Zippy Amtrak Train Gets Tangled in ‘the Swamp’

Sinister cabal or not, the Acela people are an orderly bunch: They march on board in single file, a loose column of pressed shirts and tightly packed totes, rolling luggage and newspapers folded under their arms. When they disembark, they are slightly rumpled, perhaps more than slightly late, agitated by splenetic tweeting and an excess of Dunkin’ Donuts coffee that sells for $3.50 in the cafe car.

Lizzie O’Leary, the New York-based host of the public radio show “Marketplace Weekend” and a frequent Acela rider, shrugs off all the recent train-shaming. Ms. O’Leary, who relies on the Acela to visit her family in Washington, has become an Emily Post-like figure in the Amtrak community.

She has a voluble Twitter account that deals extensively with the etiquette of the quiet car, a supposedly placid zone adjacent to the first-class compartment, where cellphone conversations are banned.

“I love the Acela,” she said. “I live for the three hours of peace where I can just read or do work.”

Ms. O’Leary noted the difference between the seasoned riders who navigate the train by instinct — they have a favorite car and snack, often the $6 cheese plate — and the wide-eyed new arrivals. Scattered throughout the cars, she said, are the “performatively important,” ostentatiously high-powered riders who treat the Acela’s two-by-two seats as personal boardrooms.

“You’re going to have a lot of jerks, and you’re going to have a lot of people who think their time is extremely valuable,” Ms. O’Leary said. “That’s why I sit in the quiet car.”

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“I love the Acela,” said Lizzie O’Leary, a frequent rider. “I live for the three hours of peace where I can just read or do work.”

Credit
Andrew Harrer/Bloomberg News

The physical experience of traveling by Acela is nothing special: The train lurches and sways, making the walk to the cafe car or restroom an acrobatic exercise.

It is not necessarily markedly cheaper than air travel — a ticket from New York to Washington ranges from $165 to $289, one way (first-class costs up to $421)— but the Acela offers more generous legroom, and the Wi-Fi, at least, comes free. Adherents insist the trip, which lasts just under three hours, is competitive with air travel, factoring in delays on the Van Wyck Expressway and on the tarmac.

The relative conveniences are such that when President Trump’s health secretary, Tom Price, was found by Politico to have taken an exceptionally costly private flight from Washington to Philadelphia, a puzzled cry went up: Why not take the Acela?

“This is why people argue about the quiet car!” John Berman, a CNN anchor, said on air last week. “It’s because that train exists. You don’t need to take a private jet.” (Mr. Price resigned on Friday, after his penchant for chartered air travel became public.)

For some imaginative passengers, the halting motion of a train evokes a certain time and lifestyle, when Eastern aristocrats shuttled between cities without a hint of bashfulness or self-deprecation, simply because it was the finest way to travel.

“When I’m on it, I think of all the political intrigue that’s transpired, all the corporate deals that have been brokered and even the occasional cultural masterpiece that’s been conceived over the same lines,” said Keith MacLeod, a lawyer in Boston who often rides the Acela.

Mr. MacLeod invoked Teddy Roosevelt and Joseph P. Kennedy riding between Boston and New York, “and, my favorite of all, George Gershwin writing ‘Rhapsody in Blue’ on his way to a premiere in Boston, and being inspired by the rhythm of the train.”

What passes for railway intrigue now is less romantic: In 2013, a liberal activist caused a stir by live tweeting an indiscreet telephone conversation between Michael Hayden, the former C.I.A. director, and a reporter. In 2007 Arianna Huffington wrote of having eavesdropped on Bill Kristol, the conservative columnist, as he enthused about the White House’s messaging on the Iraq war.

Mr. Kristol, no friend of the current White House, remains an Acela loyalist, and he has embraced the “Acela corridor” designation along with unfashionable labels like “establishment” and “globalist.”

When a Trump supporter taunted him online earlier this summer, saying Mr. Kristol never made a crowd chant like the president, Mr. Kristol fired back on Twitter: “I’d normally be too modest to report this, but crowd WAS chanting ‘Kristol Kristol Kristol’ as I boarded Acela this a.m. at Union Station.”

Mr. Kristol said his affection for the train was partly tongue-in-cheek, calling it “no great shakes.” He described the Acela’s atmosphere with a gentle irony some people reserve for friends and family.

“If you haven’t ridden the Acela while trying to prevent your Dunkin’ Donuts coffee from spilling,” Mr. Kristol wrote in an email, “while also pretending to ignore nearby riders, who include three McKinsey consultants energetically discussing their spreadsheets, two Europeans vividly lamenting the state of America, and a lawyer sharply berating a junior associate for his failings, have you really lived life in the New York-D.C. corridor to the full?”

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