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No pain, small gains

Luxury bus eases everything but traffic

Email|Print| Text size + By Joe Yonan
Globe Staff / November 2, 2003

Just 10 minutes down the Mass. Pike on the way to Manhattan, the slowdowns have already begun. We slip to 20 miles per hour for a bit, then gain some speed as the congestion eases -- tempting us into believing that maybe we've seen the worst of this traffic.

Of course, we haven't. It's a Friday afternoon -- of a holiday weekend, no less -- so it's only a few minutes before we hit another jam in a trip full of them. That's the downside. The upside: This has got to be the most comfortable, serene ride through traffic I've ever experienced. I watch two recent DVDs on crisp overhead screens, get some work done on my plugged-in laptop, scarf down a complimentary (and fresh) sandwich brought to me by a cheerful attendant, recline in the roomy chair, and listen to some tunes on my iPod.

Despite the delays, this new LimoLiner luxury bus isn't a bad way to travel to New York. But is it a better way than Amtrak's Acela Express, which is itself no stranger to delays?

LimoLiner considers its competition to be Acela and the airline shuttles, not other buses. In fact, the company studiously avoids the word ''bus" in its promotional materials. As a relatively frequent (and not altogether satisfied) Acela passenger, I decide to take LimoLiner down to New York and Acela back, partly because LimoLiner doesn't run on weekends and partly to see how the two compare.

Outside the Back Bay Hilton, 14 passengers are climbing on board the sleek, silver bus for the 3:10 departure (which happens 10 minutes late). The seats are in a 2-1 configuration, with another 10 seats in a meeting-room arrangement in the back. I pick one of the single seats up front.

Since LimoLiner is pitching itself to the business-travel community, I worried that the bus would be full of PowerPoint chatter, but it's pretty peaceful. In the front section are a canoodling couple, readers, a headphone-wearing music listener, a napper, and one (quiet) cell talker.

After Janelle, the attendant, makes her opening announcement, she sits across the aisle from me, and makes a cellphone call. ''If it's like last Friday, it's going to be awful," she says. ''We're running into that traffic again."

I put on the complimentary headphones and start to watch ''Bringing Down the House," which begins playing on half the overhead TV screens, including the one nearest me, while the other half play CNN Financial Network. Soon, Janelle delivers our sandwiches, small but very fresh ones from March, along with a small bag of Cape Cod chips, a delicious (and huge) chocolate chip cookie, and a choice of sodas, water, tea, or coffee.

By 4:30, I can't stand the suspense, and I ask her how long it took the previous Friday. ''Six hours," she says. ''Yikes," I say.

Indeed, over the next hour and a half, we hit two big tie-ups -- at Hartford and New Haven -- and then come to a dead stop at a service center on Interstate 95. That last one is on purpose, because we must refuel. As we mill about for a full 15 minutes, some of the passengers start to complain: Why didn't they tank up between trips in Boston?

Our next slowdown, thankfully, isn't until 7:30, on the outskirts of New York, when I realize that my main complaint isn't about the delays so much as about the lack of information. I want Janelle to be feeding us updated ETAs, so that I can relay the information to the friend I'm meeting in Manhattan.

At 8 p.m., after we're stuck at an exit for three or four changes of the light, Janelle is back on her cellphone. ''Just calling to say that we're about 20 minutes from the hotel," she says. Why not tell the rest of us?

We make it by 8:10, and I head through the Hilton lobby to the lounge, where I order something I had wished for on the LimoLiner: a glass of wine.

On Sunday, when it's time for the return, I am soon reminded of what I hate most about taking the Acela out of Penn Station: the cattle-call setup that has thousands of people waiting to see which track our train is on, then rushing over to clog up against the single escalator that leads down to that track.

It's a long wait. On the big overhead status board, several of the trains are behind schedule; the Acela Express, scheduled to leave at 6:03, is listed as delayed by five minutes. Then, a few minutes later, it's listed as delayed by 10. Then 15. Then it's just ''stand by."

At 6:25, the track is called, and we stampede over. Once on the platform, I trudge down to one of the last cars and find only one row with an empty seat next to someone -- empty, probably, because there's a big wet spot on one side of it. I sigh, roll up my sweatshirt to act as a sort of reverse diaper, and settle in.

We leave at 6:35, and within five minutes the conductor says, ''Anybody need seats, we have two available."

It's situations like these that have led to my nickname for this train: The Decela Depress.

The best part of this trip is pulling through Manhattan as the sun sets, leaving the skyline silhouetted against a wash of pinks. The worst part: the loud toddler a few rows behind me, whose ''Ow-ow-ow-ow" stretches for five minutes.

By about 7, the conductor announces an updated arrival time. Back Bay: 10:15, 30 minutes late.

I try to relax. The reasonably comfortable seats help, but there's not as much legroom as on LimoLiner, and the little pillow attached to the seatback does nothing but get in the way.

At 8, I decide to get a snack and head to the cafe car to join the 15-minute line. There are many more options for food here than on LimoLiner, including alcohol, but they come with a charge, and if you wait too long, the choices narrow. By the time I get to the front of the line, they're out of the garden salads and mixed fruit. I'm not interested in a beef tenderloin salad, hot dog, or burger, so I get a curried chicken salad sandwich. It's bigger than the LimoLiner sandwich, but the ciabatta roll is as dry as a stale, puffy cracker. The total, with water: $7.75.

On Acela, I could plug in my laptop, but since I'm in an aisle seat, I decide to use the battery rather than stretch the cable under my neighbor's legs to the wall plug. I eat, work, listen to music, even nap.

When we pull into Back Bay, it's 9:58, only 12 minutes late. For once, Acela Express actually makes it within the much-ballyhooed 3 hours, although our wait at Penn Station has effectively pushed the trip time back to four.

Four hours for Acela versus five for LimoLiner -- but there's much more to this comparison than just the on-time performance, and LimoLiner's relative comfort and peace have it stacking up pretty well. Does that mean I would try it again? Well, the company is making the decision relatively easy, at least for me and everyone else who was on that Oct. 10 trip, by offering free vouchers to make amends for the delay.

I'll bite. But next time, I'll probably leave at 10:10 a.m. instead. And no matter how much I like LimoLiner on the way down, if I want to return on a Sunday, I'll be back at Penn Station, waiting for Acela with the rest of the herd.

Joe Yonan can be reached at yonan@globe.com.

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