The cheapening of American train travel continues

Posted by Malcolm Kenton
on Friday, July 19, 2019

Though my interest in trains goes back much farther (and I had ridden a few tourist trains, New York City and Washington, D.C.-area commuter trains and subways, and a couple of short Amtrak trips before then), my first experience with an overnight Amtrak ride came in 2002, at the age of 16. By that time, my father and I had made our way from Greensboro, N.C. to the New York City area every summer to see my aunt in the city and my grandma in Madison, Conn. for about a decade, but we had always flown. This time, we decided to take the train.

Dinner in a Heritage diner on Silver Star train 91 in October 2011. Photo by MKSheppard / BBS.
The first time, we opted to take the Carolinian, leaving Greensboro at 9:30 A.M. and getting to New York Penn Station around 8:00 P.M. I remember this being an enjoyable ride, mostly spent in our seats listening to music while looking out the window, reading or jointly working on crossword puzzles. The next time, however, we chose the overnight Crescent, originating in New Orleans — rousing ourselves to leave Greensboro just before 4:00 A.M. to get to New York around 2:00 P.M. That trip was even more memorable.

After boarding and settling into our 1970s-fashionable red-and-yellow-striped fabric-covered Amfleet II seats — noticeably roomier, and with a larger window, than the Amfleet I that carried us on the Carolinian — we managed to sleep for a couple of hours. We woke as the day’s first light was casting orange and pink glows on the horizon, seen through the silhouettes of trees and over farm fields dotting rolling hillsides as we wound our way through the Blue Ridge foothills of central Virginia. We then made our way to the dining car for breakfast.

At that point, Heritage dining cars (and Heritage crew dorms) were mainstays on the single-level overnight trains, and each train with a diner had an at least somewhat unique menu, with food cooked on-board and served on real china with white tablecloths. As we walked through the narrow corridor past the kitchen, we smelled omelettes and pancakes sizzling and heard the kitchen crew harmonizing to spirituals. We sat at a table across from strangers with whom we conversed, and were served good food by a friendly server in a warm, convivial atmosphere surrounded by the bright glow of early morning light through the piedmont forest. 

This experience, to which I quickly warmed, added a whole new level of enjoyment and dignity to a conveyance that already offered more than just a way to get from point A to point B. An Amtrak dining car remains one of the very few places where Americans of modest means, even those traveling in coach, can choose to experience a touch of class in the course of otherwise mundane activity. It also offers an exceedingly rare opportunity, in this age of sharp division within our body politic, for Americans and visitors of divergent backgrounds and socioeconomic/cultural milieus to chance to meet and perhaps to learn from each other’s experiences.

A Heritage diner remains in the consist of southbound Crescent train 19, seen at Birmingham, Ala. on March 25, 2017. Photo by Malcolm Kenton.
In the 17 years since then, in addition to numerous train trips across the Amtrak system and overseas, I have plied the same former Southern Railway tracks on the Crescent (at least between D.C., where I now live, and Greensboro) in both directions, almost always in coach, arriving and departing at roughly the same times (and often delayed), at least twice each year. Nearly every trip, I have visited the diner for breakfast northbound or dinner southbound. While I continue to enjoy my meals, the scenery and the company, each of the numerous cutbacks and steps towards homogenization across the Amtrak system has chipped away at the sense of class that the dining car experience once offered. 

First to go were the regional dishes unique to each train, then the real china and white tablecloths, then most of the on-board cooking, then the complimentary (for coach passengers) salads and rolls. Then, within the past two years, crews have begun all but discouraging coach passengers from patronizing the diner, reserving all but the earliest or latest dinner seatings for sleeper passengers and not making any kind of announcements welcoming coach passengers to the diner.

With an announcement made quietly last week, revealed only through the Rail Passengers Association’s Hotline, Amtrak has put the final nail in the coffin of this unique aspect of the train travel experience. Starting Oct. 1, the Crescent and three other routes east of the Mississippi that currently offer dining car or diner-lite service (the Silver Meteor, Cardinal and City of New Orleans) will be converted to the so-called “fresh and contemporary” food service model that replaced the traditional diner on the Capitol Limited and Lake Shore Limited a little over a year ago (while the Silver Star will likely remain in the diner-less state it has been in for three years). 

This means that — unless the model is adjusted from its current form — sleeping car passengers will have, included in their fare, a choice of four pre-packaged meals for lunch and dinner (at least one of which will be a hot meal) and a continental buffet for breakfast, while coach passengers’ only choice will be from among the increasingly paltry (and frequently sold out) offerings of the cafe/lounge car — which Amtrak for some reason refuses to bring up to the slightly better standard offered on Northeast Regionals and Acela Express. This also means that the company will fail to reap the full value of its investment in the 25 state-of-the-art Viewliner II dining cars that it ordered in 2017 from CAF USA — paying a considerable sum to have them outfitted with full kitchens that will only be used as staging areas for pre-packaged entrees. It further means that Amtrak’s customers, particularly sleeping car passengers already paying increasing premiums, will be paying more but getting less.

Sunset on Lake Pontchartrain in Louisiana, seen from Amtrak's southbound Crescent on March 25, 2017. Photo by Malcolm Kenton.
On the Capitol and Lake Shore, the once convivial diner where passengers in both classes of service could connect while being served a meal at a table while watching the country drift by has been converted into a comparatively stale “sleeping car lounge” where some riders (usually keeping to themselves) choose to eat their boxed meals at unadorned tables, and others bring their meals back to their rooms. This, combined with the relegation of coach passengers to the decidedly lower-quality cafe, completes an ongoing act of cheapening of the whole experience — the main aspect of train travel that sets it apart from air and bus travel — and removes from more working-class Americans’ reach an opportunity to enjoy an elevated experience from a public conveyance or amenity. At least Amtrak management has somehow seen it fit, for the time being, to retain the full dining car on the Auto Train (though coach passengers will be barred from it starting in January), the Coast Starlight and the four routes running west from Chicago or New Orleans.

These degradations of longer-distance train travel stem from a creatively-challenged Amtrak management’s response to Congress’s misguided mandates that the quasi-public corporation —which was created to serve particular public purposes with a business-like approach — seek, above all else, to minimize its requirement for an operating subsidy, and specifically to eliminate losses on the food & beverage service line item by Sept. 30, 2020 (thank you, former Rep. John Mica, R-Fla.). Rather than encouraging Amtrak to innovate like most businesses do, these statutory provisions, born of reductionist thinking by bean counters on Capitol Hill, actually stifle creativity by preventing the railroad from looking at food service, like other aspects of the on-board experience, as a loss leader, or as a component of an overall product package rather than a separate line of business that must sink or swim on its own. 

Amtrak leaders have claimed that the traditional dining car model does not accord with many, particularly younger, travelers’ tastes and expectations of convenience. Perhaps I am in a minority among my generation in seeing value in what the classic restaurant on rails has to offer. But in the richest country on earth, there ought to be at least one way for people of modest means to be able to experience travel — not mere transportation — and to connect with others and with the landscape while getting from here to there. 

In the next authorization law, Congress should make clear that the main job of Amtrak and any other passenger train operating company that may receive public assistance is to provide an enticing and high-quality product that can be enjoyable as well as safe, punctual, frequent and trip-time competitive with driving. They can start by deleting the counterproductive attempt at micromanagement that is the Mica food-and-beverage loss provision. Maximizing farebox recovery and minimizing subsidy requirement can be a criterion, but should not be the overarching one.

Disclaimer: The author is a freelance contributor to Trains and an independent consultant specializing in writing, research and communications with a focus on passenger rail and transit. His clients include Herzog Transit Services, Inc. and the Association of Independent Passenger Rail Operators. He also works with travel companies to help organize and promote charter train trips in the US, is an avid and frequent train traveler, and serves on the volunteer national advisory body of the Rail Passengers Association. The views expressed in Observation Tower are solely his own and do not necessarily reflect the positions or business interests of any of his clients.

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