scorecardI rode on Amtrak's Acela for the first time and while it wasn't the high-speed journey I expected, I can't wait to see what's next
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I rode on Amtrak's Acela for the first time and while it wasn't the high-speed journey I expected, I can't wait to see what's next

Thomas Pallini   

I rode on Amtrak's Acela for the first time and while it wasn't the high-speed journey I expected, I can't wait to see what's next
LifeThelife5 min read
Riding an Acela train.    Thomas Pallini/Business Insider
  • Amtrak's Acela turned 20 years old in December 2020 and its next era is rapidly approaching.
  • New trains from Alstom, track and station improvements, and non-stop services are set to improve the line, bringing the US closer to European-style high-speed rail.
  • I rode Acela for the first time last month and it was enough to make me look forward to what's to come.

Amtrak celebrated 20 years of Acela in December 2020 as it prepares to take the service into the next-generation with new trainsets debuting this year. The high-speed line currently connects Washington and Boston with stops in every major city along the way and is a popular alternative to flying thanks to its fast journey times.

The same trains have been operating Acela services since its debut in 2000 as the "Acela Express," achieving speeds of around 150 miles per hour at their fastest. They gave Americans a taste of European-style high-speed rail with a sleek design inside and out.

But these trainsets are nearing extinction as Amtrak prepares to onboard its new Alstom-made Avelia Liberty trains that have already begun testing across Amtrak's network in preparation for a 2021 debut barring potential delays. The trains are set to improve all the best features of the current Acela trains and more.

I took my first Acela ride in November 2020 from Boston to New York and spent just under four hours on the train. It wasn't the fastest way to travel between the two cities but the train certainly had its perks over flying.

Nevertheless, Acela's 20-year-run wasn't bad for America's first go at high-speed rail in the 21th century.

Here's why I'm looking forward to the future of Acela after just one ride.

It's fast but the new trains will be faster

Amtrak Acela Express
Amtrak's Acela train traveling on the Northeast Corridor.      Michael715/

The top speed of Amtrak's current Acela trains is 150 miles per hour but they're often bound to travel slower due to the congested and outdated nature of the tracks along the Northeast Corridor. Only a few stretches of track can accommodate the high speeds of which Acela is capable, mostly between Boston and Providence on the New England sector of the route.

But Acela is markedly faster than trains like the Northeast Regional, keeping journey times between New York and Boston and New York and Washington under four hours and three hours, respectively. That's also partially because the Acela makes fewer stops than other lines.

On our journey out of Boston, I was amazed at how fast we were moving as we zoomed past cars on an adjacent highway. Keep in mind, my rail experience has larger limited been the slower Northeast Regional and my daily commute on the Long Island Rail Road and New York City Subway.

Our speed quickly, however, decreased after Providence as we journeyed down the Connecticut coast and entered New York.

The new Avelia Liberty trains, however, will be able to travel at faster speeds of up to 160 miles per hour on its initial runs and up to 186 miles per hour once improvements are made, according to Amtrak. The train's "anticipated tilting system" helps achieve these speeds on the winding tracks of the Northeast Corridor.

The system will also provide a smoother ride than Acela's current models. While I didn't have a problem in that regard while sitting, trying to walk while the train was moving did sometimes prove difficult.

More non-stop trains between major cities

Riding Amtrak Acela During the Pandemic
Riding Amtrak's Acela from Boston to New York.      Thomas Pallini/Business Insider

Amtrak inaugurated a new Acela service in September 2019 that saw non-stop trains between New York and Washington. The aptly named "Acela Nonstop" brought travel times down to around two and a half hours, offering a time savings of nearly 30 minutes.

Bringing travel times on the line down even more made Acela more competitive against the airlines in the fight for market share. Near-hourly "shuttle" service is offered between New York, Boston, and Washington with perks like prime boarding gates and complimentary alcohol on some flights.

I had taken Acela down from Boston after flying up on Spirit Airlines and the train still took longer, albeit by just a few minutes, even when factoring in getting to the airport, arriving early to go through the security checkpoint, and taking a bus downtown. When competing against the airlines, however, every minute counts.

But while a popular alternative to the local trains, the service was quickly suspended due to reducing ridership during the height of the pandemic and its aftermath. Having taken a total of three Acela trips during the pandemic, I haven't seen trains more than one-quarter full, and that's even with Amtrak limiting capacity at 50%.

Once the pandemic ends and Acela's riders return to the rails, the time may come to not only bring back Acela Nonstop but increase its offering to include trains to Boston or even offer a hybrid that cuts out smaller stops like Metropark in New Jersey or New Carrollton, Maryland.

Amtrak has 40 trainsets on order, 40% more than the current number of Acela trains in service, allowing for more frequent service and room to expand the Nonstop. And with the new Alstom trainsets, maybe New York to Washington, and vice versa, can be done in under two and a half hours.

The new trains will feature expanded onboard amenities

Amtrak new Acela trains interior
A mockup of the new Acela train cabin.      Amtrak

I was impressed after stepping on Amtrak to see the amenities it offered including two 120v AC power outlets at every seat, complimentary WiFi, a tray table and footrest, and overhead lighting. The WiFi was strong enough to facilitate a Zoom meeting in which I participated during the ride with no interruptions or lack of quality.

There were more amenities on Acela than on the Spirit Airlines aircraft on which I'd flown to Boston.

Amtrak is promising more amenities on the Avelia Liberty trainsets including USB charging ports, stronger WiFi, and adjustable reading lights. Digital signage will also give the train a "futuristic look," as Business Insider's Graham Rapier reported, while seats will have winged headrests and handles on which to grab to maintain balance when the train tilts.

And in the cafe car, Amtrak says the new trains will have a greater selection from which to choose. Renderings show a new bar-like dining area with countertops, much like what current trains have instead of the tables found on the Northeast Regional.

A new train hall has come to Pennsylvania Station complete with new lounges

Moynihan Train Hall
New York City's new Moynihan Train Hall.      Thomas Pallini/Business Insider

"One entered the city like a god; one scuttles in now like a rat," art critic Vincent Scully once wrote, as noted by the New York Times, regarding the transformation of Pennsylvania Station in the 20th century from an architectural masterpiece to a subterranean waiting room.

New York has always been an outlier in the Northeast Corridor as featuring perhaps the least endearing station in the system. Most stations along the route in major cities - whether it be Union Station in Washington, DC, Pennsylvania Station in Baltimore, or South Station in Boston, and 30th Street Station in Philadelphia - feature the classical architecture befitting a train hall.

But the days of a subpar Pennsylvania Station days are thankfully over. The long-awaited Moynihan Train Hall in New York City opened on January 1, 2021, bringing back the glory of the original Pennsylvania Station before its demolition in the 1960s.

Amtrak has a new home in New York and Acela passengers have a new lounge to enjoy. The new Metropolitan Lounge replaced ClubAcela and is accessible to Acela's first class passengers, riders with elite frequent rider status, and riders in sleeper cars.

Lounge patrons will be greeted with complimentary food and beverages, power outlets, USB charging ports, and a business center.

Visitors may once again arrive like gods, especially if just disembarking from the new Acela trains.