Leaves Me Cold

Posted by George Hamlin
on Monday, April 30, 2018

A year ago, I splurged, and booked a roomette on Amtrak’s “Lake Shore Limited” from New York to Chicago.  Included in the fare were two meals, dinner and breakfast, in the diner.  No, I wasn’t expecting meals that I would be urging my friends to take the train just for the food, but the menus posted on Amtrak’s website sounded like good, hearty fare, and in the event, that proved to be the case. 

I also was aware that the equipment being used on the Lake Shore called for an Amfleet II lounge, in lieu of the traditional dining car, and while that constrained options somewhat (for breakfast, it was possible to get an omelet, as shown in the picture above; however, lacking a grill, scrambled eggs weren’t on the menu) there were a number of options to choose from.  At dinner, all the entrees involved food served hot or warm; at breakfast the next morning, it was possible to get a non-heated repast, in the form of a Continental Breakfast, but the other choices involved something beyond room temperature.

Returning to the present, it appears that my dining experiences will soon not be repeatable. Amtrak announced recently that dining service on the Lake Shore, as well as the Capitol Limited, will consist of “contemporary and fresh choices for sleeping car customers, instead of traditional dining car service aboard its Capitol Limited and Lake Shore Limited trains starting June 1".

In today’s non-transportation world, there seem to be a great number of “casual dining” (i.e. better than fast food, but less than an elegant restaurant) options, at least in urban/suburban settings (where most people live).  I don’t recall running across many that offer cold beef as an option; while this could be nice for a picnic, perhaps, my sense is that few people want cold entrees when going out for dinner.

In addition, unless Amtrak passengers make a specific effort to do otherwise, meals will be served in their sleeping accommodation.  I’d imagine that this might be somewhat less than a gracious experience if there are two people in a roomette; perish the thought that either (or both) desire to get up prior to the onboard staff being able to remove the meal items from the confined space.  Perhaps early (1930's) airline experience will be emulated, and passengers can balance meal trays on a pillow in their lap.

Amtrak’s selling point for all this?  It’s described as an “enhancement” by the same executive quoted as saying “Our continued success depends on increasing customer satisfaction while becoming more efficient”.  Anyone else remember a previous program designed to produce success at Amtrak that was titled as something along the lines of the “glide path to self-sufficiency”?

In an earlier time, John Budd, President of the Great Northern Railway, had this to say about product quality: 

The World judges the railways by their passenger services.  If that is the window through which we are viewed, we must wash it and shine it, or else cover it up with a dark shade.  Passenger service must be excellent or it should be given up.

If you’re going to have a premium product (note that I’m not saying ‘luxury’), it needs to provide premium service.  If there isn’t sufficient demand for the premium product/service combination for it to be economically viable, then the product needs to go, rather than trimming it around the edges ad nauseam (maybe literally, in this case).  Sure, “death by a thousand cuts” eventually gets you where you need to go, ultimately, but in a far less efficient manner, and without making a portion of the customer base feel like they’re being nickel and dimed to death.  

Enhancement, indeed: anyone can get their food hot at Subway (the restaurant chain, not transportation entities), but Amtrak first-class/sleeping car passengers will be forced to subsist on cold food.  What’s next, hardtack? (In fairness, they did say that the new offerings would be ‘fresh’…)  If you’re still not sure of my views about this development, please review the title of this blog post for further insight.

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