Whenever I book travel for work, I pull up the Amtrak website to see if it would be in any way practical to add a rail component to the trip to replace flying (or driving, but it’s rare that I drive for work travel). Given the state of American rail, this is most often an exercise in disappointment. My only success story in four years at this job was when I attended a conference in Bordeaux; I flew into Paris and then took a low-cost OuiGo TGV for my trips between Paris and Bordeaux. I came close when attending a conference in Portland last year; it might have been possible to fly into Seattle and then take the train to Portland, but university policy would have required me to prove that this itinerary was cheaper and faster than flying to Seattle and then flying to Portland. That would have been difficult to do, so I wound up taking a miserable red-eye flight back home after the conference was done.
Later this fall, though, I’ll be attending a conference in Baltimore, and if the U.S. has its railroad act together somewhere, it’s in the Northeast megalopolis, home to Amtrak’s Northeast Corridor and plenty of local commuter rail options. As far as I know, it’s not possible to fly directly to Baltimore from any of the Kentucky airports, but the local Bluegrass Airport here in Lexington does fly directly to Washington D.C., and taking the train between D.C. and Baltimore is one of the easiest rail itineraries in the country. There are plenty of options, and when you do the math, it’s cheaper, greener, and not any slower than it would be for me to complete a two-flight itinerary between home and Baltimore. So, I got permission from work to do it—I buy the tickets, and they’ll reimburse it after the trip, like they would for any local travel like buses or taxis (in fact, this is how my department’s business manager justified the approval—D.C. and Baltimore are so close together that it’s not unreasonable to choose to fly into D.C. as an alternative airport).
Yesterday afternoon, I decided that I was going to make the most of this trip. If I bought my ticket several months ahead of time, I could book a ticket on Amtrak’s Acela for only a few dollars more than it would take to ride Maryland commuter rail between D.C. and Baltimore. Acela is Amtrak’s only high-speed rail option, and even though it’s not clear how fast Acela goes on this portion of the track (taking a regular Amtrak train would only add 10 minutes to the Acela’s ~30 minute travel time), I figured that this might be my only chance to try out the Acela, so it was worth a few extra dollars, even if I end up having to pay for it myself at the end of the day. For my trip back to D.C. after the conference is done, I’m expecting to take commuter rail instead—both for the experience and for the extra flexibility. To get the price that I wanted on the Acela, I had to buy non-refundable tickets a few months ahead of time, and while that’s a risk I’m happy to take given the amount of time I have between landing in D.C. and needing to arrive in Baltimore, my schedule is a lot more ambiguous at the end of the conference. At any rate, I’ll get to try two train experiences that I’ve never had before—and pretend, for a little bit, that rail is a regular experience here in the U.S.
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