For the final leg of my journey back home from Biloxi, Mississippi, I had the opportunity to take Amtrak’s Acela Express train in first class from Philadelphia to Trenton. Although I had read other bloggers’ reviews of the Acela Express before, I was eager to experience the upgraded Amtrak service myself. The ride would only last twenty-nine minutes, but that would certainly leave enough time for me to enjoy the complimentary meal and beverage included with the ticket while snapping a few quick photographs of the cabin along the way.
By the time my train pulled into the station at 8:51 p.m. in the evening (it was delayed by twenty minutes which was fine by me because it meant that I could spend more time at the ClubAcela location at the 30th Street Station in Philadelphia), I was ready to get going. The trip had been filled with a whirlwind of meetings and other work obligations and I could not wait to just sit down and relax. I think anyone who has to travel extensively for work or business can relate to this. After all the excitement of the airport lounges and elite upgrades, after all the hotel points and loyalty bonuses, sometimes it’s nice to finally sit in front of an empty chair and eat a hot meal knowing that you are headed home.
It was good to be able to experience something new.
But it was better to know that I was almost at the finish line as well.
On my train ride to Philadelphia earlier in the week, I rode in business class in a non-Acela Amtrak train. While the seats were comfortable and spacious, the experience was not much different than in coach on the other Northest Regional (non-Acela) Amtrak trains I had taken to Newark International Airport in the past. As such, I was left unsure of whether the business class experience was worth the increased price of a business class ticket on these trains.
The Acela Express, however, is touted to have better business class and first class seats (there is no coach class on Acela Express trains), an improved dining and bar car, and superior cabin amenities and restroom facilities. These trains also have free WiFi available, although Northeast Regional and many other Amtrak trains also have free WiFi on board as well. If you are seated in the first class cabin, an in-seat meal and drink (alcohol is complimentary in first class) is brought directly to you by a conductor shortly after you board the train. Newspapers and magazines are also available for free in first class.
As stated in my previous report about ClubAcela at the 30th Street Station in Philadelphia, I was one of the first people to arrive at the loading area of the station as my train was approaching. I do believe that one of the best benefits of riding in first class of the Acela Express is having access to the ClubAcela lounge. The ability to take a private elevator right to the front of your train before everyone else is allowed down to the tracks is very convenient (especially, I would imagine, during a busy travel day or rush hour). I realize that Amtrak is not able to provide this service at every station it services, but when available, this perk does provide great value to passengers with ClubAcela access.
As it turned out that evening, I was the only one who was boarding the Acela Express in Philadelphia. There were a few passengers who were leaving the first class cabin as the train pulled into the station, and the first class cabin itself was about half full. Boarding was very fast and I found a nice seat with a table and another empty seat facing it to settle into as I waited for the conductor to scan my ticket.
Much to my surprise, the conductor only took ten seconds to notice I had boarded and approached my seat from the rear of the car. As I pulled out my phone and prepared to show him my ticket on the Amtrak app, he simply handed me a menu and asked if I wanted anything to drink. I was much too tired and worn down from the week to stomach liquor or alcohol, so I ordered a Pepsi and began to peruse the various offerings for dinner that day.
As I relaxed into the cushioning of my seat, I noticed that the seats themselves were indeed quite comfortable. Although one would expect as much from any first class product, it is still nice when reality lives up to expectations. To offer a comparison to domestic airline seats, I would say that it felt as if the first class seats on the Acela Express were about the same width as a standard United airlines A-319 or A-320 first class seat. Legroom on the first class train seats was good (although for those who are taller than my statuesque five foot, seven inch frame I am sure that facing someone in the seat across from you could be quite awkward). The seats in first class also recline, although not to the same degree as some first class airline seats.
There are storage bins above all seats (on both sides of the car) for storing luggage in addition to a separate “large bag” stowage area/rack towards the front of the car. The first class restroom is also located at the front of car and is quite spacious. All seats have some form of a table or desk. Power outlets and plugs are available throughout the car.
One area where the Acela Express excels is in the seating layout of the first class car. There are some rows of seats that have single seats that face the back of the seat in front of them. There are some rows of seats that have single seats that face one another (such as the one I was fortunate enough to procure on this particular journey). There are some rows of seats that have two seats to a row that face the backs of the seats in front of them. There are also some rows of seats that have two seats to a row that face the seats in front of or behind them, thus creating a small conference area and table of sorts that seats up to four people.
Tables divide the center of the seats that face one another, and each table can be folded out or up depending on how a passenger wishes to utilize the space at the moment. This is useful in the event that someone wants to eat for the first part of their journey and work on their laptop for the duration of their transport.
Among the many perks Amtrak advertises for first class passengers on Acela Express trains is the complimentary in-seat meal and beverage service that is included with the ride. I was excited to compare the menu offerings in this first class train ride to those offered in the first class cabin of various airlines. However, I was also worried that there would not be enough time to place my order, receive my beverage, and enjoy my meal by the time I arrived in Trenton. Thirty minutes is not a great amount of time to cook, serve, and eat a hot meal even when using the “fast preparation” methods used on airplanes.
As such, my first thought was to order something that did not require any preparation. I noted that there was a fruit and cheese platter listed on the menu. The grilled shrimp caesar salad also appeared to be a dish that did not require too much preparation on behalf of the conductor. In the end, however, my eyes could not stop staring at the short rib entree. I have always had a soft spot in my heart for beef, pork and any type of prepared meat. Today was no exception.
In the end, I figured that the worst that could happen by ordering the short ribs was that I would not be able to finish the entire meal or that I would have to depart before experiencing the food on the Acela Express. However, this risk was worth it to me since I would always rather review things that I am truly interested in reviewing rather than just choose something easy to review for the sake of being able to say I did it. Besides, who can say “no” to short ribs?
Luckily for me, none of this back-and-forth internal discussion would matter because my meal was hot and ready within ten minutes after leaving the station.
For a meal prepared in a flash (and obviously not made from scratch that day), Amtrak actually did quite well. Portions were hearty and did not leave anything to be desired. The dinner bread was warm and soft. The mashed potatoes were moist and did not taste as if they were made from powder, even if they were. The asparagus was firm and tender. The short ribs were also very tasty and not overcooked. The accompanying sauce (a morel) was a perfect pairing, and everything came together quite nicely. The dessert was fairly bland and small, but did not taste horrible either.
Before any of you interject with your objections, I do realize that this is food prepared for the masses who ride a train, much like the domestic first class food on any legacy carrier in the United States is food prepared for mass consumption at the lowest cost possible. These short ribs would probably never win any culinary awards or be served in any fine dining establishments. They do not compared to the crab cakes or pot pies I had consumed while in Biloxi or any of the other fine meals I have had the chance to experience in me life (both fancy and no-frills in variety). After all, we are talking about train food.
However, when keeping all of that in mind, this meal was actually good.
While I did not have time to check out the dining car (Café Acela) or other parts of the Acela Express train, I did manage to snap a few more photos of the cabin and desk area in and around my seat. Thirty minutes flew by quickly, especially when a meal, a beverage, and a need to take as many photos as I could for my report were all on the agenda for the short ride. Most of the other passengers around me were either taking a nap, enjoying a beverage, or working on their laptops or tablets. A few were holding conversations as well.
The cabin and train as a whole did feel lively, especially for 9:00 p.m. at night. In fact, from what I did see of the food and bar car upon departing the train, there were quite a few people sipping a beverage (or two) and socializing in that common area of the Acela. I suppose that this would be a much better way to commute home to New York from Washington D.C., as drinking alcohol and driving your own vehicle several hundred miles would clearly never be advisable. Thus, I definitely saw the value in having someone else do the driving, so to speak.
As my train pulled into the station in Trenton, I took one last look around the cabin and snapped a few final photographs for my report. Although the ride had been short, it had been enjoyable. A meal, a drink, friendly service, and a nice seat with power outlets and Internet access – you cannot ask for much more than that while traveling these days.
I was actually quite impressed with the Acela Express. As with all things, I am sure that the luster would wear off if I had to travel back and forth from New York or Boston to Washington D.C. everyday via the Acela, but that could be stated about any mode of travel and of any commute. The friendly service, ClubAcela access, priority boarding, complimentary meals and beverages, and improved seating made the journey that much better.
Again, I should state that I actually did not pay for my ticket. I am still unsure if the increased cost for first class on the Acela Express would be worth the increase in benefits. However, if someone’s company is footing the bill or if someone us upgrading their ticket using points or an upgrade instrument, I could see why the Acela appeals to commuters and people in business alike.
As for me, I was so tired by the time I departed the train station and got home, the only commute that I could think about was the walk from my front door to my bed. One hectic week had finally come to an end, and it was good to catch some sleep before another loomed on the horizon.
One mile, train, shuttle, flight, and road trip at a time.
It was good to be home.
Be sure to check out my previous reports from this trip!