The Acela is Amtrak’s flagship high-speed rail service, and it runs along the Northeast Corridor, or NEC, between Boston, Massachusetts and Washington, D.C. It launched in December 2000 and has since become one of the top forms of transportation among commuters in the area. How many cars are on an Amtrak Acela train and how fast does it really go? You’ll find answers to these questions and more below.
The History of Amtrak and the Acela
On October 30, 1970, then-President Richard Nixon signed the Rail Passenger Service Act, or RPSA. This Act installed an organization known as the National Railroad Passenger Corporation, which later became Amtrak, to take over the various intercity passenger rail lines that belonged to various private railroads at the time. By 1971, 20 privately-owned railroads opted into Amtrak, and their passenger services were formally absorbed. Initially, Amtrak operated passenger trains on 13 of those 20 lines; a handful of the remaining seven would go on to host passenger trains later, but some would remain freight lines.
Throughout the years, Amtrak continued to add additional passenger rail lines, many of which either provided service directly to Canada and Mexico or connected with routes that did. December 11, 2000 marked the inaugural Acela Express run, which was expected to bring an all-new era of high-speed rail travel to the American people. At first, the Acela offered only one daily round trip from Washington, D.C to Boston, but as the line’s popularity grew, the runs grew more frequent.
February 17, 2020 marked the first launch of the 28 new Acela trainsets for testing; they reached a top speed of 166.8 miles per hour and traveled 20,000 miles along the test track. Due to the travel restrictions that came along with COVID-19, the official launch of the 28 new trainsets was delayed. The new trains are currently expected to begin service in the fall of 2023, and they will vastly increase Amtrak’s overall passenger capacity.
Acela Then and Now
Today, each Amtrak Acela trainset consists of eight cars that can carry a maximum of 304 passengers. These eight cars are a cafe car, a First Class car, and four Business Class cars sandwiched between two power cars. Each Business Class car hosts 65 passengers, and the First Class car seats 44. The new Acela trainsets, which top out at nearly 700 feet long, will have 11 cars per train and seat a total of 380 passengers. The 11 cars include nine passenger cars in total with a power car at the front and the back.
The current Acela trains max out at a speed of about 150 miles per hour, and while the new Acela has been certified to run as fast as 186 miles per hour, it will not reach that speed on the NEC due to the number of stops along the way. However, it will reach speeds of 160 miles per hour, which is a slight improvement from the current Acela trains. While the new trainsets won’t save passengers much time over their current commutes, they will offer a much smoother ride. Unlike today’s Acela trains, the new iteration features articulated wheelsets, which reduces residual motion between cars and provides a less impactful ride. The shared wheelsets also improve safety by eliminating any risk of a jackknife during an incident.
The new Acela fleet will also feature more spacious interiors in both the First Class and Business Class cars. Whereas first-time riders might struggle to find the appropriate car on the current trains, the new iteration offers color-coded doors and headrests that are blue for Business Class and red for First Class. Each car offers larger windows for a more scenic trip, and the shades are easy to maneuver up or down for comfort. Amtrak has also added new winged headrests, which means passengers who have longer commutes can doze off more comfortably. As always, Amtrak has worked hard to ensure that its cars – including the cafe car and the restrooms – are roomy enough to allow for comfortable wheelchair access.
Amtrak Acela Cost, Departures, and Stops
The Amtrak Acela offers a seven-hour round trip with stops in Boston, New Haven, New York, Philadelphia, Wilmington, and Washington and several other intermediate cities, which makes the Acela ideal for those who commute between these locations frequently. The two available options, First Class and Business Class, offer similar amenities, with Business Class providing a few extra perks for added convenience.
Despite Amtrak Acela’s convenience and speed, it is not the first choice among many commuters along the NEC due to the cost. The lowest ticket price is $42 for a one-way route from Boston to Providence, which is a 31-minute trip. If you want to travel between Washington and New York or Newark, you can expect to pay $155 for your ticket – and these are minimum prices for Business Class seating.
Amtrak does often run specials on tickets, and like buying plane tickets, passengers are far more likely to save when they book well in advance. There are anywhere from eight to 15 daily trips between destinations depending on the route, so it’s relatively easy to book a ride for the exact dates and times you need.
What to Expect Onboard an Amtrak Acela Train
Passengers who have never been on an Amtrak Acela often expect the interior to look much like the interior of a passenger plane, but the trains are far roomier and more comfortable. The new Acela fleet launching in 2023 offers even more space, with the Business Class seating far outdoing even first-class seating on all of the major airlines. Both Business Class and First Class Amtrak Acela routes offer reserved seating, fast trips with fewer stops when compared to the regional railway, short transfer times, electrical outlets, USB outlets, conference tables, adjustable lighting, large tray tables, and more.
In First Class, passengers can expect to receive additional perks, which include priority boarding at select stations along the route, complimentary meals in their seats, access to station lounges, and much more. As always, passengers can earn points as they travel and later redeem those points for additional trips or discounts on a wide range of services across the country. It is interesting to note that upgrading to First Class can more than double the ticket price, and many passengers find that the upgrade is not worth the additional cost. Business Class passengers interested in accessing the station lounges can purchase access separately without having to upgrade to first class.
Amtrak Acela trains offer wheelchair-accessible cafe service, onboard Wi-Fi access, and a quiet car that is ideal for commuters who want to relax. Small animals – dogs and cats – can travel right alongside the passengers with an extra fee when they are safely enclosed in approved pet carriers.
The Future of the NEC Rail System
In 2021, the Connect NEC plan was unveiled in Manhattan. Its purpose is to rebuild the NEC infrastructure that creates significant delay on trips between Boston and New York. The project is expected to cost $117 billion and take place over a period of 25 years, and it includes not only Amtrak, but also eight other transit providers across a total of eight states. Some of the other providers include NJ Transit and a variety of federal transportation agencies. The project’s ambitious purpose is to reduce travel time and fix the problems with the rail infrastructure that cause passenger delays among both regular commuters and infrequent long-distance travelers. Overall, the project is slated to increase Amtrak capacity by 33% and double the capacities for the various commuter railroads using the NEC.
The Northeast Corridor is currently the only high-speed rail line in the United States, and it is traveled by some 2,200 trains for a total of three-quarters of a million trips per year. Repairs along the NEC are common, and they often slow commutes significantly. The $117 billion improvement project would revamp much of the problematic infrastructure, thereby reducing the need for repairs and providing passengers with a better, faster experience.
The $117 billion price tag may sound quite high, but it is expected to create some 1.7 million jobs and offer up more than $100 million in economic benefit, which will help to offset the cost significantly. Funding has come from numerous sources, including some from the infrastructure bills passed through Congress in 2021. Furthermore, the states that would benefit from the project are also expected to contribute to the funding.
The Amtrak Acela is the nation’s fastest commuter rail line, and since 2000, it has provided commuters and other passengers with safe, reliable transportation between numerous cities along the East Coast. With the inauguration of the 28 new Acela trains – and with the $117 billion Connect NEC infrastructure improvement plan – passengers can only expect their train travel to get better in the years to come.