Posts Tagged ‘Amtrak dining car menus’

Analyzing Amtrak’s Revamped Dining Service

August 3, 2021

Amtrak returned full-service dining to five long-distance trains a month ago, all of them operating in the West and parts of the Midwest.

I haven’t had an opportunity to sample the revived full-service dining, but a two-part report written by Bob Johnston, the passenger correspondent for  Trains magazine was published last week on the magazine’s website and offers some insight into the service.

Johnston generally gave Amtrak high marks for its revamped dining car menus and service.

One key take away from his report is the food has improved in quality over that served in dining cars before full-service dining was removed in late spring 2020 in response to the COVID-19 pandemic that sent Amtrak ridership plummeting.

A chef working the Chicago-Los Angeles Southwest Chief gave as an example the flat iron steak which he said is “the same cut, but these (served now) have more marbling and are a lot more dense.”

Other changes have included the addition of colorful garnishes, more seasoning and multiple sauces. Vegetables served with entrees were described as fresher.

The steak still comes with a baked potato but patrons can request a creamy polenta, which the chef said compliments the Bordelaise sauce served with the steak.

Before the pandemic, dinners came with a lettuce salad but that has been replaced with a choice among three appetizers: A tossed-to-order salad of baby greens and tomatoes topped with a brie cheese; a lobster cake, or a green cheese tamale.

As before, dinners come with a desert. Unlike before, dinners now come with one complimentary alcoholic beverage.

Yet in some ways full-service dining is little changed from what it was before the pandemic. Entrée staples still include the flat iron steak, chicken breast, and salmon. There is also a tri-color cheese tortellini pasta dish.

Not everything is prepared fresh on board. The lobster cake comes precooked and frozen so the kitchen staff merely heats it onboard.

The Trains analysis, which was based on sampling meals aboard the Southwest Chief, said the changes to breakfast and lunch have been a little more subtle.

Back is French toast, which can be ordered with whipped cream. There are made-to-order omelets.

However, passengers still can’t order eggs over easy or get toast at breakfast. Both were eliminated in the 1990s.

Full-service dining is available only to sleeping class passengers. Coach passengers are confined to the snack-heavy café car.

At the time that Amtrak announced the return of full-service dining to the western trains it also said it planned to add fresh selections to café cars. Those additions have yet to be made.

And it remains unclear when or if full-service dining will return to eastern long-distance trains or the Texas Eagle.

The Trains analysis aptly noted that some passengers aboard those trains are onboard for more than four meal periods.

Amtrak has hinted that full-service dining might return to eastern long distance trains late this year or in 2022. Officials said the carrier wanted to gauge passenger response to the new menus on the western trains before looking to implement them elsewhere.

As for when or even if coach passengers will be able to dine in the diner, Amtrak has been noncommittal. Officials said they were studying that but suggested it might take the form of allowing coach passengers to buy meals on a take-out basis and/or have them delivered to their coach seat.

The Trains analysis offered a glimpse of two conundrums posing a challenge to allowing coach passengers back in the dining car. It would require additional staff in the kitchen and dining room in order to create faster table turnover.

Another factor is pricing. Before Amtrak instituted flexible dining in June 2018 on the Lake Shore Limited and Capitol Limited, dining car menus had prices. The current dining car menus on the western trains do not show prices because the clientele already paid for their meals in their sleeping car fare.

As I’ve written in previous posts, most of those dining car prices were quite high with some entrees costing more than $20. Even breakfast was quite pricey for what you got.

The Trains analysis suggested some less labor intensive food selections would have to be added to the menu that could be sold at lower cost.

Many, if not most, coach passengers are unwilling to pay or unable to afford the prices Amtrak charged in dining cars in the past.

There will always be coach passengers willing to pay those prices to have the dining car experience. But they are not necessarily a majority of the coach clientele.

Amtrak’s food and beverage service is an evolving process that isn’t moving as fast or necessarily toward the destination that many rail passenger advocates want it to see.

The dining car experience is still not the same as it was before the pandemic or, in the case of eastern long-distance trains, since the onset of flexible dining with its limited choices.

Amtrak management has not talked about the prospect of doing what the passenger carrier did in the 1990s when dining car menus featured regional offerings associated with a region of the country the train served.

That lasted a few years then fell by the wayside as Amtrak management went to a standard dining car menu for all trains with diners.

For now, the dining car experience is available only in the West and only to those with the means to afford sleeping car fares.

Dining service is an emotional subject for some passengers and passenger train advocates, particularly those above a certain age, who wax nostalgic about all of the people they enjoyed conversing with over a meal and lament having lost that.

Some remember a time when railroads used their dining service as a marketing tool and offered meals that rivaled in quality what was served in the better hotel restaurants.

They tend to believe as an article of faith that full-service dining is critical to drawing more people aboard the train and boosting Amtrak’s revenue.

Johnston, the Trains passenger correspondent, falls into that camp. In his piece he argued that reviving full-service dining on such trains as the Lake Shore Limited, Capitol Limited, Cardinal, and City of New Orleans would give “travelers in some of the country’s top population centers more incentive to ride.”

That in turn would generate more cash for Amtrak, Johnston asserted. How much more? He didn’t say because he doesn’t know.

There is much Amtrak knows about its finances and passengers that it doesn’t share with the public, arguing that that information is proprietary.

It probably is true that the upgraded dining service has boosted the morale of Amtrak food and beverage workers as the article suggested and resulted in happier passengers.

Yet as the pandemic and the politically-motivated attacks on Amtrak food and beverage service of past years have shown, all of that can change virtually overnight and probably will.

Traditional Dining to Return to Eastern Trains

June 27, 2021

Dining aboard the Capitol Limited in route to Chicago in May 2012.

Goodbye flexible dining and hello French toast.

Amtrak announced on Tuesday its plans to return traditional dining to eastern long distance trains and allow coach passengers to buy meals in the dining car.

However, it gave no date for when those changes but indicated it would be late this year or in early 2022.

Traditional dining for sleeping car passengers is being reinstated on western long distance trains on June 23.

Amtrak officials also indicated the eastern trains likely will receive an abridged version of the menus used on western trains and that coach passengers might not necessarily be able to eat in the dining car but use a takeout service.

Those are moves Amtrak management expects to decide over the next few months.

The announcement was made on Tuesday at a press event at Chicago Union Station during which Amtrak showed off its first Siemens ALC-42 locomotives that will be used in the carrier’s national network.

The carrier also showed new interior designs for its Superliner fleet.

Robert Jordan, Amtrak’s vice president operations and customer services, said when traditional dining and coach passenger access to dining cars is implemented will depend on the reactions the carrier gets to the new dining-car menus planned for the western long-distance trains.

 “A lot of it is centered on two things,” he said. “First will be passenger reaction to the menu. “Do we need to make any adjustments? What is the most popular, and how long each of those items takes to cook, because we imagine that whatever is popular with our [sleeping-car passengers] is going to be as popular with our coaches,

“And then, once we understand that, we’ll figure out the logistics of what’s going to make sense. Is it opening up the dining room or additional tables for coach customers, or is it more of a take-out kind of menu, or is it a delivery? Those are the things we have to weigh. It is a priority for us to roll it out for coach customers, so hopefully within three or four months we can do that.”

As for the differences between menus of the eastern versus the western trains, Jordan said the former will receive “a version” of the new menu, but probably not the exact menu. 

“You’re only talking three or four meals, so I don’t know if we have to have every single menu item.”

Jordan indicated the return of traditional dining to eastern trains will likely occur late this year or early near year.

Traditional dining on Amtrak’s western trains will include the return of linen tablecloths and napkins, new flatware and glassware.

Dining car china will return in a few months once Amtrak is able to receive its order of china. Until then meals will be served on plastic plates.

Roger Harris, Amtrak’s executive vice president, chief marketing and revenue officer, said the return of traditional dining and upgraded silverware and dishes reflects an understanding that premium prices should be accompanied by premium service.

“We have so much demand that prices go up, because we’re a little bit of a supply-and-demand world,” Harris said.

“We look at it, and go, ‘wow,’ if we’re going to charge people more, we better do a better job of looking after them . . . I’s not just a tablecloth. The food product is better.”

Jordan said the fare to be served in dining cars was developed in consultation with Amtrak’s own chefs as well as those from vendors such as Cuisine Solutions and Aramark.

The menu they decided upon has a mixture of long-standing Amtrak menu items, including French Toast, Angus beef burgers, and flatiron steak and some new entrees.

 “Overall, we wanted healthy items, whole food items — fairly traditional, but we wanted to simplify it to some extent, as well,” Jordan said.

“Our previous menu had 18 items; this one has, not counting the appetizers, 12 items. So customers are not overwhelmed by the choices and it makes it easier for our chefs to prepare these.”

Traditional Dining to Return to Eastern Trains

June 16, 2021

Dining aboard the Capitol Limited en route to Chicago in May 2012.

Goodbye flexible dining and hello French toast.

Amtrak announced on Tuesday its plans to return traditional dining to eastern long distance trains and allow coach passengers to buy meals in the dining car.

However, it gave no date for when those changes but indicated it would be late this year or in early 2022.

Traditional dining for sleeping car passengers is being reinstated on western long distance trains on June 23.

Amtrak officials also indicated the eastern trains likely will receive an abridged version of the menus used on western trains and that coach passengers might not necessarily be able to eat in the dining car but use a takeout service.

Those are moves Amtrak management expects to decide over the next few months.

The announcement was made on Tuesday at a press event at Chicago Union Station during which Amtrak showed off its first Siemens ALC-42 locomotives that will be used in the carrier’s national network.

The carrier also showed new interior designs for its Superliner fleet.

Robert Jordan, Amtrak’s vice president operations and customer services, said when traditional dining and coach passenger access to dining cars is implemented will depend on the reactions the carrier gets to the new dining-car menus planned for the western long-distance trains.

 “A lot of it is centered on two things,” he said. “First will be passenger reaction to the menu. “Do we need to make any adjustments? What is the most popular, and how long each of those items takes to cook, because we imagine that whatever is popular with our [sleeping-car passengers] is going to be as popular with our coaches,

“And then, once we understand that, we’ll figure out the logistics of what’s going to make sense. Is it opening up the dining room or additional tables for coach customers, or is it more of a take-out kind of menu, or is it a delivery? Those are the things we have to weigh. It is a priority for us to roll it out for coach customers, so hopefully within three or four months we can do that.”

As for the differences between menus of the eastern versus the western trains, Jordan said the former will receive “a version” of the new menu, but probably not the exact menu. 

“You’re only talking three or four meals, so I don’t know if we have to have every single menu item.”

Jordan indicated the return of traditional dining to eastern trains will likely occur late this year or early near year.

Traditional dining on Amtrak’s western trains will include the return of linen tablecloths and napkins, new flatware and glassware.

Dining car china will return in a few months once Amtrak is able to receive its order of china. Until then meals will be served on plastic plates.

Roger Harris, Amtrak’s executive vice president, chief marketing and revenue officer, said the return of traditional dining and upgraded silverware and dishes reflects an understanding that premium prices should be accompanied by premium service.

“We have so much demand that prices go up, because we’re a little bit of a supply-and-demand world,” Harris said.

“We look at it, and go, ‘wow,’ if we’re going to charge people more, we better do a better job of looking after them . . . I’s not just a tablecloth. The food product is better.”

Jordan said the fare to be served in dining cars was developed in consultation with Amtrak’s own chefs as well as those from vendors such as Cuisine Solutions and Aramark.

The menu they decided upon has a mixture of long-standing Amtrak menu items, including French Toast, Angus beef burgers, and flatiron steak and some new entrees.

 “Overall, we wanted healthy items, whole food items — fairly traditional, but we wanted to simplify it to some extent, as well,” Jordan said.

“Our previous menu had 18 items; this one has, not counting the appetizers, 12 items. So customers are not overwhelmed by the choices and it makes it easier for our chefs to prepare these.”

Traditional Dining to Return to Most Western Long Distance Trains on June 23

June 4, 2021

French toast will come with fruit and whipped topping when traditional dining resumes late this moth. (Amtrak photo)

Amtrak this week announced the return of traditional dining-car service aboard its western long distance trains effective June 23.

The announcement played up “a redesigned menu,” new appetizers, and table service with glassware, cutlery and linen tablecloths. Ceramic dishware will be added later this year.

However, the change comes with a number of caveats.

This includes traditional dining being limited to sleeper class passengers. Coach passengers must continue to rely on café car offerings.

Another caveat is that traditional dining for now is not being reinstated on the Texas Eagle.

Texas Eagle passengers continuing beyond San Antonio will be able to take advantage of traditional dining service aboard the Sunset Limited, which operates between New Orleans and Los Angeles and carries through cars between Chicago and Los Angeles that are interchanged in San Antonio.

The Rail Passengers Association reported recently that the Eagle will for the time being continue to operate with one food service car and it won’t be a Sightseer Lounge.

Amtrak reportedly plans to assign Sightseer Lounges to the Texas Eagle at a later but unspecified date.

Trains that will have traditional dining include the California Zephyr, Coast Starlight, Empire Builder, Southwest Chief and Sunset Limited.

The announcement said nothing about whether eastern long distance trains are being considered for reinstatement of traditional dining.

Those trains for the past two to three years have featured what Amtrak bills as “flexible dining” in which food is prepared off the train and served aboard.

The Amtrak announcement this week indicated that the traditional dining aboard the western trains will have meals prepared by an on-board chef and have table service and communal seating.

Traditional dining had been removed from western long distance trains in April 2020 during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Amtrak’s announcement indicated that passengers will still be expected to wear facial masks when aboard a train except when they are eating or drinking.

Dining cars will be for the use of sleeper class passengers only. Those passengers will have the option of being served meals in their rooms.

Amtrak said is planning to revamp its café menu this summer by adding more fresh selections. The announcement did not indicate what that might include nor did it indicate when or if the passenger carrier plans to resume selling dining car meals to coach passengers.

As for the traditional dining car experience, it will feature some changes from the pre-pandemic service.

This includes offering three-course dinners that have an appetizer, main course and dessert. The breakfast and lunch menus will be similar to what has been offered in the past.

All trains will have the same menu, a practice that has been in place for the past several years. There also will be a children’s menu.

One feature of flexible dining that is being retained with the return of traditional dining is passengers receiving one complimentary alcoholic beverage.

On its website, Amtrak said passengers can make reservations for lunch and dinner.

Breakfast hours will be 6:30 a.m. to 9:30 a.m. Lunch will be served between 11:30 a.m. and 3 p.m. while dinning hours will be 5 p.m. to 9 p.m.

Final seatings will be at 9:30 a.m., 3 p.m. and 9 p.m. with a last call made 15 minutes before the dining period ends. Exceptions may apply based on train schedule or in the event of a delay.

As for what is on the menu, breakfast offers four selections, including a continental breakfast, French Toast, three-egg omelet, or scrambled eggs.

The omelet and scrambled eggs come with a choice of cheese, tomatoes, breakfast potatoes and a croissant. Both entrees also can come with red and green peppers and onions.

Sides include bacon and sausage, either chicken or pork.

The lunch menu features a Caesar salad, grilled cheese sandwich, angus burger and vegan chili. The grilled cheese sandwich comes with turkey and bacon. The chili is served in a baked potato or a bowl with a choice of toppings.

The two sandwiches come with a side of cole slaw and Terra chips. All lunch entrees also include a dessert from the dinner menu.

As for the dinner menu the first course is one of three appetizer, including a lobster crab cake, green chile cheese tamale or a mixed greens salad with baby brie.

Entrees include flat iron steak, pan roasted chicken breast, grilled Atlantic salmon and tortellini with pesto cream.

All entrees except the tortellini come with vegetable side dishes. The steak also comes with a choice of cheese polenta or baked potato.

Desserts include a flourless chocolate torte, Philadelphia cheesecake and carrot cake. Passengers receive unlimited soft drinks.

Dining on the City of New Orleans

March 26, 2020

There have been times when Amtrak sought to give the dining cars on its long-distance trains a touch of the cuisine associated with a region served by the route.

In the case of the City of New Orleans that meant food associated with the Crescent City.

But more often than not, the dining car fare on the CONO was the same as it was elsewhere.

Shown is the menu that was in use in 2012. Although not obvious from the dinner entrees shown inside, the diner on a March night that I was traveling from New Orleans to Chicago did feature a catfish dinner that would be similar to one you might find on a menu in a New Orleans restaurant.

And I can say it was tasty and enjoyable.

Menus on Full-Service Diners Changed

February 19, 2020

Amtrak has changed the menu on its full-service dining cars for the first time in nearly a year.

Although menu prices are largely unchanged the carrier has swapped out a few offerings while retaining others.

New to the menu are French Toast at breakfast in place of pancakes. At dinner, a cod entre has replaced Norwegian salmon while two vegetarian options are now available.

A baked three-cheese manicotti has replaced rigatoni and the vegan compliant selection is now a Cubana bowl. Also new at lunch and dinner are BBQ pork wings.

The full-service dining cars operate on the California Zephyr, Coast Starlight, Empire Builder, Southwest Chief, Sunset Limited and Texas Eagle.

The new menus are dated January 2020 and Amtrak did not announce the changes.

The menu of flexible dining fare served on Eastern long-distance trains is dated November 2019 but remains unchanged from what was implemented last October.

This service is available to sleeping car passengers only aboard the Lake Shore Limited, Capitol Limited, Cardinal, City of New Orleans, Crescent and Silver Meteor. It will be extended to Silver Star sleeping car passengers on May 1.

Coach passengers on those trains must buy food and drink from the cafe car.

In spring 2019 Amtrak dropped train specific images from dining car menus.

Although the dining car menu offerings had been standard for several years there had been some slight variations by route. That ended in spring 2019.

The latest change means there are now seven entrée selections at dinner.

Some tweaks also have been made to the full-service dining car lunch menu. Gone are baked chilaquiles and steamed mussles. New are BBQ pork wings.

The entrée salad at lunch has been replaced with a Caesar salad. Like the entrée salad, the Caesar salad offers the option of being served with chicken breast strips for an additional charge of $3.50.

The complete full-service dining car menu offerings and prices paid by coach passengers are as follows.

Breakfast: Scrambled eggs ($8.50), continental breakfast ($8.75), French toast ($10.50), three-egg omelet ($13.75), and Southwestern breakfast quesadillas ($13.50).

Lunch: Ceasar salad ($12.50), black bean and corn veggie burger ($12.50), Angus burger ($12.50), BBQ pork wings ($14), garden salad ($3.50).

Dinner: Land and sea combo of Black Angus flat iron steak and crab cake ($39), Amtrak signature flat iron steak ($25), garlic herb cod ($23), thyme roasted chicken breast ($18.50), BBQ pork wings ($21), baked manicotti ($18.50), Cubano bowl ($6.50).

A garden salad is available for $3.50 but comes standard with meals served to sleeping car passengers.

The manicotti is described as filled with mozzarella, Parmesean and ricotta cheeses and comes with a vegetable medley and Roma tomato sauce.

The Cubana bowl is described as black beans, quinoa, mango, onion, red and green peppers, and jalapenos.

Amtrak said the Cubana bowl is a healthy option for those seeking reduced calories, fat and sodium.

The BBQ pork wings are described as braised bone-in pork shanks in Stubs smoky BBQ sauce with red skinned garlic mashed potatoes.

The land and sea combo comes with a choice of baked or mashed potatoes. The flat iron steak comes with a baked potato, the cod entree comes with rice pilaf and the chicken selection comes with mashed potatoes. All entrees come with a vegetable or vegetable medley.

The children’s lunch and dinner menu are the same and priced at $7.50. The options are a Hebrew National all-beef hot dog or macaroni and cheese.

At dinner those both come with a vegetable medley. At lunch the hot dog comes with kettle chips while the mac and cheese comes with a roll.

The children’s breakfast menu includes a scrambled egg with roasted potatoes or grits, and a croissant ($4.25) or French Toast ($5.25)

Deserts range from $7.25 for the Amtrak seasonal desert to $2.75 for vanilla pudding. The Amtrak specialty deserts are priced at $6.50 and include a flourless chocolate torte, New York style cheesecake or a rotating selection.

The Auto Train sleeping car passenger dinner menu is a stripped-down version of what is offered in other long-distance trains full-service dining cars.

Dinner entrees include flat iron steak, garlic and herb cod, pan roasted chicken breast and baked three-cheese manicotti.

All entrees come with a vegetable medley. The steak comes with baked potato, while the cod and chicken come with rice pilaf. Each entrée is accompanied by a salad and dinner roll.

The children’s dinner is chicken tenders or macaroni and cheese, with both coming with a vegetable medley.

There is a signature desert item that rotates but otherwise the choices are New York style cheesecake, vanilla ice cream or sugar free jello. Optional toppings include chocolate syrup, fruit toppings and whipped cream.

As is the case with on long-distance trains with flexible dining, the Auto Train offers sleeping car passengers at each meal a single complimentary beverage, including alcoholic beverages.

However, the cocktail, wine and beer selections on the Auto Train are more limited than what is available on full-service or flexible dining cars.

There is no breakfast offered in the dining car to sleeping car passengers aboard the Auto Train although an earlier Amtrak news release had said passengers receive a continental breakfast before arriving at their destination in Florida or Northern Virginia.

Dining Service Returns to Silver Star on May 1

January 8, 2020

Amtrak announced on Tuesday that sleeping car passengers traveling on the Silver Star will resume receiving meals as part of their fare on May 1.

The announcement was buried in a news release about a bring a companion for free fare program that the carrier launched this week.

Silver Star sleeping car passengers have not received meals since 2015 when a full-service dining car was removed from the train.

At the time fares for Silver Star sleeper class passengers were lowered in a pilot program of sorts.

The only meal service provided aboard the Silver Star was in the cafe car.

Amtrak provided few details about the change to the Silver Star other than to say it will involve the flexible dining program that was introduced to all overnight trains operating east of the Mississippi River last October.

The flexible dining initiative replaced full-service dining cars with a limited menu that is offered to passengers during longer serving hours in the dining car.

The meals served to sleeping car passengers are not available to coach passengers and the dining car itself doubles as a sleeping car lounge that is also off limits to coach passengers.

The flexible dining concept was introduced in June 2018 aboard the Capitol Limited and Lake Shore Limited. At the time it called fresh and contemporary dining.

In announcing the flexible dining program last year, Amtrak had said it planned to extend it to the Silver Star once it worked out the logistical details.

That, presumably meant dedicating a pool of Viewliner dining cars for use aboard the Star.

Flexible Dining is About Consistent, Less Costly Dining

September 20, 2019

Amtrak held a preview of “flexible dining” last week at Washington Union Station and at least one reporter who was there said that the food to be introduced on Oct. 1 is an improvement over what is now being served aboard two eastern overnight trains.

Bob Johnston, the passenger rail correspondent for Trains magazine, wrote that after tasting the planned entrees that they are an improvement over the boxed meals that have been served since June 2018 aboard the Lake Shore Limited and Capitol Limited as part of Amtrak’s “fresh and contemporary model.”

Johnston said he agreed with Amtrak Executive Chef Gottlieb’s description of the new fare: “The pasta is al dente, the chicken is tender and the beef is really good and tasty.”

The press event was held aboard Viewliner II dining car Tallahassee and new meal offerings were presented buffet style.

The food is designed to be heated in a convection oven and mixed together.

That precludes offering individually served items such as steak, chicken, or fish with a separate side dish vegetable.

Johnston noted that Amtrak briefly tried “pre-plating” of individual meals as an economy move on the City of New Orleans in the mid-2000s but ended it after passengers complained about the lack of choice.

Once flexible dining begins sleeping car passengers will receive their meals on trays that will hold a bowl, a side salad and a brownie for dessert.

Flexible dining is Amtrak’s moniker for a more consist meal service model to be served to sleeper class passengers aboard the Capitol Limited, Lake Shore Limited, Crescent, Cardinal, Silver Meteor and City of New Orleans.

Amtrak officials said flexible dining will be extended to sleeper class passengers on the Silver Star next year, but they have not given a date for that.

Sleeper class passengers on the Silver Star currently do not receive meals as part of their fare as do passengers on all other Amtrak overnight trains with sleeping cars.

It remains to be seen, though, how long flexible dining will last and whether Amtrak will tweak it.

In an appearance this week at the Skift Global 2019 Travel Industry Conference, Amtrak President Richard Anderson said the carrier plans “to simplify to a single food car.”

It is not clear if that means that Amtrak plans to drop meals for sleeper class passengers as part of their fare and thus force all passengers to rely on a café car for food and beverage service.

Anderson has also spoken about having some long-distance trains provide experiential service and cited the example of VIA Rail Canada’s The Canadian.

That train had two full-service dining cars as well as café car service for coach passengers.

In his appearance at the Shift conference, Anderson said Amtrak has simplified food service to achieve cost cuts mandated by Congress.

The roll out of flexible dining is an extension of that. On that date full-service dining will end on the Silver Meteor and Crescent.

Also ending will be the individual menus unique to the Cardinal and City of New Orleans.

Although on-board food preparation ended aboard those trains years ago in favor of heating meals prepared off the train, both offer passengers more variety and offerings for breakfast, lunch and dinner than passengers have had aboard the Capitol Limited and Lake Shore Limited in the past year.

During the press event last week, Amtrak officials described how the food to be offered under the flexible dining model was developed and how it differs from that offered under the fresh and contemporary model.

Gottlieb and Amtrak Vice President, Product Development and Customer Experience Peter Wilander said main dishes will be prepared by a new vendor, New Horizon Foods, and flash frozen.

“There was a lot of back and forth in a competition with three or four vendors, and we tested everything in our test kitchens,” Gottlieb said in reference to  Amtrak’s Consolidated National Operation Center in Wilmington, Delaware.

The trays on which the food will be presented is another change. In the fresh and contemporary model Amtrak used balsawood boxes and green bags.

“The box itself had an unanticipated consequence of service degradation,” Wilander said.

He described the trays as an off-the-shelf design “that will allow us to progress to the next iteration (creating) our own molds to do something different.”

The trays can be washed and reused. The boxes and bags Amtrak has been using are billed as recyclable, but in practice generated a lot of trash.

The flexible dining name is rooted in the practice of passengers being able to eat their meals within a wide serving window rather than limited to coming to the diner at set times.

It also will result in consistent equipment assignments with all single-level equipment trains using a Viewliner II dining car that only sleeper class passengers will be able to access.

Roger Harris, Amtrak’s executive vice president and chief marketing and revenue officer, said a shortage of Viewliner sleepers has prevented the carrier from assigning a second sleeper to the Cardinal.

Harris said during the press event that Amtrak expects to save enough money from the changes in food service to be able to return meals to sleeper class passengers on the Silver Star.

When that happens, Silver Star sleeper passengers will pay higher fares because meals will be included.

“So we have the opportunity to have a [range] of fares from low to high according to demand, and we’re not going to have this orphan train,” Harris said in reference to the Silver Star.

Fares for Silver Star sleeper class passengers were lowered when the train’s dining car was removed in 2015.

Harris said assigning a sleeper class dining car to the Silver Star is in the works and Amtrak is working through the logistics to do it.

The implementation of flexible dining may be good news for passengers at lunch and dinner in that they will have more options to choose among compared with fresh and contemporary.

But breakfast is largely unchanged with just one hot entrée available.

Although Amtrak has yet to announce it, the carrier plans to add to café cars on long-distance trains some of the fresh sandwiches available for sale in café cars on corridor trains in the Midwest, Northeast, and California.

Take a Ride on the Amtrak Spin Train

September 16, 2019

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.

Amtrak Announces Details About ‘Flexible Dining’

September 16, 2019

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.