Posts Tagged ‘dining’

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.

Dining Service Tweaking Continues

August 1, 2018

Amtrak continues to tweak its “fresh and contemporary” dining aboard two Eastern long-distance trains, this time making a few changes to the lone breakfast offering.

Trains magazine reported that breakfast now has a low-fat yogurt parfait instead of vanilla Greek yogurt, and no longer offers banana pecan breakfast bread or a Kind-brand dark chocolate, nut, and sea salt bar.

Aside from the yogurt parfait, sleeping car passengers aboard the Capitol Limited and Lake Shore Limited receive a blueberry muffin is sealed in a plastic dish, slicked seasonal fresh fruit and a Kashi bar.

Since mid-July, Amtrak has been offering one hot-meal option, a beef short rib, which replaced the chilled grilled beef tenderloin salad.”

It is served with a plastic-packaged salad and a jar of salted caramel cheese cake

The entrée is described by Amtrak as a “slow braised beef short rib with polenta and mixed baby vegetables in a red wine and beer sauce.”

A Trains correspondent who rode No. 30 from Chicago to Washington recently described it as resembling a round mound of gravy-covered meat with sauce that mixes with the vegetables and polenta in a black plastic bowl.

The “fresh and contemporary” dining service replaced full service dining on June 1.

As part of the change, a dining car was designed as a lounge for sleeping car passengers only.

The Capitol Limited had had a Cross Country Café that served full meals and sold café car fare.

The café lead service attendant has been moved from the Cross Country Café to the lower level of the adjacent Sightseer Lounge.

There is no table service in the sleeping car lounge and Trains observed that the car can become noisy and relatively uninviting when passengers sitting by themselves begin carrying on conversations with people at other tables.   

When the eastbound Capitol Limited is delayed, Amtrak doesn’t serve lunch to sleeping car passengers.

The carrier’s policy is that if No. 30 is more than four hours late sleeping car passengers are entitled to snack packs of cheese and crackers.

Meals will be put aboard only  if the train is running six or more hours late. Those meals are ordered from a restaurant such as Chick-fil-A.

The Trains correspondent connected in Washington to the Crescent, which still has full-service dining.

However, he noted that the menu was dated September 2017, indicating that Amtrak apparently did not change its dining car offerings in the spring as it normally does.

The correspondent said his dinner roll was warm and the chipotle sauce accompanying the perfectly-cooked salmon was excellent.

New Amtrak Meal Service Getting Mixed Reviews

July 7, 2018

Reports are beginning to circulate online about the “fresh and contemporary” meal service being offered by Amtrak on its Lake Shore Limited and Capitol Limited.

The cold meal service replaced full service dining on both trains on June 1, resulting in at least 30 Amtrak onboard service employees losing their jobs.

One poster on a railroad chat list described the meal offerings as not as bad as some might have thought they would be.

A similar report said that passengers have engaged in extensive trading of food items from their selection, which comes as a package for dinner and lunch.

Some also have commented about how much packaging each meal requires and how that has strained the storage space in the dining cars now turned sleeping car lounges.

The meals are served in a green bag that passengers are allowed to keep.

After eating, passengers must take their waste, separate it and then place it in large cardboard containers lined with plastic garbage bags.

The boxes the meals are served in are being billed as environmentally friendly.

A note in the boxes says “the balsa wood for these boxes is salvaged from tree stumps leftover [sic] from sustainable logging — so no trees are ever harvested or cut down for this product. No chemicals … harmful toxins. No worrying.”

Passengers get one option for breakfast, the Amtrak Breakfast Bistro Box, which comes with a generous serving of fresh fruit, most of which is melon, banana bread, a blueberry muffin, Greek yogurt topped with organic granola in a parfait, a Kashi honey almond flax chewy granola bar, and a Kind-brand dark chocolate nut and sea salt bar.

The dinner/lunch offerings include chilled grilled beef tenderloin salad, chicken Caesar salads, an antipasto plate (processed meat, olives, pickles, and beans); a vegan wrap (with marinated eggplant, vegetables, and hummus); and a children’s turkey and cheese sandwich plate (with orange segments, a string cheese stick and a coloring book).

All except the vegan wrap and child’s meal also come with salted caramel cheesecake.

Passengers receive unlimited complimentary soft drinks and one complimentary alcoholic beverage.

The diner-sleeping car passenger lounge where the meals are serviced has one Amtrak attendant handing out the meals.

That attendant also fills drink orders and wipes down tables after passengers leave.

There is no linen, silverware, or even paper tablecloths and plastic utensils. One commentator said this has resulted in the dining cars having a sterile appearance.

One lesser commented about aspect of the service change was the institution of giving passengers a complementary Gilbert and Soames toiletry kit that includes shampoo, conditioner, body lotion, body wash, soap, a beauty kit (with nail file, Q-Tips, and bobby pins), a sewing kit, and shower cap.

The showers in the sleeper also now offer flat sandals with pop-up attachments for toes and ankles.

Amtrak to Return Hot Food to 2 Trains

June 7, 2018

Hot food will be coming back to the Capitol Limited and Lake Shore Limited, although Amtrak did not say when that will be.

The change is unlikely to mean a restoration of the full dining service that was removed from both trains on June 1.

In statement made to Trains magazine, Amtrak spokesman Marc Magliari said, “We are undertaking changes on the dining service to provide higher quality food with a modern service pattern that allows people to order what they want and have it provided when they want.”

Magliari said this means that passengers can dine in a communal way or eat their meals with a modicum of privacy in their sleeping car rooms.

“We’re putting the decision-making into our customer’s hands, versus dictating to our customers how they have to accept their food,” Magliari said in the statement.

Magliari said the hot meal service on the trains will begin after Amtrak receives feedback from passengers to understand their preferences.

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.