Amtrak is “reinventing” dining on its longhaul train service. Dining cars are out on many routes. “Flexibility” is in.
Driven by cost-cutting and a desire to appeal to millennials, Amtrak will close onboard kitchens and shift to pre-packaged meals on many long-distance routes. Amtrak believes that young people do not want to share a communal table with strangers, a quintessential element of the Amtrak dining experience. The new meals will allow an expansion of traditional meal hours and allow for in-room delivery for sleeping car passengers.
The change will start this autumn on Amtrak’s one-night routes east of the Mississippi River. In that sense, longhaul dining on many trains will remain…for now. But if successful, the new meal program will expand systemwide. Already, Amtrak has been trialing this form of meal service on its Capitol Limited service between Chicago and Washington, DC.
In this trial, Amtrak found passengers still wanted hot meals, but were happy to avoid sitting with strangers and welcomed in-room delivery.
Routes With New Meal Service
The new meal service will begin on October 01st on the follwoing trains:
Next year, it will expand to the Silver Star, calling at stops between New York City and Miami.
How Amtrak Spins It
Amtrak describes the changes as an upgrade to existing meal service, touting “complimentary room service” and fleixble dining times:
- A new dining menu with hot, ready-to-serve choices for breakfast, lunch and dinner
- A selection wine, beer and spirits (the first one is on us), plus unlimited soft drinks throughout the journey
- Complimentary room service provided by the Sleeping Car attendant
- Exclusive onboard lounge space for Sleeping Car customers to dine and socialize throughout the entire trip
- Flexible dining times without the need for reservations
But “flexible” meals will result in a significant reduction in the variety of food available.
New Amtrak Meals
In what Amtrak calls “flex” dining, breakfast will be buffet style with a limited selection of hot food options available for order. Lunch and dinner will include new tray setups with a hot main course and side salad.
- Breakfast: Deluxe Continental Breakfast will be served buffet style from a selection of muffins, yogurt, fresh fruit, hard-boiled eggs, cereal, oatmeal, breakfast sandwich.
- Lunch & Dinner: Asian Noodle Bowl, Red Wine Braised Beef, Chicken Fettuccini with Broccoli, Creole Shrimp and Andouille. Pasta and meatballs option available for children.
- Dessert: Blondies and Brownies.
Sample menu here.
Coach Passengers Lose Out
With the elimination of the dining car, coach class passengers will lose out. Meal options in the café car will expanded, but the dining car will be either eliminated or reserved as a puedo-lounge only for sleeping car passengers.
Even as a millennial who generally shies away from talking to seatmates on airplanes, I’ll be sorry to see the dining car go. On my Coast Starlight trip from Los Angeles to Portland, I ran into one of my old law school classmates and his fiancé onboard. We ended up eating three meals together and had great conversation.
On my Empire Builder journey, we ended up sitting next to an older woman for breakfast and had a great conversation about travel, nature, and our families. Sure, it is nice to have privacy, but this was actually a fun part of the train experience.
The new meals above look tasty enough, but the Amtrak food was pretty tasty and I cannot imagine microwaved meals will be better than crab cakes or a steak cooked to order.
Breakfast looks like the biggest cut, depending upon your menu preference. The continental buffet sounds nice, but it was even nicer to be able to order an omelet or French Toast.
Generally, I think any push to be “hip” or cater to “millennial” is a bad move (and viewed by millennials as superficial and uninspiring).
The eastbound Empire Builder begins in both Portland and Seattle and joins in Spokane. The Portland to Spokane sector does not have a kitchen onboard, meaning I already experienced boxed meals.
They were tasty, but just detracted from the train experience I had come to expect; meals that were a primary motivator for my decision to book via rail instead of air.
Consider this an experiment. Perhaps it will fail and dining cars will be given another reprieve. But Amtrak’s direction under Richard Anderson is clear: changes are coming. Dining cars on their way out.
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