Posts Tagged ‘Amtrak dining cars’

Report Says Outlined Food Changes May be Not Final

August 15, 2019

An internal Amtrak report that was leaked this week was created some time ago and Amtrak continues to work out the details of its food and beverage service offerings on eastern long-distance trains, Trains magazine reported this week.

The leaked document, described by Trains as a presentation, outlined how the Crescent, Silver Meteor, Cardinal and City of New Orleans would switch to the “contemporary dining” service model that was introduced on the Lake Shore Limited and Capitol Limited in June 2018.

That model replaces full-service dining cars with a more limited selection of food prepared off the train.

The leaked Amtrak report, which was dated July 11, also indicated how many on-board positions would be eliminated as part of the switch.

In the case of some trains, there would be no net loss of jobs, but some positions will be reclassified.

Trains reported that when it asked Amtrak about the report, Amtrak spokeswoman Kimberly Woods replied in an email that the carrier is still working out the details for the menus and dining environment on the eastern-long distance trains, including the Auto Train.

The report, though, is consistent with some of what Amtrak has announced already in regards to the Auto Train in that starting in January coach passengers will no longer receive dinner in a dining car as part of their fare.

However, the report said that A-T coach passengers would also no longer receive a complimentary breakfast whereas an Amtrak news release said they would be receiving a complimentary continental breakfast.

Woods told Trains that the continental breakfast would not be served in a dining car.

She said that that such other aspects described in the report such as a “festive environment” for A-T coach passengers and “enhanced room service” in sleeping cars of all eastern long-distance trains has yet to be determined.

Although the Cardinal and City of New Orleans do not feature dining cars with food freshly prepared onboard, they do have sit-down meals that are prepared off the train and warmed by microwave and convection ovens.

These meals are offered to sleeping car passengers as part of their fare and sold to coach passengers.

The Amtrak internal report indicated that this type of service will be replaced on Oct. 1 with contemporary dining.

A Trains correspondent said that during a recent trip aboard the Crescent, dining car crew members said their jobs would soon be eliminated, but were not given a date.

The correspondent said he observed a ratio of about 60 percent sleeper passengers to 40 percent coach passengers in the Crescent’s dining car, which had a staff of one chef, one lead service attendant and one server.

The Trains story suggested that the changes to the Cardinal will result in the Viewliner diner that will be assigned to the train hosting the fewest passengers of any eastern long-distance train because Nos. 50 and 51 will continue to have just one Viewliner sleeping car.

The Cardinal lost its second sleeper in 2018 when it operated between Chicago and Washington during a track rehabilitation project at New York’s Penn Station.

Although the Cardinal has since been restored to Chicago-New York operation the second sleeper is no longer operating in late spring, summer and fall.

Amtrak is apparently planning to replace on the Cardinal its current Amfleet II “diner lite” car with tables on both sides with an Amfleet I “split club” with 18 business class seats on one side and a half-car lounge section on the other. Business class passengers will not have access to the Viewliner diner.

Amtrak Eastern Long-Distance Trains to Get ‘Contemporary Dining” Service Effective Oct. 1

August 12, 2019

An internal Amtrak memo that was posted on Train Orders.com had confirmed that all eastern long-distance trains except the Silver Star will adopt the “contemporary dining” model effective Oct. 1.

Full-service dining will be removed from the New York-New Orleans Crescent and New York-Miami Silver Meteor.

The Silver Star is an exception because it does not provide meal service to sleeping car passengers as part of their fare.

The Chicago-New York Cardinal will gain a Viewliner dining car that will serve as a sleeper class lounge car in the same manner as is done on the Chicago-New York Lake Shore Limited.

Although the Cardinal has not had meals prepared on board for several years, it did have a more expansive menu than the Lake Shore or Capitol Limited had after both switched to the contemporary dining model last year.

The net effect of the changes is to standardize food and beverage service on eastern long distance trains while reducing the number of on-board employees assigned to the Crescent and Silver Meteor.

The Cardinal and the Chicago-New Orleans City of New Orleans will not have a net loss of on-board jobs, but two of the positions will be reclassified as lead service attendants.

The Crescent will see a reduction of 16 positions while the Silver Meteor will lose 14 positions.

The Amtrak memo said onboard meal preparation will be replaced by a small variety of ready to serve meals that will be included in the sleeper class fare and delivered to the train just prior to origination.

All eastern long-distance trains will have two food service cars, one of which is reserved for the exclusive use of sleeper class passengers. The other is a café car open to all passengers.

Sleeping car attendants will, upon request, continue to deliver meals to passengers in their rooms.

Amtrak also plans to continue the practice of the sleeping car attendant asking passengers shortly after boarding their preferred dining times and giving reservations in 15-minute increments.

The lunch and dinner offerings on all trains will include Asian noodle bowl, red wine braised beef, chicken fettuccini with broccoli, and Creole shrimp and andouille. Dessert is available upon request.

Breakfast is described as a deluxe continental breakfast that includes muffins, yogurt, fresh fruit, hard boiled eggs, cereal, oatmeal and breakfast sandwich.

Sleeper class passengers and business class passengers will each receive one complimentary alcoholic beverage and unlimited soft drinks.

Business class, which is available only on the Cardinal, does not include meals.

The consist of the Cardinal will be one Viewliner baggage car, three Amfleet II coaches, one Viewliner sleeper , one Viewliner sleeper-lounge,  and an Amfleet I café-lounge with 18 business class seats, Amfleet café module and 24 booth seats.

The A end of the café car pointed toward the coaches to reduce foot traffic through the business class section.

The Cardinal onboard crew will continue to be based in New York.

The City of New Orleans will have consist of Superliner equipment, including  two coaches, a baggage-coach, a Cross Country Café that will serve as the sleeper class lounge, a Sightseer lounge that will serve as the café car for the entire train and a transition sleeper.

The Crescent and Silver Meteor will have similar consists of three Amfleet II coaches, one Amfleet diner lite car that will serve as the café car, a Viewliner dining car that will serve as the sleeper class lounge and a Viewliner baggage car. The Crescent will have two sleeping cars while the Silver Meteor will have three.

The assignments mean that Amtrak will have in revenue service at any given time 13 Viewliner dining cars of the 25 that is owns.

The memo also detailed the plans for changes in Auto Train food and beverage service in January 2020.

Complimentary breakfast and dinner for coach passengers will be eliminated in favor of an expanded café car menu sold through a Cross Country Café.

The Amtrak memo said the café car will provide “a festive environment during the trip,” although it is not clear what this is supposed to mean.

Food trucks will be selling meals at the stations in Lorton, Virginia, and Sanford, Florida.

Effective Oct. 1, one coach will be replaced by a sleeping car with additional sleeping cars being assigned during peak travel periods.

Food service for sleeper class will be provided by seasonal menus with variety of entrée selections for breakfast, lunch and dinner.

There will be a selection of cocktails, beer and wine to go with coffee and soft drinks. Amtrak said that a wine service is also being introduced for sleeper class passengers aboard the Auto Train.

The changes in onboard service aboard the Auto Train will result in 25 onboard service positions being eliminated.

Branson Scenic Buys 3 Amtrak Cars

August 2, 2019

A Missouri tourist railroad has acquired three retired Amtrak cars.

The Branson Scenic Railway purchased Amtrak baggage cars 1204 and 1245, and dining car 8521.

All three cars are expected to be moved later this month from Amtrak’s Beech Grove shops near Indianapolis.

Both baggage cars are of Santa Fe heritage and were built by Budd in 1953. The dining car was built by Budd in 1949 and used by the Southern Railway on is Crescent between Washington and New Orleans.

The diner was also assigned by the Southern to the Royal Palm, Southerner, and Tennessean,

Amtrak acquired it in 1979 when the Southern ceased operating its last passenger train, the Southern Crescent.

The diner was rebuilt by Amtrak to HEP capability in 1984 when it received its current roster number. It was overhauled in 2012 and retired from Amtrak revenue service in 2015.

Branson Scenic plans to rename the diner Silver Belle and used it as a backup diner for Branson’s dinner train and as a premium car for its Polar Express excursions.

The baggage will be used for parts and storage but one may become a power car.

The Branson Scenic uses tracks owned by Genesee & Wyoming’s Missouri & Northern Arkansas Railroad through the Ozark Mountains.

Trains operate on 40-mile round trips north or south of Branson.

Planned Dining Service Changes on Auto Train May be Predictor of Future of Amtrak’s Long-Distance Trains

July 22, 2019

The recent announcement by Amtrak of changes to on-board service aboard the Auto Train might be a blueprint for the “experiential” long-distance service that Amtrak CEO Richard Anderson has alluded to in public comments.

However, the upgrades that the carrier is making for sleeping car passengers on the Auto Train stand somewhat in stark contrast with what is happening with onboard service on other eastern long-distance trains.

In a news release, Amtrak said that starting in January Auto Train sleeping car passengers will receive complimentary wine with dinner as well as better linens and towels.

The release spoke of new dinner and breakfast menus, but it is not clear if that will involve food freshly prepared onboard or prepared off the train by a catering company.

The Auto Train announcement came about the same time that news broke that Amtrak plans to extend its “contemporary dining” program to its other eastern long-distance trains.

That program began aboard the Lake Shore Limited and Capitol Limited in June 2018 and involves serving sleeping car passengers box meals in their rooms or in the dining car.

When “contemporary dining” began, Amtrak sought to sell it as an improvement in the sense that passengers received a complimentary alcoholic beverage with their meals, would be able to eat when they wanted, and would have exclusive use of the dining car throughout their trip.

Initially, all of the sleeper class food aboard the Capitol and Lake Shore was served cold, but after a couple months one hot offering was added at dinner and breakfast.

The Auto Train announcement also referenced expanding sleeping car capacity during peak travel periods, but no such move was made for the Capitol Limited and Lake Shore Limited.

Nor did Amtrak upgrade the linens and towels available for use by sleeping car passengers on those trains. Aside: those improved linens and towels may not be all that much. Amtrak is not about to become a high-end hotel.

Coach passengers aboard the Auto Train will be losing their complimentary dinner. Instead, Amtrak said it will expand the café car menu of meals, snacks and beverages. It also said it will have food truck vendors at the stations in Lorton, Virginia, and Sanford, Florida, that coach passengers can patronize.

That sounds like a 21st century version of the 19th century practice of passenger trains making meal stops at designated points.

Auto train coach passengers will receive a complimentary continental breakfast. That is more than coach passengers get on any other long-distance train.

Commenting on the Auto Train changes, the Rail Passengers Association noted that these changes are in line with the desire of Amtrak management to more clearly delineate travel classes. It also might be a scheme to delineate types of trains.

The Auto Train is unique among long-distance trains in not having intermediate stations. The clientele of the Auto Train is different in many ways from that of other long-distance trains and the more well-heeled among them might be the target audience Amtrak is seeking with the experiential trains.

I’ve long thought that Anderson might have in mind duplicating the Rocky Mountaineer or even VIA Rail Canada’s Canadian, both of which attract a lot of affluent tour group travelers with disposable income to spend on experiences.

The Washington-Florida travel market has long been a strong one and is the only Amtrak long-distance market to have double daily service between endpoints even if those trains take different routes within North Carolina and South Carolina.

The implementation of “contemporary dining” on the Capitol Limited and Lake Shore Limited last year also represented a delineation between sleeper class and coach class in the sense that the latter are now limited to café car fare or bringing their own food with them aboard the train. But no food trucks.

In an analysis posted on its website last week, the RPA said Amtrak has hinted that the contemporary dining to be imposed on the Crescent and Silver Meteor, the only remaining eastern long-distance trains with full-service dining cars, will be different from that now available on the Capitol and Lake Shore. But RPA said it is not clear how or why it will be different.

“Meanwhile, problems with availability, choice and dietary restrictions have soured the perceptions of many repeat riders,” RPA wrote.

The rail passenger advocacy group acknowledged that Amtrak is trying to balance modern tastes and sensibilities within a long-distance ridership audience that includes large percentages of patrons who do not share those tastes and sensibilities.

RPA pointed out that one of its members wrote to say about “contemporary dining,” that “The food honestly is both better, tastier and more in line with how I eat when I am dieting like now and how my kids eat. Plus I like the dedicated lounge space in between meals.”

The latter comment reflects a facet of train travel that doesn’t get much attention.

If you are going to shell out the big bucks Amtrak demands for sleeper class, you want more than your own room and bed at night.

Amtrak argues that its surveys have found many passengers want less heavy meals and want to be able to eat when they choose rather that during fixed mealtimes.

Many passengers also don’t care for the community seating that has long been associated with eating in a railroad dining car. These passengers would rather not dine in the company of strangers.

Of course, RPA said, some passengers have found the food of “contemporary dining” to be terrible and even those who like the food have been put off by how it is presented.

That probably is an allusion to it coming in cardboard boxes and plastic containers, something that is being done because it is less costly and easier to manage.

In its analysis, the RPA said there are too few choices available with current “contemporary dining” fare, particularly with hot meal options.

“Members also tell us that kosher options are a problem, as are options for those with food allergies or sensitivities like gluten intolerance,” RPA wrote, “We’ve also heard from many of our members about entrees running out very early in the dining service.”

At the time that “contemporary dining” was launched, Amtrak said it would eventually allow coach passengers to purchase the meals made available to sleeper class passengers, but thus far that has not occurred.

Amtrak has said it is seeking to satisfy a Congressional mandate to cut its food and beverage deficit so the changes being made to the Auto Train and other eastern long-distance trains are being imposed with that in mind.

That means reducing the number of onboard employees involved in food and beverage service as well as trying to cut the cost of food and beverage acquisition.

The food trucks for coach passengers concept fits well into this framework because it shifts the risk onto an entrepreneur who probably is paying Amtrak a fee for the privilege of selling food trackside.

I wonder, by the way, what will happen when Amtrak begins getting complaints about food odors lingering in the air long after the food has been consumed.

Much of how Amtrak is framing these changes is akin to Michael Jackson’s fabled moonwalk in which he moves backwards while giving the illusion of moving forward.

Many railfans dislike “contemporary dining” but they are not necessarily representative of those who buy sleeper class tickets.

The sleeping customers are not necessarily looking for gourmet dining on wheels or trying to recreate the experience of traveling on the Broadway Limited, Super Chief, Twentieth Century Limited or the Capitol Limited during their heyday before Amtrak came along.

They want a good meal and friendly service that makes them feel that the hefty accommodation charge they paid was worth it.

Serving sleeper class passengers a complimentary alcoholic beverage and giving them exclusive use of a dining car turned lounge is fine, but can be negated by offering meals that too much resemble a school field trip box lunch.

RPA is correct in saying presentation is a problem here, but to get restaurant style presentation is labor intensive and reducing labor costs is one of Amtrak’s objectives.

Whatever shortcomings that “contemporary dining” may have, it could be worse.

Amtrak could borrow Southern Pacific’s playbook of providing food and beverage service from vending machines. Maybe it’s just a matter of time.

More Amtrak Full-Service Dining Expected to End

July 16, 2019

Amtrak is expected to end full-service dining on all eastern long-distance trains the Rail Passengers Association reported last week.

That means that sleeping car passengers traveling on the New York-Miami Silver Meteor and New York-New Orleans Crescent will be served the same fare that passengers receive on the Capitol Limited and Lake Shore Limited.

In early 2020, Amtrak will also end the practice of providing complimentary dinner to coach passengers aboard the Auto Train between Virginia and Florida.

Instead, coach passengers will be given the option of buying café car fare onboard or purchasing meals from food trucks at terminals in Lorton, Virginia, and Sanford, Florida.

An Amtrak news release said all Auto Train passengers will receive a continental breakfast before their arrival.

Sleeping car passengers will continue to be served in their own dining car with “a new menu and the addition of complementary wine to the dinner service,” the news release said.

A spokesperson told Trains magazine that menus for Auto Train sleeping car passengers are still being worked out.

The Amtrak news release said other enhancements will be made to the Auto Train’s sleeping cars including “upgraded towels and bed linens and other pleasantries in each room.”

Amtrak also said it will expand sleeping-car accommodation availability to meet demand.

It is not clear how the food service changes will affect sleeping car passengers on the Chicago-New York Cardinal.

That train has not had meals prepared on board for several years, but offers a much more expansive menu for sleeping car passengers than is available on the Lake Shore Limited or Capitol Limited.

Since June 2018 sleeping car passengers aboard the Lake Shore and Capitol have received box meals with just one offering being served hot.

One complimentary alcoholic beverage is also provided per passenger per meal.

The meals are served in dedicated cars open only to sleeping car passengers. Passengers also have the option of having the meal delivered to their room.

The range of food items available, though, is limited.

RPA said the changes to food service on eastern trains other than the Auto Train will become effective on Oct. 1, the first day of the 2020 federal budget year. The Auto Train changes take effect on Jan. 15.

Food service provided on western long-distance trains will not be affected by the changes.

The New York-Miami Silver Star has not provided meals to sleeping car passengers since July 1, 2015.

Auto Train coach passengers would no longer have separate dining and lounge/cafe cars and given that Amtrak prohibits passengers from consuming in dining and café cars any food brought board the train that means anything purchased from a food truck will need to be consumed at the passenger’s coach seat.

In its news release, Amtrak said Auto Train coach passengers would be able to buy food and beverages from a cross country café car.

The coming changes drew criticism from RPA President Jim Mathews.
“The problem isn’t the food itself, it’s the way the whole experience is handled,” he said on RPA’s website. “We understand the need to make lighter fare available to match the tastes of many modern travelers. But as it’s currently executed on the Capitol and the Lake Shore, too often food items run short, there aren’t enough hot options, and the presentation is perfunctory and off-putting.”

RPA said that the food service changes are part of a strategy to “improve the financials on these routes.”

Not Much Breakfast to be had in Diner Dover

May 27, 2019

Amtrak began putting Viewliner dining cars built by CAF USA into service not longer before it stopped offering full service dining aboard the Lake Shore Limited in favor of what it termed “fresh and contemporary” meal service.

At the time that service launched in June 2018, no hot meal offerings were offered. Everything served was prepared off the train.

Since then hot food had made a sort of comeback on the Lake Shore Limited and Capitol Limited.

Breakfast now includes a breakfast sandwich of ham, egg and cheddar cheese served on a ciabatta roll that an attendant can heat for you in a microwave oven.

I imagine that one or more passengers were having that sandwich as the westbound Lake Shore passed through Olmsted Falls, Ohio, near Cleveland on the morning I made this image.

It wasn’t a hot, freshly prepared meal created by a chef aboard the train, but I suppose it was better than the alternative of breakfast bars.

Dover, like most of the Viewliner diners, is named after a state capitol city. Like many of those capitols, Dover is not on the Amtrak route map.

One Menu Cover Being Used in Amtrak Dining Cars

May 9, 2019

While looking around on the Amtrak website recently I noticed that the carrier is now using the same menu cover for all of its full-service dining cars on long-distance trains.

Until recently, menu covers featured an image specific to each of those trains.

That practice, though, has been dropped. Train-specific images still are being used on menus for dining cars on the City of New Orleans and Cardinal.

Specific menus are also shown on the Amtrak website for the Auto Train, Lake Shore Limited and Capitol Limited but no train-special images accompany those menus.

The Auto Train has two menus, one for coach passengers and one for sleeping car passengers. If you were wondering, the entrees available in coach include flat iron steak, panko-crusted pollock, roasted chicken breast and lasagna.

The sleeping car menu on the Auto Train features beef petite tender filet, lemon pepper cod, thyme roasted chicken and mushroom bolognese lasagna.

Each menu has the same children’s menu of chicken tenders or macaroni and cheese. The desert fare is mostly the same in coach and sleeper except that sleeping car passengers are advised to ask their server about that day’s Amtrak signature dessert.

The menus for the Lake Shore Limited and Capitol Limited are identical and there is no mention of the train names.

Amtrak has used a largely standardized dining car menu for its long-distance trains for a few years now although there were a few slight variations for some routes.

Also gone from the dining car menus are entrees created by chefs who were members of an Amtrak culinary advisory committee.

One thing that hasn’t changed are the high prices for entrees. The priciest is the land and sea combo, which features a Black Angus flat iron steak and a lump crab cake for $39.

If you just want the steak it will cost $25 if you are paying for your meal as opposed to it being included in your sleeping car room fare.

The crab cake is only available in the land and sea combo. The seafood entrees is Norwegian salmon. The chicken entree is thyme-roasted chicken breast while the pasta entree is a rigatoni pasta that is billed as being vegan compliant.

At $16.50 the rigatoni pasta is the least expensive dinner entree. As has been the practice for several years now, a side salad costs extra, although it is complimentary for sleeping car passengers.

Lunch entrees include an entree salad with chicken breast for an additional charge, black bean and corn veggie burger, Angus burger, baked chilaquiles, and steamed mussels.

Prices of the lunch entrees range from $14.50 to $12.50. At lunch and dinner there are four desert items available, including sugar free vanilla pudding, a flourless chocolate tart, New York-style cheesecake and a seasonal desert.

The breakfast fare seems rather pricey for what you get. Three pancakes cost $10.50, which doesn’t include a breakfast meat.

Scrambled eggs with roasted potatoes or grits and a croissant cost $8.50.

The continental breakfast of cereal or hot oatmeal accompanied with fresh seasonal fruit, Greek yogurt and a croissant is $8.75.

Other breakfast entrees include a made to order three-egg omelette, and cheese quesadillas with eggs and tomatillo sauce. Both of these come with a croissant and omelette also has potatoes or grits.

Breakfast meats include pork sausage, chicken sausage and bacon, but must be ordered separately. You will also pay extra for such toppings as cheese or guacamole.

Texas Museum Buying Amtrak Diner

May 1, 2019

Another Amtrak dining car will find its way into a museum collection tied to the car’s heritage.

Amtrak Heritage fleet diner 8527 is being acquired by the Gulf Coast Chapter of the National Railway Historical Society.

Based in Houston, the chapter collects historical rolling stock that was used by railroads of that region.

No. 8527, was built in 1950 by the Budd Company for use on the Southern Pacific’s Sunset Limited  between Los Angeles and New Orleans.

During its time at Amtrak, the diner primarily operated on routes in the eastern United States, logging 6.9 million miles in revenue service.

The sale of the car to the Gulf Coast Chapter is expected to be completed later this month.

It was among the last Heritage fleet dining in revenue service on Amtrak. At SP the diner carried roster number 10212.

During its time at SP, the diner had an interior design that featured the works of Louisiana artist/naturalist John James Audubon, including hand-painted reproductions of many of Audubon’s paintings.

Other design features included drapes with a bird-of-paradise motif and fern pattern carpet.

Those design features largely were removed when Amtrak rebuilt the car.

The Gulf Coast Chapter said it plans to retain the Amtrak interior but will repaint the exterior of the car into striping and lettering evoking its SP ancestry.

New York Tourist RR to Get Amtrak Dining Car

April 29, 2019

A New York tourist railroad has acquired a former Amtrak dining car.

The Adirondack Scenic Railroad has received a Heritage fleet diner that was once New York Central lounge car No. 463.

Railroad officials said that car would have traveled through Utica, New York, where the ASR is based, and perhaps traveled over ASR tracks to Lake Placid, New York.

Amtrak agreed to donate the car to the ASR because of its history. Several other railroads were also interested in acquiring the car.

The car is expected to arrive on the ASR sometime in May.

Ready For the Dinner Crowd

March 29, 2019

A table in the dining car of the westbound Empire Builder is ready to accept passengers for dinner as they view the passing countryside in Wisconsin.

Napkins and silverware are in place, and menus have been set at each of the four seats. Water glasses have been filled and dinner checks are waiting on the edge of the table.

Although this image was made long before the most recent downgrading of on-board meal service on Amtrak’s eastern long-distance trains, it still reflects a certain level of austerity.

The water is served in plastic cups, for example, although the napkins and table covering are still cloth. That won’t be the case for lunch and breakfast.

Images such as this are ingrained in the imaginations of those who ride trains and/or advocate on their behalf.