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September 26, 2006

Amtrak's Winner: ACELA

Tired of the hassles of air travel… the weather delays, TSA examinations that rival visiting a proctologist, and the cramped coach seating with legroom only for midgets? Well, try the train… if you can get a seat.

In the Northeast Corridor, Amtrak’s flagship train, Acela, is a delight for daytrips to Boston or DC. But I’m not alone in being a big Acela fan, as I found out recently. Arriving at NY’s Penn Station at 3 pm one weekday afternoon. I figured I’d have no problem getting a seat on the 4 pm Acela to Baltimore. Wrong! It was sold out and so was the 5 pm train. First class was available for an additional $82, but I opted for a slightly slower but much cheaper “conventional” Acela Regional train equipped with the older Amfleet coaches. (Mind you, I did treat myself to “Business Class” for an extra $ 30, offering more legroom and all the free Diet Pepsi I could drink.)

Amtrak tells me that ridership is up 7% this year on Acela and climbing steadily since the latest airline terrorist scare in mid-August. Trains are selling out hours, if not days, in advance… not just rush hour departures, but mid-day as well. And why not? Riding Acela (which I’m doing as I write this column) is a delight. It’s fast, comfortable, on-time (90% of the time, come rain or snow) and its quiet, especially in the popular Quiet Car®. But it’s not cheap, nor should it be.

Amtrak is following the airlines’ lead in adopting yield management, offering big discounts for reservations in advance (for example, Stamford to Boston on Acela purchased two weeks in advance, just $ 78). But if you need a ticket for tomorrow’s early Acela to Washington, it’s $ 193. It’s all a matter of supply and demand, and demand is way, way up.

The problem is, the supply of seats is static. Amtrak has only 20 Acela train sets and, hobbled by a GOP-appointed Board of Directors with a death-wish for the railroad it runs, there seems little hope of ordering more trains. Acela is becoming a victim of its own success.

Currently, Acela makes 14 runs a day between NYC and DC, but just 8 trips each weekday between NY and Boston. And not all of those trains make a stop in Stamford. Squeezed into the CDOT-owned and Metro-North operated tracks at rush hour, Acela can’t earn a stop in “the city that works”.

A big plus is Amtrak’s Guest Rewards® program styled after the airlines frequent flyer programs. You earn points based on distance traveled and the cost of your ticket. At the program’s “silver” and “gold” levels, “Select” and “Select Plus”, you get free first-class upgrades and free visits to the ClubAcela lounges found in many cities, a great place to wait for your train while enjoying free snacks and wireless internet connections. Amtrak also has its own affinity MasterCard which can really rack up the points.

In a future column I’ll write about the joys (and sorrows) of long-distance travel on Amtrak, but right now I’m off to the Acela CafĂ© Car for a soda before an early arrival in Washington. Ah, Acela!

JIM CAMERON has been a Darien resident, transit activist and commuter for 15 years. You can reach him at Cameron06820@gmail.com or www.trainweb.org/ct

September 11, 2006

"9/11 + 5: Terror and Travel"

Wow. Time sure flies when you’re terrified. Can you believe it’s been half a decade since the terrorist attacks of 9/11? I can’t. But hardly a day passes without me thinking of that day and what happened because, like so many other Americans, I’m waiting for “act two”… the next attack.

Let me be blunt: I think we are no safer today than we were on 9/11, especially when it comes to travel. Here are the facts:

AIR TRAVEL: While passengers and their luggage endure endless searches… while we can no longer carry a bottle of water or a cigarette lighter on a commercial flight, thousands of daily flights carry tons of cargo in their bellies that goes unchecked. Even the TSA’s passenger screening misses dangerous objects in secret tests. Flying is still far from safe.

TRAINS: Amtrak and Metro-North are easy targets due to their lax security. While MTA Police conduct random bag checks in the NYC subway, Connecticut’s State Police has publicly announced that none will be done in our state, preferring instead to conduct “behavioral profiling” of passengers. But the CT State Troopers are so understaffed that the only time you’ll see them on the trains is when there’s a terrorist alert, and that’s mostly for PR value. Lacking personnel, Metro-North asks passengers to play cop with its “If you see something, say something” self-help approach to security.

If you make it to Grand Central, you’re still not safe. I no longer stroll thru the station, marveling at its glories, but move quickly to the street. What better target for a suicide bomber than a crowded waiting room at rush hour?

SHIPPING: See those trucks on I-95 carrying cargo shipping containers? Do you know what’s inside? Well neither does the driver or US Customs. Only a handful of the thousands of containers that arrive on ships at Port Elizabeth NJ each day are scanned or inspected. And the truck inspection station in Greenwich still remains closed more hours than it is opened. Feel safe?

CRUISE SHIPS: Yes, they scan your bags when you board. But they’re looking for smuggled bottles of wine that eat into ship-board profits more than anything else. Did you know that a cruise ship was attacked by pirates off the coast of Africa last year? Or that Al Qaeda actually has a fleet of merchant vessels sailing who knows where? If a suicide bomber could rip a hole in the USS Cole, why not the Queen Mary 2?

BUSSES: No bag inspections. No metal detectors. And the favorite target of terrorists in Israel.

PRIVATE CARS: I hate to admit it, but this is about the safest way to travel. Not the fastest or most economical, but maybe the safest.
So does all this mean I’m no longer riding Metro-North, that I’m driving to LA or forgoing the pleasures of a winter cruise in the Caribbean? Not hardly. I still use mass transit, but I’m still scared. Our government couldn’t prevent 9/11, even though they’d been warned it was coming. And I doubt they’ll prevent “act two”. So we all just play the long-shot odds that “it” won’t happen to us.

Since 9/11 we have spent $135 billion fighting in Iraq. That’s $177 million a day… $7.5 million in an hour (an average rush-hour commute). Be honest… has any of that spending made you feel safer here at home?

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JIM CAMERON has been a Darien resident, transit activist and commuter for 15 years. You can reach him at Cameron06820@gmail.com or www.trainweb.org/ct