Travelers take rails for test drive

As gas and airfare costs soar, more people leave their cars in the garage to catch a train for holiday trips

July 04, 2008|By Rona Marech | Rona Marech,Sun reporter

June Jordan usually flies when she goes to visit family in South Carolina. But when she saw how high air fares have climbed, she decided - for the first time - to take the train from Baltimore's Penn Station to Columbia.

True, her Amtrak train would take 10 hours, getting her in at a sleepy 1:47 this morning. But Jordan, 66, had snacks, water and a Danielle Steel romance to keep her company. With a senior discount, she saved more than $200 by taking the train.

"Airfare is too expensive," said Jordan's daughter, Sandy Scheuerman, who bought the $140 train ticket for her mother and was dropping her off at the station.

Penn Station was bustling yesterday - a sign not just of a busy holiday weekend, but of a sharp rise in the number of people who have turned to the train as gas and airline prices have soared. More than 18 million riders took Amtrak during the period from last October until May, up almost 11 percent from the year before.

Most Amtrak trains were sold out yesterday afternoon, and Sunday is mostly booked as well, said spokeswoman Karina Romero. "To see this number sold out, especially for a Sunday, is unusual," she said. "It's something we usually see for Thanksgiving or Christmas."

BWI airport and Maryland highways were busy places, too, yesterday, though observers were predicting that the number of travelers would be down slightly for a three-day holiday weekend.

AAA Mid-Atlantic estimated that about 642,300 Marylanders will travel by car this July fourth weekend, a 1.3 percent decline from 2007. Air travel is expected to decline by 2 percent, spokeswoman Ragina Averella said.

In all, AAA Mid-Atlantic was expecting 762,600 Marylanders to travel on the holiday, also a 1.3 percent decrease. It's the first time in more than a decade that AAA has predicted a drop in Fourth of July travel. Usually when a holiday falls on a Friday or Monday, more people travel because of the three-day weekend, Averella said.

"It's not just because of record high gas prices, which are obviously the case not just here in Maryland but on national level," Averella said. "But overall, it's the increase in travel costs - air fares, hotel rates. Not to mention the economy being what it is."

A Zogby International telephone poll of 1,005 adults released July 1 showed that most Americans are planning to minimize their travel over the long weekend - 65 percent said they will not travel much at all, and most plan to spend either less than they did last year or very little over the holiday.

Amtrak, though, is booming. The rail company is anticipating its ridership numbers, which include business travelers, vacationers and day-trippers, will go up even more for June and July.

The railroad estimates that about half of those riders are switching to trains because of the price of gas, Romero said.

It can cost a pretty penny to take a train in the Northeast corridor, Amtrak's busiest stretch, but if people buy tickets in advance and travel at off-peak times, they may find that train travel is indeed cheaper, Romero said.

For example, the cheapest ticket from Baltimore to New York City is $61 each way. If a gas tank takes $120 to fill up, it may not be worth it to drive, she said.

"Also, there's the traffic hassles and the difficulty some people have with security at the airports," Romero said.

At Penn Station yesterday, Sarah Horn, who just graduated from University of Maryland, was planning to spend the holiday with a friend who just moved to New York.

She spent $192 for an Amtrak ticket from Baltimore and still thinks she got a deal.

"With gas prices, there's no way I'd drive," she said.

rona.marech@baltsun.com

Headed for the shore?

More than 317,000 vehicles are expected to cross the Bay Bridge this holiday weekend. That's down 2 percent from last year, but still a lot of traffic.

Here are the best times to cross:

* Today: Before noon and after 8 p.m.

* Tomorrow: Before 7 a.m. and between 5 and 10 p.m.

* Sunday: Between 7 and 11 a.m. and after 10 p.m.

Call 1-877-BAYSPAN for traffic conditions

Source: Maryland Transportation Authority

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