As Good as It Gets on the (American) Rails: A Review of Amtrak’s Acela Express in First Class
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Amtrak’s Acela service between Boston and Washington, DC, with a stop in New York, was a game changer soon after it first entered service on Dec. 11, 2000. After the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, it quickly gained a loyal following for those traveling up and down the Northeast Corridor. Finally, a train — a high-speed one — was competitive with flying, especially as new security measures took place.
I still remember my first Acela trip, early in 2001. It was refreshing. The doors between cars automatically opened with a Star Trek-like whoosh. The lights were bright. The seats were a major step up from the rest of the trains on the route, which was eventually renamed the Northeast Regional.
Now, nearly two decades later, the novelty has worn off. There are plans to replace the trains in coming years, but, for now, they remain the nicest — or at least the most modern — part of Amtrak’s network.
There is no coach class on the Acela. Entry level is business class (not bad marketing, right?). There are four business-class cars (including the popular quiet car), one cafe car and one first-class cabin, which is closed off from the rest of the train.
Amtrak used to be a transfer partner of Chase Ultimate Rewards, but unfortunately that’s no longer the case. You can redeem points earned with the Amtrak Guest Rewards World Mastercard, but if you’re paying cash, be sure to use a card like the Chase Sapphire Reserve which earns 3x points per dollar spent on travel purchases or the Capital One Venture Rewards Card, which allows you to redeem Venture miles at a fixed rate against the cash price of a ticket.
I had booked a $204 one-way fare from New York to Washington three weeks ahead of my trip. (I flew the shuttle home.) Amtrak gives its elite members one-way, one-class upgrade coupons that can be used by anyone, and a good friend of mine — we met at summer camp in 1989 — gave me one of his. If I’d paid cash at the time of booking for the first-class seat, it would have cost $350 for the one-way ride.
Select Plus and Select Executive members get upgrades that can be used 48 hours prior to departure. For other members with upgrade coupons, including Select members, Amtrak Mastercard holders and those who redeem points for a pack of upgrades, the window is 12 hours prior to departure. My friend has the basic-level elite status, so I was able to secure my upgrade the night before my 9am departure.
Amtrak has long frustrated travelers with its delays and antiquated technology. We still don’t have true high-speed rail in the US, and some Amtrak lines are notorious for their delays. But in recent years, Amtrak has started to catch up.
In February 2018, it started to roll out advanced seat assignments for first class. That’s now complete, and the government-owned rail line is now debating doing the same for coach and business-class cabins. That would be a major improvement. Anybody who has taken a train out of the Northeast has seen the mad dash to board and get seats together. This is especially challenging for families boarding trains in the middle of the route, in cities like Philadelphia, where it’s nearly impossible to find four seats together at peak times.
Last year, Amtrak rolled out the ability to use upgrade, companion and discount coupons via Amtrak.com and the Amtrak app — also a major improvement. In the past, you had to call Amtrak’s reservation line, deal with “Julie,” the automated agent, wait and then read a long coupon code to a real agent. So kudos to former Delta Air Lines CEO Richard Anderson for making customer-friendly changes as the head of Amtrak.
My trip started at New York’s Penn Station. Yale University architecture professor Vincent Scully famously said: “Through [Pennsylvania Station], one entered the city like a god. Perhaps it was really too much. One scuttles in now like a rat.”
That quote was going through my head as I stepped off the rush-hour subway and fought my way to Amtrak’s part of the station.
Amtrak has a few waiting areas with chairs, but most travelers tend to gather by the gates, waiting for a track to be called for their train.
However, those in Aclea first class, long-distance sleeper cars, certain Amtrak elites and those flying United in international business class or with the United MileagePlus Club card have access to Club Acela. Note that you can’t just present your United credit card, though. You have to show agents your digital United Club membership credentials — you know, the one the airline gives you. These clubs in Boston, New York, Philadelphia and Washington, DC, are hardly anything to rejoice over. But they’re quiet, clean, have limited snacks and drinks and — perhaps the most valuable perk of all — have early track announcements.
The club entrance is tucked away in a corner of Penn Station, behind the escalator to tracks 7 and 8 West.
The photos I took speak for themselves, but I’ll add that there was nothing luxurious about the windowless club, and the ice machine was broken, but at least there was free water and juice. Luckily, a new club is planned for 2021.
The bathroom was clean but depressing. It reminded me of a bad high-school restroom with the industrial-cleaning-chemical smell. But it was much better than anything you will find out in the public space of Penn Station.
The only bright side of the club was the internet, which was fast. I was able to do a few minutes’ worth of work before my train started to board.
Business-class seating on the Acela is arranged in a 2-2 configuration. But in first class, it’s 1-2. Those coveted window and aisle seats go quickly.
When I selected my seat 12 hours before departure, I chose a window seat with a table. It ended up being a nice spot to eat and work.
The leather had seen much better days, and the entire train had the feel of an old-school corporate boardroom. (Update: Apparently my Acela was one of four remaining train sets that hadn’t yet been given an interior refresh.)
Food and Beverage
First-class passengers get a free meal and alcoholic drinks. Prior to departure, we were offered Dunkin’ Donuts coffee in a disposable cup and a bottle of water. Real plates, glasses and silverware were offered with breakfast.
I’ve taken first class on the Acela in the past during afternoon trips and never been impressed with the lunch offerings. But the breakfast choices felt better.
Breakfast was far from gourmet but still tasty, hot and at least on par — if not better — than anything I could have purchased at Penn Station. Despite having the highest calorie count, I ordered the eggs and bacon and was not disappointed. Plus, my orange juice was served in a real glass.
Amenities and Service
As I flew — maybe that’s not the right word — traveled at 125-plus miles per hour down the tracks, the table turned out to be a great spot to work. The internet speed was faster than on past Acela trips, and I had my own power outlet at my feet. The ride was quiet and smooth — no turbulence to deal with here.
The service was pleasant. Trash and food were removed promptly. I was offered refills on coffee, juice and water. And there was a hot-towel service, although, as you can see below, the towel was closer to a baby wipe than a washcloth.
The only downside was the one bathroom in the car. There were no alternative options when it was occupied for long stretches. And its cleanliness was, well, not as bad as the public restrooms in a train station but not too much nicer, either.
The train pulled into Washington’s Union Station on time, and I got to marvel at the wonderful architecture of that station’s grand hall.
If you’ve got the means, traveling first class on the Acela is a reasonable alternative to trekking out to the airport, going through security, filing into a plane and then doing the same in reverse at your destination. It’s still not glamorous, but hopefully with the opening of the new Moynihan Train Hall in NYC (supposedly) in 2021, and the arrival of Amtrak’s updated Acela cars, it will be a totally pleasant experience — maybe just pleasant enough for me to never consider flying the shuttle ever again.
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