A Look Inside Amtrak’s Next-Gen Acela Express

Written by William C. Vantuono, Editor-in-Chief
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Amtrak Vice President Northeast Corridor Caroline Decker.

Amtrak’s Acela Express, which replaced the iconic Metroliner service that helped define the Northeast Corridor for the better part of 30 years, is now approaching age 20 (kind of old for a train). The equipment, popular with customers but sort-of affectionately called “The Fast Pig” in railroading circles, will soon be replaced with new, lighter, sleeker and faster trainsets from Alstom.

We’ve already provided you with a look at the exteriors of the new equipment. Here’s a look inside. While the existing trainsets are comfortable, some of the interior features tend to be on the clunky, bulky or unwieldy side. Not so with the new trainsets. This time, the designers—unfettered by a long-gone Amtrak executive still mockingly referred to as the “Decorator General”—got it right.

Based on the mockups I saw at Alstom’s plant in New Castle, Del., these new trainsets are inviting, comfortable, ergonomic, spacious, and conducive to working, or just plain ’ol relaxing—the polar opposite of flying, which is what train travel is meant to be (are you listening, ex-Delta Airlines CEO Richard Anderson?). The engineer’s cab is, well, unusual for North America, with a center-seating position a la TGV, and smartly placed controls.

Nice! Rather “European,” but definitely “American,” if we’ve defined the look and feel of an American high(er) speed trainset. Perhaps we have. If the existing Acela equipment can be compared to a heavy, clumsy but luxurious 1960s Cadillac or Lincoln “land yacht” with a few modern amenities (a “resto-mod,” in collector-car parlance), this new trainset approaches what you’d expect in a 2019 Caddy XTS, Lincoln MKZ, BMW, Mercedes, Infiniti or Lexus, with hint of Corvette C-8 or Dodge Challenger Demon performance. You get the picture.

OK, enough automotive comparisons. Suffice to say that, given the choice of flying the Delta Shuttle from New York to Washington, driving (even in a fast, comfortable car) or riding the new Amtrak equipment, the train wins, hands-down. No brainer. Just make sure, Amtrak, that you maintain the tracks, catenary and signal/train control system, OK? But that’s a $30 billion engineering story for another day.

Here’s what we can look forward to in 2021 (and by the way, that’s Amtrak Vice President Northeast Corridor Caroline Decker in some of these photos):

  • Larger windows with pull-down shades (no dust-collecting curtains).
  • Winged headrests with built-in adjustable reading lights. Every seat has convenient, center-mounted electrical outlets and USB ports. You won’t have to ask your neighbor, “Mind if I drape my cell phone charging cord over your lap?” There are built-in aisle hand-holds, so you don’t have to worry about “accidentally” smacking someone in the face or the back of the head if the train happens to hit a patch of “rough” track. There are also grab bars for stability, and what Amtrak calls “gap fillers to cover the space between the train and the platform, creating a smooth surface for entering/exiting the train.” In other words, retractable bridge plates. As well, when you’re walking between cars, you won’t have to step on a large, rubber, accordion-like contraption in the vestibules. Those have been smoothed over.
  • Streamlined, open overhead luggage racks (goodbye, closed compartments with head-bang-inducing doors that airline-brainwashed customers tend to leave open), and large, end-of-car open luggage racks.
  • The tables with facing seats have individual flip-up extensions, so you don’t (again) have to disturb your neighbor. You want yours down. He or she wants it folded. No problem!
  • More legroom, and flip-down footrests.
  • Two-tiered, fold-down at-seat tray tables. They’re light, a vast improvement over the current, anvil-like tray tables that often get stuck when you’re trying to slide them out. (“Damn tray. It won’t move! Oops! There goes my drink!”)
  • Indirect, crew-adjustable lighting. Much more pleasant than fluorescent lights glaring in your face when you’re trying to catch some shut-eye on a chilly winter evening.
  • Spacious, fully accessible restrooms with “touchless” features and a 60-inch-diameter door turning radius.
  • Each nine-car trainset will seat 378. There will be seven “Acela Class” cars (replacing “Business Class”) with 49 to 59 seats; one “First Class” car with 44 seats; and one Café car with no seats (not even bar stools, so don’t even think about hanging out with a laptop. Just get your food and libations and head back to your seat!). The Café car will have, in addition to an attendant providing hot food, “self-select” refrigerators. These are not vending machines. You get what you want and pay for it at the counter. Amtrak calls this “convenient dining options, offering easy access and greater selection.” Well … we’ll see. Just don’t get rid of the Angus cheeseburgers, OK?
  • High-resolution-LCD digital signage.
  • Individual receptacles for trash and recycling (sustainability—about time!).
  • Digital seat displays. Amtrak is evaluating an advance-seat reservation system. Don’t even think about grabbing an aisle seat and putting your “personal belongings” on the window seat—a passive-aggressive way of saying, “Get lost. I prefer to sit by myself and hog as much space as possible.”
  • Onboard Wi-Fi to “enhance the digital experience.” In other words, it’s not supposed to drop out when you need it most.
  • Safety systems, such as CCTV cameras, that “provide real-time monitoring and ensure a safe and comfortable ride.”

At this point, it looks like the new Acela Express will be well-worth the wait. Caroline Decker, one of Railway Age’s first “Women in Rail” honorees, and the people at Alstom and Amtrak (apologies if I’ve left any company out), deserve a round of applause. Hopefully, when this new equipment enters service, they’ll be worthy of a standing ovation.

By the way, do you think it should be renamed Metroliner? I’ve always liked that name. It sounds more like a train …

Nice! (not me, the seat!)

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