Trains vs Planes, with numbers:

This isn’t the first time I’ve taken the Acela down to the New York area (Stamford, this trip). It’s the first time, however, that I’ve thought seriously about the deltas in travel time between air and rail. 

I declined to fly this time around because of the TSA’s new policies. If I’d decided to fly from Portland, I would have flown JetBlue into JFK. According to the TSA’s FAQ, however, JFK is one of the airports featuring the new Advanced Imaging Technology full body scanners manufactured by, among other entities, Rapiscan Systems Limited. And no, before you ask, that name is not a typo. I’ve detailed my frustrations with the TSA’s current policy previously. The short version is that the benefits to the TSA’s new approach are marginal – Bruce Schenier calls them “a waste of money and time” – and thus do not justify the violations of my fourth amendment rights. 

Until these rules are changed, then, I will be flying as little as possible. The question is: how little is that?

As much as I long for a future of cross-country high speed rail, the estimated $500+ billion price tag puts that solidly in the realm of “pipedream.” To travel to San Francisco, then, as I need to next week, rail is not, realistically, an option. It would take a combination of trains and buses four days to get me across the country, against a door to door transit time of approximately nine hours by air. And if I wanted to actually sleep for the two nights I’d be in transit, the cost of the fare is $936.00 – one way. 

California, then, is regrettably outside my TSA radius. But what are the numbers for regional travel in the North East. While it’s obvious that even high speed rail such as the Acela is slower than the shuttle in absolute transit time – 2:34 minutes by train, typically, against 1:12 by plane – there are a number of things acting to mitigate that apparent advantage. Here’s a quick look at the numbers I came up with. The route is based on door to door times from the Copley Place in Boston to the Westin in Times Square, New York, a trip I have made in the past. 

Plane:
Rail
There are doubtless variables in the above that can be tweaked, from drive times to arrival times at the airport. But generally, it seems likely that the train will take at least thirty minutes longer in terms of elapsed time versus the shuttle, and the delta will probably be closer to an hour. Weather delays are more likely to delay air travel, of course, but they’re far from unheard of on rail. I’m sitting on an idle Acela as I write this, delayed by a tree that hit one of the powerlines. 

The question for travelers then is whether the extra time can be offset. The answer will vary from person to person, of course, but for me the answer is yes. The reasons for this are many.
  • Trains feature both power and wifi: planes on this route are unlikely to have either
  • Train seats are longer, wider and more comfortable
  • Rail doesn’t have restrictions on device usage, unlike air travel which requires passengers to shut down for takeoff and landing
  • Rail does not have TSA screening, so I do not have to take my shoes and belt off, my laptop out, or be subjected to an “enhanced” pat down
  • Due to the lack of screening, I am not restricted from bringing items like bottled water on board
  • Also due to the lack of screening, I do not have to show up for trains an hour ahead of time to board
  • Train stations are generally located in city, so there is no long cab ride waiting for me upon arrival as when flying
For me, then, rail is a preferred method of travel, and it will be as long as the TSA’s new rules remain in place. Based on JetBlue’s currently available fares, then, the TSA has already cost the carrier $329.40 in fares. Given that just in this calendar year 2010 I’ve made 47 trips to 17 cities, that number is likely to only grow over time.  

Rail is not an option for all or even most of my travel, unfortunately. But whenever it is, I will continue to give it my business. Whatever it gives up in time, it gives back in comfort. 
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Comments

  1. Michael Cote' says:

    I’m not sure how often train rides get canceled, but with this trip in particular, I think your JetBlue flight would have been canceled. My flight JFK->AUS that night on JetBlue was canceled, it seemed like many other JetBlue flights were. And while I got an American Airlines flight, it was delayed 3 hours.

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