Greater Greater Washington


The eternal question: New York via train or bus?

What's the best way to get between New York and Washington?

This is worth about $50 to me. Photo by Kynan Tait on Flickr.

It depends how you define "best", of course. Just about everybody knows that the cheapest way to do it is via bus, but cheapest isn't always best.

For the extra price of an Amtrak ticket you get more seating space, nicer and bigger bathrooms, a faster ride (even on the slow train, never mind Acela), the ability to get up and walk around, and a cafe car. Buses these days are pretty nice, but they're not nearly as comfortable as Amtrak.

Just how much extra cash is that comfort worth?

It's usually about $20 one-way on a bus and $100 one-way on Amtrak's Northeast Regional train. For a round trip, that's a difference of $160. If you're traveling with a partner (as I usually am), then that's a round-trip two-person cost difference of $320. I like the cafe car, but not that much. For those prices, I'll take the bus every time.

But what if the price difference were less? How much closer would it have to get for Amtrak to start looking reasonable?

It so happens that this weekend I'll be driving up to New York with family, but coming home alone and without a car. For that one-way, one-person trip, the cost difference between Amtrak ($100) and bus ($20) isn't as severe. It isn't negligible though. $80 still seems like too much, at least on my budget.

However, I'll be traveling fairly late at night, and Amtrak's night discount is bigger than Bolt's. The train I want is only $74, while the bus I want comes out to $23. That's a difference of only $51. That cafe car is looking a lot more attractive now.

After thinking about it a few minutes, I booked on Amtrak. Being able to walk around, use a nice restroom, and get food when I want was worth the extra $51 to me, but just barely. If the difference had been much more I don't think I could have justified it to myself. $30 difference: Done in a heartbeat. $60 difference: I'm not so sure.

What would you do? How much extra will you pay for the luxury of a train?

Cross-posted at BeyondDC.

Dan Malouff is a professional transportation planner for the Arlington County Department of Transportation. He has a degree in Urban Planning from the University of Colorado, and lives a car-free lifestyle in Northwest Washington. His posts are his own opinions and do not represent the views of his employer in any way. He runs the blog BeyondDC and also contributes to the Washington Post Local Opinions blog. 


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You forgot another option -- renting a car. And I'm not talking about a POS zipcar.

Cars can be had for 20-30$ a day on the weekend rate. Weekends typically start at noon Thursday for rental companies. The more people you have the cheaper it is per person with a car.

by Pete on Aug 3, 2010 3:06 pm • linkreport

That's true, although then you have to deal with having a car in New York.

Also, it's generally only a good idea if you're going round trip. The fees to drop off a rental car at a different location are often pretty high.

by BeyondDC on Aug 3, 2010 3:10 pm • linkreport

Let's not forget tolls! The last time I drove to NY it seemed pretty close to $20 each way.

by aaa on Aug 3, 2010 3:14 pm • linkreport

Tolls, gas, tax, getting stuck on the highway without being able to nap, parking, etc. make renting a car to NYC an enormous hassle. It's not even worth thinking about.

by Eric on Aug 3, 2010 3:25 pm • linkreport

I usually take the bus for personal travel if I know I'm staying in Manhattan. <$80 sounds good to me for one-way, not from a cost differential standpoint, which bus will always win, but from an absolute dollar amount all things considered. If the cost differential were under $90 or so, I think that would be pretty good.

To me, the time of the trip is a bigger part of the equation. The cost differential is tied not only to the amenities but the speed, as alluded to, but it isn't substantially faster at this point. For personal travel, all I need is a book and a media player, considering I can usually make myself sleep for an hour or so, therefore the bus better. For work, the train is more conducive to being productive.

by Vik on Aug 3, 2010 3:27 pm • linkreport

Ha. Loving this post because my friends and I wrestle with the question CONSTANTLY. I haaaaaaaate the bus. Especially on the way home because usually I end up returning with a hangover. But alas the train is too rich for my blood. I've always thought that with the right price drop Amtrack would see an uptick in ridership that would at least have them breaking even. But I have nothing to base that on. For me I would gladly take the train every time if the price difference round trip were more like 75 bucks. And I know for a fact I'm not alone. Perhaps they could think up some sort of special. Or how bout a groupon to test the waters.

by Anon on Aug 3, 2010 3:28 pm • linkreport

Isn't the train delayed more often? I seem to remember each time I took Amtrak there were always insane delays. Of course, I was taking the train further south, the NE corridor might have its act together.

by Michael Perkins on Aug 3, 2010 3:32 pm • linkreport

We visited NYC over this past Christmas. We decided to take the bus because it was far cheaper than Amtrak. After sitting in traffic for hours on end I now know to pay more for a train ticket over the bus - at least during peak travel times.

by NikolasM on Aug 3, 2010 3:37 pm • linkreport

Sounds like Amtrak needs to add capacity to its existing trains so it can lower it's ticket prices, double decker trains anyone? There's no reason train prices should be out of reach for most folks.

by Cullen on Aug 3, 2010 3:40 pm • linkreport

Does Amtrak have wifi these days? That's a nice feature of the Bolt Bus. I used to take Greyhound between NYC and Baltimore fairly frequently, and it wasn't the worst experience in the world, but I would have chosen Amtrak every time if I could have spared the steep difference in price. With the Bolt Bus potentially being cheaper than Greyhound was then, I imagine the people on board don't smell much better than they used to.

Amtrak is just an infinitely better experience (even without wifi), but the price doesn't justify it. I couldn't take my family anywhere on Amtrak. Good thing I have a car.

Oh, and I rented a car to drive from DC to Scranton, Pa. last Sunday. It cost about $160 for a one-day, one-way rental. Terrible option.

by Thrillhouse on Aug 3, 2010 3:40 pm • linkreport

I generally find the bus has a lot more scheduling options than the train (esp. since there are several bus companies to choose from). This is a huge factor when trying to pack a lot into a weekend on a tight schedule.

by Aaron on Aug 3, 2010 3:41 pm • linkreport

If only Amtrak started to be competitive...

Why is it that Amtrak charges through the nose even off-peak whereas its European Siblings apply price differentiation and yield management to the extreme.

For example I once managed to travel London to Edinburgh for 25 pounds return. ($40) No Megabus, National Express (The local Greyhound) would have swayed me. I took the train full stop.

Now for me it is easy: Bus. Yes I know it is a hassle there is not much space... But No amount of quality will change my mind.

It is well known that price, headway & time are the major factor influencing travel. Comfort and Amenities are way less important. Given that Amtrak cannot play on headway or time, they should really start getting their act together. After all the more people use train the more people are going to warm up to trains, which is in the interest of Amtrak if it wants to get more funding/ be part of the new drive for high speed rail!

by Vincent Flament on Aug 3, 2010 3:41 pm • linkreport

Well Michael, there IS something you don't know about! :) The Amtrak's consistency and on-time performance drops radically once you pass south of Union Station, basically. There are some charts of this I had somewhere that I'm sure you could find online with a quick look. On-time performance between here and NYC (and to Boston) is surprisingly good.

As far as Amtrak dropping the prices, I don't know that they have much impetus because of how much of the DC-NYC travel share they currently have and how full the trains typically are. That said, I would think some specials geared at younger folks or radically dropping the prices on the less-full off-hour trains would be a smart way to dip into the Chinatown bus market.

by Steve D on Aug 3, 2010 3:44 pm • linkreport

Your specific location in DC and your specific destination in New York also makes a difference when you're calculating how much time each option would cost. From my place in Dupont, for instance, I can get on an express DC2NY three blocks from my house. Not that metro-ing over to Union Station takes forever, but it should at least be factored in to the total duration of the train trip.

The same thing applies to the other end. Some of the buses go to Brooklyn, so if that was your destination in NYC you'd have to factor in the time it takes to get from Penn Station to Brooklyn into your train trip estimate.

Or if you live in DC's Chinatown and your destination was New York's Chinatown, then taking the Chinatown bus probably makes a lot of sense in terms of time and money.

by GraduallyGreener on Aug 3, 2010 4:02 pm • linkreport

I thought about this myself last week. While I might be willing to pay the premium for the Regional, I donÂ’t think I could justify paying the huge premium for Acela. IÂ’ve found that both Amtrak and the bus services tend to be more expensive the closer to the travel date that you make your reservation.

by Rob Pitingolo on Aug 3, 2010 4:02 pm • linkreport

@Mperkins; yeah, south of DC reliablity drops, but even on the NY-DC route the numbers of times myself (or friends) have been stuck in long delays (even overnight) on Amtrak is unconscionable.

Holiday travel by bus could also be dangerous, but if you pick the times correctly it is generally smooth.

Amtrak is gearing towards business travelers, not mass transport. Given what a success it is (1/3 of trips between DC and NY on Amtrak) not sure if they should change models.

In many many third world countries bus travel is cheap and nice. Probably not safe, but long distance coaches in Mexico and Turkey offer much better experiences than the train.

by charlie on Aug 3, 2010 4:03 pm • linkreport

I've taken Amtrak to NYC twice and have loved it. I had the afternoon train out on Friday around 1:00pm and then a Sunday afternoon return train. Amtrak was running a $49 each way sale at the time. Maybe they should bring these back?!?!? Another huge perk to me - the quiet car! I was sound asleep an hour into the trip each way. I wish Amtrak had these on their southern routes too.

by RideTheRails on Aug 3, 2010 4:16 pm • linkreport

One thing was forgotten where in New York you are going.

Are you staying inside of the city or going to other areas?

If your staying in Manhattan, or the inner parts of Bronx, Brooklyn, Queens than taking the bus or train is a good option.

If you are going to Staten Island , Nassau or Westchester counties a car might not be a bad option

by kk on Aug 3, 2010 4:16 pm • linkreport

Two points on the cost of each item:

1) Train Cost: Amtrak has lowered their DC to NYC fares to $49 with 14 day advance purchase except for certain holidays. So the cost is more like $49 vs $20 for a one way trip. There are additional promotions that can impact both the price of the bus and train.

2) Bus Cost: One thing that is desperately missing from the cost in the bus is the true cost of the price of fuel. The real cost of gas is not $~3/gallon when you take into effect externalities related to the environment, military costs, etc. European countries have more appropriately priced their fuel at $6-$8/gallon roughly which would increase the bus cost to be closer to the train cost. This is one of the big limiting factors with a shift toward more trains and less buses (for common routes like DC to NY) is that fuel is not priced appropriately.

by Steve on Aug 3, 2010 4:19 pm • linkreport

We just made this trip last weekend. We choose train (or more accurately my wife did - the cost would have dissuaded me). But the traffic-less ride was great and we brought wine and food. Enough wine and food makes any experience wonderful.

by Madison on Aug 3, 2010 4:21 pm • linkreport

always take the train, at $49 it's worth it to me

by Mike Donnelly on Aug 3, 2010 4:26 pm • linkreport

Bus. Cheaper, more schedule options, more drop off/pick up options, about the same travel time. On a short trip to NYC the bus easily wins, but on a longer trip it would start to be attractive. For a 4-5hr trip, I don't need a bunch of leg room and a cafe car, but much longer and those amenities look good. If they could get the speed up and/or prices down I would take another look.

Same reason I rarely drive back to Detroit: an 8-9hr drive is long and comparatively cheap(about $100 round trip), where a 1.5hr flight is short and somewhat expensive ($200-$300 round trip). The economy of scale when traveling with my family often makes the car a good option when there are 3 or 4 of us.

by dano on Aug 3, 2010 4:27 pm • linkreport

I go back and forth a lot, and Bolt Bus is so good I think it's worth it, for the wireless and movie watching alone. Exception as NikolasM pointed out is Thanksgiving or Christmas -- Amtrak would be worth every penny in that case.

by slc on Aug 3, 2010 4:31 pm • linkreport

For me, always the train. For the shorter trip to Philadelphia, a trip I take often, I don't even consider other alternatives.

Michael: Amtrak owns the tracks on the NE Corridor, so reliability to the north is much better than it is to the south -- no need to defer to freight trains.

Re wifi: yes, Amtrak now has wifi. Not sure what took so long.

by rg on Aug 3, 2010 4:38 pm • linkreport

rg: The trip to Philly by train is very quick. Less than 2 hours on even the slowest of trains which I took a few weeks ago. With regard to wifi, at the moment it is only on Acela and in the key NEC stations. I imagine they will expand to normal NEC trains but not sure of the rollout timeframe.

by Steve on Aug 3, 2010 4:42 pm • linkreport

Huh. Hadn't checked Amtrak's prices in a while; didn't realize $49 fares were available. I checked Amtrak's web site to test fares for a trip to NYC tonight. For $203 you can leave Union Station at 5:05 and arrive at Penn at 7:59 (2hr 54min). There's a slightly faster option that's actually cheaper, for $158, if you leave at 6:05 and arrive at 8:54 (2hr 49min) - that's market pricing at work, for New Yorkers who have meetings in DC and then wanna rush home - a 5pm departure is worth much more.

The cheapest fare for tonight is $74, for the Northest Regional service, leaving DC at 8:45 and arriving at 12:10 - yikes! Who will be on that train?

by M.V. Jantzen on Aug 3, 2010 4:47 pm • linkreport

Amtrak, absolutely. Riding in a bus for that long gives me motion sickness. Plus, Amtrak's frequent rider program (Amtrak Guest Rewards) gives you points that can be saved up for seat upgrades or even free trips on trains anywhere in the country. The conversion rate (price per mile) is a heck of a lot better than any airline offers today.

by sg on Aug 3, 2010 4:54 pm • linkreport

As far as the NE Region, The current infrastructure can't support double deckers between here and NYC. For that matter, the current infrastructure can't support high speed rail either...

Wifi is on Acela, I don't know about the regional.

Amtrak has no real incentive to lower prices in this region due to current demand. This is probably the most market oriented pricing model in the Amtrak system.

I'm taking Amtrak to Chicago at the end of the month, $83 one way, for the 17.5 hr option. Yes that's long, but I like to consider the train as part of the destination. This intangible often convinces me to travel by train rather than bus or airline.

Between DC and NY for the holidays, the train always wins, it's so enjoyable to sit there and roll past everyone sitting in the Jersey turnpike traffic...

by S.A.M. on Aug 3, 2010 4:55 pm • linkreport

Honestly, unless it was last minute I would just fly, the US air shuttle is like $150.

by eric on Aug 3, 2010 4:56 pm • linkreport

And for comparison purposes, you can hop on the Delta Shuttle tonight at DCA at 5:59, and arrive at JFK at 7:29 (1hr 30min), for $154. Compare with Amtrak's 6:05-8:54 trip for $158. Delta is $4 cheaper and 79 minutes faster! Of course, Penn Station is not the same as JFK. To get to Penn via rail, you'd take the JFK Airport Airtrain to Jamaica, then the LIRR to Penn. I've never done that, but it sounds like that would add 30 min to an hour. And transfers are stressful. Add waiting for luggage and you could lose that 79-minute advantage entirely. (Not to mention the psychic cost of dealing with the Terrorist Screening Agency at DCA.)

by M.V. Jantzen on Aug 3, 2010 5:02 pm • linkreport

Most of Amtrak does not have wifi -- the Acela Express does, some of the lounges and stations in the Northeast - that's about it. I was on an Amtrak bus out here in Cali a few weeks ago and it had a nice wifi sticker, but it didn't actually work (Amtrak in the West is as much a bus service as it is rail, oddly enough.).

I've been on a few trains in the East and West, and noticed the trains were generally about 50% full at best. That, to me, means the pricing is way off.

It might sound conspiracy-ish, but it would be difficult, even for Amtrak I think, to maintain that extreme level of incompetence -- I suspect the fares are set so as to not compete too effectively with other modes of transport.

by Peter Smith on Aug 3, 2010 5:13 pm • linkreport

US Airways doesn't want last-minute purchases; much more expensive than Delta. Their 6:00 flight to Laguardia costs $288, $134 more than Delta's shuttle to JFK. Why is that?

Planning ahead gives cheaper prices. One-week advance goes down to $215; two-weeks ahead goes down to $146; and three or more goes down to $126.

by M.V. Jantzen on Aug 3, 2010 5:16 pm • linkreport

In the US, I consider trains not a viable option. Quite frankly I do not understand why someone would consider paying $270 for a "fast train" that rides slower than many normal trains in Europe. If you're willing to pay $270, then just look at cheap flights.

So, if I wanna go cheap, I take the bus. The Boltbus is fine and reliable, even for a tall dude like me. If I have more money to spend, I'll fly. I will also throw in the factor of location. Trains, planes and buses do depart from different locations, and people will take the distance to their home in consideration.

This all changes when I go to Europe, especially the Netherlands, Belgium, and the UK where trains are fantastic (although the UK broken up system is somewhat confusing). Distances are shorter to. Holland would fit between DC and NY for its longest length north-south).

At home (in the Netherlands), I notice a large generation gap. My parents grew up owning a car and in times when the rail network wasn't as great. My brother and me were utterly bribed into transit by getting free or heavily reduced transit when we were students. For many trips (like visiting the Tour the France in Rotterdam and Goes), I don't even consider driving, despite the modest distances from my parents' place. With the large crowd, a train is always better. Dutch railway is fabulous in that with large events, they just make every train stop at the relevant stations. By making the long-distance trains stop at those smaller stations, they can increase the capacity of a location massively, with little to no extra effort. The 3 minute "delay" that the long-distance trains get due to the extra stop is insignificant.

Back to American trains. My complaint: opaque, irregular departures and pricing. I've tried the Amtrak site a few times, and it's just too hard to figure out. Too many options. In the Netherlands, most train just ride every hour, or half hour, at fixed times, from 6am to midnight. Between "the big cities" (Amsterdam, Rotterdam, The Hague and Utrecht), it's every 10-12 minutes, they call it "metro-style".

The Dutch railway departure schedule is so set in stone that even now, ten years after I left the country, I can I still trust my departure times (and platforms) blindly.

Furthermore, trains are priced like the metro in DC. You pay per distance, but you can get on any train you want to. Tickets are sold on the platform from a computerized kiosk. No check in, no reservations, no luggage drop off. Just buy a ticket and get on. That's convenience.

The massive difference between the Dutch and American railways systems is that they obey different masters. The Dutch system was built for passenger service. Freight gets to squeeze between (and wait for) passenger trains. Mind ou, there is plenty of freight due to the port of Rotterdam - still the second biggest port in the world. In the US, this is exactly the opposite: freight rules, and owns the railroads. Other than building new government railroads or going communist and nationalizing the railroads, I do not see how this issue can be easily fixed in the US.

by Jasper on Aug 3, 2010 5:21 pm • linkreport

Having spent some time doing the NY-DC commute, I've noticed that Delta and other carriers like to cancel and/or delay shuttles when they don't sell enough tickets. I'm pretty sure that this is not legal. They still do it.

At any rate, I noticed that during bad weather or high delay periods (like mid morning or mid afternoon) the train ended up being much less of a hassle than flying. During winter storms, the trains were frequently sold out, just like they were during peak rush periods.

by aaa on Aug 3, 2010 5:24 pm • linkreport

More comparisons: a one-way rental car for tonight from DCA to Laguardia will cost you $218 (a compact from National was the cheapest option). Plus tolls & gas, etc. Maybe $300? But if you can fit four people in, then $75 each? Google maps says the 241-mile trip would take 4 hours and 42 minutes (and then helpfully adds "up to 6 hours 30 mins in traffic"), but then you are still stuck in Laguardia.

Meanwhile, Megabus will cost $23, leave the 10th St Art Walk at 6:30, and arrive at 7th Ave & 28th St at 10:50(ish); 4 hours 20 min.

by M.V. Jantzen on Aug 3, 2010 5:32 pm • linkreport

Wow, misinformation in the comments abound! I'm not even sure I can tackle all of it, but let's give a few key items a shot:

1.) The time difference between the bus and the train is substantial. The average regional train does it in 3:30 hours. The megabus claims 4:20. 50 minutes is a 23% increase. Usually a quarter more is substantial.

2.) Amtrak does much better than break even on the NEC. It subsidizes much of the rest of the system.

4.) Amtrak fares are based directly on the % of tickets booked (just like the bolt bus!). If it's expensive, it's because there aren't many seats left. Expensive=success.

5.) I'm not sure why we think the bus has more schedule options. Mega bus shows 15 buses in a day. Bolt bus, across a few departure/destination spots shows 12. That's 27, or a little more than 1 per hour. Amtrak shows 36 for the same exact day, or 1.5 trains per hour (every 40 minutes). How's that not straight up better, if not more comparable? There are, presumably more bus companies offering more rides, but it seems that with enough competitors that'd be easy. How many trains do we expect Amtrak to run? They may own the tracks, but last time I checked there were a few other trains that ran on the same tracks, including hundreds of NJT trains that use the same 2 tracks of tunnel into NYP.

ANYWAY! While I definitely think that the train is the way to go, there's a reason the bus is cheaper, and, like all things, you make the choice that maximizes your own personal benefit. I wouldn't pooh pooh anyone's choice, even if they're a little crazy (like driving!). I must say that I've done the train, bus, and car (never flown, but getting to the airport in NYC sucks), and generally the train is straight up the best.

by Matt on Aug 3, 2010 5:34 pm • linkreport

@M.V. Jantzen

Plus tolls & gas, etc - that's formidable. If we do a little research. Your car will get, say 35 mpg hwy. That's 6.9 gallons at 2.50 a gallon for $17.25. It's $8 for any of the tunnels/bridges to NYC. We're at $25.25. It's $2 for a baltimore tunnel, $5 for the MD toll, $4 for the DE toll, $8.70 for the NJTPK (this varies, I admit, sometimes higher, sometimes lower). That's another $19.70, so we're up to $36.95. You can fiddle with the numbers some, and I'm also not sure about sales tax on the rental, but I mean,$300 sounds fair. Even with 4 people, the train would be a better option. The big problem with all of this is that car ownership pushes people to drive. Of course the train is expensive when you're already paying thousands of dollars a year for a car.

by Matt on Aug 3, 2010 5:43 pm • linkreport

Amtrak is basically legally required to squeeze as much money out of the NEC as possible. That is why it is expensive as hell.

by NikolasM on Aug 3, 2010 6:08 pm • linkreport

@M.V. Jantzen; fairly sure the delta shuttle goes to LGA, not JFK.

by charlie on Aug 3, 2010 6:13 pm • linkreport

It wouldn't occur to me to fly, even for work. Too much time door-to-door if going from District to Midtown, although Newark is probably a more useful option than LGA or JFK---direct train access to the city and no dealing with Delta or US Airways, the worst legacy carriers.

The bus works for short weekend trips at times when you don't expect traffic. Fortunately, that's been most of my trips. The train is more comfortable and the driver doesn't forget he's going to 33rd st and not downtown.

by Rich on Aug 3, 2010 7:10 pm • linkreport

If youre paying more than $20 for your bus ticket, youre doing it wrong. There are enough bus lines that one of them is usually cheaper.

In my experience, Boltbus is ALWAYS the most expensive. I prefer megabus, because bigger bus = more open seats usually, but Ill take DC2NY if it's cheaper. Ive traveled many times for less than $10, and thats for the round trip.

by Bike share on Aug 3, 2010 7:15 pm • linkreport

I take Amtrak regularly from Union Station to Rhinebeck, NY (which includes a layover at Penn Station in the city). Typically, it costs less than $75 one way. Amtrak offers so many discount options...I use the 15% off ISIC (International Student ID Card that I got before I finished grad school to ease a trip to Europe) discount and the Amtrak Rewards program, which allows you to earn points that can be redeemed for coupons or travel vouchers. With the discounts, I can even afford to upgrade to Business Class (extra $30-40 per leg) when I really need the extra space, outlets, or free beverages from the Cafe Car. In my mind, Amtrak would be worth it even at 150% the current price. It's a million times quicker, more reliable, and comfortable than any DC to NYC bus, not to mention the increased safety factor (be it actual or a product of my imagination) for a young woman traveling alone. But alas, I suppose to each his own.

Viva La Amtrak!!

by Brigid on Aug 3, 2010 7:35 pm • linkreport


You know there are other ways to get to NY from DC besides taking I-95 and the NJ Turnpike, right? Last year I drove from College Park to Middletown, CT to visit my friend in college. Went through Pennsylvania along I-83, I-81, I-78, etc. Total cost from tolls? $5 and that was from crossing the Tappan Zee Bridge once.

If you have a little time on your hands you don't HAVE to let the toll authorities of MD, DE, NJ and NY rape you.

by Reza on Aug 3, 2010 8:20 pm • linkreport

Great post. I constantly stuggled with this question when I lived in in DC, generally letting my current bank account balance be the deciding factor.

All I have to say is be glad the distance from DC to NYC is short enough that you get to choose between train and bus. Out here between LA and SF the question is "drive or fly?"

by Chris Loos on Aug 3, 2010 8:29 pm • linkreport

Hang in there Chris, they're trying to make LA to SF high speed trains a reality in the future.

by Steve on Aug 3, 2010 8:52 pm • linkreport


We're hanging in there. Unfortunately NIMBY communities along the HSR right-of-way are in full litigation mode. Suprisingly, they're mostly up by SF and not here in SoCal. Progressive my ass.

Also, governor candidate Meg Whitman has come out against HSR. So if she wins, it could be a disaster. We shall see.

by Chris Loos on Aug 3, 2010 9:28 pm • linkreport

For me it would definitely be (and has been) Amtrak... every time. If you shop around and choose the right times to travel, you can save big $$$. For instance in April I went up on a NE Regional on Friday and came back on an Acela Express on Sunday morning (a train which was cheaper than say a 5pm weekday train). Amtrak charges high prices because it can. Its the law of demand. They have no trouble at all packing trains. The only reason they don't make a profit is because the infrastructure is ancient and requires heavy maintenance.

Remember though that Amtrak on the Northeast Corridor (DC-Balt-Phil-NYC-Boston) is one thing, and Amtrak everywhere else is totally different in terms of convenience, speed, and *especially* on-time performance which is horrible on many routes. For example, it takes the same time to travel to NYC from DC as it does to Richmond...seriously. High-speed trains in general are really only practical as a primary mode of transportation in densely populated regions such as the Bos-Was Northeast, South/Central Florida, or the California coast. Trains everywhere else in this country such as Amtrak's DC-Chicago Capitol Ltd. are for tourists or people who live in small towns along the route far from major airports.

by King Terrapin on Aug 3, 2010 9:39 pm • linkreport

i took tripperbus up to NYC on sunday, and returned monday (short trip for a friend's birthday). i used to take the train up - and still do if someone else is paying for it (like work). but these days i live in arlington and the rosslyn pickup is just that much more convenient.

one thing that hasn't been mentioned: theft. on amtrak, people are constantly getting on and off, and can move freely from one car to another. i've seen both pickpockets and larger scale theft of bags on amtrak. much harder to do on the bus.

by AJ on Aug 4, 2010 7:04 am • linkreport

@Brigid: I have family right across the Hudson from Rhinecliff and whenever I've tried to book Amtrak the wait time and prices (especially during holidays) are killers. The last three times I went up (all holidays), I actually flew up to Albany from BWI, then took Metro-North from Poughkeepsie to Grand Central, then Bolt/Mega to DC. All 3 times, the price was cheaper than Amtrak round-trip from Rhinecliff to DC.

Of course, 2 of the 3 trips back to DC were on the Sunday after Christmas and had issues (one was a pre-double decker Megabus that was governed to 50mph, another was a Boltbus that was in an 8 mile backup in Delaware). Maybe this year I will take the train back.

by Jason on Aug 4, 2010 9:06 am • linkreport

This answer to the question flies against the face of most people's logic probably, but I think the most cost-effective way to get to New York beyond Manhattan is flying either the Shuttle out of DCA, or Southwest to either LGA or Islip. This is especially true if you are going to go to the Outer Boroughs or Long Island. The flights can be bought often for the same price if not cheaper than the train (especially on weekends in off season), and you aren't dependent on taking another train (the subway or the Long Island Rail Road) to get to your destination. The same logic applies to why the bus is not the best option; sure it will get you to Manhattan (or in some cases downtown Brooklyn) but if your destination in New York (where its metropolitan area is much, much larger than DC) is beyond these places, you still must find a way to get from where the bus drops off to your final destination, which in some cases could take 2 hours (including waiting time) beyond the 5-6 hours on the bus.

So while the total travel time (including getting to the airport/security (which is really an non issue at BWI or DCA) may be the same as taking the train, it is the savings at the other end of the flight that makes it an advantage over driving, the bus, or the train.

by Matt on Aug 4, 2010 9:07 am • linkreport

At $49 the train is a good option for me and I'm booking a trip for Columbus Day weekend. At $100 round trip its not bad considering the sickness my girlfriend gets on a bus and how much I loathe driving 95. I agree it would be so much nicer to have a cheaper round trip. If they could get it to $50 I'd bet the thing would be packed every trip.

Jasper: Waar komt u uit Nederlands? Mijn vader komt uit naar Sneek.

by Boots on Aug 4, 2010 9:07 am • linkreport

I don't mind the bus to NYC, but my wife refuses to take the bus after a few horrible experiences. We also think the train is too expensive for spur-of-the-moment trips. Our compromise: Driving to Metropark, leaving the car in the garage ($9 for 24 hours, overnight parking allowed) and then taking NJ Transit to Penn Station ($10 each way).

by anon on Aug 4, 2010 9:12 am • linkreport

Haven't read any comments, so perhaps I'm reiterating some folks, but the photo shown with this article is quite misleading. The dining cars absolutely provide more space, but nabbing a seat on those less-abundant cars can be tricky... and sometimes you get a more stringent train crew which keeps the tables only for those eating (which I suppose I should agree with... but they're just so comfy. Fortunately, it helps to know where the crews change).

The typical cars, in my opinion, provide rather comparable comfort to that of a bus, other than that instead of getting up & touring the length of the train you can only get up & walk the length of the bus.

I was an ardent Amtrak Regional rider up until I took my first trip on Bolt Bus, and with much regret I've since become a bus rider. When I can get comparble seats, power ports (which are also infrequent on trains outside of dining cars), and wifi (a gift only to Acela)... it's increasingly tough to justify spending more so I can get less.

Amtrak's major gain is in increased reliability... sure, it's not perfect; but of course buses get stuck in traffic, too. So far the only reason left I'll take Amtrak is if I need to get to NYC during the AM or PM peaks; or perhaps if I'm catching a flight at Newark.

If I'm headed to Canada, bus definitely wins. I took the Adirondack once and it felt like I was rolling downhill through the entire state... a beautiful ride, but it was the border which convinced me: it's one thing to wait as an officer checks your car, not too bad to wait as officers check a bus, but checking a whole train feels like forever. Though seeing some fellow passengers get ejected at the border was somewhat entertaining. Plus I like German Shepherd Dogs.

If headed to Philly: I drive, but that's solely because it's where I grew up & know my way around. Parking is easy if you know where to go, and my neighborhood cheesesteak place isn't particularly transit-proximate. That last reason is actually the real reason why I drive to Philly. Mmm... Dalessandro's.

I'd absolutely love to ride Amtrak more frequently, it's kind of sad that an arguably more efficient form of transportation ends up being considerably more expensive & is unable to provide comparable amenities. Granted, when buses have so little overhead... I suppose it makes some sense.

by Bossi on Aug 4, 2010 9:33 am • linkreport

@ Boots: Ik heb overal gewoond in Nederland. Kampen, Breda, Nijmegen, Enschede. Niet in de Randstad, maar ook niet in Friesland, waar ze Sneek tegenwoordig Snits noemen in het Fries. Grappig dat je wat Nederlands spreekt.

by Jasper on Aug 4, 2010 9:33 am • linkreport

US Air Shuttle all the way. Free Beer and 40 minute flight. Everything gets delayed so might as well go with the fastest and hope for the best.

by RagingBoehner on Aug 4, 2010 10:36 am • linkreport

@anon: For those going to Staten Island, Metropark is the perfect place to get off if you have someone picking you up there or have a fortune to spend on a cab. Everyone I know on Staten Island, minus the ones near the Ferry, find it easier to get Amtrak to Metropark than to get to the Ferry and take the subway to Penn.

Last two times I've gone there, I've done WAS-MET up and SIR-Ferry-Subway-Boltbus back. Latter is far cheaper but has a lot more drama.

by Jason on Aug 4, 2010 10:36 am • linkreport

Never taken the bus to NYC, so can't comment on that. but one time we took the train while a friend meeting us in NY drove. We got there 2 hours ahead of her because of the traffic backups. I've had to take a plane to LaGuardia, JFK and Newark and the flying times definitely don't count the delays from how backed up those airports get.

The unreserved train to NYC is fairly cheap. But because it's an unreserved train, unless you spring for business class, you'll find people standing in the aisles after a couple of stops. That's how high the demand is.

As Matt mentioned, the NEC subsidizes the rest of Amtrak. it's the only money maker. It's also the only tracks Amtrak owns. the delays in the rest of country come because freight trains get priority over passenger trains and in essence, kick the passenger train off the tracks for a few minutes. Multiply that by several freight trains and you end up with delays lasting from an hour to 8 (trust me, don't take Amtrak from SF to LA).

by lou on Aug 4, 2010 11:03 am • linkreport

@lou: I do recall people standing and sitting everywhere especially around Thanksgiving. However, this should no longer be a problem. All Northeast Corridor trains are now reserved seats as of 2005.

From a copy of Amtrak's press release at

"The new all-reserved service ensures every passenger a seat every time they board a Regional train"

by Steve on Aug 4, 2010 11:06 am • linkreport

If you plan at least two weeks in advance, you can find tickets priced at $49.00 one way, which makes amtrak a no-brainer for me. If something comes up suddenly and I have to buy a ticket for the next day, the hit to my bank acct for amtrak means I'll probably take the bus.

@Bossi- Dalessandro's rocks. I was there a few weeks ago with some friends from East Falls.

by merarch on Aug 4, 2010 11:40 am • linkreport

Just to be clear, Amtrak offers tickets as low as $49 each way from DC to NYC, $98 RT, if you book in advance 14 days or more, except on major holidays. The more expensive fares are typically peak hours.

As a rule, don't purchase a ticket coming from or going to south of Washington, they are almost always late due to freight railroad issues.

by Randall Myers on Aug 4, 2010 11:43 am • linkreport

I'm a student so the usual Amtrak rate for me is $49, but ONLY if I book several weeks in advance, and usually ONLY if I'm willing to take a train first thing in the morning (i.e 5am) or late at night (11pm or later). I hate the bus too, since it can take as much as 3 hours longer each way.

Last year, when I was just as strapped for time as I am for cash, I ended up flying round trip to DC because it was less than the train by $40! That is insane--it clearly indicates all that is wrong with our transportation system.

I don't know the NE Regional is so much more expensive than the trains on the West Coast.

by David P. on Aug 4, 2010 12:02 pm • linkreport

I vote against the train every time. $160 for a round trip ticket to New York?!? I am about to fly to Orlando for less that that. A five and half hour train ride should not cost as much as a plane ticket to a key vacation destination. And how much space do you really end up getting on an Amtrak anyway? The cars get crowded, half of them are quiet, the cafe car is never open when you want it to be, and the cars arent all that nice. And with all the problems Amtrak has, it really is just Metro on different tracks...

by Matthew Bryant on Aug 4, 2010 1:15 pm • linkreport

Another cost factor is getting to the bus or train on a weekend. I live in Greenbelt, where we have no Sunday bus service. If I take the Boltbus from Greenbelt Station, the taxi fare is $8. If I take the Amtrak from New Carrollton Station, the taxi fare is over $20.

by Francis DeBernardo on Aug 4, 2010 1:25 pm • linkreport

Nobody has yet mentioned the Amtrak Guest Rewards credit card. That lets you get miles at the usual 1 per $1 rate. A one-way ticket from DC to NYC is only 3,000 miles, which means you can earn one every time you spend $3,000 on the card.

If you had a 1% cash back card, you would only get $30 for doing that. Some cards give more for certain categories of spending, but most likely you'd only get at most about $50 for the $3,000 of spending. Therefore, one-way tickets with miles accrued through the card basically cost you $30-50.

You can book the award tickets up to the last minute as long as the train isn't completely full — none of the capacity controls that airlines use.

I always travel DC-NYC via train and always use miles. Basically, it costs me $30-50 one way every time even last minute. That makes it a good deal.

by David Alpert on Aug 4, 2010 1:35 pm • linkreport

It's funny you post this today because I just wrote a guide on the intercity buses, finished it last night. Check it out, it's way more up to date than most of the bus info that's out there right now...

by Ralph on Aug 4, 2010 1:44 pm • linkreport

The lowest fare on Amtrak's Regionals is $49 one way. You have to make your reservation 2 weeks in advance. The fare is available on plenty of weekday trains but don't expect to find it on Fridays and Sundays (same as airlines). The fare is usually available on the last two departures from Washington on Friday nights.

As has been mentioned by others, if you join Amtrak's frequesnt rider program, Guest Rewards and you use an Amtrak Chase Mastercard to buy your tickets, you lower your net cost below $49.

You can also get a 10% fare discount on Regional when you join the National Association of Railroad Passengers ( and buy your ticket 3 days in advance. That discount is not available on the $49 fare but you can use it to lower the cost of traveling on Friday and Sunday.

My riding experience -- Amtrak is frequently 20 minutes late but very rarely more than one hour late.

by Steve Strauss on Aug 4, 2010 2:11 pm • linkreport

Oh, I wrestle with this question every time! I usually think about going to NYC for the weekend a few days in advance, not 14, so Amtrak prices are always RIDICULOUSLY expensive. I always agonize, but ultimately a fourfold difference in price makes the train not worth it.

NikolasM above has it right: the NE corridor is Amtrak's cash cow. So the guiding principle is not "how do we make environmentally friendly, comfortable travel between NE cities available to as many people as possible?" (as it should be for a government service) it's "how do we squeeze the NE business travelers to subsidize unprofitable routes from Montana to Chicago?"

by Erica on Aug 4, 2010 2:20 pm • linkreport

Our state-owned passenger railroad corporation made a conscious business decision, given its relatively meager federal subsidy, to charge as much for tickets as the market will bear for the NEC, and to actually _discourage_ ridership. They don't have the capacity to handle the demand.

Amtrak barely has the available funds to maintain its existing fleet and infrastructure, and has not had the resources to pour into purchasing new railcars for more frequent and/or longer trains. Transit systems like WMATA that face growing ridership have responded by increasing service frequency and lengthening trains (the results of this increase in service have stretched the capacity of WMATA to the breaking point, but that's another discussion). If WMATA were like Amtrak, there'd be about a third as many railcars available, they'd all be ancient 1000 series, and fares would be sky-high (think in the range of $10 per trip) in order to _discourage_ ridership.

Commuter rail agencies like MARC and NJ Transit bought new cars to respond to increasing ridership. Amtrak decided instead to charge more money for scarce seats. Also, Amtrak does own double-decker Superliner cars, but these are too tall for the ancient and decrepit Baltimore tunnel. The newer gallery cars run by MARC, obviously, do fit in the tunnel.

On holiday weekends when trains generally sell out fast, Amtrak charges even more money, and generally doesn't add more cars to trains (as they don't have many to spare).

Think about how many more people would want to ride the train if tickets cost $32 one way instead of $88. Amtrak can't handle that many new riders, so they charge $88.

by RK on Aug 4, 2010 3:01 pm • linkreport

I'm late to this game... but unless you're going alone, it's pretty hard to justify NOT driving a car (assuming you already own one).

1) Cost: it's effectively gas & tolls. Instant winner (unless you're alone, when a bus will be slightly cheaper).

2) Speed: Train wins, but when you add the overhead of getting to the train station and getting to your final destination, it might be a tossup.

3) Traffic: Can kill your trip time in a car, but also affects bus trip time just the same.

So what about parking? This seems to be the big downside people mention for cars.

Here's the thing about parking in NYC. Non-metered parking is not regulated except for street sweeping. Depending on your destination, it can be very easy, and once you find a spot, you're good until the next street sweeping which will generally get you through a weekend and then some.

I have made many car trips to manhattan (destination: upper west side) and never had to look for parking for more than 10 or 20 minutes. While that might be annoying if I was going home after a day of work, it's nothing when I plan to dump my car there for the weekend.

It's harder in areas south of Central Park, but still doable. And you can always park wherever, and take the subway to your ultimate destination. I've done this too.

The bottom line is, the train is insanely overpriced, and the bus is barely cheaper than driving alone and much less comfortable/flexible.

The reality is that driving makes sense most of the time. I've driven to NYC dozens of times and never had any experience bad enough to make me consider another way, given it's also about tied for the cheapest.

by Jamie on Aug 4, 2010 3:17 pm • linkreport

@Steve D.

The reason Amtrak's time is good on the Bos-Wash corridor is because they own the tracks. They don't own the tracks for the rest of the system and often have to wait on a spur for freight trains to pass. Most Amtrak delays have nothing to do with Amtrak.

by beatbox on Aug 4, 2010 3:20 pm • linkreport

Now when it comes to business travel. Acela beats the shuttle hands down. I've done the math, train still adds about 20 min. to your total time, but you get a much better ontime rate (afternoon thunderstorms anyone?) and a MUCH better travel experience.

by beatbox on Aug 4, 2010 3:23 pm • linkreport

FWIW, you can pick up a BoltBus at Greenbelt Metro and it's just $16 to NYC, I think $20 on weekends, so $36 for a round trip. (The bus from Greenbelt makes a second stop at Baltimore Penn Station, so you don't really save any time). I've always wondered though, why don't any of the discount bus companies offer a stop at a PATH station in New Jersey? The bus always spends an hour+ getting from Jersey City to the west portal of the Lincoln Tunnel.

by Steve S on Aug 4, 2010 3:40 pm • linkreport

this is a test please ignore it.

by BeyondDC on Aug 4, 2010 4:20 pm • linkreport

Yes, I'm a bit of a travel snob...

The train almost always wins hands down for me. If you travel at off-peak times, the tickets are reliably $74 each way DC-NYC and return. Yes, this usually means taking a cab home from Union Station for me, but I live in NE, so that's really only about $10, and I typically travel with a friend, so that lowers the price even more. Add in my AAA discount (10%) and my round-trip cost runs about $140. Taking the 5:30 AM (Friday) train out and the 10 PM train back rocks, too, because Amtrak is so comfy, it's so easy to sleep, and you get a little more time on your NY weekend! Plus, you get on at Union Station and off at Penn Station, which for me is extremely convenient.

I'm kinda upset they raised the price on my other used to be able to get the U.S. Air shuttle from DCA-LGA for $64 each way. Yeah, yeah, wait at the airport, security, blah, blah. All tolled my travel usually totaled about 2:30, which beats even the train by almost an hour, and often featured the River Visual approach. Stupid price increases. :(

by Ms. D on Aug 5, 2010 1:15 am • linkreport

Another reason for Amtrak's high fares on the NEC would be that Amtrak has to cover the cost of electric for the wires. That power bill probably isn't cheap and the cost is passed on to both other railroads that use it and the consumer.

The former reason is why MARC doesn't use electric locomotives outside of rush hours, the MBTA never got electric locomotives for Boston-Providence service, and why NJ Transit's ACES often switches to diesel as soon as they can.

by Jason on Aug 5, 2010 9:28 am • linkreport

The main reason for Amtrak's high fares is that there's actually a demand for that route. Amtrak makes money on the Acela ($41 per passenger), and only loses $5 per passenger on the Northeast Regional. The average Amtrak trip nationally is subsidized in the amount of $32, and 41 of 44 routes lose money.

I love trains, I really do. But there is no reason to run a train from Los Angeles to New Orleans when each passenger is subsized in the amount of $462 (the worst performing route). You might as well just buy every single passenger a plane ticket instead and save money and probably the environment too.

Imagine if all those subsidies went to routes that were used by a significant number of people, instead of ferrying a handful of luddites on impractical, little-used, multi-day routes? There's no reason to run trains thousands of miles with few passengers.

I don't think Amtrak needs to make money, but we do need to think about which routes are just totally pointless, when you could actually put someone on a plane for less money than the subsidy alone. That money would be far better spent on lowering prices in heavily-traveled areas where we could see a benefit by bringing the price point down and getting a lot more people out of cars.

by Jamie on Aug 5, 2010 9:40 am • linkreport

I agree that for more than 2 people traveling, a car starts to be a lot more economical, whereas for someone traveling by themselves a car makes no sense when going from major city to major city.

But, before anyone definitively decides on driving for their next trip, they need to make sure they think about the TRUE cost of driving. Everyone thinks about gas and tolls, and most people remember to think about cost of parking in NYC, but very few people remember that your car adds on miles and depreciates in value when you drive. AAA publishes a guide every year on the "true" cost of driving. When I've done calcs based on my '07 Hyundai, I've found that generally the "true" cost of driving is at least double what the cost is for gas alone.

Not to mention, longer trip times = more time spent on food and coffee during the trip.

I travel from Richmond, VA (where I live) to Wilmington, DE (where my parents live) quite often, and I use Amtrak whenever possible. It is often late but very rarely more than 1/2 hour delayed. Compare that with I-95 in Northern Virginia which is a mess 12 hours of the day, not to mention I-95 north of Baltimore and into DE.

Also, my only bus experience is with Greyhound, but I found their customer service to be absolutely abysmal (and their website is awful). In contrast, I'd say at least 95% of the Amtrak employees I've encountered seem genuinely personable, friendly, and helpful.

I do agree that it is dumb of Amtrak not to offer WiFi on all their trains. Just based on how cheap it was for me to create a WiFi hotspot in my home, I can't imagine it'd be a humongous cost for Amtrak to do the same thing on all their trains.

by Marc on Aug 5, 2010 12:50 pm • linkreport


Just a couple things to add on:

I agree that longer trips drive up costs for food, but pretty much all modes between DC & NYC tend to be pretty comparable time-wise. In that sense, I probably eat most on trains simply because I usually plop myself in the dining car & food is so handy. Whereas when I drive, I don't stop; and likewise the express buses don't, either.

w/ Greyhound, my only experience has been with Bolt & I've found their customer service to be great. Agreed with Amtrak 100% -- they've always been helpful, and I even outright missed a train and they still gave me a full refund. I certainly wasn't seriously expecting one when I strolled up to the ticket window.

As for wifi, keep in mind that a personal network isn't moving & also has far fewer security controls than a service on public transit would have. While I certainly pine for wifi on trains & it's absolutely something that is not a particularly major technical hurdle, I'll condede it's certainly more difficult than setting up a network at home. ...Though sometimes setting up a network at home can also be excruciatingly difficult :)

by Bossi on Aug 5, 2010 1:15 pm • linkreport


It's a mistake to think of the national network trains as primarily running from the start to the end, or that you could just replace the service by buying every passenger a plane ticket. A single national network train serves hundreds of city pairs! I did the calculation once for the Empire Builder, which is Chicago to Portland (OR) and Seattle, and I counted 999 possible city pairs. You can't replace all those trips with airplane trips. There's a broad spectrum of trip lengths, from a few hundred to nearly two thousand miles.

And as for Amtrak in general--the trains I've managed to ride, both NE Corridor and National Network--appear to be filled up, even at the prices Amtrak charges. If they're at capacity, there's no need reason to lower prices, because they can't sell much more of their service.

by thm on Aug 5, 2010 3:46 pm • linkreport

I haven't read all the comments but here is my take on the question.

If you are going to New York in the winter or over holidays take the train. The city gets so busy it can take a long time just to go around the block. We went up for the Dec 18th storm and glad we took a train. On the way home we were able to get on a train we weren't booked on and got home within an hour of the scheduled time. Not happening on a bus or a plane.

For the plane you have to add in the extra time you need to be at the airport and the time you sit on the tarmac. My husband used to commute to NYC and could sit on the runway for an hour or two especially on a Friday night. And forget if a storm came through. Plus once you get to NYC you have a $30 or more cab ride into the city.

Those cheap train tickets are not just early in the morning or late at night. I have checked and found them throughout the day as long as you plan well enough in advance.

So the train gets my vote.

by Stephanie on Aug 5, 2010 4:04 pm • linkreport

@thm - I can't imagine a scenario in which more trains, or cars per train could be added to Amtrak on the northeast corridor if there were sufficient demand. Even during peak times there are only a few trains per hour.

I realize the losses aren't going to be that much for most passenger-trips, the plane ticket thing was just to emphasize the point.

But on lesser-used routes, the cost of running trains is far more expensive than buses would be. You can definitely replace all those trips with bus tickets.

The question is, why should we be heavily subsidizing trips on lesser-used routes (e.g. the Texas Eagle, that is 2/3 subsidized) instead of just running buses instead? Wouldn't we get a lot more bang for our buck (as a nation) by putting that subsidy money into routes that people actually might use? Wouldn't we get a lot more people out of cars and into trains if it was remotely cost-effective to take the train to Philly or New York?

It's not like traffic is a major problem between (e.g.) Chicago and San Antonio. What is the real benefit to society in offering one money-hemmhoraging train per day on a little-used route?

That train ticket cost 230 bucks and is subsidized 66%. That bus ticket costs between 120 and 150 bucks, and obviously is not subsidized.

The bus actually gets you there about 8 hours sooner, too.

While any sane person would fly, the fare math is just the same (proportionally) for all the short trips in between. The bus is always cheaper, and Greyhound is a for-profit operation.

While I believe in the benefits of train travel, in the big picture, unless the route is popular enough, is it really money well spent? It's not like there's no alternative. There is a cheaper alternative (the bus) and there's a faster alternative (the plane).

by Jamie on Aug 5, 2010 4:14 pm • linkreport

We actually made this decision recently for a family of four. Going up early Saturday morning made the bus a good option, because we weren't worried about traffic. In fact, we made it up on the Vamoose in 4 1/2 hours, which is pretty fast. I had coupons from before, so we only had to buy three tickets (one freebie). Total $90.

Coming back was a tough call, though. I knew it would take longer on Sunday afternoon on the bus, but the train fare is during peak fare times. Paying for the train would cost us $444.50. That is a lot of dough compared to the $100 or $120 we could get for the bus fare.

I had accumulated enough Amtrak miles for almost two tickets, so I bought enough miles for three tickets total (Amtrak was offering a special 30% bonus on purchased miles). In the process I learned that it would actually be cheaper to buy the miles and then convert them to a ticket than to buy a child's ticket for my daughter. So I did that, and we were done.

Total return cost: all my accumulated miles + about $138 to buy more miles.
However the train had a long delay--which is typical, so we didn't save much time over the bus. Then there was an enormous line for taxis at Union Station.

by Steve O on Aug 5, 2010 6:15 pm • linkreport

Jamie, That bus ticket is definitely very heavily subsidized. Who do think pays for the road it travels on?

by BeyondDC on Aug 5, 2010 7:01 pm • linkreport

@BeyondDC And for the environmental pollution in the air which causes health problems resulting in health costs... and the military to allow the bus company to buy artificially cheap gas at $3/gallon gas.. and ...

by Steve on Aug 5, 2010 7:54 pm • linkreport

"Jamie, That bus ticket is definitely very heavily subsidized. Who do think pays for the road it travels on?"

Who do you think paid for the tracks the train travels on? Yes, the entire world is subsidized. It's called taxes.

Now once we've established that, the trains enjoy a much more significant subsidy per passenger mile than the buses do.

"Cheap gas"

Most U.S. trains run on deisel, you know, same as buses.

by Jamie on Aug 6, 2010 7:39 am • linkreport

By the way - I want to make sure you understand I am NOT anti-transit-subsidy. I am arguing that we should be choosing the right place to spend our money.

Trains are not a solution to every transit need in this country, and if you really believe they are then you are a fool. Isn't it possible that some of our existing, less-used Amtrak lines would be better served with buses? If you disagree, then do you favor building more long-distance lines until the country has a train in every podunk town?

The Chicago-San Antonio route had 251,000 riders last year. That is 680 passengers a day on average.

The New Jersey Turnpike, on the other hand, serves 200,000 cars per day between exit 11 and exit 14.

You really think that a few greyhound buses, that instead of running once a day could serve the demand of specific parts of that route better, would not be a better use of energy and resources? Those buses already exist, of course, and probably aren't full. Nor is the train, obviously.

My point is that we would do far better to spend money lowering the fares in places where there is a much higher demand for transit, providing a better disincentive against driving, than in providing heavily-subsidized, yet exquisite, transit options in little-used routes.

The same money that is spent subsidizing those 250,000 passengers a year out would probably get far more people per year into trains somewhere else.

by Jamie on Aug 6, 2010 7:56 am • linkreport

China has more than 4,000 miles of high-speed rail and is constructing or planning to construct 11,000 more miles. Would they be better off serving those routes with buses? Some probably. Are they spending four years analyzing each route for its projected ridership divided by the subsidized cost per mile factored by the gravitational constant and subtracting the cost of tea in, well, China?

I agree with Jamie that if we look at what we have now, then we can do better by tweaking it one way or another. What I think I and many others would prefer to see, though, is a much, much larger vision. Unfortunately, the U. S. gets so bogged down in analysis that they lose the forest for the trees (case in point--Tyson's non-tunnel). We are incapable of thinking big when it comes to re-imagining our transportation system.

by Steve O on Aug 6, 2010 9:02 am • linkreport

15,000 miles of high-speed rail in a country with a population of 1.4 billion people, most of whom do not own cars? That doesn't seem like much.

"We are incapable of thinking big when it comes to re-imagining our transportation system."

I agree, but I think the mistakes have to do with planning in urban centers, not cross-country transit.

People love to compare us to Europe, how you can go everywhere on a train there. But the population density of most of Europe is three times that of the United States. China, also, despite being huge, is four times as densely populated as the U.S.

What works well in places like that may not be the best solution for every need here.

At the same time, I very much believe we should be making similar investments in parts of this country that do have heavy transit corridors and dense populations, such as much of the East and West coasts, as well as urban transit systems. We do a very poor job of planning for population growth and as a result our transit systems are always strained and struggling to keep up with demand, and the constant construction (and high prices) makes people less interested in using them.

by Jamie on Aug 6, 2010 9:12 am • linkreport

Although it is true that China's population is 4 times that of the U. S., I'll bet that the total amount of travel Americans do is greater than the total travel of all the Chinese.

Just returning from Spain, with its 46 million people. I suspect its size and density is roughly similar to 8-10 states on the East Coast. They are adding to their high-speed rail network every year, which already kicks our butt. And supposedly they are an almost bankrupt country. Frankly, it was embarrassing to make the comparison.

by Steve O on Aug 6, 2010 9:30 am • linkreport

By the way, I would totally support high-speed rail in the US for popular, long haul routes, like a couple east-west lines. If you could get a train across the country in 12 hours, I think it would be a real alternative to flying. Certainly for trips on the order of 1000-1500 miles, like to Chicago from DC or New York, it would probably not even take that much longer than flying.

It just comes down to costs and benefits, though. You will never get any substantial number of people on those trains if it costs a lot more than a plane ticket, and takes a lot longer. But if the time is not too much worse than flying (which is possible for routes up to a certain distance, probably around 1000 miles) then you'll get people willing to pay more than a plane. Or if the cost is not too much more than driving, you'll get people out of their cars.

The success of Acela is exactly that. People are willing to pay more for a better way to travel. I will sometimes pay substantially more to fly out of National, for example. An under 3-hour train trip to NYC with no airport hassle involved is a far better option than a plane or driving... but it's FAR more expensive than any other option, meaning it's mostly used for business travelers.

We should be heavily subsidizing train routes where the amount of traffic exists to make it have a real impact on reducing auto and airline traffic, and the subsidies needed obviously decrease dramatically as usage increases.

by Jamie on Aug 6, 2010 9:36 am • linkreport

"Although it is true that China's population is 4 times that of the U. S., I'll bet that the total amount of travel Americans do is greater than the total travel of all the Chinese."

That's a good point, but it's a hard comparison to make. While I bet it's true that Americans "travel" a lot more, generally, because we mostly have cars, I bet that Chinese take far more trips using non-private transportation than Americans do.

That is, most Americans don't even think about not driving for any trip under 3-4 hours. That's not an option for most Chinese. So while they may have fewer overall trips, every single one will be on a train or bus for most Chinese.

by Jamie on Aug 6, 2010 9:39 am • linkreport

And I think that's the whole point. If we continue to build our transportation system based on the fact that most Americans have cars and that they will use them for 90%+ of all trips, then we will most certainly perpetuate that system. And, in fact, I think that is how transportation policy has been made in the US for the last couple of generations.

If we were to instead imagine an America in which only 50% of trips were made with cars, what would our transportation system look like then? (and our cities/towns) And if we can imagine that in, say 40 or 50 years, then what investments do we make starting now to make that vision a reality? If we make only minor changes on the margin, then the results will be minor gains on the margin. If we wait until people stop driving their cars to give them a better alternative, then we will be waiting a long time.

And back to the China/US comparison. Americans travel about 600 billion passenger miles per year by air. I couldn't find a complete number for China, but their top three airlines fly about 180 billion passenger miles (U.S. top 3 fly about 300 billion domestically). If HSR is mostly a replacement for air travel, then it would appear the US has at least as much existing demand as China does.

by Steve O on Aug 6, 2010 1:09 pm • linkreport

You're ignoring population density, though. While I agree that our transportation infrastructure has driven (literally) us to use cars a lot, it's our geography that drove the infrastructure in the first place. When this country started, there was almost nobody here. But when Europe and China industrialized, it was very easy to make that choice, because their populations were already somewhat close to their current levels.

You need a certain critical mass to make trains the right option. China and Europe have 3-4 times our density, and further, their population is less concentrated in urban centers like ours is.

You have to draw the line somewhere. If there just aren't enough people making trips between certain points, then trains don't make sense.

I think where the U.S. is on that is that we have too many trains serving some routes (long haul Amtrak lines) and not enough serving other routes (shorter trips serving population centers).

by Jamie on Aug 6, 2010 1:19 pm • linkreport

@Steve O

You're correct, that we need to think ahead. I think this is not just a how can / should we serve transportation needs with the existing living patterns, but how should we serve transportation needs. Planes are good for longer distance but should be basically barred from local service. The NY airports would be much less crowded if they didn't have flights from DC and Boston flying into them. Then we also need good train connections to our airports. CDG in Paris is a TGV station at the airport. Newark airport has a train station with Amtrak, but that is not true of most other airports.

Encouraging higher density pods would make pod to pod transportation economic. Smaller regional areas should have train stations that take you to make regional areas for flying. Medium size cities should not have tiny regional airports, but rather train service every hour or two to large cities with direct service to their large airports for longer distance travel. The US has a problems not in that we have a large countries but that we are not concentrated in close pods of density.

by Steve on Aug 6, 2010 1:19 pm • linkreport

Some more info: in 1900, China had 467 million, now 1.4 billion. Europe had 400 million, now 730 million. The U.S had 76 million, now 280 million.

That's when the car was invented. We quadrupled in size in the last hundred years, and we're still only 1/3 the population density of Europe which has less than doubled in population. Put another way, our population density is today less than half of what Europe's was 100 years ago -- and far more centralized.

You can't blame us for not being forward thinking when we were facing a completely different situation as those two countries. Europe, which industrialized around the same time we did, clearly had a population distribution that made extensive train service sensible in the 1900's. China is only just industrializing in the last few decades and has a totally different economy and government. Apart from the fact that cars are unaffordable to most Chinese, they have the benefit of 100 years of Western industrializing history to help guide them now.

The question is where do we go from here? I think we need to forget about long-haul trains, and focus our effort on the coasts (mostly) where the population density makes rail transit desirable and cost effective.

by Jamie on Aug 6, 2010 1:38 pm • linkreport

I've taken the train a few times (when I could get the $49 fare) but since I don't have much money the bus is my primary mode. I'm glad to know that they're still offering those deals, and considering signing up for an Amtrak Rewards Card if there aren't any fees or fine print.

I have mixed feelings about shifting subsidies from slow routes to popular routes. Clearly the NEC needs more capacity. However, the slow routes all over the country need to be upgraded rather than eliminated. How did the railroads that built them manage to be profitable for so long (before they went under and freight took over)?

An idea that has been mentioned before is making it easier for competing carriers to operate on the same rails. Would this work to increase capacity on the NEC? Perhaps rail corridors should be subsidized similarly to roads and barriers to entry lowered for rail carriers.

by Matthias on Aug 6, 2010 4:07 pm • linkreport

"How did the railroads that built them manage to be profitable for so long"

That's easy.

There were no interstates or jet planes.

by Jamie on Aug 6, 2010 4:14 pm • linkreport

To add onto Jamie-

Increasingly stringent federal regulation also had a strong hand in the demise of the railroad era.

by Bossi on Aug 6, 2010 4:29 pm • linkreport

A few comments on various items posted in this thread, some obviously from people who have not taken Amtrak in some time.
WiFi: As noted, the Acelas and the major stations on the NEC now have free WiFi. Amtrak has announced that they will be adding WiFi to all their trains with the various California corridor and the NEC Regional trains next up to get WiFi. Not clear when, the press release several months ago stated work would be starting this fall. Figure the Regionals will get WiFi by early next year.

Power: Amtrak has been adding power outlets to all their coach cars when the cars come in for overhaul. All of the Amfleets I have encountered on a number of trips on the NEC over the past 18 months have had power outlets at each seat in coach.

Electrification: The NEC segment from new Haven to Boston was electrified (ir overhead catenary) around 10 years ago. Prior to that, Amtrak had to switch to diesels north of New Haven. MBTA likely does not run electric locomotives on the their commuter part of the NEC because the rest of their commuter system is diesel powered and not worth it to them to get electric engines for only one of their lines. On electric vs diesel costs, don't know the relative Amtrak numbers for electric vs fuel costs, but some of the power for the lower part of the NEC has been "green" since Penn railroad electrified it because it comes from dedicated 25 Hz generators at the Safe Harbor & Conowingo dams. The electric engines can also capture energy from regenerative braking and put it back on the overhead catenary.

Population density of US versus Europe: I don't have numbers handy, but if you remove the Rocky Mountain states, the Dakotas, New Mexico, and the western part of Texas for the Continental US, I suspect the population density of the US gets a lot closer to Europe, even with the population of CA, OR, WA mostly concentrated to the coastal area and the central valley in CA. The rest of the US is where it make sense to build HSR or improved intercity rail with several somewhat higher speed lines on freight lines connecting the mid-West & Texas to the west coast through the larger cities in CO, NM & AZ. The USA with a population of over 300 million is no longer a sparsely populated country except in the open ranges of the west.

As for the question of this thread, my choice when traveling DC to NYC is Amtrak. Faster and more comfortable than the bus and more reliable. If Amtrak can get the modest level of funding they need to replace old bridges & tunnels, fix bottlenecks on the NEC, the longer term goal for travel times for the Acela class train is 2:30 and then 2:15 (in twenty years using Amtrak slow incremental we have to beg for funding approach to get the NEC up to a state of good repair). A 2:15 travel time for a premium priced train and a sub 3 hour travel time for a Regional train will take business away from the airlines, more people switching away from driving, and probably the buses, although the buses will continue to be the cheapest transit alternative.

by AMF on Aug 6, 2010 4:32 pm • linkreport

"Increasingly stringent federal regulation also had a strong hand in the demise of the railroad era."

Well, true, I mean everything costs a lot more than it did back then (even in adjusted dollars). I mean, the Hoover Dam was built for $49 million dollars - in today's equivalent dollars, $750 mil. Not even half a streetcar system!

On the other hand, hundreds of people were killed in its construction and the result is considered an environmental catastrophe by some.

Sure, there's a huge cost to federal regulations on massive public works projects, but there's also huge benefits. I'm glad things are not done that way any more.

by Jamie on Aug 6, 2010 4:34 pm • linkreport


"the longer term goal for travel times for the Acela class train is 2:30 and then 2:15 (in twenty years using Amtrak slow incremental we have to beg for funding approach to get the NEC up to a state of good repair)."

Last month I traveled from Madrid to Barcelona--386 miles--in 2 hours 38 minutes. It's sad that maybe in 20 years we'll be able to travel 250 miles in 2:15. And, I might add, in a corridor that has bigger cities and is considerably more dense than Madrid-Barcelona.

by Steve O on Aug 6, 2010 5:08 pm • linkreport

It's great to be able to go out my front door and walk a block and a half to get onto an express bus (DC2NY) to New York. The convenience can't be beat, and the price is generally far less than the train. With nine buses today to NY, there's enough frequency to the schedule to make it attractive.

The train is generally a time saver around the holidays, however, because it doesn't have to deal with a five mile backup at the toll booth at the end of the Jersey Turnpike. And the train shines in bad winter weather.

By the by, the DC2Rehoboth service has been a success so far, according to what a bus company official told me today. He said it has actually turned a profit in its first year, and that a large percentage of its riders do day trips...
going up early Saturday morning and coming back Saturday night. Because it can take the bus lane, it's MUCH faster than waiting hours at the Bay Bridge. He claims it's barely over two hours, real time from DC to the Beach.

by Mike S. on Aug 6, 2010 7:37 pm • linkreport

Amtrak is able to charge such high fares in the Northeast because they have a significant market share (over 60% of the Washington-New York air/rail market) and because, even with the bus competition, enough people are willing to pay the higher fare to fill up most trains. This does say something about the comfort and speed factors that attract people to trains.

A one-way Northeast Regional trip from Washington to New York can often be had for $49, but only if travel is booked fifteen days or more in advance. Also keep in mind that, unlike the airlines and bus companies, an Amtrak reservation can be canceled up to the time of departure for a full refund, and can generally be modified without penalty. So if you think you're likely to travel on a certain date more than 14 days in the future, go ahead and make a reservation to get the lowest fare. You can always cancel later.

Particularly in the Northeast Corridor, the train is also environmentally superior. For one thing, the railroad is electrified, allowing emissions to be contained at the power plant, and permitting an easier switch to renewable electricity sources. Also, if fewer people ride trains, there will still be a similar number of trains operating, but if fewer people ride buses, there won't be as many buses on the road.

The National Association of Railroad Passengers is addressing the issue of high fares with Congress and with Amtrak management. In the long term, the key to lowering fares is increasing capacity, thereby spreading out the high fixed costs inherent in railroading over more passengers. If you want to be a part of our movement to improve the quality and quantity of American train travel, please join us.

by Malcolm Kenton on Aug 9, 2010 12:14 pm • linkreport

I like to spit the difference when I can, and mix the bus AND train: Take the train up from DC after work for a guaranteed arrival for dinner in NYC, and catch a Sunday afternoon bus back for when I have less pressing needs to be at home by a specific time. This is still a pretty pricey proposition most times ($125 + $20 = $145), but it's still a savings of $105 over a round-trip on Amtrak. If you get the cheaper night train at $75, and a $20 bus back, you're looking at only $55 more for the Amtrak/bus split.

For the extra money you save a little time in transit, and likely some stress over being on the public roads. At peak bus times in NYC (at least on Bolt and MegaBus' stop at Madison Sq. Garden) there is often a crush of people waiting for their bus. When traffic delays the arriving buses it can mean tacking on minutes or hours of waiting for the bus to arrive. This can add to the overall stress of taking the bus, as well.

Other considerations: Sometimes the train is late/breaks down, and there's no wi-fi on the non-Acela trains.

by Fabian on Aug 10, 2010 1:24 pm • linkreport

Car rental quotes could be as low as $25/day. Then they dump on taxes and surcharges and insurance. Then don't forget the gasoline and multiple tolls through NY, NJ, all the way to DC. Besides, the $25 rental would likely be a scrawny vehicle. Then you need to return it and find a way to your final destination.

Take Amtrax.

by Eddie on Sep 10, 2013 1:29 am • linkreport

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