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TRAINS CAN BEAT PLANES ON SHORT-DISTANCE ROUTES

Not long ago I was in Washington, D.C., with some friends. We were all headed to New York. I naturally assumed we would all be taking either the Pan Am or Trump shuttle. But one friend said he was taking the train.

When we heard this transportation blasphemy, a great gasp of surprise followed. The train?

Our friend obviously was misguided. The shuttle departs every hour and takes only 45 minutes. We would clearly make it to our midtown Manhattan hotel well before he did.

"Not necessarily," he said. "Not only will I get there before you, but I'll spend half the money you do."

We accepted the challenge.

We all left our Washington hotel at the same time. Our friend headed for the train station to catch the Amtrak Metroliner. It took him five minutes to get to the station, and he left for New York an hour before our scheduled flight departure.

We grabbed a cab and headed for Washington National Airport.

First, we got stuck in traffic, though we did make our flight. Then we were delayed on the ground for 15 minutes. Later, on approach to New York's La Guardia Airport, we were delayed for 20 additional minutes. Total flight time from gate to gate was one hour and 40 minutes.

We had to wait for luggage. Another 15 minutes. We got into a cab and proceeded to get stuck in a traffic jam on the Grand Central Parkway. Then we moved even more slowly across the Triborough Bridge into Manhattan, making it another 35 minutes before we arrived at our hotel.

The winner? Our friend, by about five minutes. Surprisingly, the train can be faster than the plane. And a lot less expensive.

Consider these facts:

Our friend's cab fare was $5 to the train station. His ticket on the Metroliner was $79. He didn't wait for luggage. His cab from Penn Station to the hotel was $6.25, including tip. His total cost: $90.25.

Our cab ride to National Airport was close to $10. A ticket on the shuttle was $139. We waited for luggage -- and we got stuck in traffic. Our cab fare, including bridge toll and tip, came to $27.30. Our total cost: $176.30. Nearly double.

And he beat us to the hotel.

Interestingly, the results of our challenge were matched on many other routes, primarily in the Northeast corridor, in a survey by Runzheimer International, a management consulting firm based in Rochester, Wis., that specializes in travel-related issues.

Robert Vinatieri, the Runzheimer manager and senior travel analyst, compared train, plane and driving costs between Providence, R.I., and New York. Assuming best-case conditions, the plane ride saved an hour and 15 minutes compared to the train, and an hour vs. the car. But the dollar difference was just as significant: Train travel saved $117 over the plane, $73.50 over the car.

The cost and time of travel for planes and trains (including taxis), and both fixed (such as insurance) and operating costs for autos were factored into the survey.

A trip by air between Boston and Hartford, Conn., costs about $207 and takes two hours and 15 minutes, door to door. The same trip by train takes an hour and a half longer but costs only $25.

Between Baltimore and Philadelphia, traveling by air eats up 2 1/2 hours and runs $138. The same trip by train takes only an hour and a half and costs just $39.

Not every comparison works in favor of the train. A trip from Albany to Washington, D.C., costs only $67 by train but takes eight hours, as compared to only 2 1/2 hours by air at $187.

"On other routes," says Amtrak spokeswoman Sue Martin, "we're trying to be time-competitive as well as cost-competitive."

For example, trains between Los Angeles and San Diego are competitive in both time and cost with auto and air travel. The Amtrak takes 2 1/2 hours; by air, 35 minutes. But transportation to the airport takes 40 minutes, not including parking time and cost, and travelers face potential delays on the ground and in the air. If you average an additional hour and a half, plus air time, your air travel has lasted almost 30 minutes longer than the train ride.

The cheapest seven-day, advance-purchase airline ticket between Los Angeles and San Diego runs $94 (most are higher). The most expensive non-restricted train costs $70 round trip.

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