Throughout the golden era of passenger rail service in the 1920s, ’30s, and early ’40s, and again in post-war America, railroads prided themselves on offering four-star restaurant quality meals and service in their dining cars.
Even into the 1960s, as railroads struggled to adapt to new economic realities, resulting in mergers and bankruptcies, many railroads continued to provide quality dining, right up to the creation of the national rail passenger service, Amtrak, in 1971.
Others — presumably attempting to hasten the decline of ridership in hopes of convincing Congress to repeal federal requirements that Class I railroads operate passenger service — systematically reduced or eliminated amenities on their trains.
Most infamous was Southern Pacific, which in the name of cost-cutting, eliminated lounge and sleeper cars on its overnight routes, and replaced full-service dining and cafe cars with what it called automats — coin-operated venderterias featuring an early incarnation microwave oven, where frozen entrees and hamburgers could be reheated.
For many railfans, the Southern Pacific experience came to mind this month when Amtrak eliminated traditional dining car service on most of its eastern long distance trains. That includes the Cardinal, with stops in Huntington and Charleston. (Autotrain will be spared until Jan. 1, 2020).
As of Oct. 1, dining car service on those trains was replaced with what Amtrak is calling “flexible dining,” but only for sleeper car passengers.
For coach and business class passengers, who used to have the option of buying meals in the dining car, the car is now off-limits. The only food options available onboard are the snacks and sandwiches sold in the cafe car — not a very appetizing prospect for someone riding, say, the full 26-hour route of the Cardinal.
Back in the spring, I booked my annual week of train riding for October, and unlike past years — when I’ve gone to the West Coast and back — this year, I chose all eastern routes, since it had been about 30 years since I had last ridden on the venerable City of New Orleans.
Unbeknownst to me at the time of the booking, that meant I would be among the first to experience flexible dining for myself — seven times, in fact, along with one segment of cafe car-only dining.
Instead of a traditional dining car menu, sleeper car passengers have the choice of five pre-prepared, frozen entrees consisting of braised beef, Asian noodles, chicken fettucini, shrimp and andouille with rice, or pasta and meatballs — the latter advertised as a kids’ meal, but provided to adult passengers to the point where it frequently runs out. The entrees come with what has to be the smallest side salad ever devised — small to the point where the accompanying packets of salad dressing are the size of traditional ketchup or mustard packets.
The entrees are served for both lunch and dinner, with no option for sandwiches or dinner salads.
For breakfast, the offerings are a Motel 6-caliber continental breakfast of cereal, oatmeal, muffins and breakfast bars, with breakfast sandwiches and fruit cups available upon request.
As always, meals are complimentary for sleeper car passengers.
I’m no foodie, so I can’t offer much in the way of a critique of the new entrees, except to say if you bought one for $2.99 at the grocery store, you’d probably conclude it’s not too bad for a frozen dinner.
However, considering that sleeper car passengers pay anywhere from the upper $100s to more than $600 one-way for their tickets — or compared to the steak, salmon, and roasted chicken dinners still served on western long-distance trains — the new offerings are a huge disappointment.
(For the past 15 years, the Cardinal has operated with a combined diner/cafe car, serving pre-prepared, reheated entrees, so the decline in quality of food service is not as severe as on other routes.)
Meanwhile, as one who normally eats a light breakfast — and who frequently wakes up on eastbound train #50 too late to have a sit-down breakfast before Charleston — the continental breakfast was fine with me, although it was starting to become monotonous after the third go-round.
Passenger reaction to the new food service ranged from anger to resigned disappointment.
Servers were apologetic about what they were having to serve passengers. They were also overwhelmed, most having gone from being one member of a dining car crew to a one-person show as host, cook and server all in one.
As for service, the only consistency on my four overnight trips was inconsistency.
On Cardinal #51, since we boarded right at the 8:30 p.m. cutoff for dinner, we were sent directly to the dining car, and the service was essentially unchanged: The dining car attendant took orders at each table, and personally delivered drinks and entrees.
On the City of New Orleans, both southbound and northbound, the sleeping car attendant came around to take passengers’ orders and time they would like to eat.
At the appointed time, the passenger would go to the dining car and give the attendant their room number, at which point the server placed their reheated entree — still sealed in plastic — into a carryout box, which the passenger carried to an open table.
On the Capitol Limited, the SCA also took passengers’ orders, but they still used the old system of assigning dining times in 45-minute blocks.
When I said I’d like to eat as early as possible, the attendant said the earliest time he had available was 8 p.m. — never mind that one of the selling points for the new service is “flexible dining times without the need for reservations.”
As on the City of New Orleans, passengers had to pick up their plastic-sealed meals at the counter and carry it to a table.
Another issue to be worked out is that, despite the limited menu, two of the four trains ran out of entrees during my trips. Given my itinerary, with four dinners in five days (and a lunch that I skipped), the lack of variety is bad enough without having entree options unavailable.
Hardly a first-class dining experience.
One unintended consequence of the change, as I discovered on the last leg of my business class trip on Cardinal #51 to Charleston, is that barring coach and business class passengers from the dining car creates major congestion in the cafe car.
From past observations, I’d say that about one-third of coach passengers either bring their own food or don’t eat onboard, one-third buy something from the cafe, and one-third eat in the dining car.
The new system effectively doubles the number of passengers ordering in the cafe car, which at mealtimes can overwhelm the lone car attendant.
A Salon magazine column last week described the policy of banning coach passengers from the dining car as economic segregation.
On my travels, I didn’t witness a lot of consternation from coach passengers over the new policy, although as the Salon columnist noted, I was ensconced in the premium section of the train.
On the Capitol Limited, I did see a couple of coach passengers come into the dining car for breakfast — despite signage on the door stating “first-class passengers only beyond this point” — and one gentlemen seemed agitated when he was turned away.
I thought that might be a particular problem on the Cardinal, which so far, continues to operate with a combined diner/cafe car.
An Amtrak spokesman last week told Trains magazine that the Cardinal won’t be assigned new Viewliner II dining cars to serve as diner/lounge cars for sleeper car passengers, as had been planned as part of the new service, given the Cardinal’s “passenger volume” while operating with a single sleeper car.
As the Trains writer accurately translated, that bodes badly for the Cardinal, since it means there are no plans in the foreseeable future to restore a second sleeper car to the train.
Up until 2018, the Cardinal routinely operated with two sleeper cars, dropping to a single sleeper during winter off-season months.
Given that onboard crewmembers occupy at least four of the 13 roomettes on the car, the limited availability of rooms on the single sleeper car results in high price points and sold-out accommodations on most Cardinal runs.
Management’s reluctance to restore the second sleeper unfortunately speaks volumes about where the Cardinal stands in the pecking order of long distance trains.
In addition to the pleasure of having a good meal on a train as it moves through the countryside, one of the attractions of the dining car is community seating, meaning that if you’re in a group of less than four, you’ll be seated with strangers.
On Sept. 29, I took a day trip on the Cardinal to partake of traditional dining car service for one last time (at least for now).
At breakfast, I was seated with a woman from Australia who had been visiting friends in Charleston and was traveling to New York to catch the first leg of her flights home. Over the last servings of Railroad French Toast, we talked about Charleston, the scenery in the New River Gorge, western long distance trains we’ve ridden, and the general unpleasantness of air travel.
Had we made that trip a week later, since neither of us were in sleeper, we might have passed each other in the cafe car line, but that likely would have been the extent of any interaction.
Unlike past train travels when I’ve dined with people from around the world and from all walks of life, with flexible dining, there was never an occasion where I wasn’t able to have a table to myself. (I’m certainly not gregarious enough to invite myself to sit with strangers.)
According to Amtrak officials, the change was at the behest of millennials, who presumably are uncomfortable breaking bread with strangers — though I haven’t seen any evidence to support that notion.
Many rail fans were leery when Richard Anderson, a former airline executive with no railroading experience, became president and CEO of Amtrak.
However, the food service cutbacks are actually part of a 2015 Congressional mandate championed by then-Congressman John Mica, R-Fla., a longtime Amtrak foe, requiring Amtrak to eliminate revenue losses on food service by the end of 2020.
Never mind that cruise lines and airlines (with first class service) recognize that food service is a loss leader that entices patrons to book the cruise or the higher-fare ticket.
Also never mind that by Amtrak’s own figures, flexible dining will reduce its costs by just $2 million a year, mainly through reduced labor costs. That’s out of an overall annual $141 million food and beverage budget, and an overall operating budget of nearly $7 billion.
That Anderson — who has proposed breaking up long distance routes, which he contends cater predominately to “hobbyists” and “experience seekers” — is proceeding with the Mica mandate is not an encouraging sign.
While dining is only a part of the overall rail travel experience, it is hard to imagine that the cutbacks in service won’t hurt ridership.
Sleeper car passengers are likely to think twice before shelling out several hundred dollars for the privilege of eating TV dinners and Motel 6 breakfasts served with all the grace and elegance of fast-food takeout.
Other passengers may take offense to their literal second-class status that makes them unworthy even of admittance to a dining car, let alone being able to partake of a sit-down meal.
Perhaps flexible dining will go down in the litany of short-lived bad ideas by Amtrak management. The national Rail Passengers Association (of which I am a member) is working both with Amtrak management and Congress to try to either reverse the policy, or at least make it more amenable.
Or, perhaps like the Southern Pacific automats, flexible dining will mark the beginning of the end for long-distance passenger rail service in the U.S.