeast Corridor is known for its dilapidated infrastructure, especially around the New York area, which often causes delays and prevents trains from achieving their top speeds.
Acela is celebrating its 20th anniversary this year and the trainsets show it. On a separate trip, I had to bounce around the car to find a working power outlet, for example.
Rail travel is also undoubtedly slower than air travel, even with the extra inconveniences of the latter. I started my journey at Pennsylvania Station and it took less time to take two trains to Newark airport, wait around an hour for my flight, fly up to Boston, and take a city bus to South Station versus taking Acela from Boston back down to New York.
Amtrak’s new Alstom Avelia Liberty train cars may help speed up the service but the current state of the Northeast Corridor tracks makes it difficult for a high-speed train to achieve its full potential. Though, air travel isn’t immune to delays, especially when bad weather strikes.
As life returns to normal in 2021, it’s possible Amtrak will abandon its social distancing policies and increased ridership may result in delays and crowded trains. But, at least during the pandemic, it’s the way to go when traversing the Northeast.
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