Changes in Amtrak Meal Service is Not Good News

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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