From New York to Washington DC on Acela, the American high-speed train

What does the Acela, the American-style high-speed train, look like? I tested it from New York to Washington DC to understand its specific features.

The Northeast corridor is the most profitable rail line in the United States

The United States is known as the land of the airplane and the car. Trains are a marginal mode of transport.

There is, however, an exception on the Boston-New York-Philadelphia-Baltimore-Washington DC route, known as the Northeast corridor. This is the only line in the United States where rail has a greater market share than air. I was curious to see how the Americans had designed this rail service in a country that has lost its rail culture since the middle of the 20th century.

Amtrak is the rail company that operates the Northeast corridor. It is a federal public company created in 1971 from the merger of some twenty railway companies.

Acela Boston Washington route

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Acela: The Flagship of Amtrak on the Northeast Corridor

Acela, a contraction of the words Excellence and Acceleration, is the funny name used by Amtrak for its high-speed service between Boston and Washington DC. We wonder why the company didn’t keep the old Metroliner name, which was very self-explanatory? The French railways, SNCF, have done the same, adding to the well known TGV brand the dubious mention InOUi, which means nothing!

Acela is America’s high-speed train. The 735 km line runs from Boston to Washington DC, via New York, Philadelphia, and Baltimore. The trains, manufactured by Alsthom and Bombardier, are supposed to go up to 265 km/h, but the constraints of the track are such that the average speed is only 113 km/h!

To get from New York to Washington DC, the Acela takes between 2 h 45 and 3 h for a journey of 328 km. By comparison, the TGV from Paris to Lyon takes 2 h for a distance of 391 km.

I took the Acela from New York to Washington DC, with a stop in Philadelphia.

Acela in New York

In New York: don’t go to the wrong station!

Be careful! New York has two major train stations, and to get to Washington DC, Philadelphia, or Boston you don’t have to go to the one everyone knows: Grand Central Terminal.

Grand Central Terminal: the mythical station

Before starting my journey on the Acela from New York, I went to the train station, and when you think of a train station in New York, images of Grand Central Terminal inevitably come to mind.

The central hall, with its starry ceiling, is magnificent and a must for every New York tourist! Filmmakers have often used the station as a backdrop for their films, which has also earned it its reputation. Despite its prestige, it’s just a station serving the suburbs of New York: not very prestigious!

Grand Central New York

Penn station: nostalgic for the past

For long-distance travel, Penn Station is the place to be. Until the early ’60s, the gigantic building, inspired by the Baths of Caracalla, made quite an impression.

Old Penn station

Unfortunately, it was savagely destroyed and replaced by an ugly underground station topped by Madison Square. The only positive aspect of the story is that it caused such a stir among New Yorkers that Grand Central Terminal became a protected building.

In 2022, however, the situation has improved thanks to the US mail company! Indeed, just behind Penn station standsthe James A. Farley Building.Farley Building, New York’s former central post office. The building, with its proud Corinthian columns, was built at the same time as the original station, with its imposing beaux-arts architecture.

Former post office in New York

One section has recently been refurbished to accommodate long-distance trains. This is the bright, modern Moynihan Hall used by Amtrak, the U.S. long-distance rail company. The result is quite successful, and New York’s departure has regained some of its glamour.

Moynihan hall

As much as the lobby is spacious, the platforms are dark and narrow. Perhaps that’s why access to the platform is only allowed a few minutes before the train’s departure?

Platform Penn station

My experience of traveling with Acela in Business class

I traveled on the Acela in two stages: New York to Philadelphia, then the next day from Philadelphia to Washington DC. I’ve chosen Business class because I found First class far too expensive.

I couldn’t avoid drawing a parallel with the TGV Paris – Lyon, as we find the same clientele, with a high proportion of men and a few businesswomen immersed in their laptops, indifferent to their surroundings.

A feeling of exclusivity

With just 44 seats in First and 260 in Business in six cars, the Acela gives a feeling of exclusivity. By way of comparison, a French duplex TGV with two eight-car sections has 1032 seats!

Acela interior layout

Acela: a comfortable train

The trip aboard the Acela is quite pleasant. The train entrance is wide and level with the platform. Markers are provided on the platform to help you position yourself to your car.

The vast majority of seats face in the direction of travel, as they can be turned by Amtrak staff before departure. In Business class, seats are grouped two by two on either side of the aisle, as in second class on TGVs.

The cabin harmony, in blue-grays, is rather austere. The retro design of the seats and the pleated fabric curtains give the car a vintage feel.

Acela Business Class

The pitch between two seats is much higher on the Acela, at 106 cm compared with 86 cm on TGVs. By way of comparison, in economy class in planes, the pitch is usually limited to 78 cm!

The thick armchair is soft and comfortable. He bows generously without disturbing the neighbor behind him.

Acela Business seat

The closed baggage racks, like those on planes, are very spacious and can accommodate relatively large suitcases or bags.

Two electrical outlets are positioned along the wall. Unless you have a very long cord, passengers sitting close to the corridor cannot benefit from it. Wifi is available both in the station and on the Acela and is of good quality

One feature of the Acela that I liked is the “Quiet car”. In this car, it is forbidden to have phone conversations or talk with your neighbors. When you’re traveling alone, it’s very pleasant.

Another feature I appreciated was the ability to change your seat on the Amtrak app, even during the journey. If the train isn’t full, you can choose a more convenient seat, like being able to sit isolated in a row of two seats.

Toilets are more spacious and better maintained than on French TGVs.

The bar car is In the middle of the train which bears a striking resemblance to the TGV car, with a kiosk and high tables. Surprisingly, rates are quite cheap compared to what you’d find in the city of New York or Washington DC. 

Acela car bar

First classby Acela

I wasn’t able to experience Acela’s First class myself, but according to my internet research the three main differences are :

  • Access to a lounge at railway stations
  • Wider seats on board, with only three abreast instead of four
  • A hot meal is served on board with free drinks.

During my trip, I stopped by to see what First Class looked like. As the crew was in the middle of lunch service, I couldn’t get into the car. So it was a great surprise to see a steward bring me to my seat in Business class a sweet and a bottle of water! He told me that he had sensed my curiosity and wanted to give me a taste of First class, to encourage me to take it another time. Hats off to you!

However, the price difference with Business class is very substantial, and I don’t think it’s worth it. Matthew Klint’s First Class test, from New York to Washington DC, will give you a good idea of the service.

My journey from New York to Washington

On board, I was one of the only people looking at the scenery!

After a long tunnel under the Hudson River, the Acela emerges into the industrial landscape of New Jersey. What’s striking is the state of rail infrastructure compared to Europe. Both the bridges and the catenaries are completely rusted, and we wonder how it’s all still standing!

Passaic River Bridge

Rusty catnip

Is this due to the Acela’s tilting technology or to the sometimes antediluvian state of the tracks? But the journey between New York and Washington DC often leaves you feeling quite shaken up, certainly much more so than in an otherwise more stable and quiet French TGV at a much higher speed.

Philadelphia’s magnificent monumental train station

I split my journey to stop in Philadelphia, which gave me the opportunity to admire the magnificent 30th Street station, which alone is worth a visit to the city.

30th Street Philadelphia station was inaugurated in 1933. Its art deco style and immense hall are an architectural achievement.

Philadelphia Station

Philadelphia station concourse

At the far end of the station, I notice an impressive memorial to the 1307 Pennsylvania Railroad Company employees who lost their lives in WW2. This high figure, at the level of just one company, shows the effort made by Americans during the war.

Memorial WW2 Philadelphia station

After Philadelphia, the Acela continues to Wilmington, the largest city in the tiny state of Delaware, home of President Joe Biden, and then on to Baltimore. The landscape becomes greener, and we regularly cross bridges over rivers such as the Schuylkill.

Schuylkill River

Delaware

The Acela continues along the wide mouth of the Susquehanna, with the Atlantic onthe horizon. We pass pretty seaside towns.

Chesapeake Bay

Susquehanna River

I was unable to visit the city of Baltimore, reputed to be one of the poorest in the United States. It’s not the dilapidated state of the station platforms that’s going to change my mind.

Baltimore train station

Union station in Washington DC

The journey ends at Washington DC’s Union Station, another example of monumental architecture.

Hall Union station Washington

Union is a very common name for American train stations. The reason for this is that in the past, the United States had many railroads sharing stations, hence the concept of union.

The station is centrally located and well-connected to the federal capital’s metro system.

Amtrak’s offer on the Northeast corridor

The Acela is not the only train offered by Amtrak on the Northeast corridor.

To say the least, the offer is not easy to grasp for a new customer.

A complex offer with three types of trains

A visit to Amtrak. com reveals three types of trains on the Northeast Corridor:

  • The Acela with the Business class I experienced and the First which is Amtrak’s Premium service.
  • The Northeast Regional with Coach and Business class. These trains are slower (about 30 minutes longer) and stop at more stations.
  • Long-distance trains with Coach class and sleeping cars. They are offered for sale, but at prices that are deliberately prohibitive to give priority to travelers going further than Washington DC to, say, Miami or New Orleans.

Much higher prices than in France

First class on the Acela from New York to Washington costs between $243 and $475. Needless to say, I found the fare prohibitive for such a short journey.

Business prices on the Acela range from $71 to $278. That’s why it’s important to plan ahead because traveling at the last minute can be expensive!

Travel aboard the Northeast Regional is generally cheaper, especially in coach, as fares start at $31, but they can quickly rise if demand is strong and reach Acela levels.

Generally speaking, the highest rates are the only ones that are flexible.

Over a similar distance, prices on the Paris-Lyon TGV seem mild by comparison, since a Business Première ticket (the most expensive fare) costs just 142 euros, the same amount in dollar terms in November 2022.

 

A great experience, but a far cry from European performances

I enjoyed my travel experience on the Acela, but Amtrak is still far from the best that Europe can offer with Lyria or Eurostar, which are more modern and efficient.

A mediocre operating performance

I searched for on-time performance of Acela, but I was only able to find one for all Amtrak passenger services on the northeast corridor and one for all Amtrak passenger services on the northwest corridor. this is mediocre, with between 15% and 25% of trains running late (more than 10 minutes) depending on the year. However, it is no worse than air travel on the same route.

By way of comparison, between Paris and Lyon, delays only affect around 5% of TGVs. This indeed is one of SNCF’s best performances and one that cannot be found on its entire network.

Steadily increasing traffic

With 3.5 million passengers carried in 2019 on the Northeast corridor, Acela is a success. It is all the more striking for being unique on the American network. But we’re still a long way from Europe’s train ridership. In 2017, 44 million passengers used the Paris-Lyon TGV line!

A new generation of trains in 2024

A new generation of trains is scheduled to enter service in 2024, with reduced journey times, but still well above what we have in Europe.

The promise is a more comfortable train and a sharp increase in capacity to capture even more market share.

Future Acela train

Future Business class Acela

Amtrak is first and foremost a specialist in transcontinental trains

Amtrak’s real expertise, which is unique, is in very long-distance trains, which we don’t have in Europe, and which are true rail cruises.

You can find out more in my other two articles:

 

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