For Amtrak Riders, It's All Aboard Despite The Cost More people took an Amtrak train in the last year than ever before, bringing in record ticket sales for the national rail service. The most popular line serves the heavily congested Northeast corridor. Traveling by train can be faster than a car or airplane, but it's seldom a cheap fare.
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For Amtrak Riders, It's All Aboard Despite The Cost

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For Amtrak Riders, It's All Aboard Despite The Cost

For Amtrak Riders, It's All Aboard Despite The Cost

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So there will be no new tunnel between New Jersey and New York, but there is some growth in long-distance train travel. More people rode Amtrak in the last year than ever before. The most popular Amtrak line continues to be the Northeast Corridor from Boston to Washington. That train can be faster than a car or an airplane, if you calculate the trip from door-to-door.

Reporter Nancy Solomon boarded Amtrak to bring us this report.

NANCY SOLOMON: The Acela Express is the jewel in Amtrak's somewhat tarnished crown. It's sleek, fast and deluxe, offering Wi-Fi, work tables with electric plugs and leather reclining seats.

It slices through nightmare traffic in a megalopolis that includes Boston, New Haven, New York, Philadelphia, Baltimore and Washington, where one city's suburbs sprawl into another's.

Rod Norman, a banker who frequently travels between New York and Washington, used to prefer flying. But he finds it too much hassle.

Mr. ROD NORMAN (Banker): You've got to go there, you have to wait for an hour, and then frequently on Fridays, specifically, travel between D.C. and New York is delayed.

SOLOMON: By taking the train, he can spend most of the travel time productively, rather than schlepping to and from a flight.

That ability to get work done is contributing to Amtrak's ridership increase, according to Emmett Fremaux, head of marketing and customer service for Amtrak.

Mr. EMMETT FREMAUX (Head of Marketing and Customer Service, Amtrak): What's important in the growth of ridership is the increasing the perception of the relevance of train travel.

SOLOMON: Fremaux says the Northeast Corridor is not only the nation's busiest and most profitable rail line, it's also a model for how other regions could benefit from an investment in the infrastructure needed to create intercity high-speed rail.

Mr. FREMAUX: All that happens because of state and local urgency, and political will and ability to move a national agenda.

SOLOMON: Even on the Northeast Corridor, high-speed trains capable of going 165 miles per hour average 80 because the system lacks a dedicated track that doesn't have to be shared with other trains or car crossings.

And it's expensive, costing more than $300 for a round trip between New York and Washington. Now, new bus companies like Bolt and Megabus are drawing away business with cheap, clean service. They offer Wi-Fi and electric outlets and pick up passengers away from funky bus terminals.

Nicholas Klein, a graduate student at Rutgers University, is studying these new bus lines and found younger, more affluent riders are filling the seats and seeing bus travel as hip.

Mr. NICHOLAS KLEIN (Graduate Student, Rutgers University): So people are much more willing to take a bus because it's seen as different from the old idea of what an intercity bus was. So, it's not like Greyhound. It's a new type of service.

SOLOMON: Amtrak says it welcomes the competition because the economy will grow when this congested region has the capacity to move more people more efficiently and with less energy consumption. Even so, Amtrak is countering the popularity of the buses with a plan to offer Wi-Fi on its cheaper trains of the Northeast Corridor, and it just last week introduced new food offerings on the Acela.

Emily Wilson, a 25-year-old New Yorker who works in the fashion industry, has tried the new buses. She prefers the train but has no intention of trying the new menu.

Ms. EMILY WILSON: There's absolutely no way I would ever eat train food. That's like plane food, that's just, no. That's creepy. No, no way.

SOLOMON: Nevertheless, Wilson enjoys her trip, with her laptop on the tray table and her phone in hand, surfing the Internet and working while on a quick getaway to help her sister pick out a wedding dress.

For NPR News, I'm Nancy Solomon.

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