The capital cities of Boston, Massachusetts and Providence, Rhode Island are located about 50 miles apart and are connected by Interstate 95. For tourists visiting New England, an accessible day trip between from Boston to Providence and back (or vice-versa) is possible thanks to three railway services that connect the city centers. Here, I’ll review the fastest of them — Amtrak’s high-speed Acela

Travel Between Boston and Providence

There are three rail options between Boston and Providence — Amtrak Acela, Amtrak’s Northeast Regional Train, and the MBTA Commuter Rail. Acela takes 35 to 45 minutes, the Northeast Regional takes about 50 minutes, and commuter rail takes about 1 hour and 15 minutes.

Acela train parked at station.

Given the short route, the time saved on Acela doesn’t justify its higher cost, however its faster speed and amenities may be valuable on a longer journey, such as from Boston to New York or Boston to Washington, D.C.

Booking an Amtrak Ticket & Requesting Wheelchair Assistance

My same-day round-trip journey from Boston to Providence and back gave me an opportunity to test out both Acela First Class and Acela Business Class. I booked first class on the outbound journey from Boston to Providence, and business class on the return from Providence to Boston.

I made my booking through the Amtrak website, which makes it very easy to search for and compare fares, and to request disability assistance. Travelers who identify as having a disability during the booking process are entitled to a discounted fare (typically about 10% off the lowest standard fare).

My purchase was for a first class wheelchair space on the outbound and a business class wheelchair space on the return journey. With first class priced at $64 and business at $23, my total round-trip ticket cost about $87. A similar fare on the Northeast Regional train would have been $16 round-trip in economy and $50 in business class, while the MBTA commuter rail would have been $24.50 round-trip ($12 for seniors and those with an MBTA Transportation Access Pass (TAP).

Wheelchair Accessible Acela First Class, Boston to Providence

When you purchase a first class ticket on Acela, you’re getting a fully refundable and flexible ticket that provides a suite of services that extends beyond transportation.

Amtrak Metropolitan Lounge at Boston South Station

Acela’s first class passengers can escape from the busy passenger terminal and enjoy some peace and quiet in the Amtrak Metropolitan Lounge at four different departure stations along the Acela route: Boston South Station, New York Pennsylvania Station, Philadelphia 30th Street Station, and Washington, D.C. Union Station.

Selfie of John in the Amtrak lounge.

Entrance to the Metropolitan Lounge is free for Acela first class passengers, however business class passengers are required to purchase a day pass. The cost of a day pass is $35 in Boston and Philadelphia, or $50 in New York. Day passes are not sold at Union Station in Washington, D.C.

The Metropolitan Lounge in Boston is designed beautifully. Amtrak promises “quiet lounge seating, complimentary non-alcoholic beverages, snacks and free WiFi,” and it delivered on those things.

Though the lounge amenities were fairly barebones, the clean and accessible bathroom in the lounge was a welcome sight — let’s just say that it is in significantly better condition than the public restrooms.

One important note about accessibility: The primary entrance to the Metropolitan Lounge in Boston is via a long staircase. Although elevator access is available, an Amtrak employee must “unlock” access to the mezzanine floor where the lounge is located. If you have access to the Boston lounge, present yourself at the information desk to the left of the Amtrak ticket office, where staff will be available to assist with the elevator. I hope, through some advocacy, to eliminate this need for staff intervention in the future.

Boarding the Acela Train

For wheelchair users, a ramp is required to bridge the gap between the Acela train and station platform. Disabled passengers should seek out an Amtrak employee in advance of departure to organize this assistance.

At Boston South Station, this service is provided by Amtrak Red Caps, who assist passengers with disabilities with boarding and stowing their luggage. When things are working properly, disabled passengers should be the first to board the train — that was the case for me in Boston, as I was boarded about 30 minutes prior to departure. Note that, at intermediate stops (on Acela that’s any station except Boston and Washington, D.C.), all passengers board simultaneously as the train stops only for a short period of time.

Acela First Class Wheelchair Space

Although Amtrak Acela first class passengers enjoy more space than business class passengers (seats are arranged in a 1-2 configuration vs. 2-2), the wheelchair spaces in both first and business are exactly the same.

Wheelchair space with table.

The wheelchair space on Acela trains is too compact for comfort and maneuverability. Although my full-size power wheelchair fits easily through the boarding door and to the wheelchair space, the space itself is small. If you want to face the table, maneuvering a power wheelchair into the space will require some finesse. The tight quarters also limit the degree to which a power wheelchair seat can be tilted, though you will enjoy more room of you back sideways into the space (i.e. facing the aisle).

Features of the wheelchair space include a tray table, window curtains, power outlets, overhead reading lights and a call button used to summon the conductor. A standard (fixed) seat is located across from the table for a companion. For wheelchair users traveling together, note that there is only one wheelchair space per car on the Acela train.

Acela First Class Dining Service

First Class Acela passengers receive a complimentary at-seat meal and beverage service provided by Amtrak’s onboard attendants. Because my trip was a short one, I wasn’t sure that there would be time for a meal, however the cabin attendant took my order and served the meal before the train departed Boston’s South Station!

Shrimp, bread and dessert served on a tray in Acela first class.

Upon boarding, I was served given a bottle of water and presented the menu for the day, which offered the following lunch selections:

  • Baked Manicotti — Ricotta and fresh spinach filled crêpes with tomato sauce and mozzarella cheese
  • Cheese & Fruit Plate — Meseta, goat, English cheddar, and Piave cheeses. Served with red grapes, craisins, dried apricots, and fig compote
  • Kofta Kebabs — Plant-based protein skewers, seasoned with zaatar. Served with curried vegetable basmati rice with roasted cauliflower, chickpeas, golden raisins, peas, red peppers, caramelized onions, cashews, and Shah’s white sauce
  • Chilled Grilled Ginger Shrimp — Grilled shrimp served chilled with toasted sesame slaw and a tangy Thai ginger barbeque sauce

I ordered the shrimp, which was served with bread and a dessert. My drink of choice, Woodford Reserve on the rocks, was perfectly prepared. For a train ride of less than 45 minutes, the chance to enjoy a meal and a glass of bourbon was a real treat.

Acela Accessible Bathroom

My favorite feature of the Acela trains is the large and accessible bathroom. The bathrooms are so large, in fact, that it is possible to execute turns a 360 degree turn in a power wheelchair.

Accessible bathroom on Acela train.

Most importantly, there is space to park a wheelchair directly alongside the toilet, allowing for safe lateral transfers. Grab bars encircle the entire space.

The bathroom door must be closed manually, which is a bummer, but Amtrak has promised that the next-generation of Acela trains (arriving in 2024) will feature automatic bathroom doors. The bathrooms on the current Acela product are significantly more accessible than those found on most non-Acela trains, including those used on the Northeast Regional service, so it’s presently the most accessible train bathroom you’ll find between Boston and Providence, New York or D.C.

Wheelchair Accessible Acela Business Class, Providence to Boston

Prior to taking this trip, I had never purchased a first class ticket on Acela. I expected it to be different in some way from business class, but found that not to be the case. Apart from the lounge access and increased service level onboard, the wheelchair space was the same. There was nothing different about the hard product onboard and, as a result, I’ll just leave you with these photos taken on a previous business class trip.

The real question is — should you pay for first or business class? The answer depends on what services you intend to take advantage of on your journey. Lounge access is worth $35, the plated meal might be valued at $20, and drinks range anywhere from $5 to $10 each. If you can get your money’s worth from first class, go for it, otherwise you will find the exact same seat in business class.

Looking Ahead: New Acela Trains to Debut in 2024

Amtrak has contracted Alstom to produce 28 next-generation high-speed trains to replace the current fleet of Acela trainsets. The new trains are expected to enter service in 2024. The following video offers an early look at the interior:

While much of the design is expected to remain the same (including the space-constrained wheelchair spaces), some dramatic improvements have been made in the bathroom, with a more thoughtful use of space and the inclusion of a touch-free door opening/locking system.

Read about how the next-gen Acela trains will compare to the brand-new Siemens Venture Cars that Amtrak has debuted on select services in the Midwest.

Final Thoughts

This trip allowed me to compare Acela’s first and business class products on the same day and on the same route. I enjoyed the premium experience of first class, but wouldn’t spring for it again on this short of a journey. In fact, when traveling between Boston and Providence, I wouldn’t purchase an Acela ticket at all — the Northeast Regional was $8 each way and takes only 5 minutes more. Although the Northeast Regional trains have a poorly accessible bathroom, I can hold it for 5 extra minutes to save $15 or more each way.

The greater bathroom accessibility found on Acela is a necessity for many on longer journeys, and it’s great that the option exists. It’s nonetheless a sad state of affairs that wheelchair users have to pay a cost premium for greater accessibility — those new Amtrak trains from Siemens can’t some to the Northeast Regional soon enough!

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