Hunger Pangs and Heartaches

Posted by George Hamlin
on Wednesday, October 2, 2019

Yesterday, October 1, 2019, was the end of a long passenger railroading tradition in the U.S., with the arrival of the final ‘staffed’ dining car on Amtrak’s eastern routes.  My friend Ralph Spielman provides more details:

Earlier in the northbound Crescent’s run I had been able to photograph its Viewliner diner performing this mission, as seen in the photo above, taken at Clifton, Virginia, in the Washington, DC suburbs.

While I’m sad that this tradition now has to be referred to in the past tense, at least in the eastern U.S., I think that it’s necessary to consider this loss in a broader context.  Looked at in this manner, I believe that there are pros and cons.

In the positive category, from my perspective, is that Amtrak’s sleeping car product on these trains is now more of a truly premium product, since these passengers (not unlike those on VIA’s Canadian) now have an ‘exclusive’ lounge, and are welcome to take their meals in this space, or, alternatively, have the food brought to their sleeping accommodations, if that’s what they prefer.  It’s my understanding that there will be an attendant in the car to prepare their meals, and provide beverages.

While this is not the dining car experience of fond memory (don’t go looking for linen tablecloths and heavy cutlery), it will still be possible to eat, at a table, rather than off a tray, while the scenery passes by outside.  In addition, while the overnight portion of sleeping car travel has an obvious appeal, in the daytime, if confined only to your individual space, you typically see only the view from one side of the train. 

Use of the Viewliner diners as full-time lounge space eliminates this problem entirely.  Additionally, while some passengers may not enjoy eating with strangers (although many have also enjoyed this in the past), the lounge setting may prove more inviting, particularly if the car isn’t filled, and who knows, conviviality may occur serendipitously, particularly if no one is ‘forced’ into the proximity of strangers. 

On the menu side, I was pleased that the brief flirtation with cold food (“contemporary” was the labeling, if I recall correctly) seems to have passed.  A quick review of Amtrak’s website indicates that warm/hot food (which is what most of us observe currently when going out to eat in non-transportation venues) predominates, particularly for lunch and dinner.

A significant con appears to be that ‘traditional’ cooked-to-order food will no longer be available.  Thus, “railroad” French toast, or eggs cooked to order, are not likely to be in the offing.  Seemingly, this is a major negative.  However, looking at food served on moving vehicles, this probably reflects mainstream reality. 

By the advent of Amtrak in 1971, the vast majority of (non-automotive) business travel in the U.S. was by air, not rail.  While airline coach food was the butt of many jokes, that served in First Class aboard pre-deregulation flights, while hardly of gourmet standards, was generally accepted, and some of it was actually fairly good.  This was typically prepared on the ground, and heated aboard the aircraft prior to serving (sound familiar now?). 

Amtrak’s own Metroliner Club service in the 1990s until the advent of the Acela was very much the same (and served to passengers on tray tables at their seats); I don’t recall hearing many people complain about it.  As noted previously, I’ve already experienced something like what’s going to be out there now, during a ride on the Lakeshore Limited back in 2016:

Not food enticing enough to take the trip just to have it, but pleasant and enjoyable.  And in what may have been a prescient bit of pleasantry, the crew graciously allowed me to utilize the Amfleet 2 dining space as a de facto lounge car as we made our way up the Hudson River Valley. 

It’s certainly understandable that some will need to mourn the loss of something that’s been available for over 100 years.  Times, along with social customs, do change, however.  The vast majority of U.S domestic travelers using common-carriage modes today utilize airline coach/economy services, which don’t typically offer complimentary meals; some offer food for purchase, although those products are not prepared on board. 

Amtrak, at least, does continue to offer an alternative, however, and the essentials (a moving train, tables, scenery and meals not out of synch entirely with today’s “casual dining” elsewhere), are still there, albeit sans serving staff, formal settings and made-to-order food, if you’re willing to pay for them.

(Photo by George W. Hamlin)

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