Amtrak Versus USAIR Between N.Y. and Washington

The Monitor tested whether the train beats the plane for door-to-door service

AMTRAK proclaims it, USAir denies it, and the Monitor tested it.

In a new, aggressive advertising campaign, Amtrak is claiming that the train beats the plane for door-to-door service between New York City and Washington, D.C., in hopes of wooing the thousands of businesspeople who make the trek on a regular basis.

''The airlines call La Guardia 'New York.' We call it inconvenient,'' reads a billboard in a Washington subway station. The advertisement emphasizes that although flight time is just an hour, if one includes the airport-to-downtown commute, the two journeys are both about 3-1/2 hours long.

Richard Donnelly, vice president of marketing for Amtrak's Northeast Corridor, says the Metroliner route's shift from a ''Civilized Shuttle'' to a ''Smart Shuttle'' is paying off.

''It's early, but the Metroliner business is continuing to grow,'' he says.

After hopping a morning Metroliner train from Pennsylvania Station in Manhattan to Union Station in Washington and flagging an evening flight from National Airport to La Guardia the same day, this reporter says: It depends on your criteria.

On price, Amtrak edges out the airline shuttles. One-way for the air shuttle costs $150; a one-way train ride costs $103. The airport taxi or bus service can add as much as $30 to the cost.

On the matter of time, suburban travelers have a flying advantage, while city-dwellers are closer to the train stations.

The trains are definitely less likely to be affected by inclement weather. Fog and snow are not the impediments to ground travel they are to air.

If you are looking for comfort and convenience, that's a tougher call. People the Monitor talked to split on the issue. ''The train is more relaxing,'' says lawyer Norman Williams, with his complementary copy of the International Herald-Tribune spread across a table in the cafe car.

BUT the plane trip is more luxurious. A phone is hidden under each arm rest, and a flight attendant hands travelers a printout of the latest news bulletins as they board.

''These planes have a lot of room,'' says banker Susan Wright, who does not worry about catching a cab -- a company-car service wisks her directly to her destination. She says she flies almost exclusively.

The main draw for the train is that the travel time is spent in one place, where executives can hold meetings, boot up their laptop computers, and sometimes fan spreadsheets across several seats.

The trip via plane is cut into segments of less than an hour -- too little to get significant work done.

But in trying to go head-to-head with the airlines on its Metroliner route, Amtrak is undertaking quite a challenge.

Its New York to Washington shuttle service, started in 1969 and serving some 2 million customers a year, is competing with a USAir shuttle running in some form since 1955. (Another shuttle operated by Delta started as the Pan Am shuttle in 1986.) USAir's hourly flights -- roughly equal to the number of train trips a day -- serve 22 million commuters annually, according to Mike Kopay, director of operations for USAir's shuttle service.

USAir does not foresee a defection of customers to the train service, though. ''Yes, there is concern, but we're not panicking by any means,'' Mr. Kopay says.

Looking for a bigger bite of the market, Amtrak recently opened Metroliner lounges in stations in New York, Philadelphia, and Washington -- in the style of airline clubs -- for their first class or ''club car'' passengers.

But Delta Airlines spokesman Todd Clay says his company's benefits are unbeatable. No reservations are required for the Delta shuttle, but space is guaranteed. The shuttles yield frequent-flier miles and have youth and senior fares, and Delta's shuttle offers free cellular-phone service.

Despite the choices, some customers are still not satisfied. Julian Stackhaus, who travels from Newark to Washington on business roughly 20 times a year, never flies. But he is critical of the train service, too. ''I would say that Amtrak is one of the most archaic train systems in the world.

''But,'' he says, ''it's all we've got.''

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