Posts Tagged ‘dining aboard Amtrak’

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.

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.

Lounges to Remain Absent from Amtrak’s Capitol Limited

May 24, 2021

Sightseer Lounge cars won’t be returning to the Capitol Limited next week when the train returns to daily operation.

The Rail Passengers Association reported on its website that it has been told by Amtrak that the absence of the popular cars from the Capitol Limited and Texas Eagle is temporary.

“While temporary, we do not yet have a defined timeline for increasing Sightseer Lounge availability, and have placed the other five Western [long distance] routes at a higher priority for deploying these popular cars,” said Larry Chestler, Amtrak’s vice president of the Long-Distance business unit. “We also are maintaining the Sightseer Lounge on the City of New Orleans due to our long-standing axle count requirements in Illinois.”

That means the Capitol Limited and Texas Eagle will will continue to operate with a single food-service car.

Chestler said Amtrak has a shortage of the lounge cars due to coronavirus contingencies. He said the cars will be restored once it’s possible to do so.

The Capitol Limited is scheduled to return to daily operation on May 31 while the Texas Eagle will resume daily operation today (May 24).

In a related development, Amtrak expects to resume full-service dining aboard Western long distance trains as early as June. Last May it switched to the contemporary dining model as a response to COVID-19 pandemic.

The passenger carrier is recalling furloughed workers and getting them qualified.

RPA said it was told that once traditional dining returns to the Western trains, Amtrak will begin work on “improvements to dining services on other [long-distance] routes, including the Eagle.”

Amtrak Sleeper Passengers Can Pre-Select Meals

October 1, 2020

Amtrak has begun giving sleeping car passengers the ability to choose their meals in advance of travel.

The option is now available for those riding the Capitol Limited, Cardinal, City of New Orleans, and Lake Shore Limited.

Passengers will be sent an email informing them of the option as well as offering an opportunity to view menus before selecting their meals.

Amtrak expects the ability to pre-select meals to be extended to the Silver Star and Silver Meteor in the coming weeks.

The meals on all of those trains are prepared off the train and heated onboard in a microwave oven.

Sleeping car passengers can have their meals delivered to their rooms or eat in a dining car reserved for the use of sleeping class passengers.

Amtrak currently only prepares meals onboard the Auto Train, having suspended the practice for Western long-distance trains during the depths of the COVID-19 pandemic.

However, the passenger carrier has said the suspension of on-board food preparation for Western long-distance trains is temporary and a notice on the carrier’s website indicated that full-serving dining on those trains is suspended through Dec. 15.

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 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.

Flexible Dining is About Consistent, Less Costly Dining

September 21, 2019

Amtrak held a preview of “flexible dining” last week at Washington Union Station and at least one reporter who was there said that the food to be introduced on Oct. 1 is an improvement over what is now being served aboard two eastern overnight trains.

Bob Johnston, the passenger rail correspondent for Trains magazine, wrote that after tasting the planned entrees that they are an improvement over the boxed meals that have been served since June 2018 aboard the Lake Shore Limited and Capitol Limited as part of Amtrak’s “fresh and contemporary model.”

Johnston said he agreed with Amtrak Executive Chef Gottlieb’s description of the new fare: “The pasta is al dente, the chicken is tender and the beef is really good and tasty.”

The press event was held aboard Viewliner II dining car Tallahassee and new meal offerings were presented buffet style.

The food is designed to be heated in a convection oven and mixed together.

That precludes offering individually served items such as steak, chicken, or fish with a separate side dish vegetable.

Johnston noted that Amtrak briefly tried “pre-plating” of individual meals as an economy move on the City of New Orleans in the mid-2000s but ended it after passengers complained about the lack of choice.

Once flexible dining begins sleeping car passengers will receive their meals on trays that will hold a bowl, a side salad and a brownie for dessert.

Flexible dining is Amtrak’s moniker for a more consist meal service model to be served to sleeper class passengers aboard the Capitol Limited, Lake Shore Limited, Crescent, Cardinal, Silver Meteor and City of New Orleans.

Amtrak officials said flexible dining will be extended to sleeper class passengers on the Silver Star next year, but they have not given a date for that.

Sleeper class passengers on the Silver Star currently do not receive meals as part of their fare as do passengers on all other Amtrak overnight trains with sleeping cars.

It remains to be seen, though, how long flexible dining will last and whether Amtrak will tweak it.

In an appearance this week at the Skift Global 2019 Travel Industry Conference, Amtrak President Richard Anderson said the carrier plans “to simplify to a single food car.”

It is not clear if that means that Amtrak plans to drop meals for sleeper class passengers as part of their fare and thus force all passengers to rely on a café car for food and beverage service.

Anderson has also spoken about having some long-distance trains provide experiential service and cited the example of VIA Rail Canada’s The Canadian.

That train had two full-service dining cars as well as café car service for coach passengers.

In his appearance at the Shift conference, Anderson said Amtrak has simplified food service to achieve cost cuts mandated by Congress.

The roll out of flexible dining is an extension of that. On that date full-service dining will end on the Silver Meteor and Crescent.

Also ending will be the individual menus unique to the Cardinal and City of New Orleans.

Although on-board food preparation ended aboard those trains years ago in favor of heating meals prepared off the train, both offer passengers more variety and offerings for breakfast, lunch and dinner than passengers have had aboard the Capitol Limited and Lake Shore Limited in the past year.

During the press event last week, Amtrak officials described how the food to be offered under the flexible dining model was developed and how it differs from that offered under the fresh and contemporary model.

Gottlieb and Amtrak Vice President, Product Development and Customer Experience Peter Wilander said main dishes will be prepared by a new vendor, New Horizon Foods, and flash frozen.

“There was a lot of back and forth in a competition with three or four vendors, and we tested everything in our test kitchens,” Gottlieb said in reference to  Amtrak’s Consolidated National Operation Center in Wilmington, Delaware.

The trays on which the food will be presented is another change. In the fresh and contemporary model Amtrak used balsawood boxes and green bags.

“The box itself had an unanticipated consequence of service degradation,” Wilander said.

He described the trays as an off-the-shelf design “that will allow us to progress to the next iteration (creating) our own molds to do something different.”

The trays can be washed and reused. The boxes and bags Amtrak has been using are billed as recyclable, but in practice generated a lot of trash.

The flexible dining name is rooted in the practice of passengers being able to eat their meals within a wide serving window rather than limited to coming to the diner at set times.

It also will result in consistent equipment assignments with all single-level equipment trains using a Viewliner II dining car that only sleeper class passengers will be able to access.

Roger Harris, Amtrak’s executive vice president and chief marketing and revenue officer, said a shortage of Viewliner sleepers has prevented the carrier from assigning a second sleeper to the Cardinal.

Harris said during the press event that Amtrak expects to save enough money from the changes in food service to be able to return meals to sleeper class passengers on the Silver Star.

When that happens, Silver Star sleeper passengers will pay higher fares because meals will be included.

“So we have the opportunity to have a [range] of fares from low to high according to demand, and we’re not going to have this orphan train,” Harris said in reference to the Silver Star.

Fares for Silver Star sleeper class passengers were lowered when the train’s dining car was removed in 2015.

Harris said assigning a sleeper class dining car to the Silver Star is in the works and Amtrak is working through the logistics to do it.

The implementation of flexible dining may be good news for passengers at lunch and dinner in that they will have more options to choose among compared with fresh and contemporary.

But breakfast is largely unchanged with just one hot entrée available.

Although Amtrak has yet to announce it, the carrier plans to add to café cars on long-distance trains some of the fresh sandwiches available for sale in café cars on corridor trains in the Midwest, Northeast, and California.