From the Staff

Column: Can the train or bus avoid the I-95 driving nightmare?

aroman@newsobserver.comAugust 15, 2013 

Brandon and Jenna Hamilton of Charlotte cross the tracks at West Cabarrus Street after getting off a March 2013 Amtrak train in Raleigh. The crossing gates are raised when the train is stopped at the station. But in the plans for Raleigh's upcoming Union Station, this crossing will be closed.

ETHAN HYMAN — ehyman@newsobserver.com Buy Photo

This summer, I opted to take the train and I rode on an interstate bus. Willingly.

To be fair, neither trip was terrible, probably because I approached both journeys with diminished expectations.

First, some background. I’m the rare person who is both a proponent of mass transportation and who enjoys driving.

I draw the line, however, when it comes time to drive on Interstate 95 through congested northern Virginia. I hate that.

But I needed an inexpensive way to get from the Triangle to Washington in June. And, on a separate trip, I needed an equally cheap way to get from D.C. back to the Triangle last week.

Riding that train ...

For the first trip, I booked a $40-something Amtrak ticket from Raleigh to Washington’s Union Station. The train was late getting to Raleigh – surprising for a train that originated in Charlotte, but not surprising for train service on the East Coast.

Here’s why: Amtrak trains in Virginia are considered second-class rail citizens. They get shunted onto a side track and stopped whenever other trains approach. CSX owns the tracks, so its freight trains get priority, even when empty.

Of course, seeing not one but two empty freight trains blow by while your fully loaded passenger train squats on a side track is exasperating.

Those delays – along with a vast detour through Smithfield and Wilson – are most of the reason why the Raleigh-to-Richmond leg took 4.5 hours. Drivers should be able to make the same trip in well under 3 hours. My total travel time on Amtrak approached 8 hours, almost the amount of time it takes to make a round trip to Washington.

Luckily, the on-board experience helped defuse the delays.

You see lots of interesting countryside when you’re not driving the interstates. Seat space – even in coach – is massive. Amtrak also offers decent WiFi and plentiful electric outlets. And there was a food car that serves beer and wine, all of which is useful.

On the bus ...

Not having a food car was one of the few downsides of my recent Megabus experience, especially as the bus passes tantalizing fast-food restaurants at every interstate offramp.

But taking Megabus was quicker – and cheaper – than Amtrak. A $30-something ticket from Washington’s Union Station to the Durham bus station got me to my destination on time, despite the almost-requisite traffic nightmares on I-95 South.

The interstate was more relaxing because I was a passenger, not a driver. Having no seatmate for the DC-to-Richmond leg helped, too, because bus seats are cramped on their best days.

I seemed to be lucky. Online reviews are filled with disgruntled passengers complaining about late buses and poor service, but that wasn’t my experience.

That’s not to say there wasn’t stress. Only 20 minutes into my 5.5-hour trip, we spotted the burned-out shell of a bus (not a Megabus) that had caught fire. It was a false omen for us, but one not particularly welcome, as it conjured memories of previous accidents involving loosely regulated buses.

Still, I’d readily take Megabus again, especially if I’m fortunate enough to snag some of its advertised $1 fares. I can’t say the same about Amtrak, which I’m likely to avoid until they can make the trains run on time.

But with gas costing at least $35 each way and parking fees at the destination, there still might be a financial benefit to taking the train – as well as helping me avoid I-95.

Andrew Roman is an online content producer at The N&O.

aroman@newsobserver.com or 919-829-4812

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