News & Politics

Is the Acela Really a High-Speed Train?

Technically, but not when you compare its 150-mph max with the world's other fast trains.

To read more from the DC insider’s guide to the Acela, click here.

Technically, but not when you compare its 150-mph max with the world’s other fast trains.

TRAIN: Fuxing

ROUTE: Beijing to Shanghai in 4½ hours

SPEED: 248 mph

BRAGGING POINTS: Fastest train in the world.

TRAIN: Nozomi

ROUTE: Tokyo to Osaka in 2½ hours

SPEED: 217 mph 

BRAGGING POINTS: No fatal accidents in history.


TRAIN: Eurostar

ROUTE: London to Paris in 2½ hours

SPEED: 186 mph

BRAGGING POINTS: Meals and drinks served seat-side.


ROUTE: Madrid to Barcelona in 2½ hours

SPEED: 217 mph

BRAGGING POINTS: A first-class ticket gets you a meal with wine

Why is the Acela so slow?

The Acela can do 135 mph up to New York, but it averages about half that speed. That’s because the rails are more than 100 years old in places, and thus too frail for anything faster. Amtrak also shares them with slower freight and local commuter lines. So upgrade the tracks, you say! Amtrak wishes. In 2010, it proposed improvements for DC-to-Boston trains that could reach 220 mph. Only problem: the $117-billion cost. The Obama administration made a $2.5-billion down payment, but billions more would have to be found partly from Congress, which moves on infrastructure . . . well, more slowly than the boarding line at Union Station.

Train illustrations by Todd Detwiler. This article appeared in the March 2018 issue of Washingtonian.

Staff Writer

Benjamin Freed joined Washingtonian in August 2013 and covers politics, business, and media. He was previously the editor of DCist and has also written for Washington City Paper, the New York Times, the New Republic, Slate, and BuzzFeed. He lives in Adams Morgan.

Staff Writer

Elaina Plott joined Washingtonian in June 2016 as a staff writer. She has written about her past life as an Ann Coulter fangirl, how the Obamas changed Washington, and the rise and fall of Roll Call. She previously covered Congress for National Review. Her writing has appeared in the New York Observer, GQ, and Harper’s Bazaar.