How much is a half hour worth to you?

Depending on my pending cases, I travel a moderate to high amount during the week. Most of the time, the travel time is spent accumulating frequent flier points with Southwest. However, despite the number of free flights I earn, I do not like to fly. I don’t like the TSA, and I hate the feeling of my sinuses preparing to burst.

When possible, I always opt for rail travel. Most of the time, this is constrained to the eastern seaboard and occasional trips to Chicago. It is convenient, and I like the opportunity to perform uninterrupted work during the trip. While I occasionally use regional services, Amtrak usually gets my business.

However, something has been bugging me about Amtrak. This is their Acela Express service. For those of you who do not know, the Acela is the US’ only high speed rail service. With speeds up to 140 mph, it promises quick and comfortable service between Washington and Boston.

Notice that 140 mph number? That’s fast, especially compared to its analog counterpart, the Northeast Regional, which averages about half the speed with its traditional diesel/electric configuration.

However, that’s not how it shakes-out in reality.

Just for fun, I’m going to plan a 1-way trip from Washington to New York City on December 16. I’ll use “value” based fares. That way, I’m comparing apples to apples on lowest available fares. I’ll also plan to leave around the same time, choosing trains that leave between 9AM and 11AM.

Here’s what I found:

Train 1: Acela, 2 hours, 45 mins, cost: $184

Train 2: Northeast Regional, 3 hr, 20 mins, cost: $86

Train 3: Acela, 2h, 46m, $158

Train 4: Northeast Regional, 3h, 24m, $86

Train 5: Acela, 2h, 50m, $158

Looking further through the day, I note that the NE Regional lower fare remains at $86, while the Acela has a low of $158 and occasionally spikes into the $200s during peak times.

To be fair, the lowest class on Acela is “Business Class.” There are no seats classified as “Coach” on the high speed service. To upgrade to “Business Class” on the NE Regional, you will need to pay $130. However, for purposes here, I’m comparing the lowest available to lowest available.

Looking at the sample provided, NE Regional trains take approximately 3 hours, 22 minutes to make the trek from DC to NYC. The Acela takes approximately 2 hours, 47 minutes for the same trek. This, is an average time savings of 35 minutes, but that savings will cost, at a minimum, $72.

Here are my takeaways:

I do not believe the savings in time is worth $2.06 per minute.

For a train capable of nearly twice the speed of its analog counterpart, a mere 18% savings on time is not worth paying 184% more in fare.

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One thought on “How much is a half hour worth to you?

  1. Welcome to the joys of diverse priorities and diverse alternatives. I use that route frequently. I find that the difference in the ability to work while on the train and the comfort of seating, etc. is worth the difference. I know people who claim an extra 35 minutes matters. I also meet some who must be riding only for the status or the comfort. The majority of NEC travelers don’t see it that way and take the Regionals like you do.

    It’s a good economic result. One population pays much more, gets special service that they want, and covers a larger portion of the costs. Others pay less, and cover a smaller portion of the costs. NEC is one of the few routes where prices are set based on the ability to sell seats, so Acela prices will continue to increase until they start having difficulty filling the seats.

    In fact, many people take the buses that offer even lower costs than Amtrak regional at a further reduction in comfort. The NEC has multiple competing bus alternatives. It even has folks who fly, although this makes little sense for most people because it takes longer, costs more, and is less comfortable. (If you live close to an airport the “takes longer” becomes “is faster”. So flying makes sense for connecting flights and people close to the airports.)

    Minor correction on speeds. At present the top speed WAS to NYC is 135 mph, and that’s only for one short stretch. Most of it is 120 mph. Top speed New Haven to Boston is 160 mph. Next year they might finish construction work increasing the 130 mph stretch to a longer stretch at 160 mph.

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