Posts Tagged ‘dining aboard Amtrak’

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.

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.

Congressman Prodding Anderson over Food Service

February 15, 2020

A Tennessee congressman is demanding that Amtrak provide “accurate and credible evidence” that Amtrak ridership supports its decisions to end dining car service on some long-distance routes.

In a letter to Amtrak President Richard Anderson, Rep. Steve Cohen, a senior member of the House Transportation Subcommittee on Railroads, Pipelines and Hazardous Materials, reminded Anderson of their exchange over Amtrak onboard service during a committee hearing last November.

During that hearing, Cohen asked Anderson to provide market research and customer questionnaire responses that led to the changes.

Cohen said in a news release that Amtrak provided only “some vaguely worded surveys in which customer food service preferences, and an assessment of food service options, were not sought.”

During that hearing Cohen also dredged up a grudge that stemmed from Anderson’s time as CEO of Northwest Airlines.

Cohen reminded Anderson that at an April 2008 hearing of the House Judiciary Committee’s Subcommittee on Antitrust, Commercial and Administrative Law, he testified that Memphis would retain its hub and its non-stop flight to Amsterdam after its merger with Delta Air Lines.

However, after the merger, Delta shut down the Memphis hub and ended the Amsterdam flight. Anderson went on to serve as Delta’s CEO.

Adding Meals For Silver Star Sleeper Class Passengers Will Mean Fared Equal to Those of the Silver Meteor

January 11, 2020

Amtrak’s plans to restore dining service to sleeping car passengers on the New York-Miami Silver Star will mean that any fare differentials between that train and the Silver Meteor will largely vanish.

When Amtrak removed Heritage Fleet dining cars from the Star in early 2016 and ceased to provide sleeping car passengers on Nos. 91 and 92 it also lowered sleeper class fares on that train.

At the time Amtrak said the change was a test of demand for lower sleeping car prices without meals included. The Meteor also operates between New York and Miami although over a different route between Selma, North Carolina, and Savannah, Georgia.

An analysis published on the Trains magazine website said Amtrak ensured that fares on the Star were noticeably lower than those charged for sleeper accommodations aboard the Silver Meteor, which continued to have a full-service dining car and provide meals to sleeper class passenger as part of their fare.

However, Trains said there were times when sleeper class fares on the Star were higher than the Meteor if the latter train had more available space. Chalk that up to the vagaries of Amtrak’s revenue yield management system.

The Meteor routinely operates with three Viewliner sleeping cars compared with the two assigned to the Star.

Starting May 1, a Viewliner II dining car will be assigned to each of the four equipment sets used on the Silver Star.

That car will offer Amtrak’s flexible dining service, which has a menu more limited than that available in a full-service diner.

The Silver Meteor has been operating with Viewliner II dining cars since 2017 but saw full-service dining replaced with flexible dining last October.

Amtrak had ordered 25 Viewliner II diners, but they were slow to arrive from the factory due to production problems.

On both New York-Florida trains the dining car is available only for the use of sleeper class passengers.

Coach passengers on both trains must either bring their own food aboard or purchase food and beverages from a café car.

Amtrak has spoken about enabling coach passengers to purchase the meals served to sleeper class passengers, but has not given a date for when that might begin and how it would operate.

Trains said its analysis of fares charged for sleeper class travel on the Silver Star and Silver Meteor before and after May 1 found that sleeper fares between the same destinations are always higher for the Meteor until May 1

But after that date the Meteor and Star have nearly identical fares with some variation due to varying demand on specific dates.

The flexible dining fare is also served to sleeper class passengers traveling on Capitol Limited, Cardinal, City of New Orleans, Crescent and Lake Shore Limited.

Reviews of the service have been mixed. Some have been critical of the food for its high sodium content and well as limited choices. All but one of the entrees contains garlic.

A Rail Passengers Association staffer writing on that group’s website said in her travels she has noticed that the quality of the food depends on the attention the attendant pays to heating it.

“I have had the same meal coming and going and the quality has been completely different,” wrote Carolyn Cokley. “One was heated to perfection while the other turned to rubber and left a lot to be desired.”

Cokley said in her post that some passengers may not be aware that Amtrak offers a breakfast, lunch and dinner Kosher menu that must be ordered 24 hours in advance for Acela first class and 72 hours, in advance, for overnight routes although she said it unclear if Kosher fare is available on all overnight trains or just those in the flexible dining program.

She said the advantage of the Kosher entrées is they are lower in calories, fat, saturated fat, cholesterol, carbs and sodium compared with non-Kosher entrées on both the flexible dining and traditional menus.

Amtrak Previews Coming On-Board Service Changes

January 9, 2020

A service advisory posted on the Amtrak website on Wednesday formally announced the return of dining service for sleeping car passengers on the Silver Star as well as briefly described other coming changes including the inauguration of Viewliner II sleeping car service on eastern long-distance trains.

Amtrak did not give a date for when the Viewliner II sleepers will begin revenue service other than it would be “in the coming months.” Nor did it say which trains would get the new sleepers.

The announcement merely said they would be assigned to “trains on the East Coast” and would be the first addition to the Amtrak sleeping car fleet in more than 25 years.

The passenger carrier said sleeping car passengers will begin using upgraded bedding, towels and linens at an unspecified date.

This change will initially be made on the Auto Train that operates between the Washington area and Florida.

Also coming is the completion of renovations to Amfleet II coaches with new seating cushions, carpets, curtains and LED reading lights.

Since 2015 sleeping car passengers on the Silver Star have not received meals as part of their fare as is the case on all other Amtrak overnight trains with sleeper service.

The dining service being inaugurated on the Silver Star on May 1 will be the same as that provided on the Capitol Limited, Cardinal, City of New Orleans, Crescent, Lake Shore Limited and Silver Meteor.

Nos. 91 and 92 will receive a dining car reserved for the exclusive use of sleeping car passengers.

Amtrak said traditional dining service will continue to be offered on the California Zephyr, Coast Starlight, Empire Builder, Southwest Chief, Sunset Limited, Texas Eagle and for sleeping car customers aboard the Auto Train.

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.

Viewliner II Diner Has Yet to be Assigned to the Cardinal

October 13, 2019

Amtrak has yet to assign a Viewliner II dining car to the Cardinal although it indicated that it had planned to do so effective Oct. 1.

The Chicago-New York train received the flexible dining service on that date, but sleeping car passengers are being served in half of an Amfleet food service car rather than in a Viewliner II diner as is the case with other eastern overnight trains.

Amtrak’s new vice president for long distance services, Larry Chestler, told Trains magazine that the Viewliner II diner won’t be assigned to Nos. 50 and 51 “for the time being.”

Chestler said the Amfleet II lounge cars because used on the train, “are the most suitable for this service given the configuration of the cars and the Cardinal’s passenger volume.”

He probably was referring to the fact the Cardinal is assigned just one Viewliner sleeping car and that the onboard crew uses a portion of its rooms.

Amtrak has said that it has not assigned a second sleeper to the Cardinal because it has yet to repair a Viewliner sleeping car that was damaged in the February 2018 collision of the Silver Star and a CSX freight train.

At present, Amtrak has only one of 25 Viewliner II sleeping cars on its active roster. Those cars feature a different room configuration than Viewliner I sleepers.

Sleeper space aboard the Cardinal can be hard to book with rooms often selling out weeks and sometimes months in advance.

The Cardinal operates tri-weekly via Indianapolis and Cincinnati and uses two equipment sets.

No More Dining Car to the Big Apple

October 7, 2019

An overlooked footnote to the Oct. 1 changes to Amtrak dining service aboard its eastern long-distance trains is that New York City no longer is served by a full-service dining car.

The Big Apple sees hundreds of Amtrak trains a day, many of them offering food and beverage service, but none of them now has a dining car in which meals are prepared freshly onboard.

The last dining car to arrive in New York was the Nashville, which arrived late on the afternoon of Oct. 1 aboard the inbound Crescent from New Orleans.

The Crescent and Silver Meteor were the last trains serving New York to operate with full-service dining cars.

Those trains now have the “flexible dining” that is also offered aboard the Lake Shore Limited, Capitol Limited, Cardinal and City of New Orleans.

For now full-service dining cars continue to operate on western long-distance trains.

The flexible dining service model uses food prepared off the train and reheated onboard or served cold.

Although it has a more expansive menu of offerings than the “fresh and contemporary” model implanted in June 2018 on the Lake Shore Limited and Capitol Limited, the number of entrees available at lunch and dinner is four.

Coach passengers are unable to partake of those offerings whereas they could buy meals in full-service dining cars.

Instead, coach passengers who do not bring their own food and drink aboard must buy from the café car.

A report on the Trains magazine website noted that New York’s first dining cars began in the 1880s when the the New York & Hudson River Railroad (a New York Central subsidiary) offered then on its Chicago and St. Louis Vestibule Limited. Those cars operated between New York and Buffalo, New York; and Elkhart, Indiana, and Chicago.

Although some Amtrak trains serving New York, most notably the Acela Express, offer some fresh food to first class passengers, it is prepared off the train.