Posts Tagged ‘Amtrak flexible dining service’

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.

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 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.

Amtrak Previews Onboard Service Changes

January 12, 2020

A service advisory posted on the Amtrak website last week briefly described coming on-board service 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. These cars are used on the Chicago-New York/Boston Lake Shore Limited.

Since early 2016 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.

That will change on May 1 when flexible dining service comes to Nos. 91 and 92. It will be the same service as that provided on the Capitol Limited, Cardinal, City of New Orleans, Crescent, Lake Shore Limited and Silver Meteor.

Silver Star sleeper class passengers will have access to dining car reserved for their exclusive use.

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.

Cardinal Has Yet to Get Viewliner II Diner

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.