The Acela Story Part 1: Success

In a two-part series, we examine the history of Amtrak's Acela Express service, to learn the lessons of the past as we plan for the future. In Part 1, below, we detail the service's growth and success, despite facing strong criticism early on and delivering only incremental service improvements. In Part 2, we will examine the service's ongoing challenges and Amtrak's plans to improve service in the near-term.

>> The success of the Acela service demonstrates the potential for high speed rail and incremental improvements on the Northeast Corridor.

The Acela

acela_route_map.jpgAmtrak's Acela Express service runs between Washington, DC, and Boston, MA, serving 16 stations along the line. Amtrak runs approximately 50 Acela trains per day, with the line south of New York City seeing about double the service to the north. With a top speed of 150 mph, the Acela is the fastest passenger train in the United States.

Since its introduction in 2000, the service has become a dramatic success story for Amtrak and for passenger rail in the Northeast. The service has demonstrated the power of fast, reliable rail service to provide a competitive and profitable transportation choice for the Northeast Megaregion.

Growing Pains

The history of the Acela has its roots back in the 1960s, when high-speed service was first proposed for the United States. Planning for the Acela began in earnest, however, in 1994, when Amtrak invited bids to develop trains capable of 150 mph service. The first Acela train entered service six years later in December 2000. (Click here for an early timeline of Acela.)

While the smooth operation of the Acela is largely taken for granted now, a series of technical mistakes inspired widespread criticism of the new trains. By 2005, a New York Times article detailing Acela's history, described the Acela as a "frustrating burden" for Amtrak.

The first major problem occurred in 1999, during testing, when Acela's engineers admitted that they had built the trains four inches too wide. As a result, the train would be unable to utilize a special tilting technology specifically designed to maintain the train's high speeds along the tight turns of the NEC. After service began, technical difficulties plagued the system. The Acela was sidelined three times due to technical problems during its early years of operations.

In 2005, for example, all Acela cars were taken out of service for several months for emergency repairs. The issue was largely one of weight. In order to comply with federal regulations that require that rail cars be able to withstand a full-speed crash with a freight train, the Acela cars are approximately double the weight of the European cars that their design is based upon. This extra weight caused problems for the Acela's suspension system and its braking mechanisms, which had to be replaced after they unexpectedly developed large, dangerous cracks.

While these technical shortcomings did little to inspire confidence in the Acela service, to many, Acela's most fundamental disappointment was not a mistake at all. First, with a top speed planned at 150 mph, Acela fell far below its peers in Europe and Asia, where trains can reach top speeds of 200 mph and higher. Second, thanks to track conditions on the NEC, Acela trains failed to achieve a series of travel time benchmarks that had been earlier by set Congress. For example, the goal was to travel from Boston to New York in under three hours. Instead, the Acela can make the trip in about three and a half. Without sufficient funding from Congress, Amtrak was unable to make the track improvements that could sustain 150 mph travel and deliver such ambitious time savings.

In general, Amtrak faced expectations for Acela that were arguably too high and constraints, like capital funding, that were beyond its control. As a result, Acela's introduction looked more like a modest service improvement - not the high-speed rail system that many had envisioned for the Northeast Corridor for so long.


Finding Success

Despite these early challenges, riders in the Northeast have responded overwhelmingly and positively to the introduction of the Acela service.

Ridership Growth
Since opening, ridership on the Acela has reached 3.2 million passengers in just ten years. According to Amtrak, an average of 80% of seats are sold in the busiest segments with most trains sold out during peak periods.

And as Acela has grown, its success has not come at the expense of the slower speed, Northeast Regional rail service. Along the NEC, total ridership on the Acela and Northeast Regional service has increased by 24% from 8.4 million in Fiscal Year 2000 to 10.4 million Fiscal Year 2010 (Note: Amtrak's fiscal year ends September 30). Instead, Acela's high-speeds and easy access to downtown business locations have made the trains extremely competitive with air service. As of 2010, Amtrak's Acela and Northeast Regional services together have captured 69% and 52% of the air/rail markets in New York City-Washington, DC and New York City-Boston, respectively. According to Amtrak, the Acela is also more energy efficient than other modes of travel, using approximately 2,400 BTUs versus approximately 3,000 BTUs by air travel and 3,400 by the automobile.

The Acela train is also extremely profitable. From 2000 to 2010, ticket revenues on the NEC grew by 87%, driven mainly by increased ridership and higher prices on the Acela trains. This single service contributes almost 25% of Amtrak's overall ticket revenues, despite representing less than 10% of total system ridership. In recent years, Amtrak has made revisions to its financial reporting that make it difficult to compare the performance of their routes and between recent years. However, in 2010, Amtrak's reporting indicates that the Acela ran an operating profit of $82.5 million, the highest of any line.

Since 2000, Amtrak has steadily increased service and added new amenities to meet the growing demand and encourage additional ridership. In 2005, Amtrak increased frequency dramatically with 12 additional round trips between New York City and Washington, DC, and one additional round trip between New York City and Boston. In 2010, the Acela was the first Amtrak train to receive Wi-Fi service, enabling business passengers and other riders to stay connected while on board.

Lessons Learned

acela_promotional2.jpgAcela's current success demonstrates the potent demand for higher speed trains on the NEC. Upon celebrating its ten-year anniversary in December 2010, Amtrak President & CEO Joe Boardman wrote in the Philadelphia Inquirer, "Acela has shown that high-speed rail does work in America, and that prudent public investments in passenger rail can pay huge dividends."

Acela's success also signals the power of incremental improvements to deliver major service upgrades and big ridership gains. While many rail advocates were disappointed by Acela's limited speeds, its incremental advances have still inspired tremendous growth in ridership and service. This is an important lesson for other rail corridors in the Northeast, like the Keystone Corridor in Pennsylvania and the Empire Corridor in New York State, that aren't implementing true high-speed service, but are making more modest improvements to service and speed. The value of incremental improvements is also an important lesson for the NEC itself. Even as we pursue a dedicated, high-speed rail system, ongoing investments on the existing NEC to improve reliability, address capacity constraints and increase speeds will further the success of our rail operations and help meet the continued growth in passenger demand.

Part 2 . . .

Despite this success and the potential it demonstrates for further investment, the Acela train is not without its flaws. Stay tuned to Part 2 for a deeper analysis of Acela's ongoing challenges and Amtrak's plans to improve the Acela in the coming years.

Acela Route Map: Amtrak
Acela Train in Philadelphia: Creative Commons License user madbuster75 Ryan Keene
Acela Promotional Poster: Amtrak

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