- The Washington Times - Saturday, April 13, 2002

BOSTON Amtrak's high-speed Acela Express train got a big boost after the terrorist attacks, and seven months later, it appears to be holding.

Credit comfort, fear of flying or backed-up airport security lines. In any case, business travelers have steadily been trying Acela Express between Boston, New York and Washington.

According to the best available records from Amtrak and airline companies, the train appears to be competing neck-and-neck with the US Airways and Delta Air Lines shuttles, which still have not fully rebounded from the September 11 attacks.

Acela's initial projections of 3.9 million annual riders at full capacity still look rosy. But nobody knows how Acela Express will fare once the novelty wears off and airport lines shrink, or whether Acela will solve Amtrak's enormous financial headaches, which it blames on decades of federal underinvestment and political pressure to run unprofitable routes.

But more travelers have been trying the 15-month-old service, which experts say gives Amtrak a window to impress them and lure them permanently away from the shuttles.

Acela ridership stood at 96,037, or 218 passengers per train, in August, the month before the attacks. It jumped to 201,176, or 340 per train, in October, according to Amtrak figures. The numbers dipped in the fall as the airlines rebounded and Ronald Reagan Washington National Airport reopened, but they passed 200,000 again in February and last stood at 219,917, or about 300 per train.

The airlines do not release shuttle statistics, but Bureau of Transportation Statistics filings show that in December, Delta and US Airways reported 215,366 passenger boardings on the shuttle routes, down from 330,040 in December 2000.

Airline figures for the first three months of this year aren't available, so a current comparison is impossible. Both airlines acknowledge that traffic remains below their pre-attack levels.

"It is a very big concern for us," said Delta spokeswoman Peggy Estes. "We are implementing programs and looking at new ones to get our business traveler back."

The shuttles' highest monthly total last year was 456,854 flyers in May, more than twice Acela's highest monthly total. But in October, the first full month after the attacks, only 128,363 flew on the shuttles.

Acela Express ticket revenue totaled $25.5 million last month, but it won't say what, if any, profit that represents.

Acela Express trains use an advanced tilting system to take turns at higher speeds, but because of track conditions reach 150 mph for only 18 miles in Rhode Island and Massachusetts, and go no faster than 135 mph between Washington and New York.

That cuts less than 30 minutes off both routes compared with Amtrak's more conventional trains, to about three hours, 30 minutes on the New York-Boston run and 2:44 between New York and Washington. So Amtrak has tried to lure customers with comfortable seats, leg room and audio outlets. Upgrading tracks between Washington and New York would cost $12 billion.

Amtrak runs 10 daily Acela Express round trips between New York and Boston and 13 between Washington and New York with a few more planned. The airlines offer 14 to 17 round-trips daily.

A next-day, same-day return Acela ticket between Boston and New York cost $236 on Amtrak's Web site this week. A comparable flight on both airlines cost $411. However, Acela Express can be more expensive than some shuttle fares on weekends or with advance purchase.

For business travelers, September 11 altered the train-vs.-plane equation, whose variables include cost, door-to-door travel time and amenities.

"It boils down to, 'How much time is it going to take when I leave my office in Boston to when I arrive in New York?'" said Thomas Nulty, president of Navigant International, an Englewood, Colo., company that makes about $6 billion in annual travel arrangements for businesses.

But it's not just time. Kevin Mitchell, chairman of the Business Travel Coalition, said his group plans to release research soon showing that, among business travelers who have cut back flying 25 percent or more, 56 percent cited airport hassles as the top reason, followed by costs at 27 percent. Safety was a distant third.

David Loevner, a money manager at the small Somerville, N.J., company Harding, Loevner Management LP, said it was both a "spirit of adventure" and long lines at the airport that inspired him to try Acela on a recent trip to Boston. He found room to work, a "quiet" car for those seeking peace and tranquility and a voucher for free travel that almost made up for a two-hour delay.

The airlines are trying to respond. US Airways spokesman David Castelveter said an express security line has shuttle passenger check-in down to 20 minutes. Delta is tripling its number of electronic check-in kiosks systemwide and rebuilding its shuttle terminal in Boston.

"We need to convince our customers that the airport experience really is something that can be hassle-free," Mr. Castelveter said.

The attacks, though tragic, "did give us the opportunity to showcase our product and the amenities we offer," said Amtrak spokeswoman Karen Dunn.

She pointed out that Acela ridership is 5.5 percent ahead of projections for the current fiscal year and up 2.5 since the service began. But Amtrak seems unlikely to meet one of its early projections of 3.9 million riders annually once the service is fully up and running.

Still, it's better than some expected. Delays pushed the Acela project back a year, skeptics continue to call it a wasted effort without track repairs, and the train was beset by weather and repair-related delays in the summer.

Mrs. Dunn says Acela's on-time rate, or number of arrivals less than 15 minutes late, has improved every month since September and is now 87 percent.

Delta says 95 percent of flights leave within three minutes of schedule. US Airways does not provide shuttle-specific on-time figures.

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