Amtrak claims progress, running neck-and-neck on Northeast Corridor routes

Friday, April 12th 2002, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

BOSTON (AP) _ Seven months after the terrorist attacks, Amtrak's high-speed Acela Express train appears to be running neck-and-neck with the Delta and US Airways shuttles along the heavily traveled Boston-to-Washington corridor.

Backed-up airport security lines, fear of flying, and the comforts of the new train are among the reasons given for the steadily growing number of business travelers trying the 15-month-old Acela service.

The train, which serves Boston, New York and Washington, got a big boost after Sept. 11. And according to the best available records from Amtrak and the airlines, the advantage appears to be holding, with the shuttles yet to rebound fully from the terrorist attacks.

The attacks, though tragic, ``did give us the opportunity to showcase our product and the amenities we offer,'' said Amtrak spokeswoman Karen Dunn. She said Acela ridership is 5.5 percent ahead of projections for the current fiscal year.

Still, Acela's initial projections of 3.9 million annual riders at full capacity look rosy. And nobody knows how Acela Express will fare once the novelty wears off and airport lines shrink. Amtrak also faces enormous financial problems.

Acela ridership stood at 96,037, or 218 passengers per train, in August, the month before the attacks. It jumped to 201,176, or 340 per train, in October, according to Amtrak figures. The numbers dipped in the fall as the airlines rebounded and Reagan National Airport near Washington reopened, but they passed 200,000 again in February and last stood at 219,917, or about 300 per train.

There are 304 seats on every Acela train. Ridership can be higher than 304 because some seats are used more than once as passengers get on and off at various points.

The airlines do not release shuttle statistics, but Bureau of Transportation Statistics filings show that last December, Delta and US Airways reported 215,366 passenger boardings on the shuttle routes, down from 330,040 in December of 2000.

Airline figures for the first three months of this year are not available. But both airlines acknowledge that traffic remains below its pre-Sept. 11 level.

The airlines are trying to respond.

US Airways spokesman David Castelveter said an express security line has passenger check-in down to 20 minutes. Delta is tripling its number of electronic check-in kiosks and rebuilding its shuttle terminal in Boston.

``We need to convince our customers that the airport experience really is something that can be hassle-free,'' Castelveter said.

Acela Express trains use an advanced tilting system to take turns at higher speeds. But because of track conditions, they reach 150 mph for only 18 miles in Rhode Island and Massachusetts, and go no faster than 135 mph between Washington and New York.

That cuts less than 30 minutes off both routes, compared with Amtrak's more conventional trains, to about three hours, 30 minutes on the New York-Boston run and 2:44 between New York and Washington. So Amtrak has tried to lure customers with comfortable seats, leg room and audio outlets.

Amtrak runs 10 daily Acela Express round-trips between New York and Boston and 13 between Washington and New York. The airlines offer 14 to 17 round-trips daily.

A next-day, same-day return Acela ticket between Boston and New York cost $236 on Amtrak's Web site this week. A comparable flight on both airlines cost $411.

For business travelers, Sept. 11 altered the train-versus-plane equation.

``It boils down to, `How much time is it going to take when I leave my office in Boston to when I arrive in New York?''' said Thomas Nulty, president of Navigant International, an Englewood, Colo.-based company.

Kevin Mitchell, chairman of the Business Travel Coalition, said research shows that among business travelers who have cut back flying 25 percent or more, 56 percent cited airport hassles as the No. 1 reason, followed by costs at 27 percent. Safety was a distant third.

David Loevner, a money manager at a Somerville, N.J., company, said it was both a ``spirit of adventure'' and long lines at the airport that led him to try Acela on a recent trip to Boston. He found room to work, a ``quiet'' car for those seeking tranquility, and a voucher for free travel that almost made up for a two-hour delay.

He called it a good experience, ``even if you don't want to work, if you just want to nap or look out the window and reflect.''