Posts Tagged ‘Dining on the rails’

Sampling CVSR’s Breakfast Along the Cuyahoga Service

November 16, 2019

Passengers find their tables after boarding in Peninsula. Those are raspberry smoothies on the tables.

Since writing about it three years ago for this blog I’ve been intrigued by the Breakfast Along the Cuyahoga service that the Cuyahoga Valley Scenic Railroad offers.

I thought it would be a fun experience to have a leisurely breakfast on the train during the winter while watching the snow-covered scenery of the Cuyahoga Valley National Park slide past the window.

But having breakfast on the National Park Scenic is pricey and that, among other reasons, is why I hesitated about doing it.

Last summer Mary Ann and I decided to splurge and spend the $40 per passenger that Breakfast Along the Cuyahoga costs.

The service has changed since I initially wrote about it. It used to be that you boarded at Rockside Road Station and rode to Akron and back.

The CVSR had another meal service branded Brunch Along the Cuyahoga that began in Akron and went to Rockside and back.

Brunch was served in a different car with a menu more like dinner than breakfast.

CVSR has since dropped brunch and changed breakfast to a service that begins in Peninsula, goes to Akron and returns to Peninsula. That means you get just half a train ride.

As we stood outside the Peninsula depot awaiting the first southbound Scenic of the day, a Saturday, a van from Creekside restaurant in Brecksville pulled up and unloaded that day’s provisions.

The food is prepared off the train and served by Creekside personnel on board.

Because the Scenic wouldn’t be leaving Peninsula until 9:45 a.m. and I figured we wouldn’t be served until after 10, we had eaten something light before boarding.

The Scenic arrived on time and we were directed to board a car that had had its name and the CVSR name in the letter board painted over.

Inside were tables and chairs with white table clothes, silverware and linen napkins.

There was a respectable crowd on board, but the car was only about two-thirds full. We had a table to ourselves.

You can choose your seats when booking your reservation and I had purposely chosen seats so both of us could sit next to a window.

The first course, a raspberry smoothie, was waiting on the table as we boarded.

Breakfast along the Cuyahoga is billed as a three-course meal with the smoothie being the first course.

The servers came around to take drink orders and I opted for orange juice.

We both ordered a mimosa, which turned out to be the only alcoholic beverage available and was an extra you paid for at the end of the trip.

After we had placed our drink orders a CVSR trainman came through and checked our tickets.

The main course was peaches and cream French toast, two turkey sausage patties and home fries.

It was all very tasty and the French toast reminded me of bread pudding because of its rich flavor and texture.

Its square shape made it more like a casserole than what you get when you order French toast in a restaurant, which typically is four slices of bread dipped in egg batter and grilled.

The third course was vanilla bean custard that came in a small pie shell pastry and was topped with whipped cream. It, too, was rich.

I would rate the overall experience as falling a rung or two beneath fine dining.

Beverages were served in plastic cups and meals served on plastic plates. The orange juice came in one of those small plastic bottles you can buy at a convenience store.

The table service was attentive and consistent. The quality of the food was good to very good although I had expected the French toast to be topped with peaches. Instead, they were baked into the casserole.

As delicious as the meal was, it also was richer than I had expected.

The branding of the service is something of a misnomer. The only time we saw the Cuyahoga River was in Peninsula and for a short distance south of there.

Once you cross the Cuyahoga south of Peninsula the river veers eastward and you don’t see it again from the train.

I would have preferred to have boarded at Rockside Road because much of the best scenery in the park is north of Peninsula.

Actually, I would have liked to have ridden from Rockside to Akron and back and seen all of the park.

But the CVSR decided a couple years ago that that was too long of a ride for many people having breakfast so the boarding point was moved to Peninsula.

If there was anything about the experience that was disappointing it was that we were not invited to remain on board after arriving back in Peninsula and travel to Rockside and back.

Given that we were paying a premium we should have been given that option. Maybe it is allowed if you ask, but but I didn’t ask and they didn’t offer.

It’s tempting to compare CVSR meal service with that of Amtrak, but it’s probably not a fair comparison because they serve difference purposes.

Still I found that if you tried to create a three-course breakfast in an Amtrak full-service dining car, it could cost you up between $34.25 to $33.50 to have the experience that Breakfast Along the Cuyahoga offers.

That would involve ordering the most expensive breakfast entrée, which is the three-egg omelet with a side of salsa, roasted potatoes or grits, and a croissant. If you want sausage or bacon with that, add another $3.50.

Amtrak doesn’t serve smoothies or mimosas but a single serving of wine can be had for $7.50. If they will sell you a desert with your breakfast, it would range from $7.25 to $6.50 depending on what you order. Add orange juice and that is another $2.25.

There is something about eating on a train that is part of the charm of rail travel. It carries a certain mystique because it links to another era when the nation’s elite traveled by rail and were treated like royalty.

I was curious what the meal experience aboard the CVSR would be like and my curiosity has been satisfied. It was more like eating aboard Amtrak than having the legendary dining experience I’ve read about in railroad history books.

The CVSR also offers dinning aboard the train with seating available in the dome sections of the former California Zephyr cars.

That is more like fine dining experience and comes with china, glassware and a price of $100 to $120 per person for a four-course dinner and complimentary bar.

Those trains operate in the evening so you might not see much of the park except during the summer. Those prices are too rich for my blood as enjoyable as the experience might be.

Breakfast Along the Cuyahoga was a nice experience yet I’m not pining to do it again soon.

But maybe if I could do it in the winter and ride the full length of the route in a winter wonderland, well that sounds appealing.

I had already dug into my main course when I remembered to make a photograph of it.

The vanilla bean tart that was dessert.

We got to see a little bit of the Cuyahoga River during breakfast but none of it while we were eating our main course or dessert.

Disembarking in Peninsula at the end of the journey. The identity of this car is masked.

Take a Ride on the Amtrak Spin Train

September 16, 2019

Having breakfast on the Lake Shore Limited in March 2012 as Train 49 stopped in Bryan, Ohio. Note that the menu featured an image of a couple eating in the dining car while watching the scenery roll by.

In a news release posted last week, Amtrak described changes it was making to dining services aboard eastern overnight trains this way in the opening sentence: “Amtrak continues to evolve the travel experience on long-distance trains with the introduction of a new, flexible dining service for Sleeping Car customers traveling on the Cardinal, City of New Orleans, Crescent and Silver Meteor starting on Oct. 1 and the Silver Star in 2020.”

The next paragraph had a quotation from Amtrak President Richard Anderson saying this “evolution” is being done to meet the needs of today’s customers.

“Traveling on one of our trains has never been just about the destination – the journey is part of the adventure,” Anderson said.

That is the same Richard Anderson who has been trashing his company’s long distance trains by talking about how much money they lose and how they fail to meet the travel needs of those who live along their routes.

But you wouldn’t know that from reading this news release, which used variations of the word “evolution” three times.

That suggests, as the Oxford dictionary defines “evolution,” a process of gradually moving from a simple to a more complex form.

It is notable for what Amtrak is not saying in this release.

It doesn’t say the Crescent and Silver Meteor will no longer offer meals freshly prepared on board the train or that “flexible dining” will offer fewer choices at meal time.

It says nothing about the Amtrak onboard service employees who are losing their jobs.

It says nothing about how these changes are part of an aggressive cost-cutting campaign that Anderson initiated.

Some of the touted “benefits” of flexible dining cited in the news release are already being offered  and are not upgrades in the traveling experience. This includes having meals delivered to your sleeping car room.

If flexible dining service is an improvement it is only because it represents an incremental increase in the number of meal options being offered compared with the “fresh and contemporary” service model introduced last year on the Capitol Limited and Lake Shore Limited.

Amtrak, like any other company, is seeking to portray what customers might see as a negative as actually being a positive.

So rather than speak about cost cutting and reducing labor expenses, it instead frames the changes as serving the needs of its passengers without saying what those are.

The news release follows standard public relations practice of focusing on something that is, arguably, of value to a customer while avoiding calling attention to changes that take away something else of value.

It is a standard public relations marketing strategy if you are taking something away to instead focus on something of value you are offering instead.

Therefore sleeper class passengers get one free alcoholic beverage per meal whereas they used to pay out of pocket for any drinks they ordered with lunch or dinner.

And they also get the exclusive use of the dining car as a lounge.

I would not undervalue that “benefit” because on most eastern overnight trains the lounge is an Amfleet car that doubles as the café car for coach passengers. It can get quite crowded and has limited seating.

Many railfans have complained bitterly about the loss of full-service dining on the Capitol Limited and Lake Shore Limited.

No longer can you order an omelet with bacon, potatoes and a croissant when traveling from, say, Cleveland or Pittsburgh to Chicago.

Gone is the end of the communal seating and in is having to make do with less variety on the menu.

Yet, even the Rail Passengers Association in writing about what has been lacking about “fresh and contemporary” has acknowledged that some of its members have applauded some aspects of it including lighter fare and being able to choose your own company while eating.

Some passengers dislike being beholden to the time shown on their meal reservation and not everyone wants to eat with strangers or is looking for a heavy meal for breakfast or dinner.

The changes that Amtrak has made in food service on its eastern overnight trains are not necessarily what the carrier says they are yet are not necessarily a nefarious plot to kill long-distance passenger trains.

It appears that way because these changes are being made at the same time that high-ranking Amtrak managers are trying to portray these trains as relics of bygone era.

The dining service changes also bear a striking resemblance to what freight railroads did in the 1960s when they downgraded service on intercity passenger trains and discontinued dozens of them.

Whatever the future may hold for overnight passenger trains, there is little to no reason to believe that full-service dining cars are going to return to the eastern long-distance trains or that those Amtrak workers who are losing their jobs are going to get them back.

The omelet you had hoped to enjoy for breakfast has been replaced by a Kind bar.

The steak and baked potato you wanted for dinner has been replaced with red wine braised beef and a side salad.

Amtrak Rebrands ‘Fresh and Contemporary’ Dining as ‘Flexible Dining’ on Eastern Long-distance Trains

September 14, 2019

Amtrak released this image of one of roasted chicken and fettuccine, one of four hot entrees that will be offered to sleeping car passengers on eastern overnight trains starting Oct. 1.

Amtrak has made official what has been discussed for weeks. Effective Oct. 1 it will remove full-service dining cars from two eastern long-distance trains and convert its eastern long-distance trains that offer sleeping car service to the same dining model it implemented in June 2018 aboard the Lake Shore Limited and Capitol Limited.

In the process, Amtrak is rebranding the service and billing is as an improvement. Gone is the “fresh and contemporary” label. The passenger carrier is now describing its food service as “flexible dining.”

In a news release, Amtrak touted flexible dining as offering additional hot entrees at lunch and dinner.

One of the four entrees will be vegan while another will be gluten free.

For the most part, “flexible dining” will be the same as the “fresh and contemporary” model that it is replacing.

It will be offered on the Cardinal, Crescent, Silver Meteor, Lake Shore Limited, Capital Limited and City of New Orleans.

Amtrak’s news release said “flexible dining” will be launched on the Silver Star (New York-Miami) in 2020.

In a post on Friday afternnoon on its website, the Rail Passengers Association said that Amtrak also plans to provide coach passengers on eastern long-distance overnight trains the opportunity to purchase one of the entrees provided to sleeping car passengers.

However, the Amtrak news release made no mention of coach passengers being able to purchase the meals served to sleeping car passengers.

RPA did note in its post that dining service on eastern long-distance trains will continue to evolve following the Oct. 1 implementation of “flexible dining.”

The Crescent (New York-New Orleans) and Silver Meteor (New York-Miami) currently have full-service dining car service with meals freshly prepared onboard.

The Cardinal (Chicago-New York) and City of New Orleans (Chicago-New Orleans) currently have something in between with a wider number of meal options compared with the Capitol (Chicago-Washington) and Lake Shore (Chicago-New York/Boston), but with all food prepared off the train and heated onboard.

Most of the amenities that Amtrak listed in its news release for “flexible dining” have been fixtures of “fresh and contemporary” since it was launched.

This includes unlimited soft drinks and one complementary alcoholic beverage at lunch and dinner, room service provided by a sleeping car attendant, and exclusive use of a dining car as a lounge for sleeper class passengers for eating and socializing.

The flexible dining moniker apparently stems from the fact that breakfast, lunch and dinner will be available during broad serving hours with no reservation needed.

Breakfast will be available between 6:30 a.m. and 10 a.m., lunch will be available between 11:30 a.m. and 3 p.m., and dinner will be available between 5 p.m. and 9:30 p.m.

Some changes have been made in the menu offerings. There will still be just one hot entrée available at breakfast, a sausage, egg and cheese muffin.

Also available will be oatmeal (two varieties), cold cereal (four varieties), muffins (two varieties), a breakfast bar (Kind bar), yogurt (two varieties), fruit (bananas and seasonal fruit cup), and various beverages.

On the lunch and dinner menu all entrees come with a side salad and dessert although the menu posted online does not indicate what the dessert is.

The Amtrak news release described the deserts as blondies and brownies.

The entrees include red wine braised beef served with pearl onions, carrots, mushrooms, polenta and Haricot vert; Asian noodle bowl (vegan) served with Yaki Soba noodles, carrots, edamane, red peppers, baby corn, scallions and Shittake mushrooms in a garlic-chili sauce; chicken fettuccine served with roasted chicken, broccoli, carrots, red peppers, Parmesan and Asiago cheeses in a garlic cream sauce); and Creole shrimp and Andouille sausage (gluten free) served with yellow rice, peppers, onions, and green onions in a Creole sauce). All dinners come with side salad and dessert.

The children’s meal is pasta and meatballs served with penne pasta, tomato sauce, meatballs and mozzarella cheese.

Also changing is how these meals are presented. Boxes, bags and excessive wrapping materials are being discarded in favor of small trays that will be used to serve the meals.

Amtrak said that traditional dining cars will continue to operate on western long-distance overnight trains, including the California Zephyr, Coast Starlight, Empire Builder, Southwest Chief, Sunset Limited and Texas Eagle.

In the east, the Auto Train will continue to have traditional dining car service although Amtrak has announced plans to end providing meals other than a continental breakfast to coach passengers starting in January 2020.

Amtrak is seeking to frame “flexible dining” as part of a larger evolutionary strategy to upgrade long-distance trains in the coming months.

Other improvements that the news release said are coming include “refreshed” Amfleet II cars, which will receive new seat cushions, carpets, curtains and LED reading lights.

These changes are expected to be completed by the end of this year.

Amtrak said sleepers will receive upgraded bedding, towels and linens, starting with the Auto Train.

New Viewliner II sleeping cars will be assigned to eastern long-distance trains in the coming months as well.

In its posting, RPA hailed Amtrak’s plans, describing them as “important improvements” while acknowledging that it will not be a return to the traditional dining car experience.

RPA said restoration of dining service to the Silver Star is being made possible by “efficiencies gained from the new food-service model on Eastern trains.”

As for coach passengers being able to buy food served to sleeping car passengers, RPA said Amtrak plans to implement an order-ahead system so that passengers have the option to make selections at booking

RPA said Amtrak will offer two hot entrees at breakfast, but the menu posted on the Amtrak website showed just one. RPA suggested that the current ham-egg-cheese on a ciabatta roll breakfast sandwich will continue.

Amtrak has told RPA that it will use a combination of processes and technology to ensure that there is enough food on board for service and enough variety so that passengers’ first choice is more likely to be available.

However, Amtrak is still working on solutions for the problems of special meals, including Kosher, vegan, vegetarian, allergies and food sensitivities.

RPA cited a letter that it received from an Amtrak executive to say that menus for traditional dining cars will change in the first half of 2020.

That letter also said that new mattresses, linens, sheets, blankets and towels along with upgraded soap and amenities will be implemented during the coming year.

Amtrak continues to work to overcome mechanical issues that have prevented it from installing convection ovens on food-service cars, but hopes to have that issue resolved by the end of this year.

Amtrak Still Tweaking Dining Service

August 1, 2018

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

New Meal Service Getting Mixed Reviews

July 7, 2018

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Amtrak Says Hot Food Coming Back to 2 Trains

June 7, 2018

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

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

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

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

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

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

Amtrak Unions Want Dining Cars Back

June 2, 2018

Labor unions representing Amtrak workers say changes in dining service aboard the Lake Shore Limited and Capitol Limited are threatening jobs and pensions as well as annoying passengers.

The unions want Amtrak to reinstate full dining-car service on the both trains, which serve northern Ohio.

The dining changes, which became effective on June 1, involve providing cold meals to sleeping car passengers.

Amtrak executives have characterized the cost-cutting changes as experimental and pledged to provide at least one hot entrée at a future time.

The executives told the Rail Passengers Association that Amtrak is studying making improvements system-wide food service improvements.

The Amtrak Service Workers Council, however, is not impressed.

“We pledge to do everything in our power to preserve these jobs and the unique Amtrak dining experience,” the council said in a statement.

The council said that seven chefs have been furloughed and given a little more than a week to make a major life decision, meaning moving to Chicago or Seattle in order to continue working for Amtrak.

Some of them have 30 years of service and live on the East Coast.

“Therefore, it is certain that closing dining cars on these routes will have immediate and ripple effects on Amtrak workers across the country, not only those employed on the Lake Shore Limited and Capitol Limited lines.

The union group also took aim at how Amtrak sought to frame the change, issuing a news release and making statements characterizng the changes as providing “fresh and contemporary” meal service.

The council said the new meal service is nothing more than a cold snack in a cardboard box being delivered to passengers in their rooms.

“Riders are paying close to $1,000 a ticket, only to be fed yogurt and sandwiches? We have been told by our members that passengers already are expressing their dissatisfaction with the upcoming service and meal plan changes,” the council said.

“Our members are on the frontlines, and they know that passengers view the current dining service as part of the experience of riding a train through the country along a long-distance route.”

Amtrak spokesman Marc Magliari declined to comment on the council’s statement other than to say the pre-packaged meals are not limited to the examples cited in the council’s statement.

Amtrak expects to save $3 million annual by eliminating full-service dining cars from the Capitol Limited and Lake Shore Limited.

Changes in Amtrak Meal Service is Not Good News

April 24, 2018

Part of the experience for me of riding Amtrak to Chicago is having breakfast in the dining car.

I’ve had some good meals in Amtrak diners over the years and some interesting conversations with my table mates as the Indiana countryside rolled past.

Now Amtrak plans to end full-service dining aboard the Capitol Limited and Lake Shore Limited on June 1 in favor of pre-packaged cold meals for sleeping car passengers that they will eat in their room or at a table in a lounge car devoted exclusively to sleeping car passengers.

Coach passengers will have to make do with whatever cafe car offerings are available although Amtrak says it will sell the meals sleeping car passengers receive to coach passengers on a limited basis.

This downgrade in meal service will be most noticeable at breakfast, which will be no better than that of a Super 8 motel, dominated by carbohydrates with some fruit and yogurt available. No eggs, no bacon, no sausage, no pancakes or French toast, no potatoes, no vegetables and no table service. There won’t even be cereal.

It is particularly galling to see the Amtrak news release frame the meal policy change as an improvement in meal service, using words such as “fresh” and “contemporary.”

That is pure public relations and marketing balderdash. The changes Amtrak is making are all about cutting costs, not enhancing the travel by train experience.

Driving these changes is a 2019 deadline Amtrak faces under federal law to eliminate losses on food and beverage service.

Long before there was an Amtrak there were railroad dining cars that operated at a loss.

An article published in Trains magazine in the 1950s likened a dining car to an inefficient restaurant. Dining cars just don’t have enough volume of business to cover their expenses.

The only time that railroad dining cars paid their way was during World War II when the railroads handled an extremely high volume of traffic.

For the most part, railroads viewed dining cars as loss leaders and branding devices designed to lure passengers, particularly those who were affluent. Some railroad executives thought their image with shippers hinged on how they perceived a railroad’s passenger service.

This image of a 1950s streamliner and all of its trappings has stuck in the minds of some railroad passenger advocates as though it is a command from above that long-distance trains must have dining cars that serve full-course meals prepared on-board by gourmet chefs.

Amtrak’s dining service has gone through all manner of changes over the years, some good and some downright horrible as management sought to rein in costs while preserving at least a semblance of the eating aboard a train tradition. Now the current Amtrak management seems determined to blow up long-distance trains dining.

Perhaps another underlying factor is that the cost of eating in Amtrak dining cars has ballooned to the point where few coach passengers are willing or able to pay the prices.

On the current Capitol Limited menu, the least expensive breakfast entree is scrambled eggs, potatoes and a croissant ($8.50). If you want bacon or sausage that will be another $3.50.

An omelet with vegetable and cheese filling, along with the potatoes and croissant, costs $13.75. A stack of three pancakes costs $10.50 and doesn’t come with anything else.

At dinner, the least expensive of the seven entrees is vegetarian pasta at $16.50. If you want a salad that will be another $3.50.

Four of the entrees cost more than $20. The most expensive is the land and sea combo ($39). It comes with a flat iron steak and a seafood cake of crab, shrimp and scallops. A salad is not included but you get a potato (or rice pilaf) and a vegetable. Desserts range from $2.75 to $7.50.

If you want to enjoy an adult beverage with your meal, a cocktail costs $7.50, a single serving of wine is $7, and a beer costs between $6 and $7.50. It means you could spend upwards of $70 for dinner for one person including the tip.

Many of those who patronize Amtrak’s full service dining cars are sleeping car passengers who have “paid” for their meal in their sleeping car fare, which itself is not cheap.

For example, a Superliner roomette on the Capitol Limited from Cleveland to Chicago on April 25 is priced at $225. By contrast a coach seat is $73. A Viewliner roomette on the Lake Shore Limited is $181 and a coach seat is $58.

Some of those “fresh” and “contemporary” meals that Amtrak plans to serve sleeping car passengers might be tasty. But I can’t image too many folks who shelled out hundreds of dollars for a sleeping car ticket will be satisfied with a continental breakfast.

They want something hot and substantial. Dining cars on long-distance trains don’t need to be gourmet restaurants. Something approximating a Bob Evans restaurant would be sufficient.

If ever there was a need for a combination of technology and creative thinking to make this happen, now is that time.

What Amtrak plans to implement on June 1 on the Capitol Limited and Lake Shore Limited is far from that.

How Amtrak Framed Dining Changes to Employees

April 23, 2018

The way that Amtrak portrayed to its employees its plans to eliminate preparation of meals onboard the Capitol Limited and Lake Shore Limited differs slightly from how it framed the change in its news release and service advisory.

For example, Amtrak told its employees that the plan to offer sleeping car passengers pre-packaged cold meals is temporary.

But that doesn’t mean that on-board food preparation is coming back.

Eventually, Amtrak told its employees, sleeping car passengers will able to “pre-order/pre-select meal options prior to departure.”

The memo sent to employees also said that the passenger carrier expects to save $3.4 million a year “some of which will be reinvested in the product.”

Another goal of removing full dining service aboard the Capitol and Lake Shore the Amtrak memo said is “less waste and providing a more contemporary food service model and product (with in room service) for our premium passengers.”

The memo also clarified in a way that the news release did not that Amtrak plans to devote a lounge car for the exclusive use of sleeping car passengers where they can consume their meals.

Coach passengers will not be allowed to use this lounge, which will have an Amtrak attendant on duty but there will be no table service.  Table seating will be on a first-come basis.

The pre-packaged meals that Amtrak will serve passengers will come with condiments, napkins and cutlery.

“If a customer finds something missing from their package, needs another beverage or needs assistance moving from their bedroom or roomette to another car on the train – the sleeper car attendant or other employees can provide assistance,” the memo said.

As for staffing, the memo said each train will have an onboard food and beverage staff of two with one lead service attendant in each car.

Although sleeping car passengers will have the option of eating in their rooms, the Amtrak memo indicated that this is “subject to refinement as we move forward.”

As Amtrak framed the change for its employees, “this change will contribute to improved financial performance and more contemporary service delivery on these overnight routes between the East Coast and Chicago.”

The memo suggests that the meal program on both trains will be reviewed after the summer travel season.

During the summer the consist of the Capitol Limited will be two coaches, a baggage-coach, two sleepers, one lounge car for sleeping car passengers, one sightseer café/lounge (Superliner I or II), a transition dorm and a baggage car.

The Lake Shore Limited will operate with six coaches, two baggage cars, three sleepers, one lounge for sleeping car passengers (one of the new CAF cars) and one café/lounge car (Amfleet I split club).

The café/lounge includes 18 business class seats, the standard Amfleet café module and 24 booth seats.

Sleeping car attendants will make reservations for sleeping car passengers for meals in much the same way that they do today in the dining car.

Meal service hours will be the same as they are now: Breakfast 6:30 a.m. to 10 a.m., lunch 11:30 a.m. to 3 p.m., and dinner 5 p.m. to 9:30 p.m.

The attendant in the sleeping car lounge will be on duty between 6:30 a.m. to 10 p.m. except for allotted breaks. This lounge will be available for passenger use for the duration of the journey.

Amtrak Ending Full-Service Dining Service on Capitol Limited, Lake Shore Limited in Favor of Cold Meals

April 20, 2018

Amtrak is ending full-service dining car service on the Capitol Limited and Lake Shore Limited.

In a news release posted on its website, the passenger carrier said that effective June 1 it will begin offering sleeping car passengers on the two trains what it termed “contemporary and fresh dining choices.”

That means cold meals delivered to the passenger’s room or consumed at a table in a lounge car.

Trains magazine said Amtrak did not respond to question about whether hot meals would be offered on either train, but a separate service advisory indicated that café car fare will continue to be available, some of which is heated in a microwave oven.

The news release said the service is intended to replace traditional dining-car service.

Meals will be delivered to the trains just before they depart their end terminals. The cost of these meals will continue to be included in the ticket price of a sleeping car room.

Among the mean choices, the news release, said are chilled beef tenderloin, vegan wrap, chicken Caesar salad and turkey club sandwich.

Breakfast options will include assorted breakfast breads with butter, cream cheese and strawberry jam; Greek yogurt and sliced seasonal fresh fruit.

A Kosher meal will be available with advanced notice.

Passengers will receive unlimited soft beverages; a complimentary serving of beer, wine or a mixed drink; and an amenity kit.

Previously, sleeping car passengers wanting an alcoholic beverage had to pay for it.

“Our continued success depends on increasing customer satisfaction while becoming more efficient,” said Bob Dorsch, Amtrak’s vice president of its long distance service line, said in the news release.

The service advisory said that after boarding, sleeping car attendants will continue the standard procedure of asking passengers to select a preferred time for dining with reservations available in 15-minute increments.

Tables in sleeper lounge and café/lounge cars will be first come, first serve for seating and there will be no at-table dining service.

Sleeping car passengers will also be offered complimentary morning coffee, chilled water and juices, in-room meal service, turn-down service for their beds, and shower facilities.

They will be provided pre-boarding privileges and same-day access to lounges, such as Club Acela in the Northeast Corridor and the Metropolitan Lounge in Chicago.

Business class passengers on the Lake Shore Limited will be offered a la carte purchases from café/lounge menu, an alcoholic beverage and unlimited soft beverages, and a complimentary comfort kit.

Amtrak said coach passengers may purchase on a limited basis the pre-packaged meals served to sleeping car passengers. The existing café car menu will continue to be available to all passengers.

The news release also quoted Dorsch as saying, the meal service will continue to be refined and Amtrak looks forward to hearing from its customers about it.

What it all adds up to is that Amtrak is looking to cut costs by eliminating onboard kitchen staff and servers, and offering airline style meals that are provided by a catering company.

Trains magazine quoted the Rail Passengers Association as saying that the change reflects outside directives to the passenger carrier.

“It’s important to remember that this is simply an outcropping of the congressional mandate to eliminate losses on food and beverage service,” said James A. Zumwalt, director of policy research at RPA.

Zumwalt said the new meal policy “contradicts other successful models such as in the cruise industry, and proves unpopular with passengers. The mandate prevents best practices and should be removed.”