Amtrak passengers ‘rail against’ removal of dining cars

September 24, 2019

Harrison Keely’s fondest recollections of riding Amtrak all feature snapshots of the dining car, according to a report by The Chicago Tribune. The luxurious white linen service. The friends made over a slice of cheesecake. The scenery outside the windows.

“There’s something fantastic about dinner in the dining car,” Keely, 32, a writer from Brasstown, North Carolina, told the newspaper. “You get to meet other people and hear so many great stories. It is to me one of the best parts about traveling.”

He adds, “There’s a beautiful rhythm in clacking down the tracks and an excitement in traversing a moving train,” he said. “There’s something that feels special, unique, romantic even, about having dinner in the diner, sleeping on the tracks, and traveling America the way it used to be seen.”

That experience is about to get derailed.

Amtrak has announced that it is relinquishing the dining service on long-haul  trains—in favor of more “flexible” and “contemporary” dining options.

The rail carrier says that, starting this fall on the one-night routes east of the Mississippi River, it will shutter its traditional onboard kitchens, switching to serving prepackaged meals and easing restrictions on the traditional serving times. The change allows the railroad to cut costs.

Amtrak isn’t labeling the change the end of the dining car, but rather an evolution more in line with the demands of this era, the Tribune says—but long-time riders feel the loss. The railway’s announcement has inspired a petition— signed by about 400 people as of September 22— urging Amtrak  to keep the dining car service on all long-distance trains.

These travelers say the dining car is iconic to the rail experience. While it has changed over the decades, becoming more casual with the transition from fancy china to disposable plastic plates and bowls, it remains a favorite of many.

“It is part of an evolution,” Peter Wilander, who oversees Amtrak’s customer experience, told the news outlet in a recent interview “The concept is to provide service the way our customers want rather than have everybody conform to one service delivery.

“Some people really like (the dining car) and view it as sort of a nostalgic train experience,” Wilander conceded “Some people, especially our new millennial customers, don’t like it so much. They want more privacy, they don’t want to feel uncomfortable sitting next to people” they don’t know.”

It’s that demographic, he said, that Amtrak wants to attract with more contemporary car designs and food options.

For now, the changes are only on Amtrak’s one-night routes on the East Coast. The “flexible” dining service for sleeping car customers starts October 1 on the Cardinal (New York-Chicago), City of New Orleans (Chicago-New Orleans), Crescent (New York-New Orleans), and Silver Meteor (New York-Miami). The shift will happen next year on the Silver Start—a 1,500-mile route from New York to Miami.

Passengers in roomettes and bedrooms, considered premium riders, will have the choice to have meals delivered to their rooms. If desired, they will be able to use a new version of a dining car, open exclusively to them, with booths, but no white linens. Eventually, Amtrak said, it may get rid of the booths altogether and create a more contemporary lounge setting.

The new menu offers a variety of prepackaged meals; for example, red wine braised beef and chicken fettuccine. In the morning, passengers will be able to pick up a pastry and coffee from a buffet-style continental breakfast.

Coach riders will eventually be able to buy the meals offered to premium riders, but in the cafe car.

Research contact: @Amtrak

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