Sunday, March 27, 2011

Acela

So, I took the Acela up to Boston last Wednesday. It's over twice as expensive as the Northeast Regional, but it was worth it for this one time. The timing was better, and it was less than 40 extra bucks because it was a pretty short trip.

In for those not living in the Northeast, the Acela Express is Amtrak's premier train. It's the only true high-speed train in the western hemisphere. Based on European designs, the Acela trainsets are streamlined and capable of 150mph speeds.

Riding on one was really neat. Very sci-fi like. The first thing you notice is the doorways. On commuter rail and all other Amtrak trains (except possibly the Cascades train out west), the individual cars are connected by shaky metal doorways. You have to push a button - which doesn't always work - to open the door, and you step into a vestibule that's freezing cold, noisy, and you think you're about to fall to your death. On the Acela, the glass doors open automatically, and the vestibule is barely different from the rest of the aisle. This is because the Acelas are integrated trainsets, rather than individual cars.

The seats aren't much wider than standard Amtrak cars, but there's more footroom. And then you sit down, and it's quiet. The AC is nearly silent, and the trainset vibrates less than a normal train. It's actually quiet enough to sleep, which is what everyone not on laptops or smartphones is doing.

It's also a lot smoother going around curves. The Acela trainsets can tilt up to something like five degrees, which means you don't slide around at all, and you don't even really feel most curves.

Tilting, plus the Acela design, means you also go crazy fast. There's only one section of track - 18 miles near Kingston, RI - signaled for 150mph, but a lot of sections allow 135mph and 125mph, and that's still faster than most Northeast Regional trains. You don't have much of a feeling of speed till you look out the window, but you cover a lot of ground very quickly. It's only 40 minutes from New London to Providence, and 40 more till you're exiting at South Station.

Is the Acela perfect? No. Is it good for most corridors? No; only densely populated corridors like the Northeast Corridor, California, and maybe Florida and the Midwest have enough population to make high-speed rail viable. Is it worth the extra money over a Regional? Not unless you're a businessrobot and can expense it.

But it's amazing. I rode into Boston in half the time that it take to drive. No traffic to deal with, no cops to watch out for. Wifi if I wanted it, and the chance to get up and stretch my legs. Every politician should get out and ride it sometime. Proof that rail transit is certainly not dead.

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