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September 26, 2006

Amtrak's Winner: ACELA

Tired of the hassles of air travel… the weather delays, TSA examinations that rival visiting a proctologist, and the cramped coach seating with legroom only for midgets? Well, try the train… if you can get a seat.

In the Northeast Corridor, Amtrak’s flagship train, Acela, is a delight for daytrips to Boston or DC. But I’m not alone in being a big Acela fan, as I found out recently. Arriving at NY’s Penn Station at 3 pm one weekday afternoon. I figured I’d have no problem getting a seat on the 4 pm Acela to Baltimore. Wrong! It was sold out and so was the 5 pm train. First class was available for an additional $82, but I opted for a slightly slower but much cheaper “conventional” Acela Regional train equipped with the older Amfleet coaches. (Mind you, I did treat myself to “Business Class” for an extra $ 30, offering more legroom and all the free Diet Pepsi I could drink.)

Amtrak tells me that ridership is up 7% this year on Acela and climbing steadily since the latest airline terrorist scare in mid-August. Trains are selling out hours, if not days, in advance… not just rush hour departures, but mid-day as well. And why not? Riding Acela (which I’m doing as I write this column) is a delight. It’s fast, comfortable, on-time (90% of the time, come rain or snow) and its quiet, especially in the popular Quiet Car®. But it’s not cheap, nor should it be.

Amtrak is following the airlines’ lead in adopting yield management, offering big discounts for reservations in advance (for example, Stamford to Boston on Acela purchased two weeks in advance, just $ 78). But if you need a ticket for tomorrow’s early Acela to Washington, it’s $ 193. It’s all a matter of supply and demand, and demand is way, way up.

The problem is, the supply of seats is static. Amtrak has only 20 Acela train sets and, hobbled by a GOP-appointed Board of Directors with a death-wish for the railroad it runs, there seems little hope of ordering more trains. Acela is becoming a victim of its own success.

Currently, Acela makes 14 runs a day between NYC and DC, but just 8 trips each weekday between NY and Boston. And not all of those trains make a stop in Stamford. Squeezed into the CDOT-owned and Metro-North operated tracks at rush hour, Acela can’t earn a stop in “the city that works”.

A big plus is Amtrak’s Guest Rewards® program styled after the airlines frequent flyer programs. You earn points based on distance traveled and the cost of your ticket. At the program’s “silver” and “gold” levels, “Select” and “Select Plus”, you get free first-class upgrades and free visits to the ClubAcela lounges found in many cities, a great place to wait for your train while enjoying free snacks and wireless internet connections. Amtrak also has its own affinity MasterCard which can really rack up the points.

In a future column I’ll write about the joys (and sorrows) of long-distance travel on Amtrak, but right now I’m off to the Acela CafĂ© Car for a soda before an early arrival in Washington. Ah, Acela!

JIM CAMERON has been a Darien resident, transit activist and commuter for 15 years. You can reach him at or


Anonymous said...

Amtrak also offers a 10% discount to AAA members, children up to age 15 get a 50% discount, and seniors have a discount as well. They often have promotions that if more than one person travels together they will get a 25% discount, always check their website for these promotions and the proper code to enter when you are booking your ticket!

I'm more interested in finding out about if Amtrak is used to travel to destinations within Connecticut. A few weeks ago I was at the Bridgeport train station transferring from the Waterbury train to the GC bound train and I noticed amtrak was running a promotion. There were several posters in the train station advertising $19 from New Haven to Springfield Mass, there was a map showing that the train line also stops in Meriden and Hartford. I drove through downtown Hartford a few months ago on a Saturday and I noticed there were a lot of people waiting on the train platform. I imagine the majority of them would be traveling to visit family? I wonder if Amtrak also advertises their services in Spanish to the very large Latino community in Hartford and New Haven? Does anyone know if business executives in Hartford ever use Amtrak to travel to New York or Boston. My only experience is a friend of mine who lives in Hartford who takes Amtrak to New Haven and transfers to the metro north train to get to NYC about once a month. He does this to avoid traffic on I-91 and he has a patient girlfriend that is willing to pick him up at the New Haven train station on the return trip(since the amtrak shuttle runs every 2 hours I think).

Jim Cameron said...

Excellent observations.

Under its former President David Gunn, Amtrak made a run at the New Haven - Springfield service, adding frequencies and dropping fares. It was never quite "commuter" service (that's coming, run by the State), but I'm sure did a lot to attract Hispanics and students.

As for the business riders, the Hartford to NYC corridor is still dominated by auto's and Metro-North. But planners have the dream of a one-seat ride from Hartford to NY and beyond sometime in the future.

Right now there are few, if any, through trains from the NorthEast Corridor to Springfield. Most are connections in New Haven.

Anonymous said...

I was in Hartford on Saturday and I had a chance to follow up on my previous question about Amtrak advertising to the local Hispanic community. I stopped by a Mexican grocery on Franklin Avenue and grabbed one of the local free newspapers in Spanish. Amtrak had an ad in Spanish, it was about a promotion they are running if you travel with somebody else they will give you a discount on the ticket price. No mention of the New Haven - Hartford - Springfield train.

- John