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Amtrak® Acela Express® Accommodates All

National Railroad Passenger Corporation (Amtrak)
60 Massachusetts Ave, NE
Washington, DC 20002

December 11, 2000: As thousands of airline passengers along the East Coast became stranded due to fog, Amtrak's new Acela Express whisked from Washington to Boston in six hours and 43 minutes with its first paying passengers. Though 12 minutes late, the passengers didn't complain. "A lot of people hanging out at airport gates would have been happy to be just 12 minutes late," said an FAA spokesman (Phillips, 2000).

The Amtrak Acela Express in motion d

The Amtrak Acela Express in motion
Image copyright Amtrak

The northeast corridor between Washington, New York, and Boston is among the most densely populated and highly traveled areas of the United States. In 1995, Amtrak began the development of the high-speed, high-quality Acela Express system to compete more effectively with air and auto travel in this important market. Acela, designed to reduce travel time and increase the amenities of Amtrak's passenger rail system, became operational on December 11, 2000, with the inaugural run from Washington's Union Station to Boston's South Street Station. Unprecedented events in 2001 would also affect the ongoing competition between air and rail travel.

It would be an understatement to say that the horrific airliner tragedies of September 11, 2001, changed the way Americans travel. Among these changes were additional delays in air travel due to heightened security measures, and an increased reliance by Americans on auto and rail travel. These changes coincided with social and legislative changes within the US.

Department of Transportation Initiatives

The US Department of Transportation's (USDOT) Strategic Plan 2000-2005 clearly stated concern for the needs of elder passengers and those with disabilities:

"Accessibility and meeting the physical and service needs for all the population is a challenge that will involve serving multiple generation households, families with children, persons with disabilities, and the retired and elderly."

For this 5-year period, the DOT's specific plans included:

"Work with public and private sector interests to: identify transportation needs for all segments of America, especially transportation disadvantaged, older and younger people, and people with disabilities, and supplement market mechanisms to assure basic transportation availability, and flexibility of choice for all Americans."

The DOT's reasoning reflected thinking by census officials and market researchers alike:

"Baby boomers will start reaching the traditional retirement age of 65 in 2010.people who are likely to retire over the next 20 years currently have very high trip rates, rates that may be sustained further into old age." Because of these and other projected demographic changes, train travel is expected to increase by 40% by 2030. (USDOT, 1998) 

The Americans with Disabilities Act

In addition to responding to large numbers of baby boomer and elder travelers, Amtrak's Acela service was required to be accessible to people with disabilities under the 1990 Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). These requirements were not new to Amtrak's management, who had provided testimony and support during the creation of the ADA, as well as the Rehabilitation Act of 1973. Inspectors from the Federal Railroad Administration (a division of USDOT) pay attention to these requirements, as do Amtrak designers.

In response to the ADA, Amtrak was mandated to be totally compliant in its architecture, products, and graphics by 2010. The bi-level Superliner II cars for long distance service were Amtrak's first newly constructed ADA compliant vehicles, followed by the single level "Viewliner" sleeping cars. Bringing existing single-level trains into compliance became a critical priority, especially for the Northeast Corridor trains. Fortunately, Amtrak's proactive approach to accessibility over the years minimized the burden.

"It's the right thing to do", said Blair Slaughter. Slaughter, a member of Amtrak's industrial design staff, had lost the lower portion of his leg in an accident in 1985 and had used crutches and a wheelchair during his recovery. This experience gave him an understanding of the work ahead in overcoming architectural and other barriers.

Slaughter, as well as David Nelson, Amtrak's Program Manager of Employment Diversity, who is deaf, were among Amtrak's internal disability advisory group, helping to infuse awareness of diversity into Amtrak's corporate culture.  

Cooperation among Design, Management, and Legal Staff

Blair Slaughter saw Amtrak's Industrial Design Department as "the conscience of the organization" and was no stranger to accessibility issues, having completed a cooperative project with Carnegie Mellon University on restroom accessibility. Amtrak management also aggressively pursued improved passenger amenities. Acela's well-integrated accessibility features were the result of this and other previous experience. Amtrak's "Viewliner" accessible sleeping room with roll-in shower had already become recognized as among the most luxurious and desirable to all travelers. "If access is built into the design, then no one notices, and the cost is minimal," said Slaughter.

Amtrak's management was not new to designing for customers with disabilities, having provided testimony to Congress in support of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973. On the other hand, in the transportation industry, passenger space = revenue. Additional space for wheelchair accessibility did carry a cost. Amtrak's legal department advised management that the accessibility requirements of the Americans with Disabilities Act would heavily impact older cars.

The Amtrak Acela Express wheelchair-accessible caféd

The Amtrak Acela Express
wheelchair-accessible café
Photo copyright Amtrak

 Management treated the requirement not as a burden, but as an opportunity to improve the interior environment for everyone. Don Knapik, Assistant Vice President of Acela Services, pointed out an example: "Making our café car accessible allowed us to improve the aesthetics and usability of the design for all customers."

User-Centered Design

To address the market opportunities of the highly-competitive northeast corridor, Amtrak sought a new level of speed and quality in rail travel, reflective of European rail and business-class airline travel. Amtrak's internal marketing, market research, mechanical, engineering, customer service, and operations staff teamed with design firms IDEO and OH&CO for the design of Acela Express train cars. The team collected data about the complete rail travel experience from amenities to material colors and textures to travel times from 24,000 Amtrak customers and employees. These included persons with and without disabilities.

Don Knapik believed it was this direct exposure to the diverse user population that stimulated Amtrak management to go beyond the requirements of the ADA. "We wanted to do more than just make our trains accessible. We sought a more 'aspirational' approach," Knapik said. "We want them to be the preferred mode of transportation." People with disabilities remained active participants in the design process, reviewing full-scale mockups along the way. By extending passenger amenities beyond ADA requirements, Amtrak naturally appealed also to people traveling with customers with disabilities.

The Acela Express accessible business class seatingd

The Acela Express accessible
business class seating
Photo copyright Amtrak

  Combining amenities of European rail and business-class airline travel, each 304-passenger Acela Express train was equipped with larger windows and enclosed overhead storage (larger than in airliners) with grab rails along the edge. Large reclining seats incorporated electrical and audio entertainment outlets, and most were movable to face the direction of travel. Entryways (with automatic doors), aisles, telephones (with TTY), and restrooms were accessible to wheelchair users.

The Acela Express accessible restroomd

The Acela Express accessible restroom
Photo copyright Amtrak

The hotel-size restrooms included back-lit mirrors, high-quality materials, and call buttons for assistance. Seats closest to the restrooms had flip-up armrests so that wheelchair users could transfer more easily into the seat.

Graphics and Station Access

The Acela design project also involved redesign of system-wide graphics and train stations. The McCulley Group, a California design firm, was originally contracted to redesign the architectural graphics system in 1994, with input from disability consultant John DeWitt and Associates. McCulley updated the system-wide graphics manual in 2001. Taking a cue from the architectural signage and Acela Express, the interior signage for Amtrak's other railcars was redesigned by Amtrak's equipment design group. In keeping with Amtrak's proactive stance on accessibility symbols, tactile graphics and Grade 2 Braille were incorporated into the interior signage, well beyond the ADA requirements.

Ellen Taylor, Amtrak's Senior Director of Station Planning, described how accessibility of station design was also carefully considered. A program for station graphics was undertaken by the design firm of Calori & Vanden-Eyden, Ltd. to reinforce the Acela identity throughout the station. "A unified 'bread crumbs' trail was created for the traveler from street to train platform," Taylor said.

Dynamic graphic signs complemented the stations' public address system, and level change options included not only elevators and stairs, but escalators as well. "We consider escalators also important for access by persons both with and without disabilities, especially with an aging population," Taylor said.

Acela station signsd

Acela station signs
Photo copyright Amtrak  

The overall design integrated accessibility without calling undue attention to the fact. "The best features are the ones customers don't remember," said Blair Slaughter. "Aesthetics are respected, along with accessibility." Amtrak's web site and trip planner publications provided information about accessibility of equipment and destinations, but there was no overt marketing to elders or people with disabilities.

Building on Success in the Marketplace

From the high-profile introduction of Acela Express in December, 2000, Amtrak received about $10 million in media coverage, and Amtrak revenues that month were the highest in the company's history. Between December 11, 2000 and June 11, 2001, more than 100,000 Acela riders bought over $15 million in tickets, enabling Amtrak to top its sales projections. Ellen Taylor pointed out, "It is very difficult to quantify return on investment of our design approach." But it was clear that Taylor and other Amtrak managers embraced the inclusion of people with disabilities among their valued customers, who responded in turn. "Word of mouth is our most powerful sales tool among people with disabilities," said Don Knapik.

Amtrak realized that making all cars accessible provided more product consistency, simplified configuration of trains and reduced the number of different cars in inventory, also simplifying maintenance. Lessons learned from making older cars accessible formed the basis for making the Acela Express accessible from concept to construction. In turn, the lessons of Acela Express were applied to subsequent redesigns of older cars and continued to influence new vehicle accessibility. Amtrak also began providing special accommodations for groups of people with disabilities traveling together by reconfiguring the train to include more accessible cars and occasional special accommodations for groups of travelers with disabilities.

In 2001, both the Acela Express and Acela station signage program received gold Industrial Design Excellence Awards (IDEA) from the Industrial Designers Society of America.


Phillips, D. (2000). "Amtrak Starts High-Speed Run From D.C. to Boston". The Washington Post (12/12/200, p. E04) Washington, D.C.: Washington Post.

USDOT (1998). "Perspectives on Future Travel". 1998 Annual Report on Transportation Statistics. Washington, DC: USDOT.

May. 2002

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