Posts Tagged ‘Amtrak dining cars’

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.

Lounges to Remain Absent from 2 Trains

May 24, 2021

Sightseer Lounge cars won’t be returning to two long distance trains when they resume daily operation.

The Rail Passengers Association reported on its website that it has been told by Amtrak that the absence of the popular cars from the Capitol Limited and Texas Eagle is temporary.

“While temporary, we do not yet have a defined timeline for increasing Sightseer Lounge availability, and have placed the other five Western [long distance] routes at a higher priority for deploying these popular cars,” said Larry Chestler, Amtrak’s vice president of the Long-Distance business unit. “We also are maintaining the Sightseer Lounge on the City of New Orleans due to our long-standing axle count requirements in Illinois.”

That means the Capitol Limited and Texas Eagle will will continue to operate with a single food-service car.

Chestler said Amtrak has a shortage of the lounge cars due to coronavirus contingencies. He said the cars will be restored once it’s possible to do so.

The Capitol Limited is scheduled to return to daily operation on May 31 while the Texas Eagle will resume daily operation today (May 24).

In a related development, Amtrak expects to resume full-service dining aboard Western long distance trains as early as June. Last May it switched to the contemporary dining model as a response to COVID-19 pandemic.

The passenger carrier is recalling furloughed workers and getting them qualified.

RPA said it was told that once traditional dining returns to the Western trains, Amtrak will begin work on “improvements to dining services on other [long-distance] routes, including the Eagle.”

Tags: Amtrak onboard service, Amtrak Sightseer Lounge, Amtrak’s Capitol Limited, Amtrak’s Texas Eagle, Capitol Limited, COVID-19 pandemic, dining aboard Amtrak

The Skyline is Watching

May 10, 2021

The Cleveland skyline watches over a very late westbound Lake Shore Limited as it sits in the station. Dining car Silver Restaurant was built by Budd for the Chicago, Burlington & Quincy and has carried two roster numbers at Amtrak. The image was made in November 1997.

Full-Service Dining Expected Back on Amtrak Long Distance Trains

March 14, 2021

An Amtrak manager has told the Rail Passengers Association that full-service dining will return to six western long-distance trains once they resume daily operation in late May or early June.

Larry Chestler, who oversees Amtrak’s long distance trains, said the passenger carrier expects “something close to normal” this summer for sleeping car class bookings.

Chestler indicated that Amtrak wants to be able to offer a dining-car experience while tending to those who are anxious, fearful or do not desire the traditional communal dining experience that was common in dining cars before the COVID-19 pandemic.

In a post on its website, RPA said Amtrak managers said the carrier is still developing plans for dining service restoration that may include “some new options targeting improved safety and improved meal quality.”

Since late last spring, Amtrak has offered its flexible dining model aboard all western long distance trains.

Initially begun in June 2018 aboard the Capitol Limited and Lake Shore Limited, the flexible dining model involves serving prepackaged meals to sleeping car passengers in either the dining car or in their rooms.

The model, which was initially known as contemporary dining, was later expanded to all eastern long distance trains.

It meant a more limited offering of menu items and no more onboard food preparation other than heating already cooked meals.

It was a cost-cutting measure for Amtrak because it reduced dining service from three or more positions to one.

Onboard Amtrak food service workers displaced by the practice on the western trains were moved to the extra board.

Amtrak Daily Service Also Will Bring Some Service Enhancements

March 13, 2021

The restoration of daily operation to most of Amtrak’s long-distance trains starting in late May will also coincide with a spiffing up of some amenities aboard those trains.

Some long-distance trains are expected to see the return of traditional dining car service.

The intercity passenger carrier said new Viewliner II sleeping cars will be assigned to the Silver Meteor and Silver Star between New York and Miami.

The Auto Train sleeping cars will receive new and what Amtrak described as upgraded bedding, towels and linens. These will be provided to other long distance trains with sleeping car service during the summer.

Eastern trains assigned Amfleet II coaches will get new seating cushions, carpets, curtains and LED reading lights.

Amtrak said cars that went through a multi-year interior renovation program for Superliner and Viewliner I equipment, which includes new seating cushions, carpets and curtains, will enter revenue service this summer.

Although no date was given, new ALC-32 Siemens Charger locomotives will begin pulling long-distance trains this year.

They will replace the ubiquitous P42DC units that have been maintays since the middle 1990s.

The Moynihan Train Hall at Penn Station in New York will get a new Metropolitan Lounge for sleeping car passengers.

Unspecified enhancements will be made to the Auto Train.

It also remains to be seen how Amtrak will handle the restoration of traditional dining car meals.

Roger Harris, Amtrak’s executive vice president and chief marketing and revenue officer, said the carrier needs to work through the health implications of dining car operation.

“Communal dining is probably a non-starter for now, and you can work backward through food preparation and delivery,” he said.

Harris did not say which trains would receive traditional dining service. Well before the COVID-19 pandemic began Amtrak had ended full-service dining car service on all eastern long-distance trains except the Auto Train.

Traditional dining aboard the western long distance trains ended early in the pandemic in favor of serving prepackaged meals.

“It’s important to figure this out because it involves the recall of employees for the daily service this summer, so it’s a rather intertwined process,” Harris said. “There will be some food service decisions in the coming months but there will be further developments in the next year, as we get our new team really focused on this.”

Amtrak Sleeper Passengers Can Pre-Select Meals

October 1, 2020

Amtrak has begun giving sleeping car passengers the ability to choose their meals in advance of travel.

The option is now available for those riding the Capitol Limited, Cardinal, City of New Orleans, and Lake Shore Limited.

Passengers will be sent an email informing them of the option as well as offering an opportunity to view menus before selecting their meals.

Amtrak expects the ability to pre-select meals to be extended to the Silver Star and Silver Meteor in the coming weeks.

The meals on all of those trains are prepared off the train and heated onboard in a microwave oven.

Sleeping car passengers can have their meals delivered to their rooms or eat in a dining car reserved for the use of sleeping class passengers.

Amtrak currently only prepares meals onboard the Auto Train, having suspended the practice for Western long-distance trains during the depths of the COVID-19 pandemic.

However, the passenger carrier has said the suspension of on-board food preparation for Western long-distance trains is temporary and a notice on the carrier’s website indicated that full-serving dining on those trains is suspended through Dec. 15.

1,400 Griped About Amtrak Dining in 2014

June 10, 2020

A handful of passengers are ready to enjoy dinner aboard the eastbound Capitol Limited as it rolls through Chicago in March 2014.

Business Insider magazine reported on Wednesday that Amtrak received more than 1,400 complaints last year about its “flexible dining” service aboard overnight trains.

The complaints filled 125 pages that the magazine obtained from Amtrak through a Freedom of Information Act request.

Many of the complaints said Amtrak’s meal service has resulted in lesser quality food.

“We did not take the train to save money, we took the train for the experience,” one complaint said. “The dining car is a huge part of the rail experience.”

For its part, the carrier contended that passengers like the flexible dining service more than the complaints might indicate.

The initial version of flexible dining was implemented on the Capitol Limited and Lake Shore Limited in June 2018. It was extended to other eastern long-distance trains more than a year later.

Prior to 2018, most long-distance trains had full-service dining cars with meals freshly prepared onboard.

Meals were included in the price of a sleeping car ticket and available for sale to coach passengers.

Flexible dining has placed full-service dining cars with a limited selection of meals that are prepared off the train.

It is called “flexible” dining because passengers can eat at their leisure during a broad set of hours in either the dining car or in their sleeping car rooms.

The flexible dining meals are not available to sale to coach passengers. Amtrak said several months ago it was studying making those meals available for sale to coach passengers but has yet to do that.

Although full-service dining cars continue to operate on western overnight trains, flexible dining was extended to those trains in April during a steep ridership decline during the COVID-19 pandemic that cost long-distance trains about 85 percent of their ridership.

Business Insider characterized most of the complaints as passengers saying the flexible dining meals are unsatisfying and low-quality.

“It seems the new direction of food service resembles that of air travel,” wrote one passenger.

“Your attendants seemed actually embarrassed [sic] to serve this stuff.”

Many complaints said flexible dining resulted in a lot of waste because the plates and packaging used to serve the meals was largely thrown away.

“The commingling of all waste does not seem to be environmentally sound when all forms of recyclables are combined with food in the trash,” said one passenger.

Several complaints described the water containers in the dining car as unsightly.

Amtrak changed the packaging in October 2019 to reusable trays and said it was “reviewing a plan to use service ware that is more sustainable such as reusable or biodegradable.”

In a statement, Amtrak took issue with the notion that flexible dining was disliked despite the high volume of complaints.

“While there were approximately 1,200 customer service cases on flexible dining over the specified period of time, ridership on these six routes during this period exceeded 800K,” Amtrak said. “On each route with flexible dining, at least 80 percent of customers selected a top range score in customer satisfaction surveys.”

The Amtrak statement said that it is paying attention to passenger comments and making improvements base on those comments.

It cited as an example changing the service in January 2019 to include more hot entrees and additional breakfast options. More hot entrees were added in October 2019.

“We have also adjusted menus to reflect customer’s nutritional and special meal requirements,” the statement said.

Amtrak has said it introduced flexible dining to cut costs. Former Amtrak CEO Richard Anderson said the passenger carrier was responding to a Congressional mandate to lower its losses on food service.

Anderson said the easiest way to do that would be to offer a single food car and then have meal choices for passengers.

Amtrak did not initially do. It continues to offer one type of food service for sleeper class passengers while operating a café car service for coach passengers.

On some trains since the pandemic hit, it has offered one food service car.

Amtrak said the removal of full-service dining from Western long-distance trains was temporary and going to last through May 31.

However, the carrier has yet to reinstate full-service dining on Western trains and in the meantime Amtrak CEO William Flynn has said the carrier expects ridership in the 2021 fiscal year that starts Oct. 1 to be half of what it would normally be.

Flynn said Amtrak is seeking to pare its workforce by 20 percent, offering incentives for workers to retire or leave and, if needed, furloughing some of them.

Amtrak is also seeking a $1.4 billion supplemental appropriation for FY2021 on top of the more than $2 billion regular appropriation for that year.

Even if it gets that money Amtrak has said long-distance trains will operate on a less than daily level although it has not spell out what that means.

If it doesn’t get the additional money, the carrier has said all long-distance trains except the Auto Train are “at risk.” Presumably that means of being discontinued or suspended.

It would seem to point toward “flexible dining” being the norm for all overnight trains in the future.

Amtrak’s April Ridership Was Bad, But Bookings for Long-Distance Trains is Looking Promising

May 23, 2020

Amtrak ridership data for April was released this past week and it showed a sharp plunge compared with a year ago.

In April 2020 Amtrak handled 120,000 passengers compared to 2.7 million who rode in April 2019.

The ridership drop is attributed largely to the COVID-19 pandemic.

The Northeast Corridor handled 19,000 passengers, a drop of 97.5 percent from a year earlier. It was the steepest ridership plunge system wide on a percentage basis.

Amtrak lost 87 percent of its passengers on the San Joaquin route in California.

Ridership of state-funded corridors fell 96 percent while the long-distance trains saw ridership fall 86.8 percent.

Year-to-date ridership is down 21 percent and revenues has fallen by 19 percent.

Amtrak expects those figures to grow and they might have been larger than they were but for strong ridership and revenue performances earlier in the year before social distancing measures were imposed.

In a related matter, the Amtrak vice president who oversees long-distance trains said the use of prepackaged meals for sleeper class passengers on Western trains will continue for at least another month.

Larry Chestler told the Rail Passengers Association that Amtrak has begun to see some early signs of recovery on many routes.

However, he cited safety and continued lagging ridership for waiting to restore traditional dining car service to the Western trains.

Chestler said the carrier will evaluate ridership data in late June and determine at that time whether to restore traditional dining car service.

The prepackaged meals have been served to sleeper class passengers on Eastern long-distance trains since June 2019 and were extended to all of those trains last October.

Although the long-distance trains have seen steep ridership drops, Chestler said those declines have been smaller than on other routes.

A recent rise in bookings for long-distance trains have given Amtrak some hope that higher demand is coming, Chestler said.

“Whether that means there’s more demand for summer it’s too soon to say,” he said.

In particular, bookings are trending upward for Coast Starlight and Southwest Chief with some growth also starting to show for the California Zephyr and Empire Builder.

Chestler said bookings are coming back “from the bottom of the bottom,” which Amtrak reached during the period of mid April to early May when it averaged 3,000 passengers a day nationwide.

Since then Amtrak ridership has doubled that, but it’s still well below what it would otherwise be at this time of year.

Some of the ridership of long-distance trains has occurred in regions where corridor trains have been suspended or reduced in frequency.

An example would be the Empire Builder between Chicago and Milwaukee where Hiawatha Service was suspended in favor of a once a day Thruway bus.

Before the pandemic, Amtrak operated seven daily roundtrips between Chicago and Milwaukee.

Chestler said Amtrak management considered continuing into the summer the reduced consists that began operating during the pandemic.

But management elected to move from what he termed “a kind of quasi-minimum” to restoring capacity for the summer.

“Had we reduced to the May levels [for the summer] we would have had a number of trains where we would have been essentially sold out already” in coach, Chestler said.

That doesn’t mean all of the seats would have been occupied because Amtrak for now is selling only half of the capacity of each coach assigned to a train in order to maintain social distancing.

“On the [Southwest] Chief and the [California] Zephyr and the [Empire] Builder there’s more sleepers [and] typically one more coach,” he said.

“We’ve balanced the use of baggage coaches and other kinds of cars to put an appropriate amount of capacity” in place “to capture demand signals from customers,” Chestler said.

Amtrak management is mindful that reducing capacity also could dampen the return of demand because the seats aren’t available.

Dining Cars to Remain Sidelined Through June

May 22, 2020

Full-service dining is not expected to return to Amtrak’s western long-distance trains until late June at the earliest, a story in Railway Age reported.

Amtrak in April suspended full-service dining on those trains in favor of the “flexible dining” service it provides on eastern long-distance trains of serving to sleeper class passengers a limited array of meals that are prepared off the train.

No sources were named for the information about full service dining restoration, but the article did quote an Amtrak spokesman as saying that a widely reported company internal planning document was not a final plan for service restorations of suspended services this summer.

Amtrak spokesman Marc Magliari said the document was not an announcement of any decision by Amtrak or its state partners that fund corridor services.

“Many of the dates written in it are placeholders and nothing more,” he said.

Magliari said Amtrak will continue to operate its long-distance trains with reduced consists but that could change.

“We’re watching the ridership and the boardings,” he said.

Amtrak officials are monitoring ticket purchase patterns and the passenger carrier can adjust consists to meet increased demand.

Magliari said Amtrak is currently handling about 10 percent of the ridership it had before the COVID-19 pandemic began.

The carrier has been selling only 50 percent of the capacity of its coaches in order to enable passengers to practice social distancing.

Magliari said Amtrak received enough aid from the federal the CARES Act to keep crew members employed, including a robust extra board.

Amtrak Suspending Full-Service Dining

April 15, 2020

Flexible dining is being introduced on Amtrak’s western long-distance trains starting April 17 in lieu of full-service dining cars.

The carrier said the changes are temporary and in response to falling ridership on its trains during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Flexible dining, which has been implemented over the past two years on all overnight trains operating east of the Mississippi River, involves giving sleeping car passenger pre-packaged meals.

Full-service dining cars have meals freshly prepared on board and table service.

An Amtrak internal memorandum said the flexible dining on western long-distance trains will be in effect at least through May 31.

An online report on a railfan chat list indicated that flexible dining had apparently been implemented already on the Chicago-Los Angeles Southwest Chief. But that report could not be verified.

The Amtrak memo, whose contents was reported by Trains magazine, said sleeping car passengers on western trains will be given exclusive access to dining cars as it done on the eastern trains.

Coach passengers on western trains will have to buy food and beverages from café cars.

However, with the Viewliner Sightseer lounge normally assigned to the Chicago-Washington Capitol Limited having been removed, the dining car on Nos. 29 and 30 will serve sleeping car and coach passengers alike.

Similar arrangements have been implemented on the New York-New Orleans Crescent and Chicago-New York Cardinal.

The Crescent has lost its Viewliner II dining car and all food service is being handled in an Amfleet Café car.

The Cardinal has never had a Viewliner II dining car but continues to have a single Amfleet food service car serving coach and sleeping car passengers.

The New York-Miami Silver Meteor is set to lose its Viewliner II dining car in favor of a single food service car on April 17.

On all three trains, sleeping car passengers are to get their meals from the lead service attendant in the food service car on a “to go” basis.

Amtrak plans to implement flexible dining on the New York-Miami Silver Star on May 1. Until then, sleeping car passengers are not receiving meals as part of their sleeping car accommodations as is the case on all other trains with sleeper service.

Only the Chicago-New York Lake Shore Limited will continue to carry a Viewliner II dining car where it is assigned to the New York section.

The café car on the Lake Shore operates on the Boston section.

The implementation dates for flexible dining on western trains as described in the Amtrak memo are:

Empire Builder (Chicago-Seattle/Portland, Oregon): westbound, April 20; eastbound, April 17.

California Zephyr (Chicago-Emeryville, California): westbound, April 17; eastbound April 20.

Southwest Chief  westbound and eastbound, April 17.

Texas Eagle (Chicago-San Antonio): westbound, April 17; eastbound, April 19.

Sunset Limited (New Orleans-Los Angeles): westbound, April 20; eastbound, April 17.

Coast Starlight (Seattle-Los Angeles): northbound, April 17; southbound, April 19.

Amtrak said on-board service employees affected by the dining service changes will not be furloughed but instead moved to the extra board, a move that will mean they will receive less pay.

Amtrak conductors, engineers and other operating personnel are already assigned to the extra board.

Amtrak spokesman Marc Magliari said the changes in western train meal service was also made because flexible dining meals “are designed to be portable and more easily transported back to passengers’ private room accommodations.”

Magliari said Amtrak will review its food service options on all routes before May 31.