Review: Amtrak Acela Express High-Speed Train

In September, I traveled to Boston, Massachusetts to present a workshop on wheelchair accessible travel at the Abilities Expo. Hotel rates in Boston were through the roof, so I decided to stay in nearby Providence, Rhode Island. I saved a ton of money on accommodation, and was able to spend a bit of time in one of New England's most beautiful cities.

Since I had flown into the Boston Airport, I needed to arrange transportation to Providence. About 50 miles separate the two cities, which are connected by Interstate 95. Not wanting to wipe out my savings with an expensive taxi, I decided to take the train. This was a perfect opportunity for a trip on Amtrak Acela Express - the high-speed train servicing the Northeast United States. While the ride was only 33 minutes, it was enough to give me a feel for what the service is like. As always, I was traveling with my power wheelchair.

Booking a Ticket & Requesting Assistance

As I shared in a post earlier this month, Amtrak trains have a special space for wheelchairs that must be reserved. You can book your ticket and request this assistance on Amtrak.com. Passengers with disabilities receive a 15% discount on Amtrak tickets, even on the premium Acela service.

You can book your accessible trip on the Amtrak website, pictured above. If you are traveling with your own wheelchair or will need any special assistance, be sure to select "Passenger with Disability (PWD)" from the drop-down menu on the homepage booking form.

With this menu option selected, you'll be presented with another form that asks for information about your disability and needs. As you'll see in the screenshot above, I select the options that alert Amtrak I am traveling with my own power wheelchair.

Once you have completed this form, click submit. You will then be presented with a list of trains/itineraries to choose from. Note that in the Northeast United States, both Acela and Northeast Regional trains will be listed. Acela is faster, but more expensive. Keep in mind that this post concerns the Acela high-speed train. The 15% disability discount will be reflected in the prices your are shown. Tickets on the Acela for this route, Boston to Providence, range from $30 to $60. The less expensive Northeast Regional service costs anywhere from $12 to $30. As with most transportation services, you'll find the lowest prices by booking early.

Alternatively, you can purchase a ticket directly at the train station. I've never had an issue doing this, and there is no additional charge. As a wheelchair user, you'll still be entitled to your disability discount of 15%.

Departure from Boston South Station

If you printed your Amtrak ticket at home or have it in the Amtrak mobile app, I recommend getting to Boston South Station about 30 minutes prior to departure. The train's platform will be posted on the departures board about 15-20 minutes before it is scheduled to leave.

PHOTO by Andy Ryan: Boston South Station.
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Inside the station are numerous dining options, among which include a pizza place, bakery, tex-mex restaurant, Dunkin' Donuts, Starbucks and a McDonald's. There is also a nice bar/restaurant right at the center of South Station.

The station offers free wi-fi and is open from 5 a.m. to midnight, 7 days a week. Public restrooms are available, with each including ADA-compliant wheelchair accessible toilets/stalls. Amtrak operates a lounge as well, accessible to first class passengers. For more information on the services and facilities at the station, visit www.south-station.net.

When it is time to board, you'll exit the station's main hall through automatic sliding doors. Find your train's platform and present your ticket to the station personnel. They will call for the wheelchair accessible ramp, which makes boarding possible:

PHOTO: Wheelchair boarding ramp between platform and Acela train, with train conductor in frame.
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Once the ramp (also known as a bridge plate) had been laid, the friendly conductor Frank welcomed me aboard. It is always nice to be greeted by friendly staff, and there is no shortage of wonderful people at Amtrak!

Wheelchair Accessible Acela Train Car

I rolled onto the train easily, and there was plenty of space to maneuver my power wheelchair. To ensure your chair will fit, Amtrak advises that it be no larger than 30 inches (76 cm) wide and 48 inches (122 cm) long. My Quantum Q6 Edge power wheelchair fit with plenty of room to spare.

If you have only ridden standard speed trains like the Amtrak Hiawatha Service, you might be surprised by the Acela interior:

PHOTO: Wheelchair seating area on Amtrak Acela train.
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Acela trains offer two classes of service: Business and First. My ticket was for Business Class, which has a much more luxurious cabin than Amtrak's standard-speed trains.

You'll notice that the space for a wheelchair is opposite another seat with  movable aisle armrest. This makes transferring into the train's seat possible for those who are unable to stand. Separating the wheelchair space from this seat is a table, which is a great improvement over non-Acela trains.

PHOTO: Wheelchair parked in reserved wheelchair space on Amtrak Acela train.
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Readers have previously told me that the wheelchair space on Acela trains is too compact for comfort and maneuverability. As you can see in the photo above, my power wheelchair and I were definitely squeezed a bit into this space. I would recommend to Amtrak that the seat nearest to the wheelchair space be removed.

Although I am an expert at controlling my wheelchair in tight spaces, others need a bit more room. Many of my wheelchair-using friends are among those who would probably bump into a few things when navigating this area.

One of my favorite features of the Acela train can be seen in the photo above - curtains! The curtains can be drawn across the windows to block sunlight during the daytime. As someone who gets hot easily, it was nice to close the curtains and enjoy a little shade.

The two photographs above highlight some of my favorite features of the Acela trains. The first is the call button, which can be easily pushed and summons the conductor. You can press this button anytime you need assistance. This is a feature all trains should have, and I hope it will be installed on the non-Acela Amtrak trains soon.

The second photo is another perspective on the wheelchair space. As you may have noticed already, the tables fold up to create extra space for the movement of your chair. You'll also notice two power outlets set low underneath the window. There is also a power port set a bit higher, underneath the table. This abundance of power access is great for wheelchair users, as we sometimes need to charge or power multiple devices.

PHOTO: Wheelchair accessible bathroom on Acela train.
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My favorite feature of the Acela trains is the bathroom. As you'll notice in the photo above, there is a ton of space. I was able to execute turns of 360 degrees in my power wheelchair. But the best thing is the fact that one can park their wheelchair directly alongside the toilet, making for easy transfers. Grab rails encircle the entire space, and it is a dramatic improvement over the facilities found on non-Acela trains. Way to go, Amtrak!

Arriving in Providence

Providence is a fairly small train station, and the wheelchair assistance is always on-time and courteous. The station staff were prepared with the bridge plate for my arrival, and I was off the train in a matter of moments.

The station contains a small cafe, as well as a convenience store. There are wheelchair accessible toilets available in the bathroom. Connections to RIPTA city buses are available, or you can arrange for a taxi to pick you up. Because my hotel was less than a mile away, I decided to roll that distance on my own.

Final Thoughts

My experience aboard Amtrak Acela was wonderful. From ticketing to departure and arrival, the process was easy and very streamlined. Assistance was there when i needed it. The train ran on time. and the journey was comfortable. What more can I ask for?

If you're planning to travel within the Northeast United States, I highly recommend you consider Amtrak and its Acela service. Rail travel is one of the easiest and least stressful was for wheelchair users to explore the country, and Acela has improved that experience considerably.

To learn more about Acela Express, which reaches a maximum speed of 150 miles per hour, visit www.amtrak.com.

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