Take a Ride on the Amtrak Spin Train

Having breakfast on the Lake Shore Limited in March 2012 as Train 49 stopped in Bryan, Ohio. Note that the menu featured an image of a couple eating in the dining car while watching the scenery roll by.

In a news release posted last week, Amtrak described changes it was making to dining services aboard eastern overnight trains this way in the opening sentence: “Amtrak continues to evolve the travel experience on long-distance trains with the introduction of a new, flexible dining service for Sleeping Car customers traveling on the Cardinal, City of New Orleans, Crescent and Silver Meteor starting on Oct. 1 and the Silver Star in 2020.”

The next paragraph had a quotation from Amtrak President Richard Anderson saying this “evolution” is being done to meet the needs of today’s customers.

“Traveling on one of our trains has never been just about the destination – the journey is part of the adventure,” Anderson said.

That is the same Richard Anderson who has been trashing his company’s long distance trains by talking about how much money they lose and how they fail to meet the travel needs of those who live along their routes.

But you wouldn’t know that from reading this news release, which used variations of the word “evolution” three times.

That suggests, as the Oxford dictionary defines “evolution,” a process of gradually moving from a simple to a more complex form.

It is notable for what Amtrak is not saying in this release.

It doesn’t say the Crescent and Silver Meteor will no longer offer meals freshly prepared on board the train or that “flexible dining” will offer fewer choices at meal time.

It says nothing about the Amtrak onboard service employees who are losing their jobs.

It says nothing about how these changes are part of an aggressive cost-cutting campaign that Anderson initiated.

Some of the touted “benefits” of flexible dining cited in the news release are already being offered  and are not upgrades in the traveling experience. This includes having meals delivered to your sleeping car room.

If flexible dining service is an improvement it is only because it represents an incremental increase in the number of meal options being offered compared with the “fresh and contemporary” service model introduced last year on the Capitol Limited and Lake Shore Limited.

Amtrak, like any other company, is seeking to portray what customers might see as a negative as actually being a positive.

So rather than speak about cost cutting and reducing labor expenses, it instead frames the changes as serving the needs of its passengers without saying what those are.

The news release follows standard public relations practice of focusing on something that is, arguably, of value to a customer while avoiding calling attention to changes that take away something else of value.

It is a standard public relations marketing strategy if you are taking something away to instead focus on something of value you are offering instead.

Therefore sleeper class passengers get one free alcoholic beverage per meal whereas they used to pay out of pocket for any drinks they ordered with lunch or dinner.

And they also get the exclusive use of the dining car as a lounge.

I would not undervalue that “benefit” because on most eastern overnight trains the lounge is an Amfleet car that doubles as the café car for coach passengers. It can get quite crowded and has limited seating.

Many railfans have complained bitterly about the loss of full-service dining on the Capitol Limited and Lake Shore Limited.

No longer can you order an omelet with bacon, potatoes and a croissant when traveling from, say, Cleveland or Pittsburgh to Chicago.

Gone is the end of the communal seating and in is having to make do with less variety on the menu.

Yet, even the Rail Passengers Association in writing about what has been lacking about “fresh and contemporary” has acknowledged that some of its members have applauded some aspects of it including lighter fare and being able to choose your own company while eating.

Some passengers dislike being beholden to the time shown on their meal reservation and not everyone wants to eat with strangers or is looking for a heavy meal for breakfast or dinner.

The changes that Amtrak has made in food service on its eastern overnight trains are not necessarily what the carrier says they are yet are not necessarily a nefarious plot to kill long-distance passenger trains.

It appears that way because these changes are being made at the same time that high-ranking Amtrak managers are trying to portray these trains as relics of bygone era.

The dining service changes also bear a striking resemblance to what freight railroads did in the 1960s when they downgraded service on intercity passenger trains and discontinued dozens of them.

Whatever the future may hold for overnight passenger trains, there is little to no reason to believe that full-service dining cars are going to return to the eastern long-distance trains or that those Amtrak workers who are losing their jobs are going to get them back.

The omelet you had hoped to enjoy for breakfast has been replaced by a Kind bar.

The steak and baked potato you wanted for dinner has been replaced with red wine braised beef and a side salad.

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