Northeast Regional vs. Acela Travel Experience

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Jul 10, 2019
Hi all, longtime lurker, first-time caller.

Is the experience of traveling on the Acela rather than the Northeast Regional more interesting for a minor train nerd?

I have a trip booked on the Northeast Regional round-trip from Philadelphia to Boston in October. I'm debating whether it's worth the extra $200 to upgrade to the Acela. Honestly the cost is not super important to me if the experience is worth it.

The time savings is about 45 minutes and not particularly important to me--this is a leisure trip. I'm thinking more of the actual experience. I've ridden the Northeast Regional from Philly to NY many times for work, and I've been stuck with getting the lowest price ticket, so I've never taken the Acela and I am curious about it.

I took a trip on the Keystone last year from Philly to Lancaster and was on one of the upgraded trains and boy was it nice. Just a very pleasant journey with the nice new seats. On the way back I was on the Pennsylvanian on a car which had NOT been updated and it was a completely different experience--also more crowded, which might have had something to do with it. I guess a lot of them had traveled from Pittsburgh and there were pillows and blankets scattered all over the train, backpacks in the aisles, toys and magazines littered everywhere, and a couple people giving me attitude about sitting next to them, basically telling me to find somewhere else to sit. But also the seats were the tired old cloth seats and not as nice and comfortable, to my mind, as the Keystone had been with the new seats.

So I guess my question is, are all the Northeast Regional cars updated with the new seats, or is it possible I'll have the tired old seats? Are the seats on the Acela really as tired as a lot of the reviews I've read/viewed say? Considering a lot of the reviewers routinely travel on airlines in business class, I'm not sure how to take their reviews. The Amtrak site is not helpful on this count.
The Acela is good, but not great. I take it when I can expense it, but otherwise I'd rather spend the difference in the bar (oops, cafe) car. The seats are okay but not really any better than the new NER seats. I'm not sure if all the NER have been converted. It is kinda fun to go 150mph for a few minutes in Rhode Island, but otherwise it just chunks along through Connecticut like everyone else. It mostly saves time by skipping stations (looking at you, Bridgeport).

Nothing wrong with it, but it ain't no TGV...
Honestly, unless the schedule matters, or someone else is paying, I usually go for the NER. I am pretty sure all of the seats have been done. Acela seat refresh has also recently been completed. I will be heading to DC to attend an offshore wind energy conference in 2 weeks, if I use an ACELA I will report back.
I'm beginning to think I'm better off sticking with the NER. If anyone thinks differently, let me know. I can still be persuaded to upgrade.

Incidentally, I will be riding in coach on the NER, business class on the Acela--the differences to me for the higher classes are negligible (I don't drink much alcohol and it's better if I bring my lunch). My only upgrade will be NER--Acela.

PVD, if you do ride the Acela, I'd love a trip report.
Depending on timing and connections, I frequently switch between the Acela and NER trains. Just yesterday, I was on the Acela NHV-WAS and back. Next week, it's Amfleet I all the way!

In my opinion, they are two quite different animals. First and foremost is the 'ride' of the cars. The Acelas are far less 'bump and jolt' prone than Amfleet I cars. I think they have better cushioning between the bolster and the trucks than the Amfleet cars. As business class on NER trains is always the last car of the train, the ride is noticeably more 'bouncy' than the rest of the train. As there's a locomotive on each end of the Acela, there's far less 'bounce' to the mile. As a result, the behind the seat tray-tables have far less 'bounce', too. Although there were a couple of good jolts yesterday where I thought my coffee or water was on its way to the floor.

Seat spacing ('pitch' in technical terms) is better on the Acela as well. On Amfleet I cars, coach spacing is 12" from the front of my seat cushion to the back of the seat ahead, and business class on 'full BC' cars is 20", and on split cafe/BC cars, 18". Yes, I personally measured them. On the Acela, there is no 'coach', although seats are 2-2. It's all business class, with 18-20" spacing (I've misplaced my measurements - it's probably 20"). Seats in the first class car on the Acela (with free food and drink) is 20" if I recall correctly.

Also, what's been 'lost' to most folks' memory is that the Acela cars are 4" wider than standard Amfleet/Horizon/Viewliner/Superliner cars. Before they were introduced 20 years ago, Amtrak had to literally saw off 2" from every platform to accommodate them! Before the Acela, there was rarely a gap to the platform more than 2". Today, 4-6" is commonplace, even on the brand-new, rebuilt tracks at Penn Station. At Penn, there's even a height difference of 3-4" I've encountered more than a couple of times as well. What's the benefit to Acela passengers? Effectively, 1" width has been added to every seat as the aisle width is about the same.

The acoustics on the Acela are much better than in Amfleet cars as well. Perhaps it's the enclosed luggage bins like airplanes have vs the open shelf on all other Amtrak equipment. Maybe it's better sound proofing, too.

Another difference is the clientele. The premium prices on the Acela generally keep families with children and passengers with giant suitcases, etc. Most of the passengers are business and/or government people that are on their way to or from work. For the most part, they're mostly 'tied' to their smart phones and other electronic devices. The lady that sat next to me yesterday spent the 3 hours or so from WAS to NYP dealing with 2 smart phones (numerous texts and 2-3 short calls), one tablet, a laptop computer, and a book! I'm glad I'm retired and don't have to deal with all that extra 'baggage'. As business travelers, they typically have a briefcase/computer case and a small backpack or carryon for luggage, which results in most stops being 3 minutes or less vs 5 or more at the same stops for other NER trains. (yes, PHL and NYP are LONG stops for both, but even so, the schedule time for Acelas at NYP is about 10 minutes less than Amfleet trains)

And lastly, the windows on Acelas are HUGE compared to Amfleet I as well as most, if not all other Amtrak equipment.

Almost forgot...yesterdays' #2172 was SOLD OUT. Every seat had a butt in it all the way to NYP. Announcements were made at almost every stop that it was sold out and to remove personal belongings from an empty seat next to you. When I got off at NHV and walked past almost the entire train to get to the Springfield shuttle, I looked in the rest of the cars and yes, it was still 99% full or more.

Edit: Oh...I 'discovered' yesterday that Acela has the same 'dead of winter arctic blast' setting for the A/C. The woman next to me wisely put on a sweater before she settled into her seat. So did a couple of other women in my car.
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If you are a train buff, and have the money to spare,I would personally go for the Acela Express in one direction just for the experience. Especially since you are traveling to Boston, you will experience the fastest train in the Americas (a paltry 150 mph for a short stretch, but fastest nevertheless.)
I frequently ride Amtrak between PHL and RTE. I choose my train based on time of day I need to leave PHL. The only Regional trains that I would trust as far as on time performance are 190, 170, 172, 178. 190 leaves PHL at 515 and I've never touched it. I've ridden 170 and 172 to Boston and haven't had much of an issue. If I need to leave PHL anytime after 9-10am I'll tend to book Acela. Mid-Day Regionals to Boston all start out of VA and I don't trust CSX to not delay them much. Personally if you're a buff like me, take a Regional one way and Acela the other. :) That'll settle the debate.
I did Acela first class round-trip PHL-BOS last month. It was nice, and definitely not as crowded as business class on a regional. Although the PHL-BOS leg was an hour late due to the NEC power outage, they let us board while the train was holding station at PHL.

I'd agree with the other posters who say the ride is smoother; I think it's a function of the tilting system as well. If you're a minor train nerd, I'd do Acela PHL-BOS and the NER (pop for the business class upgrade if the money isn't important), BOS-PHL. You get your choice of seats from the origin.
Thanks, everyone, for the input. The idea of taking the Acela up and the NER back is intriguing. That way I could do a real comparison! You have all been very helpful. I'm looking forward to my trip.
My trip was last week and I ended up just keeping my original Northeast Regional tickets. I had two extremely pleasant trips--six hours each way and it zoomed by in comfortable seats with plenty of legroom, no liquids baggie, my shoes stayed on, and I could get up and walk around if I wanted to. Both cars had the renovated seats and were perfectly comfortable. On both trips I had a window seat for the scenic portions in CT and RI. I brought my crocheting and an audiobook on my phone and sat and crocheted and looked out the window and it was so much nicer than flying, even a short route between Philadelphia and Boston.

I'm planning an overnight trip next year on the Southwest Chief (assuming Amtrak doesn't replace it with buses in the meantime) and I am really excited about it now. That was the longest train trip I've ever taken and really the time zoomed by. I never was impatient or felt claustrophobic as I sometimes do on even short flights.