- Acela is Amtrak’s only high-speed rail line in the US, operating between Washington and Boston on the Northeast Corridor.
- Though it’s not as fast as European high-speed rail, the service is clean, comfortable, and brings in a profit for Amtrak.
- I rode on Acela for the first time in November to see how it stacked up to flying.
- Visit Business Insider’s homepage for more stories.
Amtrak’s Acela trains are the closest thing Americans have to European-style high-speed trains in the US.
As the fastest in Amtrak’s network, they can reach speeds of around 150 miles per hour, nearly double that of local trains. And while a far cry from the likes of the French TGV or the Eurostar, the new Acela non-stop service between New York and Washington only takes two hours and 35 minutes.
It’s one of Amtrak’s only profitable lines with a primary purpose of shuttling business travellers up and down the Northeast between Boston and Washington, DC, making stops in every major city in between. Acela trains only have two classes of service, first class and business class, and fares are often significantly higher than the slower Northeast Regional.
On a recent trip to Boston, I opted to take Acela to get back to New York instead of flying the 200-mile route. Amtrak was running $US20 fares on the train that beat out even the $US25 Spirit Airlines flight from Boston to Newark that was on offer, and I wanted to experience the Acela before Amtrak upgrades the line in 2021 with new, faster $US2 billion trains from Alstom.
Here’s what it was like riding Acela during the pandemic.
After lunch at the oldest tavern in America, it was time to end my stay in Boston head back to New York. The time in Boston was 2 p.m. and my train was scheduled to depart at 4:15 p.m.
If I had been flying, now would have been the perfect time to head to the airport. But as I was taking the train, I could spend the next couple of hours slowly making my way towards Boston’s South Station on foot, enjoying all the local sights along the way.
Arriving at South Station just before 4 p.m., I was still in no rush whatsoever to get inside. I had everything I needed and travelling by train means not having to go through a security checkpoint.
I stopped by the self-service kiosk to pick up my ticket and I was all set to rail.
Amtrak’s ticket counter had been boarded with plexiglass as part of the new pandemic safety features but, just like at the airport, the self-service kiosks and Amtrak’s mobile application have largely rendered them obsolete.
The station was moderately crowded but less than expected from the evening rush. This was, after all, a late Wednesday afternoon.
South Station is quite charming from the outside but has few appealing features on the inside for which to arrive early, save for a few eateries. There is an Amtrak lounge but only Acela first class ticket holders have complimentary access.
My train was one of the few remaining Amtrak services of the evening. It was scheduled for a three-hour and 45-minute journey to New York City, 30 minutes faster than the Northeast Regional.
The boarding call came at 4 p.m., giving passengers more than enough time to walk the few hundred or so feet from the station to the awaiting train.
This service would only run from Boston to New York instead of all the way to Washington, DC, making station stops outside of Massachusetts in Providence, Rhode Island; New Haven, Connecticut; and Stamford, Connecticut.
I was genuinely excited to board as this was my first time on Acela. Amtrak is celebrating 20 years of Acela in 2020 and new trainsets are scheduled to enter service next year.
All seats are now assigned on Acela, so I knew exactly where to enter and sit. The train’s age showed but it was still an impressive upgrade to the Northeast Regional.
And like all Amtrak trains, capacity is limited at 50% during the pandemic, meaning I didn’t have to worry about having a neighbour for the near-4-hour journey.
I chose a seat in the quiet car as it was the emptiest on the seat map and I wasn’t planning on taking any phone calls or blasting loud music. The car was incredibly clean and social distancing signage reminded passengers that masks must be worn at all times.
To my surprise, the quiet car proved to be the emptiest on the train. There were no more than five passengers in the car and staying six feet away from the next person on the train was not an issue at all.
Seats in Acela business class are split between four-seater tables…
And two-seat pairs.
I chose to sit in a two-seat pair. Each paired seat is a big leather recliner that was noticeably tired but nonetheless comfortable.
Amenities include a foot rest to accompany the deep recline of the seat…
Seat-back tray table…
120v AC power outlet…
And overhead reading light.
Above the seats are airline-style overhead bins for hand luggage and smaller items.
The ends of the car had proper storage racks for larger items.
We departed Boston right on time and after a quick stop at the other Boston train station, Back Bay, continued on towards New York.
Say what you will about Acela and it being speed restricted for most of its journey, but the train moves. On the stretch between Boston and Providence, we were hitting speeds over 140 miles per hour.
As we settled into the long ride home, I went for a walk through the train to see what the other cars had in store. Amtrak now allows riders to see how full their trains are and this one was only at 20% when I checked the night before.
The restroom was quite clean too, to my surprise.
The doors between the cars are also automatic so riders don’t have to touch any handles.
Each car also had a water dispenser with paper cups, which came in handy as I was parched from my walk around Boston.
I eventually stumbled on the cafe car in the middle of the train. A hand sanitizer dispenser and social distancing placards guided the way in.
While the cafe was open, the seating area was closed.
Passengers couldn’t so much as linger in the car as part of the safety measures.
The menu was quite reasonable, I thought, with a variety of snacks, meals, and beverages.
The car was quite stylish but had only stools and no proper seats.
I went back to my seat to enjoy the rest of the ride as we passed through the New England countryside.
There’s not much else to keep entertained, though Amtrak does offer free WiFi that was reliably strong during a Zoom meeting I listened in on during the ride. Though there are noticeably fewer people onboard to crowd the network.
Our first stop outside of Massachusetts was Providence, which we reached in 34 minutes. Next stop, New Haven, 90 minutes later.
Sufficiently tired from the day’s events but still reeding to sign on to a meeting at 6:30 p.m., I settled in for a quick nap.
Luckily, just as the thought crossed my mind, the Acela staff turned down the lights and the gentle rocking of the train helped me drift off.
I woke in time for my meeting, which killed an hour as we sped down the Connecticut coastline and stopped in New Haven and Stamford. There was no time, unfortunately, for a pizza run in New Haven.
The last hour of the journey from Stamford to New York City was the most exciting as we sped across the Byram River into New York and eventually over the Hell Gate Bridge. The city skyline was spectacularly lit and in just a few minutes, we’d be in the heart of it.