With the Acela, a high-tech train that shaves precious minutes off your trip, Amtrak catches up at last
Courtesy of Amtrak

The long countdown is over.
• Ninety years after the once-proud New Haven Railroad began running electric wire above its tracks from New Haven to Boston (the aim was to "electrify" America with high-speed trains, but World War I put a half-century hold on the project) . . .
• Thirty-six years after the Japanese launched the Shinkansen, the now-fabled "bullet train" . . .
• Nineteen years after the French started their train à grande vitesse, the immediately beloved TGV's . . .
• Four years after even the Finns introduced their first high-speed trains . . .
• Eight months after Amtrak's originally announced start-up date . . .

Amtrak's new Acela Express, the fastest train on the continent, is finally ready to accept passengers. After decades of defiance and dysfunction, and the notion that cars and planes could solve every problem, train travelers in the United States have joined the rest of the world.

Racing at up to 150 miles an hour (their highest permitted speed), the Acela trains are scheduled to begin service this month between Washington, New York, and Boston. Projected initial running times are enticing. New York to Boston clocks in at 3 hours 15 minutes, with a series of intermediate stops, along with a 3:10 "super-express" that stops only in Providence. (Compare that with Amtrak's regular service to Boston, which runs about five hours.) New York to Washington is even speedier: 2 hours 43 minutes with stops; there's a 2:30 super-express that stops only in Philadelphia. This spring I got to be the first passenger on an Acela preview run. While they're not perfect, the trains are so good they almost seem worth the wait.

The wait, however, isn't quite over. So far there are just a handful of the new, souped-up trains; fortunately, Amtrak is receiving two more every month. It won't be until early next year, when Amtrak has a full stock of 20 Acela trains, that there will be hourly departures from all three cities.

Acela's long-delayed debut is a historic moment in travel. It's about time, and--when you look closer--it's about time. Every train trip, in fact every journey, improves once we define travel as more than merely a move through space that must be paid for by "spending time." Time in transit too often feels like time endured, or wasted. But as travel becomes enjoyable and effortless, time turns around. Time is recaptured, restored, redoubled.

This kind of heightened perception is embodied in the Acela trains. It's noticeable as soon as you catch sight of them. An Acela Express has a blunt, sloping snout on either end (really the engines, with a combined pull of 12,000 horsepower) that's built for speed. It's like a chisel designed to slice through air. Acela's an American version of the TGV, with six interconnecting cars between its two engines: a first-class compartment, four coaches, and a café car. Its outer skin is burnished stainless steel, with pale blue stripes and the guitar-pick-shaped Acela logo.

Acelas replace the Metroliners, the reasonably high-speed trains that have run between New York and Washington for the past 31 years. Metroliners have been fast enough (2:59, end to end) and comfortable enough to dominate that market, pulling millions of business travelers off competing air shuttles.

That's because even the Metroliners have traversed the first stage in time thinking--something I call the "magic circle." Day trips, the most desired form of business travel, make sense only if the outward journey and the return trip take no longer than three hours apiece. You can attend a meeting in another city and get back without overextending yourself or wasting time in transit. The abiding task of the business travel industry is to keep expanding the magic circle of places within the day-trip range. For years in America, that meant steering clear of trains. (A morning flight from New York to Chicago slipped you into the circle; an overnight roomette on the old Twentieth Century Limited clearly couldn't.)

But lately jet planes and interstate highways have clogged, shrinking the circle's core. With gridlock on the road and in the skies, nearby places are suddenly farther away in time. This has been the whole point of high-speed rail, especially for the Europeans and the Japanese. Moving at roughly twice the speed of a car and half that of a plane, trains can become the ruler of the middle distance, by offering 2 1/2- to three-hour trips between cities up to 600 miles apart.

Although the Metroliners enable travelers to shuttle across that magic circle with ease, they fall short in more aesthetic areas. The trains date from a pre-Amtrak decade when desperate railroaders thought the only hope of luring Americans out of the sky was to build trains that looked and felt like planes. It's almost as if designers meticulously replicated the confinement that characterizes so many airline rides, including tiny windows, low ceilings, and interiors overpowered by dark, nubbly carpeting halfway up the walls. (Seats, however, were a noteworthy exception. What was "first class" on a plane has always been called "coach" on a train: two seats on each side of the aisle and plenty of legroom. In sections called first class, the seats are so much wider you can fit two on one side of an aisle, only one on the other.)

On board an Acela, things are different. All design details aim to help you reclaim your time. In addition to interviewing 50,000 passengers and employees, Amtrak consulted with the same branding and identity designers who had previously worked on creating AVE, Spain's well-regarded high-speed trains. Among the decisions that resulted: every overhead reading light should have a high beam and a low beam; every seat cushion should be made of four different kinds of foam; and the beer on tap should be Samuel Adams.

As you enter the Acela, you're greeted by a friendly porter. You can immediately see down the length of each car, unlike on a Metroliner. The sole barrier between the entranceway and the car's main cabin is a pair of clear glass doors that whoosh aside, Star Trek-like, as you approach; metal Metroliner doors need a kick before they part. Ceilings are high; the lighting is warm and bright. Windows are not only big, they're also tall enough for you to see the passing scenery even when you're standing up. (Amtrak's next job should be to revitalize the barren landscape along the routes so there's something outside worth looking at.) The ride is quiet and smooth; at top speed, the train feels as if it's holding back, eager to slip its leash and burst forward.

The Acela is especially unjerky on the curves, when the "tilt" mechanism comes into play. A tilting train actually leans into curves. This dampens the sensation of being thrown sideways during a turn, allowing a train to slither round bends faster. That's especially important on the New York-Boston leg of the run, since the tracks follow the ins and outs of the Atlantic shoreline. What you notice in a sharp turn on the Acela is nothing at all; because you're not sliding around, a curve isn't all that different from a straightaway.

Further evidence that the future has arrived: the Acela's electronic ticketing. The conductor scans your ticket with a laser, which activates a small OCCUPIED light over your seat. No more ticket punches, no more seat checks. (Supposedly, the next step toward "ticketless ticketing," as it's called, will be a kind of E-Z Pass you can keep in your wallet. Maybe someday you'll wave at the conductor and a microchip implant in your hand will do the rest.)

Any complaints?The footrests are heavy and clunky and don't stay put. Prices have shot up about 15 percent above Metroliner levels, although at $140 for a standard New York-Washington one-way fare, they're still about two-thirds the regular weekday price of an air shuttle ticket.

The future of Amtrak is riding on the success of the Acela, since Congress has told the railroad it must break even within two years or face dissolution. Beyond that, there's the possibility that if the Acela's a hit, high-speed train travel could catch on elsewhere in the country. In fact, Amtrak and Washington State are already running somewhat faster trains from Seattle down to Portland; Illinois will pay for speeded-up Amtrak service from Chicago to St. Louis within the next few years.

Can the Acela reinvigorate American transportation?Amtrak lives in hope, exemplified by the train's name, a deliberately made-up word that combines acceleration and excellence. Based on the good time I had on my first Acela ride, I would add celebration.

For Acela schedules and tickets, call 800/872-7245 or visit www.acela.com.