June 9, 2014

Road Worrier: Trains becoming better option for middle-distance journeys

Catching a flight is fastest for the trip between Raleigh and Washington, DC, and driving a car seems cheapest - at least, if you only count the price of gas. But the train gives an opportunity to enjoy the journey.

Washington, D.C., is 262 miles from Raleigh. What’s the best way to get there?

That depends on how much money, time and unpleasantness you can afford.

A few Fridays ago, a trio of Washington Post writers raced by train, plane and automobile from Washington to the Holiday Inn in downtown Raleigh. Then they competed to see who could make her chosen travel mode sound most appealing.

The plane was declared fastest and the car cheapest (but, hmm, only if you pretend that gasoline is your only expense). And both trips sounded horrible.

The low-stress winner, hands down, was the Amtrak Carolinian – described by writer Andrea Sachs as “a softly rocking cradle.”

The comparisons are worth thinking about as North Carolina moves ahead with long-planned programs to make train travel faster, more reliable and more convenient – in other words, more competitive with cars for shorter trips and with airplanes for longer trips.

A trip between Raleigh and Washington is at just the middle distance where travelers still have good reasons to choose either of the three – car, train, plane. (And to this list some would add inter-city bus service, a discount-priced option lately on the upswing.)

But think about this: Train service in North Carolina has improved over the past decade and is on schedule to get better still. Nobody can say that about car or air travel.

Amtrak makes three daily round-trip runs now between Raleigh and Charlotte, with seven stops en route. Two more trains will be added to the daily schedule in the next few years.

The Raleigh-Charlotte journey is an hour faster today than it was 20 years ago, and that makes it almost as fast as driving. This year the state Department of Transportation is straightening curves and building bridges at train-car crossings in Morrisville and at Research Triangle Park – safety improvements that also will trim another couple of minutes from every train trip from now on.

Travelers of all persuasions will recognize something of themselves in the Post’s travel stories.

Before writer Becky Krystal boards her flight at Reagan National, she endures 25 minutes packed on a hot airport bus that takes passengers from gate to plane. She has “barely room to breathe, let alone whip out my Kindle.” But she’s pleased to arrive at the Holiday Inn just 3 hours 41 minutes after leaving her D.C. apartment (round-trip cost including bus and taxi: $232).

‘Stopping and cursing’

Writer Zofia Smardz is stressing out by the time she backs her car out of the alley behind her house – a seven-minute chore she refuses to count as part of her trip time. Her drive down Interstate 95 through Virginia is peppered with “a lot of braking and downshifting and stuttering and stopping and ... cursing.” That sounds like a typical I-95 jaunt.

She shells out just $60 to $65 for the 524-mile round trip. But if her newspaper joins other employers who match the Internal Revenue Service mileage rate of 56 cents, Smardz would be in line for an expense-reimbursement check of $293.44. (Her one-way drive time to Raleigh: 4 hours 26 minutes).

Amtrak trains sometimes are slowed by freight-yard congestion in Virginia, but Sachs finds the Carolinian only a few minutes off its scheduled run of 5 hours 47 minutes.

Sachs chats with fellow train passengers, buys coffee in the cafe car and rhapsodizes about the scenery: “Fields with bales of hay rolled up like sushi.” She clocks her total journey at 7 hours, with a round-trip cost of $122.80. (Read the three Post stories online at

“I love the train,” Sachs said Monday by phone. “You see part of Virginia and North Carolina that you can’t see on the highway. I would have gotten more reading done if I hadn’t spent so much time looking out the window.”

There are plans – but as yet, not enough money – for improvements that would cut 90 minutes from the train travel time between Raleigh and Washington.

The state DOT has won federal funding to finish the environmental work and much of the design for a short-cut track that would carry trains as fast as 110 mph between Raleigh and Richmond. More work is planned or underway farther north, adding tracks to relieve rail congestion in northern Virginia. Paul Worley, the state Rail Division director, said planners are looking for financing options that could help pay the full build-out cost – estimated at $3.8 billion.

Relaxed but lengthy

Worley’s DOT Rail Division predecessor, Pat Simmons, made plenty of those Washington trips before he retired. He appreciated the different virtues of cars, trains and planes.

“In aviation, there are several commuter hops daily between Raleigh and Washington, and that was good when you had a one-day turnaround” for a business trip to the capital, Simmons said.

“The driving experience was white-knuckle,” he said, “and sometimes you saw nothing but brake lights from Washington to Richmond.

“The folks who rode the train enjoyed the experience. It was relaxed – but it was lengthy, and you had to meet the train schedule,” Simmons said.

These days, Simmons has time to find his own low-stress path between the two capital cities.

He starts out on a series of two-lane country roads that take him from Raleigh to northern Virginia. Then he picks up I-66 to finish the ride into Washington on his BMW motorcycle.

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