Philly to Boston: By car, plane and rail

Posted: August 06, 2010

To test the promise of high-speed rail against the reality of today's travel, The Inquirer compared journeys on the popular and crowded corridor between Philadelphia and Boston.

A high-speed train trip from Philadelphia to Boston, with an intermediate stop in New York, would take about 2 hours and 30 minutes. (That assumes an average speed of 134 miles an hour, which is the average speed of Spain's Madrid-Zaragoza-Barcelona AVE train.)

The ticket price, presumably, would be similar to today's Acela Express price of $187.

How would that trip compare to what we have now?

The current choices seem to be: fast and expensive, slow and cheap, and slow and expensive.

To make the comparison, the newspaper dispatched reporters by air, car and train on July 1 and 2. The journalists traveled from downtown to downtown.

The results:

Air - Southwest Airlines flight 2447, scheduled to depart Philadelphia International at 4:15 p.m., actually left the gate at 4:35 p.m. and lifted off the runway at 4:50 p.m. But it still got to Boston Logan eight minutes early, pulling up to the gate there at 5:52 p.m.

Including a 3 p.m. SEPTA train ride from Suburban Station to the airport, the wait at Philadelphia International for security screening and boarding, and the process of renting a car in Boston and driving downtown, the total elapsed time was 3 hours and 20 minutes. The one-way cost: $130.

Rail - Amtrak's Acela Express 2150 left 30th Street Station on time at 6:30 a.m. and arrived at 11:39 a.m., two minutes late, at Boston's South Station (the train is late 40 percent of the time). The train briefly reached its top speed of 150 miles an hour in Rhode Island, but spent most of the time rumbling along at much lower speeds. And it made seven stops along the way. So the average speed for the 318-mile trip was 62 miles per hour. Elapsed time: 5 hours and 9 minutes. The one-way cost: $187.

(The Amtrak regional trains on the same route typically take about 6 hours and cost $118 to $142.)

Auto - Our intrepid travelers drove back to 30th Street Station from Boston's South Station. The 332-mile trip down I-95 ran into traffic headed for Cape Cod and then went smoothly until New York City, where the Cross-Bronx Expressway on a pre-holiday Friday was a parking lot, fouled by accidents and stalled semis.

The car trip, with a 20-minute break for a rest-stop dinner, took 9 hours instead of the 5 hours and 45 minutes it takes without traffic jams. Cost of a tank of gas: $43.50.

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