Posts Tagged ‘Amtrak dining cars’

Amtrak Dining Changes are NOT Good News

April 24, 2018

Part of the experience for me of riding Amtrak to Chicago is having breakfast in the dining car.

I’ve had some good meals in Amtrak diners over the years and some interesting conversations with my table mates as the Indiana countryside rolled past.

Now Amtrak plans to end full-service dining aboard the Capitol Limited and Lake Shore Limited on June 1 in favor of pre-packaged cold meals for sleeping car passengers that they will eat in their room or at a table in a lounge car devoted exclusively to sleeping car passengers.

Coach passengers will have to make do with whatever cafe car offerings are available although Amtrak says it will sell the meals sleeping car passengers receive to coach passengers on a limited basis.

This downgrade in meal service will be most noticeable at breakfast, which will be no better than that of a Super 8 motel, dominated by carbohydrates with some fruit and yogurt available. No eggs, no bacon, no sausage, no pancakes or French toast, no potatoes, no vegetables and no table service. There won’t even be cereal.

It is particularly galling to see the Amtrak news release frame the meal policy change as an improvement in meal service, using words such as “fresh” and “contemporary.”

That is pure public relations and marketing balderdash. The changes Amtrak is making are all about cutting costs, not enhancing the travel by train experience.

Driving these changes is a 2019 deadline Amtrak faces under federal law to eliminate losses on food and beverage service.

Long before there was an Amtrak there were railroad dining cars that operated at a loss.

An article published in Trains magazine in the 1950s likened a dining car to an inefficient restaurant. Dining cars just don’t have enough volume of business to cover their expenses.

The only time that railroad dining cars paid their way was during World War II when the railroads handled an extremely high volume of traffic.

For the most part, railroads viewed dining cars as loss leaders and branding devices designed to lure passengers, particularly those who were affluent. Some railroad executives thought their image with shippers hinged on how they perceived a railroad’s passenger service.

This image of a 1950s streamliner and all of its trappings has stuck in the minds of some railroad passenger advocates as though it is a command from above that long-distance trains must have dining cars that serve full-course meals prepared on-board by gourmet chefs.

Amtrak’s dining service has gone through all manner of changes over the years, some good and some downright horrible as management sought to rein in costs while preserving at least a semblance of the eating aboard a train tradition. Now the current Amtrak management seems determined to blow up long-distance trains dining.

Perhaps another underlying factor is that the cost of eating in Amtrak dining cars has ballooned to the point where few coach passengers are willing or able to pay the prices.

On the current Capitol Limited menu, the least expensive breakfast entree is scrambled eggs, potatoes and a croissant ($8.50). If you want bacon or sausage that will be another $3.50.

An omelet with vegetable and cheese filling, along with the potatoes and croissant, costs $13.75. A stack of three pancakes costs $10.50 and doesn’t come with anything else.

At dinner, the least expensive of the seven entrees is vegetarian pasta at $16.50. If you want a salad that will be another $3.50.

Four of the entrees cost more than $20. The most expensive is the land and sea combo ($39). It comes with a flat iron steak and a seafood cake of crab, shrimp and scallops. A salad is not included but you get a potato (or rice pilaf) and a vegetable. Desserts range from $2.75 to $7.50.

If you want to enjoy an adult beverage with your meal, a cocktail costs $7.50, a single serving of wine is $7, and a beer costs between $6 and $7.50. It means you could spend upwards of $70 for dinner for one person including the tip.

Many of those who patronize Amtrak’s full service dining cars are sleeping car passengers who have “paid” for their meal in their sleeping car fare, which itself is not cheap.

For example, a Superliner roomette on the Capitol Limited from Cleveland to Chicago on April 25 is priced at $225. By contrast a coach seat is $73. A Viewliner roomette on the Lake Shore Limited is $181 and a coach seat is $58.

Some of those “fresh” and “contemporary” meals that Amtrak plans to serve sleeping car passengers might be tasty. But I can’t image too many folks who shelled out hundreds of dollars for a sleeping car ticket will be satisfied with a continental breakfast.

They want something hot and substantial. Dining cars on long-distance trains don’t need to be gourmet restaurants. Something approximating a Bob Evans restaurant would be sufficient.

If ever there was a need for a combination of technology and creative thinking to make this happen, now is that time.

What Amtrak plans to implement on June 1 on the Capitol Limited and Lake Shore Limited is far from that.

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How Amtrak Framed Dining Changes to Employees

April 23, 2018

The way that Amtrak portrayed to its employees its plans to eliminate preparation of meals onboard the Capitol Limited and Lake Shore Limited differs slightly from how it framed the change in its news release and service advisory.

For example, Amtrak told its employees that the plan to offer sleeping car passengers pre-packaged cold meals is temporary.

But that doesn’t mean that on-board food preparation is coming back.

Eventually, Amtrak told its employees, sleeping car passengers will able to “pre-order/pre-select meal options prior to departure.”

The memo sent to employees also said that the passenger carrier expects to save $3.4 million a year “some of which will be reinvested in the product.”

Another goal of removing full dining service aboard the Capitol and Lake Shore the Amtrak memo said is “less waste and providing a more contemporary food service model and product (with in room service) for our premium passengers.”

The memo also clarified in a way that the news release did not that Amtrak plans to devote a lounge car for the exclusive use of sleeping car passengers where they can consume their meals.

Coach passengers will not be allowed to use this lounge, which will have an Amtrak attendant on duty but there will be no table service.  Table seating will be on a first-come basis.

The pre-packaged meals that Amtrak will serve passengers will come with condiments, napkins and cutlery.

“If a customer finds something missing from their package, needs another beverage or needs assistance moving from their bedroom or roomette to another car on the train – the sleeper car attendant or other employees can provide assistance,” the memo said.

As for staffing, the memo said each train will have an onboard food and beverage staff of two with one lead service attendant in each car.

Although sleeping car passengers will have the option of eating in their rooms, the Amtrak memo indicated that this is “subject to refinement as we move forward.”

As Amtrak framed the change for its employees, “this change will contribute to improved financial performance and more contemporary service delivery on these overnight routes between the East Coast and Chicago.”

The memo suggests that the meal program on both trains will be reviewed after the summer travel season.

During the summer the consist of the Capitol Limited will be two coaches, a baggage-coach, two sleepers, one lounge car for sleeping car passengers, one sightseer café/lounge (Superliner I or II), a transition dorm and a baggage car.

The Lake Shore Limited will operate with six coaches, two baggage cars, three sleepers, one lounge for sleeping car passengers (one of the new CAF cars) and one café/lounge car (Amfleet I split club).

The café/lounge includes 18 business class seats, the standard Amfleet café module and 24 booth seats.

Sleeping car attendants will make reservations for sleeping car passengers for meals in much the same way that they do today in the dining car.

Meal service hours will be the same as they are now: Breakfast 6:30 a.m. to 10 a.m., lunch 11:30 a.m. to 3 p.m., and dinner 5 p.m. to 9:30 p.m.

The attendant in the sleeping car lounge will be on duty between 6:30 a.m. to 10 p.m. except for allotted breaks. This lounge will be available for passenger use for the duration of the journey.

Amtrak to End Full-Service Dining on Capitol Limited, Lake Shore Limited in Favor of Cole Meal Service

April 20, 2018

Amtrak is ending full-service dining car service on the Capitol Limited and Lake Shore Limited.

In a news release posted on its website, the passenger carrier said that effective June 1 it will begin offering sleeping car passengers on the two trains what it termed “contemporary and fresh dining choices.”

That means cold meals delivered to the passenger’s room or consumed at a table in a lounge car.

Trains magazine said Amtrak did not respond to question about whether hot meals would be offered on either train, but a separate service advisory indicated that café car fare will continue to be available, some of which is heated in a microwave oven.

The news release said the service is intended to replace traditional dining-car service.

Meals will be delivered to the trains just before they depart their end terminals. The cost of these meals will continue to be included in the ticket price of a sleeping car room.

Among the mean choices, the news release, said are chilled beef tenderloin, vegan wrap, chicken Caesar salad and turkey club sandwich.

Breakfast options will include assorted breakfast breads with butter, cream cheese and strawberry jam; Greek yogurt and sliced seasonal fresh fruit.

A Kosher meal will be available with advanced notice.

Passengers will receive unlimited soft beverages; a complimentary serving of beer, wine or a mixed drink; and an amenity kit.

Previously, sleeping car passengers wanting an alcoholic beverage had to pay for it.

“Our continued success depends on increasing customer satisfaction while becoming more efficient,” said Bob Dorsch, Amtrak’s vice president of its long distance service line, said in the news release.

The service advisory said that after boarding, sleeping car attendants will continue the standard procedure of asking passengers to select a preferred time for dining with reservations available in 15-minute increments.

Tables in sleeper lounge and café/lounge cars will be first come, first serve for seating and there will be no at-table dining service.

Sleeping car passengers will also be offered complimentary morning coffee, chilled water and juices, in-room meal service, turn-down service for their beds, and shower facilities.

They will be provided pre-boarding privileges and same-day access to lounges, such as Club Acela in the Northeast Corridor and the Metropolitan Lounge in Chicago.

Business class passengers on the Lake Shore Limited will be offered a la carte purchases from café/lounge menu, an alcoholic beverage and unlimited soft beverages, and a complimentary comfort kit.

Amtrak said coach passengers may purchase on a limited basis the pre-packaged meals served to sleeping car passengers. The existing café car menu will continue to be available to all passengers.

The news release also quoted Dorsch as saying, the meal service will continue to be refined and Amtrak looks forward to hearing from its customers about it.

What it all adds up to is that Amtrak is looking to cut costs by eliminating onboard kitchen staff and servers, and offering airline style meals that are provided by a catering company.

Trains magazine quoted the Rail Passengers Association as saying that the change reflects outside directives to the passenger carrier.

“It’s important to remember that this is simply an outcropping of the congressional mandate to eliminate losses on food and beverage service,” said James A. Zumwalt, director of policy research at RPA.

Zumwalt said the new meal policy “contradicts other successful models such as in the cruise industry, and proves unpopular with passengers. The mandate prevents best practices and should be removed.”

Last Dinner on the Broadway Limited

February 3, 2018

It Saturday night in the dining car on Amtrak’s eastbound Broadway Limited. Despite the train having departed Chicago at 8:55 p.m., the dining car is open and serving.

At first glance, there is nothing out of the ordinary about these scenes. What is playing out has occurred countless times aboard this car, whose heritage predates the creation of Amtrak by two decades.

It was built in 1948 by Budd for the Chicago, Burlington & Quincy, which named it Silver Cafe.  Amtrak modernized it when it rebuilt the car in June 1980 for head-end power as part of the Heritage Fleet.

Tonight every table and nearly every seat in the Silver Cafe is taken as train No. 40 roars toward New York through Indiana on CSX tracks that once belonged to the Baltimore & Ohio.

But this trip was different because it would be the last run of the Broadway Limited.

The next day, Nos. 40 and 41 will began operating only between Pittsburgh and New York and will be renamed the Three Rivers.

The change was part of a route rationalization plan launched amid a budget cut and the cutbacks could have been more severe than they were.

These images that I made during the last dinner on the Broadway Limited were made on color print film and turned out grainy.

Nonetheless, they remind me of one of my most memorable dinners aboard Amtrak.

The entree, I believe it was trout with a mustard sauce was served with steamed carrots and a rice pilaf, and was quite tasty. The desert was chocolate cake that I recall was embellished by the server, John Long.

Despite it being a last run, the dining car crew was courteous and seemed to go out of their way to make the event something special and worth remembering.

Ready for You This Morning

January 5, 2018

It is morning in the dining car of the westbound Capitol Limited. The train is somewhere in Indiana as you arrive in the dining car in anticipation of having a hot breakfast.

Although the car is nearly full, there are a few seats available. You sit down and the menu is laid out for you on the table. You look it over and tell the server what you want.

In days of old, you would have written your order on a check. That was the way it was in the early days of Amtrak, but now the dining car is run much like a regular restaurant, albeit one that is moving along at nearly 80 miles per hour.

In due time your breakfast arrives and you dig in. No matter how many times you’ve done this before aboard a dining car, it never seems to get old.

Amtrak Introduces New Dining Car Fare

June 14, 2017

New menus have been introduced to the dining cars of most of Amtrak’s long-distance trains.

Returning to the breakfast menu is French toast while new selections include chicken, bacon & cheddar quesadillas, and Thai-spiced pulled coconut pork sliders at lunch. New dinner items include seared shrimp, and chicken and bacon fettucine carbonara.

Dinner entrees have been expanded to include six distinct offerings, in addition to a new field and sea combo that includes the new shrimp offering paired with the existing flat iron steak.

The Diner Looks Inviting

April 21, 2017

You’ve just spent your first night on the train as part of a three-day journey. It’s early morning and some breakfast would sure taste good along with a hot beverage.

The dining car is right next to your sleeping car. You get up, get dressed and head for the diner. Breakfast is just on the other side of that door.

Time for Breakfast on No. 29

January 10, 2017

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The morning ritual is playing out again aboard Amtrak train No. 29. The dining car on the westbound Capitol Limited is full as passengers have breakfast while chatting and watching the northern Indiana countryside roll by.

What will it be today? Pancakes? French toast? Eggs and bacon? The chef’s special?

Most of those having breakfast are sleeper class passengers for whom meals are included in their ticket. If they boarded in Washington, this will be their second meal aboard No. 29.

Another Viewliner II Diner Expected in March

January 7, 2017

The National Association of Railroad Passengers reported this week that Amtrak officials have said that the first Viewliner II diner has been performing satisfactorily in its trial revenue service.

Amtrak logoThe diner, built by CAF USA in Elmira, New York, has been operating on the New York-Miami Silver Meteor since late November.

Amtrak will place another Viewliner II diner in service in March with the remaining 23 diners that Amtrak ordered being delivered by late spring.

The diners are slated to be assigned to eastern long-distance trains. NARP said no date has been set for restoration of full dining service to the Chicago-New York/Boston Lake Shore Limited.

The Viewliner diners also are slated to be assigned to the New York-New Orleans Crescent.

Once the diners are delivered, CAF will focus on finishing the baggage-dorm cars and sleepers that Amtrak ordered.

NARP noted that Amtrak said adding the baggage-dorm cars to the Chicago-New York Cardinal will enable it make more sleeper space available to the public.

At present, the on-board crew of Nos. 50 and 51 are housed in revenue space and the availability of rooms on the Cardinal for the public is tight.

Amtrak’s Viewliner order was placed in 2010. When finished, CAF will have built 70 baggage cars, 25 diners, 10 baggage-dormitory cars and 25 sleepers.

Viewliner Diner in Revenue Service Testing

December 13, 2016

Revenue service testing began last week of the first Viewliner dining car built by CAF USA.

Amtrak logoNo. 68001, the Annapolis, ran northbound from Miami to New York on the Silver Meteor on Dec. 5.

The testing is part of an Amtrak acceptance program for new cars. If No. 68001 passes the testing program, Amtrak will begin taking delivery of additional Viewliners in January.

Amtrak has one other Viewliner diner, No. 8400, the Indianapolis, which was a prototype diner built in 1988.

The Viewliner diners will be assigned to Eastern single-level long-distance train. Amtrak has ordered 25 Viewliner diners from CAF.