Acela offers $20 fare to boost lagging bookings

Premium Northeast Corridor train continues to take hit during pandemic
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An Amtrak Acela arrives in Wilmington, Del., in August 2019. A flash sale for $20 Acela business-class seats ends Thursday.
Bob Johnston

WASHINGTON — A precipitous decline in business travel during the COVID-19 pandemic has prompted an Amtrak “flash” sale celebrating the 20-year anniversary of Acela’s introduction with a $20 fare between any two Northeast Corridor stations served by the high speed train.

Billed as the “The Deal of the Decade(s),” the tickets must be booked by tomorrow, Thursday, Nov. 12, for Acela business class travel between Nov. 16 and Dec. 17. As expected, there are blackout dates before and after Thanksgiving: Nov. 24-25 and Nov. 28-30.

The fare deal can be accessed through a special link at the Amtrak website or on the Amtrak app by using the C820 discount code.

Using the link or discount code, the $20 price will automatically appear if the fare remains available. Trains News Wire’s spot check of most dates the deal is valid, as of midday Nov. 11, did not find any $20 Acela fares between Washington and New York. This underscores the promotion’s other disclaimers: “seating is limited, seats may not be available on all trains at all times, and fares are subject to availability.”

On the four daily Acela trips from Boston to New York, however, the $20 fare was available on three Nov.18 trains, one on Nov 19, and none on Nov. 20, but was available on most December dates.

The inaugural Acela press run took place from Washington to Boston on Nov. 16, 2000, with revenue service commencing the following month. Since then, the 20 trainsets racked up impressive brand loyalty and revenues even though travel times are only marginally shorter than Amfleet-equipped Northeast Regional trains on the same route.

A screenshot of the day's first departures on Dec. 15 shows the $20 Acela sale fare compared to other fares between Boston and New York.

Acela’s fiscal 2019 revenue totaled almost $642 million and the trains carried nearly 3.5 million passengers, but since March 2020, Acela has been the hardest hit segment. Service resumed in June after being cancelled entirely in April and May, but revenues were down 94% in September 2020 from the same month the previous year. Acela ridership gradually improved from 4% of 2019’s totals in June to 9% in September. The long-distance category, meanwhile, rose from 37% to 52% of 2019 figures before management imposed triweekly service in October.

The company’s Nov. 5, 2020, patronage snapshot obtained by Trains News Wire shows Acela bookings hovering at around 8% of the same week last year, Northeast Regional and state-supported trains at 25%, and the long-distance category at 35%, though the figure peaked at 60% in September.

The reduced-frequency overnighters are nevertheless delivering 46% of Amtrak’s total revenue compared with 20% last year, according to the report, “thanks to sleepers performing better than coach.”

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