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.
> Read More Amtrak Stories:
I’m seriously skeptical about how much people really prefer this. National train systems are not there to make money. I understand that burning through money is stupid, but if Amtrak wants to be more competitive, they could be more aggressive about using their right of way on many routes, extend high speed rail service, and start running trains to mid size cities again. Making the food worse is unlikely to draw more passengers. What next, more cramped seats?
I feel this is a terrible mistake. People don’t take Amtrak for speed but for comfort and civility. The dining car is the heart of any long distance journey. To isolate the passengers from one another undercuts the rare and special sense of community you get as you wind across our amazing country. This move cheapens not only the experience but further disconnects us. This feels like an airline move not anything anyone who has ridden cross country would even comptemplate.
As it stands now, you cannot get eggs cooked to order for breakfast and the only menu item cooked to order is the steak for dinner. Let’s try the new system and see how it goes. If you are really picky, you can always bring your own stuff and cook it in your bedroom or roomette. The food offerings are still marginal, but what do you expect when the same people who run the post office are enlisted to offer meals on the train.
I agree with Paying Customer. We might all pine for the days of the Orient Express, but we need to be honest that Amtrak’s onboard dining is somewhere below a basic truck stop diner as it is. Ceramic and metal were replaced by plastic years ago. Virtually nothing is customizable. If you’ve traveled in international business class on a plane, you know that properly prepared and stored food can be excellent when heated onboard. It’s a bit of comedy that the airlines, dealing with far less space, have been providing superior food and beverage service relative to Amtrak for at least two decades.
Let’s see how this works out in practice.
I took the Coast Starlight from Seattle to LA and back again this past May in a roomette. The meals were great-nothing fancy-about the equivalent of a Denny’s-but the dining car was a huge part of the experience, and this new version sounds awful-even worse than airline food! Who is going to want to spend the money to do routes like the Coast Starlight for food like that? And make no bones about it, taking an Amtrak trip in a room or a roomette is not cheap!
I agree Amtrak should not be catering to the crybabies
The argument concerning millenials is without merit and basically a bold face lie, to fit within the narrative of those delusional to want to destroy a great tradition of the dining car. In the first place, if they don’t want to eat with strangers, if in 1st class or in the sleeping cars, the stewards will bring their meals to their rooms. Secondly, if in coach, they can eat on their coach seats or in the observation car. Either way for those in charge of this disasterous change, should be honest and not make up lies to desimate the dining car. Meals in the dining car are part of the experience, yet Amtrak is now treating their passengers like cattle, just trying to keep them fed as inexpensively and easy as humanly possible, like cattle being shipped to the slaughteryard. It basically brings the 1st class passengers down to the level of coach passengers, with prepackaged meals. It smacks of the olden days, when traveling in coach usually had riders bringing aboard baskets filled with cold fried chicken and sandwiches. It is basically degrading to be fed like dogs with prepackaged meals. It’s Amtraks way of snubbing all sleeper car patrons with nothing near the 1st class service that the dining cars were famous for. They have no regard for perserving this great American tradition. This was one of the great reasons for taking a train instead of flying. But with this new dining plan, why take the train? We will resort to road trips, once this plan of prepackaged meals hits our train.
Was there no Pacific Parlour Car on your Coast Starlight route? I’ve not taken that route since 2010, when my wife and I got married, but being able to eat dinner in the Parlour Car was the highlight of our trip. Despite slightly unusual tables, the service and ambience were both superior to the standard Dining Car (which we also tried for two meals).
I think Amtrak is on the right path with this move, not because of any nonsense about “Millennials” but just because the service Amtrak provides has long been bottom-tier. You get on the Northeast Regionals and three out of eight tables are occupied by Amtrak staff. The Sleeper Car service comes with meals, but the meals don’t include the appetizers on the menu, nor do they include complimentary alcoholic beverages; why? Airlines do that, and on cheaper tickets. The plates are plastic, the staff is marginally competent. Amtrak needs to do better. This may be a step in the right direction.
Can I see the line of “millennials” waiting to board Amtrak and riding in the class of service that comes with the dining car?
Please. This is about getting rid of on-board kitchen staff.
This is precisely the point, I fear.
The related issue is who will be on hand to microwave and serve the “new” version of hot meals? Chances are it will be the car’s room attendant, who will just be adding new duties onto his schedule, and this won’t make for happy workers. The dining car has always been an important focus on a long distance Amtrak trip, so this is a definite step downward, no matter how Amtrak wants it to sound.
This is 100% due to the Congressional mandate (passed in FY 18 or FY 19) forcing Amtrak to break even on food & beverage by 2020 – and ignoring overall profitability and the loss-leader impact of a nice dining experience. It’s the classic “responding to what our customers want” BS that we’ve seen with the airlines when they cut things. Congressional micromanaging at its best. And no relief coming in FY 20 either:
The longhaul western trains will likely survive dining cuts for some time but nothing is guaranteed.
Check out Amtrak Unlimited for a great forum on Amtrak travel:
Their other lie is that this will: “allow for in-room delivery for sleeping car passengers”. Well, there has ALWAYS been in-room delivery for sleeping car passengers! As a frequent Amtrak rider since the late 1980’s, I’ve had the sleeping car steward bring my complete dinner to my room many times.
So, now they’re just going to heat-up some prepackaged, processed grub. When I shop for groceries, I never buy those types of “meals”.
Craig, The only item cooked on the train is the steak for dinner. Everything else is prepared elsewhere and reheated, except maybe for the burger at lunchtime. Amtrak dining could be 1000 times better, but lack of imagination rears it’s ugly head. These people cannot make toast and an over easy egg for breakfast. Enough said!
I see nothing wrong with these changes; if the cost cutting can save Amtrak, I’m all for it. I’d rather eat in the privacy of my room, than have to share a dining table with noisy, obnoxious strangers.
It wasn’t that long ago, that Amtrak permitted smoking on its trains. One time, I was able to get on board a Baltimore to NYC train, which only had two seats left. The female seated next to me was smoking. It was very unpleasant to be exposed to second hand smoke. However, Amtrak selfishly allowed that at the time. It could have sold seats, as the airlines did, where smokers and non-smokers would have been separated.
“I’d rather eat in the privacy of my room, than have to share a dining table with noisy, obnoxious strangers.”
That was always an option. You can always elect to have room service in your sleeper class cabin.
“It wasn’t that long ago, that Amtrak permitted smoking on its trains.”
I am not sure that I follow. Are you equating smoking in an enclosed space with others to the OPTION of dining in a restaurant car. You could always bring some Dollar General frozen meals or perhaps some Lunchables in a cooler to assuage your concerns.
Lets be honest here. A dining car meal is steak, a baked potato, and some steamed veggies. Breakfast can be an omelette (made from liquid egg mix), sausages / bacon, and fruit. What you will get is some gas station frozen meal for dinner and some hard boiled eggs for breakfast.
I WILL NOT pay for a sleeper car cabin to be served some pre-packaged frozen meals intended to be served in correctional institutions.
Fair enough, and you need not do so. For many people traveling overnight routes, the main appeals of a cabin are privacy and a bed. That meals are included is added value, but you’re not being reasonable about the current quality of Amtrak meals or taking into account what can be done with heat-on-board food as demonstrated from long-haul business class flights. *Trains* can have excellent onboard food preparation, but *Amtrak* hasn’t had that for a long time.
I’m a Brit who loves travelling to, and through, the USA. This is sad news. One of the great joys of traversing your wonderful country is having a meal in an Amtrak diner, conversing with and enjoying the company of people that as a tourist I rarely meet. Sitting in my own room chomping on “Asian Noodles” or a “Deluxe Continental Breakfast” will not be the same hit of true Americana. This Limey is “gutted” as we say.
We Americans are outgoing to a fault. Just start up a conversation anywhere after telling us you are a “visitor”.
I live in Dayton, Ohio so my Amtrak experience is mostly the Cardinal. When I choose Amtrak it’s because I want the train experience as it is *never* the fastest or cheapest option. And when I choose the sleeper car, I am interested in the dining car experience. But in three Cardinal sleeper car trips over the past two summers, my daughter and I have had poor dining car service. We also rode the Southwest Chief this summer and the dining car service and experience was so much better than the Cardinal. That trip really ended any remaining positive feelings I had for the Cardinal dining so I suspect I’ll actually like this change.
I do wish Amtrak would be honest about it’s business decision; I’m 50 and feel on the younger side among the sleeper car passengers. It’s funny that Amtrak is eliminating dining car service in favor of an option to take your meal in the non-dining dining car. Huh? The Cardinal doesn’t have a true kitchen anyway so what’s the difference? I hope to ride the Cardinal sleeper again next summer and I plan to have a positive attitude about this change!
Contrary to popular belief, millennials DON’T rule the earth (at least not yet). An allure of train travel to me was and always will be a well appointed dining car with delicious fare. Haute cuisine isn’t a must, but squirrel food, trail mix, or hot/cold “sammiches” jut doesn’t get it. I like train travel, and anticipate doing the “Coast Starlight” in the near term. If they cancel the dining car or increase the charge for coach passengers, forget the train and back to cruising for all vacations….SMDH!!..
If you want a well-appointed dining car, the Amtrak experience of throw-away plates, throw-away utensils, and all the ambiance of a truck stop isn’t going to pass muster. We can easily see what’s possible on railways from the numerous short-line excursion trains that still operate older dining cars and offer restaurant-quality food. Some of those lines operate in large part on donations. Amtrak is a totally different experience. I took Amtrak for long-haul trips as a child in 1988 and again in 1994, and as an adult in 2005, 2010, and 2017. Every aspect of the service has declined over time. People are reacting to this latest news as if it were a drastic shift, but it’s quite a linear progression, and frankly, the current quality is so low that we should perhaps reserve judgment until we see what comes of it.
Whoever came up with the idea of getting rid of the dining car should be fired.
It is a great experience, of meeting nice people, and enjoying the time and travel.
Took the City of New Orleans to Chicago and was looking forward to the dining car experience, the microwaved boxed meal was a big let down, will fly the next time.
Food was horrible just give me a microwave and I will bring something better from a supermarket. Vegetables were slimy and dark spots on them beef well was it beef? So disappointed. For the 500.00 I pay each way I think they can do better
I chose the sleeper so I could avoid staying up all night in coach. The food on my last two trips was abysmal so I just gave up and brought my own food in a small cooler. The move to cheaper food service was to cut costs by cutting staff. The move to cheaper food is brought to you by the people who championed ‘airline food’. It is disgusting. And they are not cutting down on food wastage if the amount of discarded food I saw is any indication. The appropriate comparison is paying to stay at a B&B versus a hotel off a highway ramp. Amtrak is charging B&B prices for a “no tell hotel” experience. I resent it. I need to rethink flying. At least flying I have no illusions about what I will experience, plus I can get off the flight and buy a decent dinner somewhere else.
My wife and I have taken 4 overnight sleeper trips so far on the Meteor, Crescent, and Sunset Limited. Part of the fun was sitting with and talking to other travelers. After all, we have something in common…crazy enough to take the train. I have to admit that we fly home. The new “Flexible” dining is supposed to cut back on wasted food, which happens when few coach passengers show up in the dining car. On all our trips, we saw very few enter from the coach end. I’m optimistic about the food quality as long as it will be similar to first class air meals. We are leaving for Florida in 4 weeks, and next October taking the Cardinal to Chicago.
I’m just sorry the quality of the presentation will continue to deteriorate, which is often half the the battle in making something appealing.
I THINK THE IMPROVEMENTS ARE GREAT, BUT I HAVE ANOTHER SUGGESTION, WHY DON’T YOU OFFER ANOTHER INCENTIVE TO THE COACH PASSENGERS FOR A MINIMAL FEE OF HAVING THE OPTION OF HAVING THEIR MEALS DELIVER TO THEM AT THEIR SEAT BY AN ATTENDANT(YOU KNOW LIKE A FLIGHT ATTENDANT ON AN AIRLINE). I HAVE TRAVELLED BY TRAIN MANY TIMES AND SOMETIMES I WISHED THEY HAD THAT SERVICE AVAILABLE. I THINK THIS IS A GREAT IDEA. WHAT DO YOU THINK? IT IS WORTH LOOKING INTO.