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Opinion: Mousse, Chardonnay at 83 mph give Amtrak’s Acela edge

(Bloomberg News circulated the following column by Jim O’Connell on July 23, 2009.)

WASHINGTON, D.C. — It started as a review of the fastest U.S. restaurant on land: the first-class cabin on Amtrak’s high-speed Acela train. It ended with shouting, a threatened arrest and an interrogation.

In between, there was the chance to see how Acela tries, for its highest-paying customers, to transform a three-hour commute into an evening at a fine restaurant that has ever- changing views.

To Sharon Camp, flying is for suckers. Traveling from Washington to New York, Camp can spread out at an otherwise empty table for four enjoying bison meatloaf with fingerling potatoes, green beans, red onions and portobello mushrooms.

Her dessert is a raspberry mousse. Her wine is a Mirassou Chardonnay 2006. Her speed is about 83 miles per hour.

“If they always had this,” said Camp, “I would have never flown.”

Camp, the president of the Guttmacher Institute, a New York-based nonprofit group focused on reproductive health, said when she travels to Washington on business, she delays her return until dinner time so she can enjoy the meal on the trip.

“You have dinner, a little wine and you’re there in no time,” she said.

Served on a tray covered with a linen tablecloth, the dinners are “competitive with New York restaurants,” Camp said.

Passengers in the 42-seat, first-class cabin select from a menu that includes Japanese sea bass, lasagna and other meals. Acela began sprucing up the menu in 2007, relying on dishes created by celebrity chefs such as Michel Richard, whose flagship Citronelle is in Washington.

First-Class Premium

The food and drink refills are included in the $100 extra for first class. If you booked the New York-Washington today, Acela lists the fares as between $488 and $598, depending on the time of departure and including the $100 premium added to the business-class fare for each leg of the round trip.

Wide seats, ambitious food and generous pours of Dewar’s and Absolut may be drawing travelers to the front car on the Acela’s East Coast runs (Boston-Washington is another popular trip). Ridership on the line rose 39 percent between fiscal 2005 and 2008 before dropping in May, according to the railroad, when the recession eroded business travel.

While Amtrak doesn’t release figures for first-class ridership, there has been a steady increase in paid fares, said spokeswoman Karina Romero. It isn’t clear if the rise is related to the menu changes in 2007, Romero said.

‘Don’t Tell’

Even with the recession, if people knew about the first- class comforts, especially compared with the pains of flying, then the seats would be filled, said Lynn Krominga, a member of the board of Avis Budget Group Inc. who was across the aisle from Camp.

“Don’t tell,” Krominga said.

The first-class experience usually begins with a uniformed server taking a drink order and offering a small ceramic dish of mixed nuts. It’s a nice touch, sort of. Several passengers noticed that many of the nuts were pulverized into crumbs.

Drinks are included in the price and the two staffers assigned to the cabin offer refills unbidden as they take dinner orders, and heat and present the food.

The sea bass has a dollop of tequila-lime pesto sauce and is served atop wheatberry pilaf. The dinner comes with a small roll and an olive remoulade, along with the chilled raspberry mousse.

In 2007 the railroad began using the sous vide method, a low-heat water bath that is intended to seal in flavor. The results are impressive. The fish is firm and the pilaf is fresh- tasting and a surprising treat.

Bicycle Seats

In the back of the train, customers stand in line at the cafe car to buy ham or turkey sandwiches and perch on stools about the size of bicycle seats.

The quiet and space of first class is more a lure than the food, said Krominga, who frequently travels from her Manhattan home to Washington for corporate board meetings.

Lawrence Goffney, a patent attorney in Alexandria, Virginia, said his health-conscious wife was hooked by the turkey bacon on Acela’s first-class breakfast menu. He said the service has been good, if not quite polished. He has tried to persuade servers to say “My pleasure!” instead of “No problem” when they are thanked by passengers.

My own experience with customer service was mixed. While most employees were polite and helpful, the conductor on one trip shouted at me for not asking her permission before entering the first-class cabin while trying to pay for an upgrade.

“You can’t bogart a first-class seat,” she yelled, using an old slang term for holding on to something you shouldn’t. She later became more angry when she learned I was taking notes while talking to other passengers, and sent a security officer to confront me.

Showed His Badge

He showed me his badge and asked me why I was interviewing riders. He declined to identify any passengers who had complained and I’m convinced none did. Then he sat beside me for 20 minutes as I chatted with another passenger before shaking my hand and leaving.

I was free to go when we reached Washington, a city where more than a few elected officials are known to bogart their seats.

(Jim O’Connell is a reporter for Bloomberg News. Any opinions expressed are his own.)

Thursday, July 23, 2009

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