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Amtrak Bringing Faster Rail Travel to the Northeast in 2021

More comfortable, higher-speed Acela trains will service Boston, New York, and D.C.

spinner image New Acela 21 in Testing
Marty Katz

America's fastest train is finally getting an upgrade.

Beginning next year, Amtrak will roll out new cars on its 20-year-old high-speed Acela line, which serves the Northeast Corridor between Washington, D.C., and Boston. The trains will reach speeds of up to 160 miles per hour, 10 miles per hour faster than they can travel now.

The current nonstop Acela route from Washington's Union Station to New York's Penn Station takes two hours and 35 minutes. The new trains will shave about 15 minutes off the trip — an appealing time saver for the many business travelers who rely on the high-speed service.

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Besides offering a shorter journey, the new trains will be more comfortable and accessible. Passengers will find more legroom, winged headrests, a reading lamp, an electric outlet and a USB port at every seat. The bathrooms will be roomier, with a five-foot turning radius for people using wheelchairs.

The trains will also be larger overall — carrying up to 386 passengers, a nearly 25 percent increase over current capacity — with larger windows and luggage storage areas. They'll have more dining and beverage options, such as craft beer; complimentary Wi-Fi; and upgraded technology that will provide location, travel speed and conductor service announcements on video monitors throughout the train.

The first of the 28 new trains are scheduled to begin operating in 2021. They will replace Amtrak's 20 existing Acela trains, allowing the company to eventually add more departures to its schedule.

The cost of a trip will vary based on demand, departure time and date of purchase, but will be similar to current Acela prices. For example, one-way fares from Washington to New York purchased in November 2020 for travel in January 2021 begin at $137 (compared to $54 on a regular-speed Northeast Regional train). Boston to New York fares at the same time start at $98 ($39 on the Northeast Regional).

Like so many providers in the travel industry, Amtrak has suffered during the coronavirus outbreak. Last year Acela served more than 3.5 million passengers, a 4.3 percent increase over 2018. But this year it has seen ridership drop by up to 75 percent due to the pandemic.

Although Acela trains will remain the fastest in the country, they're still limited by Amtrak's aging infrastructure throughout the Northeast. For example, even though the new trains can reach 165 miles per hour, in use they will top out at 160 — and that in only a few places — due to track conditions. Indeed, even with the new trains, Acela will still lag behind the high-speed rail lines in Asia and Europe, where trains travel at well over 200 miles per hour.

But Amtrak is working to catch up. The new trains are part of the rail line's larger, $2.5 billion modernization process, including track upgrades and station overhauls.

What to know about traveling on Amtrak trains (Acela and non-Acela) during the pandemic

  • Amtrak is reducing capacity by limiting bookings, generally by about 50 percent, but you can choose to ride with even fewer passengers by checking the Amtrak app and website to see how crowded a train will be.
  • When you book on Acela and in business class on the Palmetto, Vermonter and Northeast Regional trains, you'll automatically be assigned a seat — window seats only, to allow for social distancing. If you're traveling with a companion, you can move to sit together once you board.
  • Passengers are encouraged to use touch-free ticketing on their smartphones, so their tickets can be scanned.
  • Cash is no longer accepted in the cafe cars.
  • All trains are equipped with onboard air filtration systems that Amtrak says offer “a fresh air exchange rate every 4-5 minutes,” and augmented onboard cleaning procedures include the use of medical-grade disinfectant, provided through Amtrak's partnership with RB, the makers of Lysol.
  • Amtrak is waiving all change fees for reservations made by December 31, 2020.
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