Dining on the Rails

Posted by George Hamlin
on Tuesday, October 02, 2018

(Photo by George W. Hamlin)

Yesterday, in search of a relatively unusual pairing of two Amtrak heritage units on the same train (184 in the Phase 4 scheme and 822 in the Phase 3 colors), I arrived at the station in Alexandria, Virginia pre-dawn awaiting  Amtrak’s northbound Silver Meteor, which had these units as its motive power.

Fortunately, train 98 was running about forty-five minutes late, which provided enough light for a ‘daylight’ photo of the illustrious duo, even though the sun’s rays hadn’t yet reached the station platforms.  The Meteor’s consist had two distinct visual profiles, with Amfleet II coaches and a lounge car up front, followed by five Viewliners on the rear:  a diner, three sleepers and a baggage car.

Two of the latter group, the diner and bag, were relatively recent additions to the Amtrak passenger car roster.  The diner was the newest, with these cars entering revenue service in December 2016, according to Frederick Rasmussen’s article (“The evolution of the railroad dining car”) in the Baltimore Sun on March 2, 2017.   While the new diners are assigned to three long-distance routes in the east (Crescent, Lake Shore Limited, Silver Meteor), traditional/full dining car service is offered currently only on the Crescent and Meteor.

Inside the new diner passengers were partaking of breakfast on this fine early-fall morning.  According to Amtrak’s website, the choices on the menu would have included Scrambled Eggs; Buttermilk Pancakes (“Griddled, made to order trio of buttermilk pancakes”); an Omelet Selection; and likely, a “Special” not specified on the website. 

In addition, two types of sausage and bacon should have been available, and even the Continental Breakfast offered the option of “hot steel-cut oatmeal with raisins and honey” instead of cold cereal.  It’s a shame that patrons on the Cardinal, Lake Shore and Silver Star don’t currently have access to this variety of fare.

In reality, however, Viewliner dining car service on Amtrak dates back to the late 1980s.  Prototype diner 8400 was built in 1988, and used at least occasionally in revenue service; the photo above depicts it, along with a prototype Viewliner sleeper, in the consist of Amtrak’s westbound Cardinal at Manassas, Virginia, on September 1, 1991, twenty-eight years ago. 

Later, 8400 was put into storage, and then refurbished in 2011, following Amtrak’s order placed in 2010 for more Viewliner sleepers, along with baggage cars, baggage-dorms and 25 additional diners.  In accordance with the naming convention for the diners that have entered service beginning in 2016, 8400 now bears the name “Indianapolis”.

In a way, the very long (effectively) gestation period for the full complement of Viewliner diners, from concept, to prototype to, finally, full-scale production, is illustrative of some of the difficulties that Amtrak has faced over the years.  Planning for new single-level sleeping and food service equipment (Amfleet essentially obviated the need to address coaches) in the late 1980s was certainly warranted.

However, after the initial order for Viewliner sleepers in the 1990s, further orders were not forthcoming, and the elderly heritage baggage cars and diners, now equipped for use with head-end power, soldiered on.  In my blog dated “What’s in a Name”, on June 1, 2017, I addressed how one of the then still-in-service heritage diners was revealing its Burlington (CB&Q) lineage, just before the replacement Viewliner diners began to arrive, the better part of a decade after they were ordered.  It’s hard to argue that Amtrak didn’t get full value out of these stalwarts. 

It’s certainly difficult for Amtrak to plan effectively (i.e. other than replacing equipment when there is a dire need) when it doesn’t have (nor has it ever had) a defined purpose, and associated strategic objectives, other than preserving, in some form, and to some degree, what it inherited, particularly in terms of long-distance service.  While it is well-past overdue, now would be a good time to start on defining both purpose and objectives, especially in view of the fact that some of the last heritage-replacements, in particular the Viewliner diners, have arrived on the property when the role for which they were intended may have vanished.

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