Amtrak Announces Details About ‘Flexible Dining’

Amtrak released this image of one of roasted chicken and fettuccine, one of four hot entrees that will be offered to sleeping car passengers on eastern overnight trains starting Oct. 1.

Amtrak has made official what has been discussed for weeks. Effective Oct. 1 it will remove full-service dining cars from two eastern long-distance trains and convert its eastern long-distance trains that offer sleeping car service to the same dining model it implemented in June 2018 aboard the Lake Shore Limited and Capitol Limited.

In the process, Amtrak is rebranding the service and billing is as an improvement. Gone is the “fresh and contemporary” label. The passenger carrier is now describing its food service as “flexible dining.”

In a news release, Amtrak touted flexible dining as offering additional hot entrees at lunch and dinner.

One of the four entrees will be vegan while another will be gluten free.

For the most part, “flexible dining” will be the same as the “fresh and contemporary” model that it is replacing.

It will be offered on the Cardinal, Crescent, Silver Meteor, Lake Shore Limited, Capital Limited and City of New Orleans.

Amtrak’s news release said “flexible dining” will be launched on the Silver Star (New York-Miami) in 2020.

In a post on Friday afternnoon on its website, the Rail Passengers Association said that Amtrak also plans to provide coach passengers on eastern long-distance overnight trains the opportunity to purchase one of the entrees provided to sleeping car passengers.

However, the Amtrak news release made no mention of coach passengers being able to purchase the meals served to sleeping car passengers.

RPA did note in its post that dining service on eastern long-distance trains will continue to evolve following the Oct. 1 implementation of “flexible dining.”

The Crescent (New York-New Orleans) and Silver Meteor (New York-Miami) currently have full-service dining car service with meals freshly prepared onboard.

The Cardinal (Chicago-New York) and City of New Orleans (Chicago-New Orleans) currently have something in between with a wider number of meal options compared with the Capitol (Chicago-Washington) and Lake Shore (Chicago-New York/Boston), but with all food prepared off the train and heated onboard.

Most of the amenities that Amtrak listed in its news release for “flexible dining” have been fixtures of “fresh and contemporary” since it was launched.

This includes unlimited soft drinks and one complementary alcoholic beverage at lunch and dinner, room service provided by a sleeping car attendant, and exclusive use of a dining car as a lounge for sleeper class passengers for eating and socializing.

The flexible dining moniker apparently stems from the fact that breakfast, lunch and dinner will be available during broad serving hours with no reservation needed.

Breakfast will be available between 6:30 a.m. and 10 a.m., lunch will be available between 11:30 a.m. and 3 p.m., and dinner will be available between 5 p.m. and 9:30 p.m.

Some changes have been made in the menu offerings. There will still be just one hot entrée available at breakfast, a sausage, egg and cheese muffin.

Also available will be oatmeal (two varieties), cold cereal (four varieties), muffins (two varieties), a breakfast bar (Kind bar), yogurt (two varieties), fruit (bananas and seasonal fruit cup), and various beverages.

On the lunch and dinner menu all entrees come with a side salad and dessert although the menu posted online does not indicate what the dessert is.

The Amtrak news release described the deserts as blondies and brownies.

The entrees include red wine braised beef served with pearl onions, carrots, mushrooms, polenta and Haricot vert; Asian noodle bowl (vegan) served with Yaki Soba noodles, carrots, edamane, red peppers, baby corn, scallions and Shittake mushrooms in a garlic-chili sauce; chicken fettuccine served with roasted chicken, broccoli, carrots, red peppers, Parmesan and Asiago cheeses in a garlic cream sauce); and Creole shrimp and Andouille sausage (gluten free) served with yellow rice, peppers, onions, and green onions in a Creole sauce). All dinners come with side salad and dessert.

The children’s meal is pasta and meatballs served with penne pasta, tomato sauce, meatballs and mozzarella cheese.

Also changing is how these meals are presented. Boxes, bags and excessive wrapping materials are being discarded in favor of small trays that will be used to serve the meals.

Amtrak said that traditional dining cars will continue to operate on western long-distance overnight trains, including the California Zephyr, Coast Starlight, Empire Builder, Southwest Chief, Sunset Limited and Texas Eagle.

In the east, the Auto Train will continue to have traditional dining car service although Amtrak has announced plans to end providing meals other than a continental breakfast to coach passengers starting in January 2020.

Amtrak is seeking to frame “flexible dining” as part of a larger evolutionary strategy to upgrade long-distance trains in the coming months.

Other improvements that the news release said are coming include “refreshed” Amfleet II cars, which will receive new seat cushions, carpets, curtains and LED reading lights.

These changes are expected to be completed by the end of this year.

Amtrak said sleepers will receive upgraded bedding, towels and linens, starting with the Auto Train.

New Viewliner II sleeping cars will be assigned to eastern long-distance trains in the coming months as well.

In its posting, RPA hailed Amtrak’s plans, describing them as “important improvements” while acknowledging that it will not be a return to the traditional dining car experience.

RPA said restoration of dining service to the Silver Star is being made possible by “efficiencies gained from the new food-service model on Eastern trains.”

As for coach passengers being able to buy food served to sleeping car passengers, RPA said Amtrak plans to implement an order-ahead system so that passengers have the option to make selections at booking

RPA said Amtrak will offer two hot entrees at breakfast, but the menu posted on the Amtrak website showed just one. RPA suggested that the current ham-egg-cheese on a ciabatta roll breakfast sandwich will continue.

Amtrak has told RPA that it will use a combination of processes and technology to ensure that there is enough food on board for service and enough variety so that passengers’ first choice is more likely to be available.

However, Amtrak is still working on solutions for the problems of special meals, including Kosher, vegan, vegetarian, allergies and food sensitivities.

RPA cited a letter that it received from an Amtrak executive to say that menus for traditional dining cars will change in the first half of 2020.

That letter also said that new mattresses, linens, sheets, blankets and towels along with upgraded soap and amenities will be implemented during the coming year.

Amtrak continues to work to overcome mechanical issues that have prevented it from installing convection ovens on food-service cars, but hopes to have that issue resolved by the end of this year.

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