Riding the rails: It's the only way to fly
It's late afternoon, and I'm standing inside New York's JFK airport with over a dozen of my favorite relatives, when we suddenly learn that the flight back to Reagan National has been canceled due to a severe weather system in the nation's capital. Even worse, the storm has knocked out the rest of the day's flights as well.
As frequent travelers know, when weather grounds planes, there's no free ride and no free hotel–- just the prospect of lining up a set of hotel rooms (each of which can easily run $500/night in Gotham City) or scrambling to find a squad of large, luggage-ready rental cars and enough drivers willing to launch a five-hour (traffic-willing) trek to the DC area.
But now there's another way. Thanks to the 2004 opening of a rail link, JFK has easy access to Amtrak. For $8.50 per person and about 30 minutes of our time, the combination of the "AirTrain" and the Long Island Railroad took our voluminous group of cousins, in-laws, and tired children to Manhattan's Penn Station. And that gave us myriad options to ride Amtrak back to the D.C. area. While we chose the high-speed, high-priced Acela, which was pretty peppy, the point of this story is that America needs a transportation system with lots of pieces, pieces that fit together.
Planners call this inter-modal transportation, and it's something that can reduce auto traffic as it allows people in smaller cities like Charlottesville to seamlessly make their way–- typically via rail–- to the better long-distance options found in bigger cities. Unfortunately, the promise of an inter-modal system has not been met by reality in this country.
Let's return to JFK for a moment. It's a little pathetic that there's no direct subway line between Manhattan and New York's busiest airport, but it could be worse: there's no subway connection at all to New York's LaGuardia Airport.
And–- if I may continue the digression–- it's pretty well known why the airport now known as JFK opened in 1959 without any rail access. Back then, New York transportation policy lay in the hands of a savvy but non-visionary planner named Robert Moses. As detailed in Robert Caro's Pulitzer Prize-winning biography, The Power Broker, Moses steered the densely populated New York metropolis away from public transportation and in the direction of highways, highways, highways. As history showed, those Moses toll roads could serve as short-term cash cows but as longterm congestors. At JFK, roads can be an insulting waste of time to many of the 125,000 passengers and 35,000 airport employees who might like to leave a car at home and get some work or reading done while riding the rails.
I love CHO, the Charlottesville-Albemarle Airport, but in the past year, I've been trying to use rail to reach some of the bigger airports with their cheaper fares and better array of flights, particularly non-stops. Here's what I've found.
BWI. In a huge rarity, this airport not only offers easy access to Maryland commuter rail but has its own on-property Amtrak station. One recent January, the airport now named for Thurgood Marshall gave me a huge boost for a ski trip to Utah. BWI offered an affordable direct flight to Salt Lake City for about a third of the price of CHO's non-direct ticket. Luckily, the flight just happened to take off shortly after Charlottesville's new train service pulled into the BWI train station. And because I came from the Hook office downtown, I was able to walk half a mile to the Charlottesville Amtrak station with no cab fare or parking fees. Even after paying Amtrak, my travel price was less than half the CHO ticket. (Time from Charlottesville Amtrak station: 3 hours.)
Dulles. A sexy-looking building designed by the dude who gave us the iconic TWA terminal at JFK. But like JFK, this is another giant airport thrown open to the public without a shred of rail service. And getting there from Charlottesville takes longer every year, as traffic lights bloom like mushrooms along U.S. 29, and Northern Virginians clog I-66 and Sully Road. So what was once a dependable hour and 45 minutes from downtown C'ville now takes two-and-a-half hours on a good day. And don't forget to allow at least 20 minutes to negotiate a shuttle trip to the terminal from IAD's Siberia-like "satellite parking." Alas, even when Dulles finally gets rail access, it'll come via the under-construction Metro Silver Line. Washingtonians will relish the 2016 airport opening. Then, Charlottesvillians who can deal with a couple of rail-hops and about 20 subway stops can reach Dulles without a car. (Time from Charlottesville Amtrak station: 2.5 hours.)
National. While not much better than Dulles when driving, DCA does have some serious rail access, and I was able to use a piece of that recently. After driving an hour and half to Springfield, I thought about parking in the Metro garage, but they allocate only 17 spaces to overnight parking and decline to publish the price online. So I did what any reasonable traveler would do and parked on the street by the Springfield Crossing apartment complex. While my strategy did require a quarter-mile walk to the Metro station, I got 10 days of free parking while exploring Costa Rica. And the four-station ride along Metro's Blue Line ($5.25 round-trip) put me right at the front door of the airport. But what I'd really like to try– when I have more schedule flexibility– is leaving my car in Charlottesville by taking a train to Amtrak's Alexandria station, which serves double duty as the King Street Station for both the Blue and Yellow lines of Metro. Each of these leads directly to Ronald Reagan's airport in just two stops! (Time from Charlottesville Amtrak station: 2.5 hours.)
Richmond. With its huge crop of JetBlue and AirTran departures, RIC has become one of the hottest airports in the region for low fares. And with the rarely-crowded I-64 as its access point, it's a dependable hour and 20 minutes from Charlottesville with parking lots snugly nestled around the compact terminal. However, there's a major irony here. The old C&O mainline, operated by Buckingham Branch, that runs through Charlottesville actually runs right onto the RIC property (after swinging past King's Dominion amusement park), so this airport is physically rail-linked to our town. Alas, only freight trains currently ply the route from Charlottesville, and there's no plan to launch a passenger service. (Time from Charlottesville Amtrak station: 1.25 hours.)
CHO. The Charlottesville-Albemarle Airport has considerable charms. It's a tiny terminal, it's never more than 25 minutes from anywhere in Charlottesville, and you can get away with arriving just 30 minutes before your flight, even less time if you do an online check-in and don't check bags. Most recently, CHO announced a new set of direct flights to Chicago. (Time from Charlottesville Amtrak station: 20 minutes.)
Newark. Okay, this one's a bit of a stretch because it's a lengthy train ride from Charlottesville, but like BWI, the rail station and the airport are practically the same place, with the connection here being a 3-mile monorail– sexy! Newark, aka EWR, also earns a place on this list because it offers a variety of super-cheap and international destinations. (Time from Charlottesville Amtrak station: 6.25 hours.)
So there you have it. Whether you're actually car-less or just want to be, you can now reach the flights of National, BWI, and Newark without negotiating busy urban highways or spending money at airport parking lots. And five years from now, you can add Dulles to this list. Happy summer traveling!
–this essay has been altered somewhat since its original posting last July 30.