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Trip Report

New Jersey Transit and Acela Express
Hamilton, NJ to Providence, RI and Return

October 27, 2001


After 10 months of revenue service, the time had finally come for Acela Express to meet its toughest test yet. I was going to take a ride. One thing after another had delayed this inevitable check-out the new train joy ride, but a firm announcement to the family that Saturday, October 27 would be the day for Dadís self-indulgent field trip set the works into unstoppable motion.

The plan was to drive from home (Cherry Hill, NJ) to the New Jersey Transit Hamilton station, take NJT to Metropark, and catch Acela 2250 from Metropark to Providence. I would bum around Providence for about an hour and a half, catch Acela 2291 back to New York, and finally NJT back to Hamilton. Who was going join me on this historic occasion? No one. I have a family that is not enamored with trains. To my wife, son, and daughter, trains are ridden for required transportation purposes only and hold no inherent entertainment value whatsoever. I proffered the obligatory invitations for any or all of the guys to join me, but as expected each offer was politely declined (with a look that clearly said, "Are you nuts?). This, as expected, would be a solo jaunt. My Visa account is thankful, however.

On Saturday, October 27, dawn broke over the Garden State with bright sun and a nice, crisp autumn breeze. It was a train riderís sky. At 9:00am I gassed-up the Miata, waved goodbye to my smiling wife (smiling because she was staying home), and headed 33 miles north on I-295 to Hamilton. For those of us in South Jersey (and even Southeastern PA, for that matter), Hamilton is great park-and-ride station for New Jersey Transitís Northeast Corridor service to Manhattan. Located just north of Trenton off exit 65B of I- 295, there are several thousand parking spots at $3 per day. Round trip to NYC is only $13.50. For less than $30 my wife and I can go to Manhattan on NJT. The same trip on Amtrak out of Philadelphia would run $180 (not including parking), and thatís on plain, unreserved Amtrak coach; not Acela Express or the Metroliner.

NJT 7822 rolled up the three mile straightaway from Trenton into Hamilton right on time at 10:06am sporting what looked like 50 stainless steel MUís (probably about 10, but it sure is an impressively long train). The train was already crowded with transfers from SEPTAís R7 line from Philadelphia (they didnít want to pay $90 round trip either). I grabbed an available aisle seat and settled in for the 30 minute trek to Metropark. The trip was underway!

If there are less attractive passenger rail cars in the US than the NJT Arrow MUís, I would not like to see them. Ugly, uncomfortable brown seats; dirty, sticky floors; scratched and hazy plastic windows, and drab lighting make these cars simply depressing to ride. You just have to keep repeating, "the price is right, the price is right". But, besides just the low price, the service is also frequent and reliable, and just a couple of minutes off schedule, we arrived at Metropark in Iselin, NJ.

Ah, Metropark. A cheap-and-dirty highway access station off the Garden State Parkway and not far from the Exit 11 of the Turnpike. Metropark was built in the early 70ís (I think; but it might have been the late 60ís) to entice New Jersey suburbanites to ride the old, original Metroliner. It was very successful, has spawned several similar stations on the NEC, and has also been the catalyst for some major commercial development in the surrounding area. Metropark is now a big-time NJT stop and is still a strong Amtrak player. But this station really needs a complete rebuild. It is literally falling apart, an offshoot of cheap construction, years of neglect, and heavy use. The platforms are slowly disintegrating, the canopies look like a good wind would blow them apart, and the station building of this major stop is the size of a small 7-11, and about as attractive.

A quick climb down from the platform level to the grand hall of Metropark Station, a couple of buttons pushed on the lone Amtrak Quik-Trak ticket machine, and behold: my internet reservation of the night before took the form of real, touch-em, feel-em tickets. Then, I climbed back up to the eastbound platform to watch the goings on while I waited for Acela. I had about 35 minutes until the scheduled 11:19am arrival of Acela 2250. At about 10:50 a monstrous eastbound (toward NY) dead-head move of a lone HHP pulling at least 15 Amfleet cars of all descriptions and paint schemes pulled up and stopped on track 2 (eastbound, center track). Iíve never seen so many Amfleet cars on one train; and all empty. Metropark is on a curve and both ends of the train were out of sight from the station. While it sat out of the way on #2, Amtrak 152 first, and then NJT 7824 pulled through, stopped, and departed on #1. Finally, the Amfleet dead-head move lumbered out. Excitement mounted with a station PA announcement and a toot of a horn from around the curve. Right on-time at 11:19am, Acela 2250 for Boston pulled in. It was now show time.

So, what was my first impression as I walked on Acela? Atmosphere. There is a solitude and informal elegance about Acela that makes the experience of being on-board very, very pleasant. My second impression: crowded. Belying my belief that only business travelers on expense accounts (and deranged rail fans) would pay for Acela leaving weekend runs empty, this train was at least 75% full. Non-rail fan types were paying real money, and their own money, to ride Acela. I grabbed an available aisle seat and next noticed the seats themselves: very, very comfortable. In fact, Acela has the most comfortable seating Iíve ever experienced in travel, including domestic first class air. Now lets talk windows. Unlike the air raid bunker slits that are called windows on Amfleet I, these windows are HUGE. And, they are real laminated safety glass, not plastic. The optical quality is superb. The big windows greatly enhance the experience of riding this train. Trains are for sightseeing, there are things to see, so lets let people look out. Acela does just that. And quiet! After the snaps, bangs, squeaks, and squawks of NJT, Acela is like a library. I loved it from minute one.

Let me talk about interior ambiance for a moment. Interior designers will tell you that the success of any public space is dependent upon the feeling that space imparts on the occupants. To that end, Acela is a huge success. The design of the interior, including the color scheme, the wall treatments, the carpeting, the enclosed luggage racks, and the large windows provides a feeling of comfort, security, and spaciousness that Amfleet does not even approach. You feel good just sitting on Acela, and that is no accident. It is the product of well thought-out design. My hat is off to the designers of the interior of these cars.

Before you could say "lets go", Acela was on the move and I was heading up very familiar rails occupying a very unfamiliar environment. My reason for boarding at Metropark rather than New York was to hedge against seating problems in case the trains were actually crowded. That turned out to be a good move. I figured the passenger turnover in NY is probably at least 80% so if I started west of NY, even with a crowded train, I could shift to a good seat at Penn Station before the boarding passengers arrive. In fact, I was able to make my move at Newark, shifting to a right-side window seat for the upcoming coastline view. At New York, with an on-time arrival, almost the entire passenger load left, and a nearly sold-out passenger load for New England boarded. It is like two trains using one trainset. So thatís why they need 15 minutes for the NY stop! Departure from Penn Station was on time at 12:03.

The ride east from Penn Station is relatively unfamiliar territory for me. Iíve only been east of New York by rail twice in my life: once at night on the old Montrealer, and once recently on the Metro North New Haven line out of Grand Central. The view from the Hell Gate Bridge was spectacular though those big windows, and the run through the Bronx up to Metro North territory is classic east coast urban with this shiny, modern train gliding along an old rail line with trash strewn all over the right-of-way. Once on Metro North you see both the promise and limitations of Acela. The promise is the ease and gracefulness of the train on the old, twisting NYNH&H trackage. The limitation is the constraint of Acelaís promise of speed within the reality of the infrastructure. It is like driving a Porsche down a city street with traffic lights and stops signs at every corner. Itís still a great car but the road wonít permit anyone to see how great.

The Metro North territory was like riding on a museum railroad with the ornate electrification structures and old- style catenary. Scenery is a little sparse, but it was still interesting to pass through all the towns that now basic run one into another. Occasional views of Long Island Sound provided a hint of things to come. This Acela made one stop along the Metro North route at Stamford, and finally came to the end of the MN tracks and the old electrification at New Haven. New Haven also brought the end of most on-board lunch options in the Cafe with the last sandwich having been sold. Despite the lack of sandwiches (only breakfast items and snacks left), the line for the Cafe was still a car-length long, and with just one harried attendant, the wait looked like 15 minutes easy. Deciding a 15 minute wait for chips and a soda was not a good use of my time, I abandoned on-board meal aspirations and decided to tough it out to Providence. My impression of the Acela cafe is that it offers little improvement over the service and selection of the conventional Amtrak "sandwich, snacks, and beverage" service. I was hoping for better.

East of New Haven we re-entered Amtrak territory and the new 25kV, constant-tension electrification. Boy, do they have a lot of catenary structures up there. The old PRR electrification used a 250 foot standard span which is about 21 per mile. Typically east of New Haven, the new Amtrak catenary has well over 30 structures per mile, and in some areas with tight curvature, I saw over 50 structures per mile. That is about 100 foot spans. As a professional in the field, I can tell you that is a lot of structures. In case you are wondering, I did not count structures at 80mph. The structures are stenciled sequentially by mile and count, with each side of a portal counted as one column. So pole number 104-64 is the 64th column leg of mile 104, or the 32nd portal structure. That is my obscure engineering tip of the day.

The urban views of southwestern Connecticut now became the rural views of the eastern Connecticut coastline. The ride in eastern Connecticut was truly scenic, and not at all what one visualizes when thinking of the Northeast Corridor. We zigzagged along beaches and coves, and crossed over rivers and inlets. This was really New England. It was a beautiful ride, but certainly not a high-speed ride. We also encountered an amazing number of highway grade crossings (one would have been amazing, there were maybe eight or more). Somehow the concept of high-speed rail and grade crossings seems incongruous. In eastern Connecticut it is reality.

After the hugging the coast, Acela turned inland and something remarkable happened: this "high-speed" train actually ran at high speed. Except for the short stretch from Metropark to Newark, this was the first fast portion of my "high-speed" train ride. Unlike reports from the early days of Acela, there was no on-board announcement of 150mph operation, but it is easy to tell when it happens. It is quite impressive. It is also kind of a tease. It is like the train is saying "See what youíre missing with that lousy right-of-way youíre making me use!" Not long after the euphoria of Acelaís sprint through Rhode Island, we arrived in Providence at 2:53; one minute early. My trip eastbound was over, but good old 2250 went on to Boston where, after two departing-passenger only stops at Route 128 and Back Bay, it arrived 20 minutes early. The weekend Acela schedules are heavily padded.

I went only as far as Providence to provide enough cushion to catch 2291 back to New York. Acela 2291 leaves Boston at 4:00pm, only 11 minutes after 2250ís scheduled arrival. Eleven minutes was just too tight to go all the way to Boston with any confidence in making the return train (as it turned out, I would have made it easily). Turning at Providence gave me a one hour, forty minute layover. That was enough time for a stroll around downtown and some lunch -- and not in that order. I was starved.

The Amtrak station is in downtown Providence, and downtown Providence is really quite nice. Providence Place Mall, one block from the Amtrak station, has a terrific third-floor food court and that was my ticket to some inexpensive dining. Following lunch, and after what the Aussies call a "walkabout" in central Providence, I meandered back to the station for Acela 2291 and the ride home. The Providence station is a modern building set over the tracks sort of like a fancy subway stop. It is reasonably new, has a domed roof waiting area, and is a pretty successful attempt to build a functional and sort-of stylish train station for a mid-sized city.

I headed down to the platform level about 10 minutes prior to 2291ís 4:35pm scheduled arrival and a bizarre thing happened. Entering from the west was a lone HHP and at least 15 Amfleet cars of various descriptions and paint schemes. This was the very same dead-head move I had seen at Metropark just prior to 2250ís arrival, and now here it was in Providence just prior to 2291. It was like a ghost train haunting my trip. Well, after all, it was almost Halloween.

New York bound Acela 2291 arrived on time at 4:35 and was about 25% full. That is probably a decent load for a slack travel time like Saturday afternoon. I took a left side window seat in the first Business Class car (second car of the set). At the front of the car was a group of about ten New York City firefighters who were returning from a funeral in Boston. Seeing those men reawakened the reality of the nightmare that occurred in September and the thousands of really good people who were lost. These guys were having a fine old time on Acela, however, and it was good to hear their jokes and laughter. If they donít deserve some escape, who does? And, they loved Acela. On at least a half a dozen occasions I heard one of them exclaim, "This is a great train!" By the way, the cafe car ran out of beer before New London. Those guys really did love that train!

The train left Providence, and I began to retrace my route home. I will take this opportunity to state some minor, nit-pick peeves about Acela. First, the ride quality. It is better than Amfleet, but not all that great. Lots of jostles, shakes, and vibrations: much more than I had anticipated. And the seat tray tables are cantilevered from the seat ahead (a long reach) and this support is very springy. When the shakes and jitters from the ride are at just the right frequency, the tray table starts to hop up and down. Whenever that happens, which is quite often, everything on the tray moves about. In order to eat from the tray table (I had the cheese and cracker snack and a soda on the return trip), you constantly have to grab your food and drink to prevent calamity. That is annoying. In my experience, first class airline tray tables (folded out from the armrests of the seats) are much more stable, and are better designed to capture food trays and drink cups. Acela should have mimicked first class airline seat trays.

While weíre on peeves, whatís the deal with those footrests? I tried to use the footrest and found it uncomfortable, so I started to move it back to its folded position. KERPOW! The footrest snaps back into place with a sound like a gunshot blast. My goodness didnít anyone actually test those things out prior to putting the seating into production? Great seats, bad footrest. Oh well, back to the train ride.

If anything, the return ride along the Connecticut coast was even more beautiful the on the ride up. The setting sun was now low, casting long shadows, and the colors just jumped out. Late afternoon in fall is just a great time for light and color. Boats, small beaches, seabirds, and the fall foliage were bathed in the warm glow of the low sun. I just sat back and soaked it in. But all too soon the docks turned to strip malls, and the country roads turned to superhighways. New Haven, Metro North, and the end of New England lay just ahead.

After New Haven the trip on 2291 was at night. That brings me to my final peeve: the lighting. At night, the interior of Acela is lit like a McDonalds on steroids. It is so bright that seeing out those great windows is nearly impossible. That is an easily correctable flaw. The simple solution is turn down the lights. Each seat has individually controlled reading lights, so take a queue from the airlines and turn the dimmer controlled strip lights way, way down. Let people who wish to read use the reading lights, and allow the people who wish look out the windows a chance to see something. Can you imagine the great nighttime view of Manhattan coming over the Hell Gate Bridge if you had a decent view out of the train?

Metro North territory, with the stop at Stamford, passed quickly, and at New Rochelle, Acela turned left off MN tracks and headed back over Hell Gate to Queens and the East River tunnels to Penn Station. We arrived at New York at 7:34pm, 8 minutes early. I stepped off Acela and into Penn Station, a move surely as close to going from heaven to hell as there is in this world.

So what is my verdict? My review of Acela is overwhelmingly favorable, and with some tweaking, the service could even be better. Lets do something to make the Cafe service more attractive and more efficient; cushion or otherwise deaden the snap-back of the foot rests; find some way to stabilize the seat trays so food and drink items stay put, and please, please turn down the lights at night. But even with those minor flaws, Acela is a quantum leap over the existing Amfleet trains. If the weekend passenger loads I witnessed are indicative, Acela is already a player in the NE travel market. It is reminiscent of the introduction of the original Penn Central Metroliners in the late 1960ís. Those trains were so much better than the old rattletrap corridor trains that passengers sought them out and willingly paid extra. At least for longer trips, I feel the same about Acela. It is a great, passenger-friendly train.

I had a one hour wait at Penn Station for NJT 7873 and the ride back to Hamilton. Another endless string of packed Arrow MUís which squeaked and clunked its way down the NEC. I straggled back into the house at 10:30 after a thirteen and one-half hour train-a-thon. The family just shook their heads in disbelief. I just smiled.

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