Strangers in the diner

Posted by Kevin Keefe
on Thursday, September 26, 2019

On the Rio Grande Zephyr's dining car in 1983, one passenger is well into her meal as another fills out his order form, indicating that this table for four is accommodating at least two separate parties. The long-standing practice of seating strangers together was borne of the limited capacity of dining cars. John Gruber
The controversy over Amtrak’s plans for dining cars in the East has been festering for months. The railroad’s move toward pre-packaged hot meals and the closing of on-board fresh food preparation seems inevitable. I’m to the point where I’m simply shrugging my shoulders in acquiescence. I know from experience — eventually the accountants wear you down. 

Maybe the new food won’t be so bad. I recall two years ago when I had a packaged chicken entrée on train 58, the City of New Orleans, and to be honest it was pretty good. It wasn’t lunch at Brennan’s, but it was better than I expected. 

But there’s more to the dining-car experience than food, and that’s why a news story this week hit me struck me. Apparently cutting costs isn’t the only thing driving this cutback, or so the railroad says. It also wants to attract a young audience that Amtrak has concluded doesn’t want to sit down for a meal with strangers. 

Here’s the central, disheartening quote from airline veteran Peter Wilander, Amtrak’s vice president of product development and product experience:

“Some people really like [the dining car] and view it as sort of a nostalgic train experience. 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].”

People they don’t know. Poor babies!

There are lots of things I’ve always loved about the traditional dining car, especially when the food was good. You know the essentials: the carnation in the window, the linen tablecloth, heavy china and silverware, and, the key to getting fed, those stubby little pencils. “No verbal orders accepted.”

Amtrak's new Viewliner diners, agonizingly slow in delivery, entered service just as the railroad began dramatically restructuring dining-car service on its Eastern trains. Robert S. McGonigal
Best of all, I’ve always loved the sense of anticipation as the steward ushered me to a table. Who will my companions be tonight? Someone in railroading? Someone new to riding the train? Someone with interesting stories to tell? I can hear myself whispering, “How about that person over there?” 

Not every dining-car encounter is memorable, but fortunately most are pleasant and some rewarding. I recall one from 32 years ago on Amtrak’s westbound California Zephyr back when train 5 ran combined with train 35, the Desert Wind, as far as Salt Lake City. At dinner that night somewhere in western Colorado, a gregarious young woman sat down at our table. I was traveling with Mike Danneman, Trains’ art director.

The conversation began as they always do, some polite but vague chitchat. Then, as everyone became relaxed with each other, we began to peel back the layers. It turns out our new friend was the sister of a sports columnist I greatly admired and read every week in a national newspaper.

More interesting, though, was her own line of work: she was a croupier at a large Vegas casino, headed home from New York. I’d never met anyone involved in the professional gambling business and I was fascinated as she spun stories about running the roulette and blackjack tables for a living.

There were other conversations I recall, like the retired nuclear physicist and his wife, headed back to Seattle from Champaign-Urbana after a reunion of what I took to be some key figures involved in the dawn of the atomic age. Or another time when my wife Alison and I shared lunch with a young couple from Minot who, having just enjoyed their wedding night, were headed to Whitefish, Mont., for the rest of their honeymoon. Their smiles lit up the diner.

My colleague Bob Johnston, Trains’ passenger correspondent, related another good one, from a night in 1966 when he was aboard the B&O’s National Limited from Baltimore to Cincinnati.

I happened to sit down at dinner with the late John D. Loudermilk, the Nashville-based songwriter who wrote a number of pop and country hits. By that time, all service took place in the train’s round-end obs car, so I thought I better ride it back from college before it disappeared.

The new meals for Amtrak's Eastern trains, pictured at a media preview event, are pre-prepared and served on plastic. Bob Johnston
“Halfway through the meal Loudermilk started waxing philosophical about the universe. He grabbed the pepper shaker and shook the stuff out on the table, saying that the Earth is just one of those flakes of pepper. ‘That’s how small we are,’ I remember him saying. I’d never thought about that. We talked about the music business and everything else for the next hour. Imagine if I had just spent that whole time by myself.”

As for whether millennials and Generation Z can put down their smartphones and earbuds long enough to actually converse with someone new, I got this from Kevin McKinney, who’s had a long career in passenger and freight railroading and founded the magazine Passenger Train Journal.

“On a recent trip on the Empire Builder, two young men were seated across from us at lunchtime in the dining car,” McKinney recalls. “They were friends, one had come from Washington to Chicago on the Capitol Limited, the other came from Texas by plane, and they had joined up in Chicago, heading for Portland. They had chosen the train because they wanted to try it, and both said they were tired of flying. They were traveling in coach and marveled about the spacious seats compared to airplanes.

“As for the dining car, they loved it, enjoyed the dinner they had the previous night, the breakfast that morning, and the lunch we were now having. Amtrak’s managers, who I believe never ride trains except between Washington, Wilmington, and Philadelphia, will tell you millennials don’t like the traditional dining menu or structure, and don’t like conversing with strangers, but here were two representatives of that demographic having a great time and already talking about future train trips.”

As the father of two millennials, I choose to embrace Kevin’s hopeful experience. 

Meanwhile, here’s what Trains Editor David P. Morgan had to stay in 1975 about the dining-car experience:

“Odd it is, this affair of dining on the move — an institution assumed by travelers, beloved of publicists, deplored by accountants. I doubt if we’d have an Amtrak if the railroads had knocked off all their dining cars before 1971, so strong is the public affection for sit-down meals en route.”

Times have changed. The accountants are winning. And Amtrak appears to be hell-bent to prove DPM wrong about the public’s affections. Say it isn’t so. 

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