Monday, July 1, 2013

Fire Breathing Toaster: First Class on Amtrak

by Bill Adler

I'm lucky. I got bumped up to first class last week.

That's the good news. The less-than-good news is that it was first class on Amtrak's Acela, not on an airline. But first class was going to be better than regular class (or as Amtrak calls it on the Acela, "business clas"s) so I decided, why not?

Here's what I think. Maybe next time I'll take regular business class.

First class on the Acela has its own car, which means that other passengers don't have to do that sheepish perp walk on their way to regular class, as they do on airlines. That's too bad for Amtrak because if they could make regular people parade through first class like paupers on their way to their seats, next time more people might want to pay for first class.

Speaking of seats, I was excited to find that Amtrak's first class has individual seats, all by themselves. That's a nice touch: If you board early you can snag a seat that's not attached to any other seat, and that's exactly what I did. Except. Except that for some weird reason, these individual seats don't recline as far as double seats. Huh? What the deal with that? After trying several individual seats to make sure that it wasn't a problem with just one seat, I switched to a regular two person seat.

In Baltimore, another passenger joined me -- the train was crowded by then. I was lucky. Lucky because I was seated next to one of those frequent travelers on his way to New York City, who had Very Important Phones Call to Make For the Rest of the Trip. You see, unlike Acela's business class, which has a quiet car for those who want to take a break from cell phone chatter, in first class anything goes. Because passengers in first class have a lot of Important Business to conduct, there's considerable cell phone chatter going on that you have to listen to. And it's not even the good stuff like "Aunt Margie went into rehab last week..." It's more of "Our plans to invade Libya will be set into motion on Tuesday..." Sigh.

Don't get me wrong. First Class on Amtrak does have plusses. For one thing the food's okay. If you're acquainted with Amtrak's usual haute de microwave, you'll find the first class menu, with a selection of two hot dishes brought to your seat, along with your beverage of choice, a step up. I liked having not to balance my food while the train hurtles down the track at 75 miles per hour. Food service is attentive: When you're done, an attendant magically appears to take your food away. And there's a linen napkin.

What else is different between business class (the only other class on the Acela) and first class? Not much else. Both have wifi and electricity at every seat. First class and business class board at the same time. (Perhaps Amtrak should take another lesson from the airlines and board first class passengers first, if they want to get more people to travel first class.)  It's the luck of the draw in both classes when it comes to whether you're sitting alone or next to a chatterbox.

Amtrak has an excellent smartphone app. I've used it countless times in a taxi on the way to Penn Station: You can reserve and pay for a ticket while winding your way through the maze of Manhattan traffic.

I actually do like the train, no matter what class of service. It costs more than the bus or driving, but it's faster and more comfortable. The train is less expensive than flying and, the hassle-to-distance ratio of flight between Washington and New York doesn't make flying worth it for such a short trip. I only wish our beloved Congress --the Congress that represents all Americans except for DC residents-- would decide that a fast, modern, goes-everywhere rail network was worth spending money on. Because it is.


Bill Adler is a writer. He is the author of "Boys and Their Toys: Understanding Men by Understanding Their Relationship with Gadgets,", "Outwitting Squirrels,", and a mess of other books. He tweets at @billadler. Fire Breathing Toaster is published on Mondays.


  1. Ever wonder why Amtrak doesn't have the capacity (will?) to sell assigned seats like the European railways?

  2. All first class, as well as frequent travelers, have access to the Acela lounge. They usually announce boarding over the speaker in the lounge before announcing it to everyone else, so they do get to board first. In DC it's really nice because there's a back door you go through to get to the train. In NYC, it's not as nice because even if they do announce early, you sometimes have very little time to fight through the crowds of people to get to the gate. Then there's always the people that don't have access to the lounge, but know that the first class people line up first, so they start asking people in line which train it is so they can get a jump start.

    You're right though that there's not a big difference between first and business. Bigger seats, and free food & drink. It's worth it for me to use the first class upgrade coupons I get as a frequent traveler, but I wouldn't pay for first class. I don't use the quiet car since I'm usually traveling during the business day and may need to take a call from a customer.