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Road Test: Amtrak's New Acela

Other new amenities in business class include:

* Electrical outlets next to each seat. They're advertised as being for lap tops, but, in a pinch, they work for hair dryers, too.

* Each seat has headsets. Music and news are piped through two channels, with a third providing sound from the videos playing in the business-class cafe car.

Amtrak's Acela Express offers passengers business or first-class seating (no coach), both of which are spacious and well lighted. (Courtesy Amtrak)

_____On the Web_____
Amtrak's Acela site

* Acela Express designers pondered the problem of people taking up all the cafe car tables to spread out papers. The solution was two-fold: bigger fold-down tables at each regular seat and the removal of tables from the cafe car, which now offers a bar with stools.

* Bigger, spiffier restrooms have backlit mirrors, vanities and baby changing tables.

* A slew of little touches, including lights, seen from any seat, that indicate whether the restrooms are free. Pay telephones at the front of each car. Roomy luggage compartments.

Market research by Amtrak showed that 90 percent of women and 50 percent of men admit they get stressed out worrying if they're getting on the right train. Once on board, they worry that they are on the wrong train. Amtrak's solution? Station signs directing travelers are being improved, and each car on the Acela Express runs a continuous ticker-tape-type sign reaffirming where you're headed.

Having been accompanied to the Acela Express by Amtrak bigwigs, I judged the constant reminder of destinations silly. But alone on a Metroliner later in the day, after settling in with a bag of Krispy Kremes, I had this sudden jolt of fear that maybe I was on the wrong train! A fellow passenger had to reassure me that at least as far as he knew, we were going to Washington.

I didn't fully appreciate the other improvements until returning on the Metroliner.

The Metroliner's tiny windows were a reminder of what a dramatic difference big windows can make. And on the trip home, passengers were blasted with cold air every time someone opened the doors to walk between cars. The Acela Express features an accordion envelope that firmly holds the cars together. This allows for consistent temperatures and ameliorates the feeling that you're going to drop between the tracks.

By comparison, the Metroliner lighting seemed dim, the car dingy. It was a rougher ride, and there were no plugs near the seat for my electric toothbrush.

Amtrak is hoping to woo passengers not only from their cars but also from the airlines. Price is one advantage: Travelers to New York, for example, save $50 over US Airways' weekday shuttle fare without advance purchase. Still, it remains unclear whether US Airways and Delta shuttles will respond with price deals. As David Castelveter of US Airways put it, "We can't talk and won't talk about future pricing intentions."

But then again, on the shuttles the beer's not on tap, and you end up in Queens.

Acela Express one-way fares to New York are $143 (business class) and $217 (first). Washington to Boston: $162 and $248. Tickets go on sale Nov. 29. Once all 20 trains are phased in by summer, Metroliner will be history; its cars will be renovated and become part of Northeast Direct--Amtrak's unreserved, cheapest alternative. Amtrak info: 800-872-7245, www.amtrak.com.

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