Amtrak’s high speed passenger service, Acela, expects to receive its second generation of cars in the next two years, and on Tuesday, the national rail carrier offered a sneak peek at the amenities offered by the new rides.
“For us, the strategy is providing a premium experience for our customers,” said Caroline Decker, a vice president of Amtrak’s Northeast Corridor service line. “We have a product that people like, and it’s making it better.”
The improvements include more seats and more cars per train, adjustments to the chairs to add more comfortable headrests and personal lights, and digital displays throughout the cars to provide travelers real-time information about their rides. The new cars are scheduled to begin hitting the rails in spring 2021, and the 28 new trains will be made up of seven standard passenger cars, a first-class car, a cafe car, and two power vehicles. The new trains, built by French company Alstom at a facility in Hornell, N.Y., cost a total of $1.5 billion, paid for with a Railroad Improvement and Financing federal loan.
The new trains will include 378 seats, compared with 304 now. The trains will be lighter and be built with crash-absorbent modules to protect the cabins in a collision.
The current Acela trains, put into service in 2000, are reaching obsolescence, Decker said. They initially were leased with a projected 20-year life span. Those cars will be retired because their reliance on electric power makes them unusable on routes outside the Northeast Corridor.
Acela service, which operates only on the Northeast Corridor, is geared toward business travelers and is a pricier ticket than a standard Amtrak train. The base fare for an Acela trip to Boston from Philadelphia is $174 for a weekday in September, compared with $83 on a standard train. A first-class ticket can cost $320. The Acela trip is about an hour faster.
The new cars will have improved tilting technology to allow faster travel through turns, but the geography of the Northeast Corridor, Amtrak’s busiest service, includes curves, bridges, and tunnels that prevent Acela from reaching the speeds over significant distance common on high-speed rail in Europe. Amtrak isn’t making any promises about a significantly faster ride when the new cars debut, though.
“Our goal is, anywhere we can, find another minute to cut our trip times,” Decker said.
There are no plans to significantly increase ticket prices when the new cars arrive, she said.
The tour offered Tuesday was not of one of the new cars itself, but of a mock-up of the cars’ interiors at Alstom’s New Castle, Del., facility.
The new cars have amenities to accommodate people’s work, including USB ports and plugs adjacent to every seat, and a promise of reliable WiFi throughout the vehicle. First-class cars look to be more spacious, with rows of two seats on one side and one seat on the other.
The cafe car is significantly redesigned, with an emphasis on self-service. Cabinets will hold food people can pick up, and there eventually may be a self-checkout option on the trains. There’s still a service counter, and for the time being, Amtrak plans to continue having a staff person provide service for hot foods and alcohol.
Most noticeably different in the cafe car is the lack of seats. The car will just have standing counters. Eliminating seats will make the cars less crowded, Decker said, and more accessible to people with disabilities.
“The usage right now of the seats in the current Acela are limited,” she said.
Bathrooms also are all wheelchair accessible, and the spaces between cars will have platforms to ease travel between them.
Amtrak is considering introducing limited food and drink service for seated passengers to its new trains and may experiment with assigned seats throughout the train.
About 3.4 million people traveled on Acela last year, Amtrak reported, and the line earns back 188 percent of its operating budget.
Amtrak’s standard Northeast Corridor fleet is scheduled to be replaced after service for some cars of about half a century. The rail carrier issued a request for proposals for 75 new train sets in January.