Late Night Vibes: Acela Edition

It was light when we went down into the subway, but by the time we re-emerge on the Acela in Queens, it may as well be midnight.

Moynihan Train Hall, the new addition to Penn Station in Manhattan, is as bright and colorless as a shopping mall in a mid-tier city. And like a shopping mall, it seems to exist outside the flow of normal time; the combinations of numbers on the plethora of screens exist only to communicate how close you are to leaving. Around 20 minutes before departure, the ceiling lights shift from off-white to a light purple, the only indication that it might be nighttime somewhere outside. A pure white Verizon ad spread across multiple giant screens negates the effect.

This is my first time on the Acela, the fastest train in America with a paltry top speed of 150 mph, only marginally faster than the cheaper Northeast Regional running on the same tracks. It’s also my first time in business class, my first time with an assigned seat on an Amtrak train. It’s less hectic than my usual trip, the Ethan Allen Express to Rutland, VT, a once-daily train that is typically sold out, with passengers angling for their preferred seat lining up in a corner of Penn Station over an hour before departure.

In front of us, a boarding woman greets her seatmate and says “My boyfriend booked the wrong seat, do you mind—“ and before she can finish he has gathered his bag and vacated the seat. “He’s also in the wrong car,” she adds apologetically. She calls her boyfriend on the phone to get his seat number but the man disappears before she can tell him. When her boyfriend arrives and they settle in, they play online chess against each other on separate laptops. One could imagine them doing this from separate cars as well, though I suppose that ruins the thrill.

Passing through the Bronx, the Manhattan skyline lights up our windows. Out of the city, light is harder to come by, until eventually it is pitch black except for the occasional oasis of light around a power transmitter, a Geico billboard, a Sunoco, the Half-Time Bar and Grill, a store called “buybuyBaby,” and a parking lot where FedEx trucks go to sleep.

The boyfriend in front of us seductively eats a strawberry. The passenger across the aisle cracks open a fresh hardcover copy of Jonathan Franzen’s latest, and makes it to page 80 by 10 o’clock. A woman a few rows ahead watches most of the second season of Ted Lasso. I listen to all of Lana Del Rey’s second album of 2021, Blue Bannisters—great travel music but it almost feels like a betrayal to listen on the train and not in a classic car rolling down an empty highway at a leisurely pace in the middle of nowhere. The cafe car is open and serving, and the train becomes a moving ballpark with passengers walking down the aisle clutching flimsy paper boxes of snacks and sodas.

Out the windows, flanked by unused curtains: an empty road, an empty office building, an empty Hot Rod Cafe, long rows of empty school buses. Like Moynihan, the light on the train erases time. It could be 9 o’clock, it could be midnight, it could be tomorrow. The numbers on our phones don’t mean much except for telling us how close we are to arriving.

The Acela is set to be replaced by the end of next year with a brand new model, the Avelia Liberty, but for now the train keeps rambling through the night.