Posts Tagged ‘Amtrak dining cars’

Expanding Capacity and Dining Car Service Moving at Slow Pace, Amtrak Officials Say

September 24, 2021

Top Amtrak executives gave a glimpse of Amtrak’s near-term future this week during a meeting of the Rail Passengers Association and many rail advocates are likely to frustrated and encouraged at the same time by what they heard.

On the positive side, Amtrak is moving to make dining car meals available to passengers other than just those holding sleeper class tickets. It is even working toward upgrading dining car meals on eastern long distance trains.

Yet it will take some time before coach passengers anywhere will be able to buy dining car meals.

Also expected to take time will be increasing capacity on long-distance trains because the cars needed to do that are in storage and Amtrak needs to bolster its mechanical work force before those cars can be put back into revenue service.

Amtrak’s chief marketing and revenue officer, Roger Harris, said the passenger carrier is still seeking “to get the service right” before opening dining car meals to coach passengers.

A first step in that direction will be taken in October when business passengers aboard the Seattle-Los Angeles Coast Starlight will be able to buy dining car meals.

Harris cited a litany of factors for moving slowly to open up dining car meals to more passengers.

He said many on-board crew members have returned from furloughs imposed during the COVID-19 pandemic and Amtrak doesn’t want to overwhelm them with such tasks as collecting cash and overseeing COVID restrictions.

“Our intention all along was to get to a point where we could offer it to coach customers,” Harris said.

He described the Coast Starlight move as a trial run to see how it plays out.

“The idea is to start small and work through the issues that we inevitably will encounter by opening up the dining car to more customers,” Harris said. “Then if the test is successful, we will roll it out to additional markets.”

As for the eastern trains, Harris said Amtrak is consulting with a food vendor who has worked with the passenger carrier to enhance meals served on Acela trains in the Northeast Corridor.

The vender is working with Amtrak “with a lot of menu items to find out what will work well within the constraints of single-level dining cars.” Harris said.

Harris acknowledged that many passengers riding eastern long-distance trains have complained about repetitive food offerings.

Starting in June 2018 Amtrak began moving away from full-service dining cars on eastern long-distance trains in favor of food prepared off the trains and reheated onboard.

That service eventually evolved to one bowl entrees with a few side items.

“By trying to offer different types of foods that are more appealing we think we can substantially upgrade the food offerings on the East Coast,” Harris said.

“We’re also looking at putting on new types of ovens and other kitchen equipment to be more creative in the types of food offerings we have.”

Amtrak initially chose its western long-distance trains for upgraded dining car service because it had the ability to restore employees on those trains and dining is such a critical part of the experience,” Harris said. “We wanted to live up to the expectations of our customers there.”

However, the return of full-service dining has yet to come to the Texas Eagle, in part because of equipment shortages that also have limited capacity of long distance trains.

Harris acknowledged that equipment shortages stem from decisions made last year about how much equipment to put in storage and how many mechanical jobs to cut.

At present, the Coast Starlight is the only Superliner-equipped long-distance trains with a coach devoted to business class.

Those passengers receive a free bottle of water and an “onboard credit for food and beverage purchases.”

Both the Eagle and the Capitol Limited have been operating for the past several months without a Sightseer Lounge car.

“Eighteen months ago we had to decide how much fleet we were going to be able to run and how much money we were going to spend on overhauls and how many employees we thought would be able to work on the equipment because we didn’t have enough demand to justify keeping the system running at historical levels and we didn’t think we would have enough money from Congress at that point,” Harris said.

“So what you see running on the system is all the equipment we have available,” he said.

He said some employees took early retirement, resulting in a reduced mechanical staff.

“We have to re-recruit for some of those [positions]; there is this unintended effect, but at this point unavoidable where we have to work through this backlog to get back to what was once our historic fleet availability, and that will take some time.”

He indicated that Amtrak is likely to be working through the winter to get transition sleepers back in service so that rooms now being taken by crew members can be sold to the public.

Also speaking to the RPA conference was Executive Vice President-Major Program Delivery Laura Mason.

She said the Amtrak would be able to step up replacement of aging equipment now used in the national network if Congress approves an infrastructure bill now pending in the House.

The bill has also received Senate approval. Of late, the infrastructure bill has been hindered by political wrangling in the House.

Even without the infusion of capital funding Amtrak hopes to get from the infrastructure bill, Harris said the carrier has been slowly replacing its fleet over the past five years with new Acela trainsets, new Viewliner cars and Venture cars being built by Siemens for use in state-funded corridor services.

Amtrak also has chosen Siemens to build replacement cars for Amfleet equipment used in the Northeast Corridor.

“This is not something Amtrak really has a deep bench on, in terms of doing procurements, so we really need to tackle these sequentially. So, there’s some elements of the Amfleet replacements that we need to wrap up still from that procurement, and then we will begin to have the capacity to work on the long-distance procurement,” Harris said.

Mason said Amtrak is “laying the groundwork to receive the substantial infusion of federal funding” contained in the infrastructure bill.

 “With the state of our infrastructure today and the funding that we have hopefully coming towards us with the infrastructure bill, we need to be able to build up the capacity to do multiple billion dollar programs, to have just not one focus but many,” she said.

 “We have $40 billion of planned critical infrastructure, facility and fleet investments that we need to turn into a reality.”

Mason also said Amtrak faces the challenge of recruiting future workers.

 “One of the big challenges to the industry is how do we get people excited and involved?” she said. “We need to recruit at all levels; I think entry-level is very important, but also mid-level.

“We need to bring in people from different industries and help them see the rewards that come from working in rail. That you can do well by doing good, and also that you can have a tremendous positive impact.

“I talk about this when I go out recruiting, about the impact. Do you want to affect tens of thousands of people a day? Hundreds of thousands? Millions of people a year? You can do that in transportation.”

She said Amtrak might need to appeal to younger would-be employees by tying the transportation industry to climate change.

“I say: Make it your day job; come work in rail. If you want to combat climate change, help be part of the solution of making rail and carbon neutral transportation an option for everybody,” Mason said.

Analyzing Amtrak’s Revamped Dining Service

August 2, 2021

Amtrak returned full-service dining to five long-distance trains a month ago, all of them operating in the West and parts of the Midwest.

I haven’t had an opportunity to sample the revived full-service dining, but a two-part report written by Bob Johnston, the passenger correspondent for  Trains magazine was published last week on the magazine’s website and offers some insight into the service.

Johnston generally gave Amtrak high marks for its revamped dining car menus and service.

One key take away from his report is the food has improved in quality over that served in dining cars before full-service dining was removed in late spring 2020 in response to the COVID-19 pandemic that sent Amtrak ridership plummeting.

A chef working the Chicago-Los Angeles Southwest Chief gave as an example the flat iron steak which he said is “the same cut, but these (served now) have more marbling and are a lot more dense.”

Other changes have included the addition of colorful garnishes, more seasoning and multiple sauces. Vegetables served with entrees were described as fresher.

The steak still comes with a baked potato but patrons can request a creamy polenta, which the chef said compliments the Bordelaise sauce served with the steak.

Before the pandemic, dinners came with a lettuce salad but that has been replaced with a choice among three appetizers: A tossed-to-order salad of baby greens and tomatoes topped with a brie cheese; a lobster cake, or a green cheese tamale.

As before, dinners come with a desert. Unlike before, dinners now come with one complimentary alcoholic beverage.

Yet in some ways full-service dining is little changed from what it was before the pandemic. Entrée staples still include the flat iron steak, chicken breast, and salmon. There is also a tri-color cheese tortellini pasta dish.

Not everything is prepared fresh on board. The lobster cake comes precooked and frozen so the kitchen staff merely heats it onboard.

The Trains analysis, which was based on sampling meals aboard the Southwest Chief, said the changes to breakfast and lunch have been a little more subtle.

Back is French toast, which can be ordered with whipped cream. There are made-to-order omelets.

However, passengers still can’t order eggs over easy or get toast at breakfast. Both were eliminated in the 1990s.

Full-service dining is available only to sleeping class passengers. Coach passengers are confined to the snack-heavy café car.

At the time that Amtrak announced the return of full-service dining to the western trains it also said it planned to add fresh selections to café cars. Those additions have yet to be made.

And it remains unclear when or if full-service dining will return to eastern long-distance trains or the Texas Eagle.

The Trains analysis aptly noted that some passengers aboard those trains are onboard for more than four meal periods.

Amtrak has hinted that full-service dining might return to eastern long distance trains late this year or in 2022. Officials said the carrier wanted to gauge passenger response to the new menus on the western trains before looking to implement them elsewhere.

As for when or even if coach passengers will be able to dine in the diner, Amtrak has been noncommittal. Officials said they were studying that but suggested it might take the form of allowing coach passengers to buy meals on a take-out basis and/or have them delivered to their coach seat.

The Trains analysis offered a glimpse of two conundrums posing a challenge to allowing coach passengers back in the dining car. It would require additional staff in the kitchen and dining room in order to create faster table turnover.

Another factor is pricing. Before Amtrak instituted flexible dining in June 2018 on the Lake Shore Limited and Capitol Limited, dining car menus had prices. The current dining car menus on the western trains do not show prices because the clientele already paid for their meals in their sleeping car fare.

As I’ve written in previous posts, most of those dining car prices were quite high with some entrees costing more than $20. Even breakfast was quite pricey for what you got.

The Trains analysis suggested some less labor intensive food selections would have to be added to the menu that could be sold at lower cost.

Many, if not most, coach passengers are unwilling to pay or unable to afford the prices Amtrak charged in dining cars in the past.

There will always be coach passengers willing to pay those prices to have the dining car experience. But they are not necessarily a majority of the coach clientele.

Amtrak’s food and beverage service is an evolving process that isn’t moving as fast or necessarily toward the destination that many rail passenger advocates want it to see.

The dining car experience is still not the same as it was before the pandemic or, in the case of eastern long-distance trains, since the onset of flexible dining with its limited choices.

Amtrak management has not talked about the prospect of doing what the passenger carrier did in the 1990s when dining car menus featured regional offerings associated with a region of the country the train served.

That lasted a few years then fell by the wayside as Amtrak management went to a standard dining car menu for all trains with diners.

For now, the dining car experience is available only in the West and only to those with the means to afford sleeping car fares.

Dining service is an emotional subject for some passengers and passenger train advocates, particularly those above a certain age, who wax nostalgic about all of the people they enjoyed conversing with over a meal and lament having lost that.

Some remember a time when railroads used their dining service as a marketing tool and offered meals that rivaled in quality what was served in the better hotel restaurants.

They tend to believe as an article of faith that full-service dining is critical to drawing more people aboard the train and boosting Amtrak’s revenue.

Johnston, the Trains passenger correspondent, falls into that camp. In his piece he argued that reviving full-service dining on such trains as the Lake Shore Limited, Capitol Limited, Cardinal, and City of New Orleans would give “travelers in some of the country’s top population centers more incentive to ride.”

That in turn would generate more cash for Amtrak, Johnston asserted. How much more? He didn’t say because he doesn’t know.

There is much Amtrak knows about its finances and passengers that it doesn’t share with the public, arguing that that information is proprietary.

It probably is true that the upgraded dining service has boosted the morale of Amtrak food and beverage workers as the article suggested and resulted in happier passengers.

Yet as the pandemic and the politically-motivated attacks on Amtrak food and beverage service of past years have shown, all of that can change virtually overnight and probably will.

Traditional Dining to Return to Eastern Trains

June 16, 2021

Dining aboard the Capitol Limited in route to Chicago in May 2012.

Goodbye flexible dining and hello French toast.

Amtrak announced on Tuesday its plans to return traditional dining to eastern long distance trains and allow coach passengers to buy meals in the dining car.

However, it gave no date for when those changes but indicated it would be late this year or in early 2022.

Traditional dining for sleeping car passengers is being reinstated on western long distance trains on June 23.

Amtrak officials also indicated the eastern trains likely will receive an abridged version of the menus used on western trains and that coach passengers might not necessarily be able to eat in the dining car but use a takeout service.

Those are moves Amtrak management expects to decide over the next few months.

The announcement was made on Tuesday at a press event at Chicago Union Station during which Amtrak showed off its first Siemens ALC-42 locomotives that will be used in the carrier’s national network.

The carrier also showed new interior designs for its Superliner fleet.

Robert Jordan, Amtrak’s vice president operations and customer services, said when traditional dining and coach passenger access to dining cars is implemented will depend on the reactions the carrier gets to the new dining-car menus planned for the western long-distance trains.

 “A lot of it is centered on two things,” he said. “First will be passenger reaction to the menu. “Do we need to make any adjustments? What is the most popular, and how long each of those items takes to cook, because we imagine that whatever is popular with our [sleeping-car passengers] is going to be as popular with our coaches,

“And then, once we understand that, we’ll figure out the logistics of what’s going to make sense. Is it opening up the dining room or additional tables for coach customers, or is it more of a take-out kind of menu, or is it a delivery? Those are the things we have to weigh. It is a priority for us to roll it out for coach customers, so hopefully within three or four months we can do that.”

As for the differences between menus of the eastern versus the western trains, Jordan said the former will receive “a version” of the new menu, but probably not the exact menu. 

“You’re only talking three or four meals, so I don’t know if we have to have every single menu item.”

Jordan indicated the return of traditional dining to eastern trains will likely occur late this year or early near year.

Traditional dining on Amtrak’s western trains will include the return of linen tablecloths and napkins, new flatware and glassware.

Dining car china will return in a few months once Amtrak is able to receive its order of china. Until then meals will be served on plastic plates.

Roger Harris, Amtrak’s executive vice president, chief marketing and revenue officer, said the return of traditional dining and upgraded silverware and dishes reflects an understanding that premium prices should be accompanied by premium service.

“We have so much demand that prices go up, because we’re a little bit of a supply-and-demand world,” Harris said.

“We look at it, and go, ‘wow,’ if we’re going to charge people more, we better do a better job of looking after them . . . I’s not just a tablecloth. The food product is better.”

Jordan said the fare to be served in dining cars was developed in consultation with Amtrak’s own chefs as well as those from vendors such as Cuisine Solutions and Aramark.

The menu they decided upon has a mixture of long-standing Amtrak menu items, including French Toast, Angus beef burgers, and flatiron steak and some new entrees.

 “Overall, we wanted healthy items, whole food items — fairly traditional, but we wanted to simplify it to some extent, as well,” Jordan said.

“Our previous menu had 18 items; this one has, not counting the appetizers, 12 items. So customers are not overwhelmed by the choices and it makes it easier for our chefs to prepare these.”

Traditional Dining Returning to Most Amtrak Western Long Distance Trains

June 4, 2021

French toast comes with fruit, whipped topping (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.

Full-Service Dining Expected Back on Amtrak Western 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 Will Also 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.”

1,400 Griped About Amtrak Dining Service in 2019

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.

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.

Amtrak Changes Full-Service Dining Car Menus

February 20, 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.