20.4.09

GETTING THERE THE HARD WAY. A Destination: Freedom columnist travels from near New York to Fredericksburg. By train. But not Amtrak. The gaps in the commuter rail service? He took a bus.

The first train to Fredericksburg on Virginia Railway Express (VRE) is an “early getaway” train that leaves at 12:55 pm ($9.75). VRE is essentially a “peak-hour-only” commuter service. My train arrived shortly before 2:30 pm. Total travel time from New York City was 15 hours, and the regular fare for the trip is $63.15. Had I left New York on Amtrak Train #67 at 3:15 am, my fare would have been $76.00, and the trip would have taken 5 hours and 20 minutes.

Had I wished to go further, I could have taken two local buses from Fredericksburg to downtown Richmond in the late afternoon, operated by Richmond’s GRTC. Instead of going to Richmond, I stayed in Fredericksburg for a few hours. I enjoyed my visit, but I was glad to take Train #66 north in the early evening. The trip to Boston took less time than my trip from New York to Fredericksburg, although it was not as adventurous as the southbound trip had been.

With some cooperation on scheduling and fares, the Northeast’s commuter rail providers, from the “T” around Boston to VRE in Virginia, could provide useful and economical service to all points along the Amtrak NEC Line. The trains would not be as fast as Amtrak, but the trip would be much faster than mine with better connections and integrated scheduling. It makes sense to provide such services.. As long as Amtrak fares on the NEC are high, budget-conscious travelers will want a less expensive alternative to Amtrak, even if the trip takes longer.

Years ago, there was a Trains sidebar describing a similar trip, early in the Amtrak era, using the commuter train operators where possible, Amtrak otherwise, from Boston to Washington. Today, West Coast commuters also have the option of travelling from the Mexican border to Santa Barbara entirely on suburban trains, again with some long layovers. I have to wonder about devoting an extra ten hours to saving thirteen bucks, however. Somebody that destitute won't be traveling at all.

That's not to say the commuter services aren't without value. On a few occasions, I've parked for free in Metuchen and ridden the Pennsy, er, New Jersey Transit, into Manhattan, at somewhat less expense than Amtrak out of Metropark.

The commuter services might also supplement Amtrak for tourists. I like the British railpass. It doesn't matter whether I'm on First or Virgin or Central or whoever is currently operating the West Yorkshire Passenger Transport Authority, my pass is good on all trains. In the States, the Amtrak rail pass is good only on Amtrak (with space reservations required). Is it that difficult to honor them on the commuter trains as well, so that a visitor might be able to go to the Hamptons or South Bend or Fox Lake or Arlington Park on the same pass that gets the visitor from New York to Chicago?

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