Amtrak Shows off the New Acela Interiors You'll See in 2021
In a quiet, nondescript building off an interstate in Wilmington, Delaware, the future of America’s high-speed rail is taking shape.
Amtrak gave select journalists, including TPG, a chance to tour full-scale mock-ups of the interior of its new high-speed Acela train cars, giving a sneak peek at what passengers will experience when the first cars are rolled out in spring 2021.
American’s primary passenger train operator launched the Acela trains in 2000, and this is the first time since then that they are getting a new look and feel.
While Amtrak’s Acela fleet currently lags behind high-speed trains in Europe and Asia in terms of speed, these new trains will travel faster than what’s currently available. The new models will travel at 160 mph, 10 mph faster than current cars, and will use 20% less energy that what currently rides the rails.
Because of a lack of infrastructure, having to share limited railway with freight and regional trains, and series of bridges, tunnels and curves, Acela trains can’t reach the speeds of their foreign counterparts, and these new cars could actually have the capability of going faster than the 160 mph they'll initially travel. Amtrak engineers are working on ways they can reduce the impact of these obstacles in order to push the trains towards their top speed of 186 mph.
Amtrak paid $2.45 billon for the 28 new trainsets, which will replace the current 20 that Amtrak already operates. This will allow for not only faster service, but for an increase in capacity overall along the Northeast Corridor (Boston to Washington DC) where the Acela exclusively operates.
While trips are expected to get a bit shorter, Acela passengers can also look forward to a new and improved onboard hard product.
On our tour, we were able to see mock-ups of both the business and first-class passenger cars. Built by Alstom, a French company which also makes the high-speed TGV trains that run across France, the new trainsets will feature seven standard cars, one first-class car, a cafe car and two locomotives. They will seat a total of 378 passengers, up from 304.
Business class will be renamed “Acela-class” to help end the confusion for passengers who asked about what economy class was (there's none on the Acela). These cabins will be laid out in a 2-2 configuration, so you are guaranteed either a window or an aisle seat.
Seats will have new features too, with AC and USB power outlets to charge up your devices, and adjustable reading lights located on each headrest.
Some seats have tables in between them, and new tables have flaps that extend out just for each seat — on the old trains you'd have to extend the flaps for the entire length of the table.
Dozing off will be easier, and you won't have to worry about accidentally snoozing on your neighbor with the new winged headrests, which also feature grips on the side for passengers to grab onto when walking down the aisle.
Amtrak's new first-class car differentiates itself by having larger, and fewer, seats than in Acela class. Laid out in a 1-2 configuration, you'll also enjoy in-seat power and reading lights plus other amenities like catered in-seat dining and alcoholic beverages.
Seats are already assigned in First Class (the only train in Amtrak's fleet that offers this), which is a feature that will remain, Caroline N. Decker, Vice President of Northeast Corridor Service Line, told TPG. Amtrak is also experimenting with assigned seating in Acela class.
"It can be challenging, especially for new riders, as a couple, as a family, to find seats together," said Decker. "We need to do more to help our customers... find the seats they want together."
There could be some limited seat assignments in Acela class, while the rest of the space would be an open-seating model, Decker said, adding that the assigned seating in First Class is incredibly popular with Acela passengers. When asked if Amtrak may start charging to select your seat in advance in Acela class, something that's become commonplace among airlines, Decker said that the company hasn't made any decisions regarding that, but that "anything is possible" — adding that the biggest goal right now is to improve the customer experience.
Amtrak is finally replacing the old-school scrolling analog signs, and placing large digital displays throughout the trains that will communicate to passengers things like location, time, speed and upcoming stations. In fact these, signs are actually an ADA requirement.
To accommodate passengers with disabilities, Amtrak also installed large, ADA-compliant bathrooms in every car. They'll feature all touchless controls which should also help reduce the spreading of germs.
The cafe car is also getting a serious overhaul; most notable will be the lack of seats and the prominence of self-service. There will be refrigerated boxes full of food for a "grab-and-go" scenario. Decker even said Amtrak's considering a self-checkout station for passengers who are purchasing food. They'll still have an attendant who will serve hot food and alcoholic beverages from behind the bar.
However, Amtrak will also begin service with airline-style food carts, which will be helpful for those who don't want to get up and leave their belonging unattended, Attendants will travel through the cars offering customers a variety of snacks and drinks for purchase.
In lieu of tables and seats, Amtrak will install a "nest" area where passengers can post up with their food or drinks on small counters. Decker said there was limited seating in the current cafe cars and this new area will provide more room for passengers and also comply with ADA standards.
Like the other digital displays throughout the train, the cafe car's menu will be displayed on electronic screens, allowing for Amtrak to have more dynamic food offerings. Decker added that it's looking at increasing the diversity of its menu, offering more healthy options, including gluten-free and vegan choices.
Less noticeable but still relevant changes include increasing the window size and getting rid of curtains and opting for pull-down shades. The current overhead bins are enclosed, but will be replaced with clear open shelves that will make it easier to spot your bag when disembarking.
Enclosed gangways will be installed, a commonplace on newer trains, creating a more seamless and safer way to get between cars.
We also got a sneak peek at the engineer's post. The seat has been moved to the center and gives the engineer a wide-angle view of everything coming down the tracks.
All of the new Acela cars are expected to be in service by the end of 2022, and appear to be an overall net plus in passenger experience. Amtrak has also recently announced large investments in infrastructure. New York's Penn Station will get a major upgrade, and Amtrak will be launching nonstop Acela service between New York and Washington DC in September.
All photos by Brendan Dorsey / The Points Guy.