Acela Service: Refreshing the Amtrak BrandComments
January 28, 2016
Regularly scheduled Acela Express service began on the Northeast Corridor (NEC) between Washington, New York and Boston on December 11, 2000. Through February, Amtrak is marking the anniversary with special “Acelabrations” for customers and employees. Surprises on the trains, in stations and elsewhere are planned as Amtrak pauses to celebrate this milestone. In a series of blog posts (read Part 1 and Part 2), we’ll take a look back at the journey to Acela Express and explore its future.
Introduction of Acela service was the cornerstone of a larger effort to refresh the Amtrak brand as the company entered the 21st century. “Acela’s fast, Acela’s cool. Acela’s modern. And Acela’s stylish,” enthused Northeast Corridor President Stan Bagley in the November 1999 issue of Amtrak Ink. The refresh included a new visual identity and trademark; uniforms for on board service and station service employees; an enhanced reservations and ticketing system; passenger rewards program (Amtrak Guest Rewards) and a “Satisfaction Guarantee.” The last was a promise by Amtrak to make every trip a “safe, comfortable and enjoyable experience.” If Amtrak employees were unable to make things right for a customer, he or she could ask for a Service Guarantee Certificate toward future rail travel.1
On March 9, 1999, Amtrak unveiled Acela to more than 1,500 employees gathered in New York City at an event hosted by comedian David Brenner.2 “[Amtrak President and CEO] George Warrington felt it was important to give the first glimpse of the new train to employees, with the news media given their chance shortly thereafter,” says then-Amtrak Director of Media Relations Cliff Black. “The occasion resembled the unveiling of a major artwork, in which white-gloved curators dramatically pulled back a drapery revealing the new work of art.”
Black did not attend the New York event since he had been dispatched to a Bombardier plant in Barre, Vt., where the Acela Express trainsets were being assembled, to shoot a video for the unveiling. “It showed factory doors dramatically opening to reveal the sleek, streamlined nose of an Acela power car, wrapped in a large red ribbon. I stood next to the train, shivering inwardly in the cold, sunny winter day in business suit and overcoat, and said simply, ‘Ladies and gentlemen, I introduce the Acela!’ (or words to that effect),” recalls Black.
Created by blending the words “acceleration” and “excellence,” the Acela brand was intended to unify all services in the Northeast. Warrington commented, “Acela is more than just a name for Amtrak’s new high-speed trains. Acela is a new brand, representing a whole new way of doing business.”
The high-speed, limited-stop service would become Acela Express and replace the Metroliner brand. NortheastDirect (known today as Northeast Regional), Keystone Service and Empire Service trains would be rebranded as Acela Regional. Finally, the frequent Clocker Service (later taken over by New Jersey Transit) between Philadelphia and New York would be known as Acela Commuter.
In designing the new Acela services, Amtrak surveyed more than 24,000 customers to gauge their opinions on ideal frequencies, equipment upgrades and other features.3 Passenger confusion about the various Acela services would later lead Amtrak to largely abandon the new naming system; only Acela Express was retained for the company’s premier high-speed service.
1 “Amtrak – The Company that Guarantees Guest Satisfaction,” Amtrak Ink, July/August 2000.
2 “It’s official,” Amtrak Ink, March 1999.