Amtrak is always on the move. As the pandemic cut ridership on the train system to a crawl last year, the state-supported national rail entity has been busy ramping up reasons to step aboard with hard-to-resist promotions, new service, new train service and new lounges. We rode Amtrak’s streamlined Acela service from New York City to Washington D.C. this summer to test out its premium class offerings and check out the new lounge at recently opened Moynihan Train Hall at Penn Station.
WHERE IS IT? Amtrak is celebrating its 50th year this year and, pre-pandemic, was carrying, on average, 89,100 customers on 300 intercity trains to some 500 destinations in 46 states. Amtrak’s Northeast Corridor, connecting Washington, New York City and Boston, is, by far, the busiest rail line in North America. More than 10 million Amtrak customers pass through its New York platforms annually.
The gleaming new Moynihan Train Hall across from New York Penn Station offers clean, quiet and comfortable places to sit and recompose before heading to tracks for points north and south. The best place to enjoy pre-travel comfort is in the new Metropolitan Lounge located up the escalator from the train hall lobby. The lounge is commodious with purpose-driven places to relax – banquettes in one area for those who want to dine at a table; reading areas with plush seating and side tables; a balcony running the length of the lounge for unwinding over views of the travelers scurrying this way and that.
Food service in the lounge is simple and expedient during these pandemic times. All foods, mostly snacks, sweets and sandwiches, are pre-prepared or packaged in ways that makes them easy to grab and go for busy travelers. The lounge rarely gets crowded and it is always easy to find privacy and quiet amid its expansive design.
However, Metropolitan Lounge lounge is not available for those traveling Acela Business Class unless through their Amtrak Guest Rewards Select Executive and Select Plus memberships. The lounge caters mostly to Acela First Class and private room customers as well as Single-Day Pass holders showing same-day reservations (a $50 purchase). It is open Monday to Friday from 5:00 a.m. to 9:30 p.m., and weekends from 7:00 a.m. to. 9:00 p.m.
WHAT’S IT LIKE? Train travel Acela-style is smooth and easy with two classes of service: Business and First. Seats in Business are 2×2, in First, 2×1. Acela Business is minimal on extras. For dining, there is a dining car but the offerings are limited and not particularly healthful. Menu prices are reasonable: $10 on average for a sandwich or salad, with wine and beer running $7-$16. Business-class passengers can avail themselves of free juice, coffee, tea, sparkling water, and sodas on most routes. First Class passengers get a complimentary catered hot meal and unlimited spirits all served in a spacious car with only 44 seats.
Both classes have options to order assigned seats. Onboard there is free Wi-Fi for all, seating power outlets, sensible seat designs with tray tables and beverage holders, foot rests and plenty of storage space all around.
The choice for Acela over Amtrak’s Northeast Regional is a hard one for the average train rider. While the Acela was built for fast travel and can, at times, reach speeds of 140, even 150 mph on its routes, the tracks they are speeding down are old and frail and in desperate need of upgrades to bring them into the 21stcentury. The use of these fast trains may cut travel time down by 35-50 minutes between Washington D.C. and New York City, however the ticket price over a coach seat on the NR may be double or more.
Non-stop travel between Washngton D.C. and New York City runs 2 hours and 35 minutes while regular trains with stops average 3 hours and twenty minutes. For those who want to gain access to certain politicians or notables, a first class seat from Washington’s Union Station on a Friday night will almost assure unfettered contact.
Seats: Acela’s First Class trains offer two-seaters on one side and single seats on the other, as well as pods with facing seats across a table. The single First Class car can be found at the front of the line, followed by three Business Class cars and a café car. The front of the line Business Class car is considered a “quiet car,” discouraging exuberant group convos and cell phone chats.
The Northeast Regional service recently reintroduced sleeping car arrangements or roomettes on its Washington D.C. to Boston service. The non-stop service leaves Union Station for Boston’s South Station at 10 p.m. and arrives in Boston at 7 a.m. in time to get breakfast and make a 9 a.m. meeting after a good night’s sleep being rocked and lulled up the eastern seaboard. The service starts at $289 for a private cabin and comes with Private room with a dedicated sleeping car attendant, fresh towels and linens; turndown service, access to private restroom, private shower within your car, station lounge access and complimentary meals onboard. Similar services run from Boston to Washington D.C.
Best for: There is nothing like train travel to carry the busy mind into a slow, meditative calm that is great for reading, thinking, mulling and yes, getting where you need to go in the process. For the frenzied east coast commuter, train travel is highly recommended as a comfortable and cost efficient alternative to flying and a safe way to avoid the traumas of flying in the pandemic. Masking laws are in play and enforced and should there be a question about the attitude of a seatmate there are always other trains and other seats to occupy.
VERDICT: All passenger cars were clean and roomy with comfortable seating. Bathrooms in the Acela trains were capacious and clean.
Don’t miss: Amtrak offers a bidding auction for those with coach tickets that allows them to bid up to a Business Class ticket on the Northeast Regional a day or two before departure.
Price: Regular Business Class rates for the Acela line between Union Station in Washington D.C. and Moynihan Train Hall in New York City can run as low as $60 one way (especially if you are ready to hop on the 4 a.m. special!) up to $124 for peak time travel. Tickets for the longer-running Northeast Regional can be booked for as low as $28 in Coach for that route, up to $128 in Business Class. A reliable and functioning website is best for managing the booking, although Amtrak employs friendly and knowing call center agents. However, getting through by phone may take an hour or two.
Contact: 1 Massachusetts Ave., NW Washington, DC 20001; (800) USA-RAIL (1-800-872-7245); www.amtrak.com