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Amtrak vs The World: How do US high-speed trains compare with those overseas?

Following my recent trips on Amtrak's high speed train, the Acela, I wanted to compare price and service quality with similar trains overseas. The operative words here are "similar trains"; the purpose - built high speed lines in many countries move only high-speed trains; conventional passenger, freight and commuter use other lines. The rail environment in which the Acela operates includes conventional passenger trains, commuter services and frequent freight trains. Here are the results of my research. Please keep in mind that I have ridden all trains described in these comparisons.

High-Speed: Acela - Amtrak's Service Washington to New York

How does the Acela stack up against other high speed trains in the world? It is not a fair comparison of Acela with other purpose – built high speed lines such as in Japan, Europe and China. However, the Russian Sapsam service between Moscow and St. Petersburg has many similarities to the Amtrak route. Both routes operate high speed trains along existing tracks sharing the line with ordinary passenger trains, commuter and freight trains. Maximum speed for both is 150 miles/hour.

Amtrak's Acela in Washington

Route Map of Acela

The Acela covers the 238 miles to New York in about two hours and fifty minutes at an average speed of 85 mph. Typical ticket prices for a business class seat (only two classes on Acela - business and first) is about $250. Cheaper ticket prices are available, subject to availability. The top speed of 150 mph is possible only on short stretches of the line New York - Boston. On the day of my travel, departure from DC was ten minutes late with a New York arrival about twenty minutes late. Ride was generally smooth, and though the tilting mechanism made for comfortable operation through curves, sharp lurching did occur when the train moved through crossovers.

Sapsam - Russia's Premier High Speed Train

Russia's Sapsam in St. Petersburg

Route Map of Sapsam

On the day I rode Sapsam, departure and arrival were dead on time. The 403 miles were covered in just over four hours, for an average speed of about 101 mph. I paid $100 for my economy class ticket, though that included a substantial fee from the online booking agency in the UK. I estimate that the "normal" ticket price if purchased in Russia would be about $85. Sapsam has a three class system: economy, business and first. Typical with overseas practice, specific seats are reserved and indicated on the ticket.

The ride was smooth throughout with only a few curves, as the train approached Moscow. A unique feature of this train is that even with my cheap economy ticket, I was allowed up to $30 of food and drinks from the cafe section of the coach. Most passengers made full use of this nice feature. Only negative impression was that seats were arranged two seats facing another two seats, with a table in between. Leg room under this table was limited, which may be uncomfortable for some.

The Verdict; Which Train is Better?

What is my verdict on the Acela? It is a fast, reliable, rail service between Boston, New York and Washington. Compared with other high speed rail services overseas operating on existing tracks with other passenger and freight services, it is a bit pricey. My biggest complaint is the lack of seat reservations. If Amtrak were to add this feature, the service would be much more attractive to the user.

Comparing ticket prices with Russia’s Sapsam, the Acela comes out on the short end: it is quite expensive ($1.05/mile compared with $0.25/mile) and average speed is slower (85 mph compared with 101 mph). In addition, the Sapsam cheaper ticket includes $30 worth of free food/drinks on board. The Sapsam is operated by the Russian Railways (RZD) and Acela by Amtrak, a corporation funded largely through subsidies from the US Government.

The comparison is, of course, imperfect. There are differences in labor costs as well as general price levels in each country. However, neither rail operator is profitable and both receive hefty subsidies from their respective governments (Amtrak receives $1.4 billion/year and RZD $1.5 billion).

So, the Acela is a good service for the Northeast Corridor market, though quality could be improved by adding a real seat reservation feature. By comparison with a similar overseas operation, I find it to be expensive and not as good value for money as Sapsam.


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