Is taking a long distance Amtrak worth it in the 'post dining car' era?

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Is taking a long distance Amtrak worth it in the 'post dining car' era?
Posted by Shrike Arghast on Thursday, June 18, 2020 9:02 PM

I haven't taken a cross-country Amtrak train since 2015 (the Coast Starlight from Seattle to LA), but I have really fond memories of the food, and thought it compared favorably to some cruise ships. However, I know that Anderson had proposed a bunch of not-so-awesome sounding changes to the dining cars that makes the prospect of a big trip sound far less appealing.

I'm at least toying with taking the CZ westbound from Chicago to Emeryville this fall. What is the dining experience like on these trains now, and are the changes big enough that I should just shelve any notion of travel by rail in the U.S.?

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Posted by Warren J on Friday, June 19, 2020 12:30 PM

Shrike Arghast

I haven't taken a cross-country Amtrak train since 2015 (the Coast Starlight from Seattle to LA), but I have really fond memories of the food, and thought it compared favorably to some cruise ships. However, I know that Anderson had proposed a bunch of not-so-awesome sounding changes to the dining cars that makes the prospect of a big trip sound far less appealing.

I'm at least toying with taking the CZ westbound from Chicago to Emeryville this fall. What is the dining experience like on these trains now, and are the changes big enough that I should just shelve any notion of travel by rail in the U.S.?

 

From what I gather, traditional dining car service is suspended on long-distance trains from Chicago, westward; it will be restored when the COVID-19 pandemic is deemed to be under control (not yet as of today!).  Meanwhile, AMTRAK will be offering flexible dining similar to what airline food was like before the pandemic; this is being offered on all long-distance trains for Sleeper Class only, again until the COVID-19 pandemic eases up.  Coach Class passengers no longer have access to dining cars during the pandemic but may purchase food from the café car or Sightseer Lounge car in the meanwhile.

We will be traveling to Chicago (Capital Limited) and onward to Albuquerque (Southwest Limited) in Sleeper Class and will experience what you should have on the California Zephyr.  The last time I rode in AMTRAK Sleeper Class was on the Empire Builder back in the late 1980's.

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Posted by Shrike Arghast on Friday, June 19, 2020 2:05 PM

Warren J
Shrike Arghast

I haven't taken a cross-country Amtrak train since 2015 (the Coast Starlight from Seattle to LA), but I have really fond memories of the food, and thought it compared favorably to some cruise ships. However, I know that Anderson had proposed a bunch of not-so-awesome sounding changes to the dining cars that makes the prospect of a big trip sound far less appealing.

I'm at least toying with taking the CZ westbound from Chicago to Emeryville this fall. What is the dining experience like on these trains now, and are the changes big enough that I should just shelve any notion of travel by rail in the U.S.?

 

 

 

From what I gather, traditional dining car service is suspended on long-distance trains from Chicago, westward; it will be restored when the COVID-19 pandemic is deemed to be under control (not yet as of today!).  Meanwhile, AMTRAK will be offering flexible dining similar to what airline food was like before the pandemic; this is being offered on all long-distance trains for Sleeper Class only, again until the COVID-19 pandemic eases up.  Coach Class passengers no longer have access to dining cars during the pandemic but may purchase food from the café car or Sightseer Lounge car in the meanwhile.

We will be traveling to Chicago (Capital Limited) and onward to Albuquerque (Southwest Limited) in Sleeper Class and will experience what you should have on the California Zephyr.  The last time I rode in AMTRAK Sleeper Class was on the Empire Builder back in the late 1980's.

 

Wow, what a downer. I wonder if they'll use this as an excuse to never bring dining cars back. Boy, this plus tri-weekly could just kill Amtrak outright. Guess that's the plan.

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Posted by JPS1 on Friday, June 19, 2020 2:34 PM

Shrike Arghast
........ Boy, this plus tri-weekly could just kill Amtrak outright. Guess that's the plan. 

The smart thing to do would be to kill the long-distance trains.  They carry less than 1 percent of intercity travelers.  Terminating them would not be the end of Amtrak.  In FY19 the NEC carried 12.5 million riders; the state supported services had 15.4 million riders.  

Amtrak's long-distance trains carry approximately 14.5 percent of its passengers.  And just a bit over 2 percent of system passengers book a sleeper. 

If Amtrak could shed the long-distance trains, it could redirect the monies lost on them to improving existing corridors or adding new ones.  It is in relatively short, high density corridors that passenger trains make sense.  

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Posted by charlie hebdo on Friday, June 19, 2020 2:55 PM

JPS: Do you have any idea of what percentage of the loss on LD trains is stemming from sleeper service, including the "free" dining car service? 

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Posted by Shrike Arghast on Friday, June 19, 2020 7:45 PM

JPS1

 

 
Shrike Arghast
........ Boy, this plus tri-weekly could just kill Amtrak outright. Guess that's the plan. 

 

The smart thing to do would be to kill the long-distance trains.  They carry less than 1 percent of intercity travelers.  Terminating them would not be the end of Amtrak.  In FY19 the NEC carried 12.5 million riders; the state supported services had 15.4 million riders.  

Amtrak's long-distance trains carry approximately 14.5 percent of its passengers.  And just a bit over 2 percent of system passengers book a sleeper. 

If Amtrak could shed the long-distance trains, it could redirect the monies lost on them to improving existing corridors or adding new ones.  It is in relatively short, high density corridors that passenger trains make sense.  

 

Why should taxpayers in states that - by your plan - suddenly become unserved sponsors of regional cooridors continue to pay out the nose when their national trains are stripped away? I'm sorry, but if Amtrak ever kills the long distance trains, the first thing I'm doing is writing letters to every representative who serves me pushing to shutter the remaining network. The precious NEC can go up in flames for all I care without those cross-country services. 

Amtrak is proportionally a far more important conveyance to tiny towns in the middle of nowhere than huge urban areas where it plays an insignificant second fiddle to international airports. I don't give two figs about a "majority" - if these trains cannot meet long distance travel needs; if they are the exclusive playthings of wealthy coasts and a few choice midwestern and Texas corridors, then they don't deserve dime one from people locked out. It's a nationwide network or it's nothing.

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Posted by Overmod on Friday, June 19, 2020 8:36 PM

Shrike Arghast
Why should taxpayers in states that - by your plan - suddenly become unserved sponsors of regional cooridors continue to pay out the nose when their national trains are stripped away?

Ah, that's kind of the point, isn't it: the only direct 'subsidy' comes from the states that get service, with Amtrak supposedly making a profit on the rest...

Now to the extent general revenue is used for 'national' things (like high-speed NECIP capital stuff) the excuse is still going to be that the money enhances America overall, and stuff.  That's been a standard highway excuse for many years.  The catch is that individual taxpayers have little say in that sort of use of tax money, and I doubt there's enough single-issue organized clout to whack Amtrak out of future federal budgets on the sole absence of LD trains ... especially when so many population centers of voters (or potentially woke taxpayers) already know only 'zero service' or pathetic bus excuses.

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Posted by charlie hebdo on Friday, June 19, 2020 8:46 PM

Shrike Arghast

 

 
JPS1

 

 
Shrike Arghast
........ Boy, this plus tri-weekly could just kill Amtrak outright. Guess that's the plan. 

 

The smart thing to do would be to kill the long-distance trains.  They carry less than 1 percent of intercity travelers.  Terminating them would not be the end of Amtrak.  In FY19 the NEC carried 12.5 million riders; the state supported services had 15.4 million riders.  

Amtrak's long-distance trains carry approximately 14.5 percent of its passengers.  And just a bit over 2 percent of system passengers book a sleeper. 

If Amtrak could shed the long-distance trains, it could redirect the monies lost on them to improving existing corridors or adding new ones.  It is in relatively short, high density corridors that passenger trains make sense.  

 

 

 

Why should taxpayers in states that - by your plan - suddenly become unserved sponsors of regional cooridors continue to pay out the nose when their national trains are stripped away? I'm sorry, but if Amtrak ever kills the long distance trains, the first thing I'm doing is writing letters to every representative who serves me pushing to shutter the remaining network. The precious NEC can go up in flames for all I care without those cross-country services. 

Amtrak is proportionally a far more important conveyance to tiny towns in the middle of nowhere than huge urban areas where it plays an insignificant second fiddle to international airports. I don't give two figs about a "majority" - if these trains cannot meet long distance travel needs; if they are the exclusive playthings of wealthy coasts and a few choice midwestern and Texas corridors, then they don't deserve dime one from people locked out. It's a nationwide network or it's nothing.

 

Many of those states served by the LD trains are net recipients of federal dollars so your point about the NEC is in error. States like NY,  NJ,  IL and MA subsidize those states out west and south because it is one nation. 

Of course if they no longer want welfare... 

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Posted by Backshop on Friday, June 19, 2020 9:03 PM

Shrike Arghast

That would be one...

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Posted by Shrike Arghast on Friday, June 19, 2020 10:16 PM

Backshop

 

 
Shrike Arghast

 

 

That would be one...

 

 

 

I did not intend it in the literal sense. But boy oh boy, someone sure is eager to zing. Confused

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Posted by Backshop on Saturday, June 20, 2020 10:09 AM

Shrike Arghast

 

 
Backshop

 

 
Shrike Arghast

 

 

That would be one...

 

 

 

 

 

I did not intend it in the literal sense. But boy oh boy, someone sure is eager to zing. Confused

 

With all the people who seem to have been sleeping during their high school Civics/Government class, who knows what someone thinks?

PS-As far as the comment about how much "isolated" communities depend on Amtrak; there are many more isolated communties that aren't served by Amtrak than those that are.

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Posted by JPS1 on Saturday, June 20, 2020 4:41 PM
I have ridden on premier trains in Australia, Canada, Japan, New Zealand and the UK, as well as over nearly every mile of the Amtrak system. 
 
Some of my domestic rides before and after the coming of Amtrak included the Broadway Limited, Super Chief, City of San Francisco, East Coast Champion, Merchants Limited, and the Spirit of St. Louis.  I ate in the dining car on all of them.
 
I am 81.  Memories fade over time.  Having said that, with the possible exception of the India Pacific in Australia, I never had a meal on any of the aforementioned trains that of itself would have justified taking the train. 
 
Under the best of circumstances Amtrak’s offerings fall somewhere between Denny’s and Applebee’s.  I take the train for the ride.  Not the eats!
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Posted by Enzoamps on Saturday, June 20, 2020 9:30 PM

While I may not agree with the spirit of JPS' post, I agree with the conclusion.  I love dining on the tain, but it is hardly the reason I take the train.  Even back in the days of full dining car service, there were times that I boarded the train one stop out of DC, and the dining attendant came around to take dinner reservations, and by the time he got to my seat, all the dinner seatings had sold out.  Disaappointing, but not so as to ruin my trip.

I'd prefer to have catfish and grits in the diner, but if I have to get a footlong and a bag of chips at SUbway to take on the train, so be it.  I will still enjoy watching the mountains and streams of Pennsylvania and West Virginia and MAryland gliding by, as I sit in a comfortable seat sipping my drink from the club car.  You can run me through HArper's Ferry a thousand times and I won't tire of it.

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Posted by BaltACD on Saturday, June 20, 2020 9:40 PM

Still recall B&O personnel making the 'last call for alcohol' as The Capitol Limited approached Harpers Ferry and the crossing into West Virginia which was dry.

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Posted by 54light15 on Saturday, June 20, 2020 10:25 PM

My best train meal was on an Italian sleeper train from Paris to Florence in 2004. There were three choices at two different seatings. I had a home (train?) made turkey dish with wine, salad, dessert and coffee for about 20 Euros. After everyone was served they came around again and asked if anyone wanted more and they laid it on us. I knew it was made on the train because as I was sipping my pre-dinner wine, I could see the chefs working in the galley and I sure didn't see a microwave oven.

One of the best meals I ever ate and afterward I went to the counter at the end of the car and bought a couple of beers to take back to my first class compartment. It cost a fortune to have it to myself but it was worth every centime! I'd do it again tomorrow if I could. 

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Posted by Lithonia Operator on Saturday, June 20, 2020 10:51 PM

I just want to ride the Pennsylvanian and the Capital Limited while they still exist. We've gone to CA on the SW chief, the CZ, and the Empire Buulder. Have ridden the Coast Starlight. But I really want to ride those two eastern trains. The food to me is immaterial, as long as there's something. To me it's about the scenery and the railroad sights. But not until Covid is gone.

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Posted by Deggesty on Sunday, June 21, 2020 8:01 AM

I remember several good meals on board before the Amtrak era--and good service between Chicago and Albuquerque early in the second year of Amtrak. The last really good meal that I enjoyed was dinner in Arizona as I went from New Orleans to Los Angeles in 1980. (I did not travel in 1981) From then on, there was little, if any, variety between any two long distance trains. But, once Amtrak abandoned the McDonald's style (pay when you order), the meals were better than what is now provided for sleeper passengers only.

Johnny

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Posted by JPS1 on Sunday, June 21, 2020 3:16 PM

charlie hebdo
 JPS: Do you have any idea of what percentage of the loss on LD trains is stemming from sleeper service, including the "free" dining car service? 

Not really!  But here are some of the things that I found regard Amtrak's food and beverage losses.

A 2005 IG report indicated that sleeping car passengers received a higher subsidy than long-distance coach passengers.  The findings are dated, but the spread may still be present.   
 
As per Page 27 of the Amtrak Service Line Plans |FY2020 – 2025, the food and beverage loss in FY19 was $41.5 million, which was down from approximately $72 million in 2012. 
 
According to a 2013 IG audit of Amtrak’s Food and Beverage services, approximately 99 percent of the F&B losses were attributable to the long-distance trains.  The percentages may have changed since 2013, but I suspect that at least 90 percent or $37.4 million of the FY19 loss is attributable to the long-distance trains.
 
According to the report, a portion of sleeper-class revenue is transferred to the food and beverage account.  It is based on the menu price of meals consumed.  When the Marketing Department sets the prices for sleeper tickets, which includes transportation and meals, it does (did) not consider the cost of providing the food and beverages as per the audit findings.  The report found that the Great Southern Rail in Australia and the Rocky Mountaineer in Canada set ticket prices to recover the cost of food and beverages that go along with the ticket.
 
Here is something a gave me a bit of a chuckle.  Amtrak has to buy a liquor license for every state where booze is sold on its trains.  In 2012 it cost the company approximately $88,000 excluding the administrative cost associated with obtaining the licenses.  
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Posted by Deggesty on Sunday, June 21, 2020 4:48 PM

So, Amtrak buys liquor licenses from every state in which it serves liquor. I wonder: are West Virginia and other states that did not allow the serving of aloholic beverages on trains still dry?

Johnny

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Posted by JPS1 on Sunday, June 21, 2020 7:38 PM

Deggesty
 So, Amtrak buys liquor licenses from every state in which it serves liquor. I wonder: are West Virginia and other states that did not allow the serving of aloholic beverages on trains still dry? 

West Virginia liquor stores (consumption off-premises) may sell liquor from 8 a.m. until midnight Monday through Saturday. However, they may not sell on Sunday. Sale of beer and wine for consumption off-premises is legal from 7 a.m. until 2:00 a.m. Monday through Saturday.
 
In Texas you can buy booze Monday through Saturday during regular business hours.  But no booze on Sunday before 12 noon.  The church crowd wants you in the pews as opposed to the saloon.
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Posted by CMStPnP on Monday, June 22, 2020 7:32 AM

Shrike Arghast

I haven't taken a cross-country Amtrak train since 2015 (the Coast Starlight from Seattle to LA), but I have really fond memories of the food, and thought it compared favorably to some cruise ships. However, I know that Anderson had proposed a bunch of not-so-awesome sounding changes to the dining cars that makes the prospect of a big trip sound far less appealing.

I'm at least toying with taking the CZ westbound from Chicago to Emeryville this fall. What is the dining experience like on these trains now, and are the changes big enough that I should just shelve any notion of travel by rail in the U.S.?

I rode North on the Texas Eagle from Dallas to Chicago a few weeks ago and the Dining car food royally sucks.    Very bad, in fact they tend to overcook it.    The chicken rubber chini meal was exceptionally bad.     Service is great though.    They have one dining car attendent now that runs down stairs to get the meal you select, microwave it and bring it back up to you to serve you.    I was the only one that sat in the entire dining car to eat during the seating times I selected.   Most everyone else selected to have the meals brought to them to their sleeping car compartment. 

Other than that and having to wear your mask outside your sleeping car compartment.    Nothing has changed.   Sleeper Bathroom cleanliness has gotten better and was at or better than McDonald Standards when I rode BUT that is because the passenger load is so light.    Sleeper was less than half full and just about nobody at intermediate small town stops, only big city passengers.

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Posted by CMStPnP on Monday, June 22, 2020 7:35 AM

One more thing, Amtrak is completely cash less on LD trains now.   No credit card then no food or beverage.....lol.    No I am not kidding.

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Posted by zugmann on Monday, June 22, 2020 10:43 AM

CMStPnP
  No I am not kidding.

A lot of places are going that way.  Cash is no longer king. 

 The opinions expressed here represent my own and not those of my employer or any other railroad, company, or person.

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Posted by BaltACD on Monday, June 22, 2020 6:03 PM

zugmann
CMStPnP
  No I am not kidding.

A lot of places are going that way.  Cash is no longer king.

Plastic fantastic.  And some places don't want handle plastic - QR codes on phones.

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Posted by AMTRAKKER on Tuesday, June 23, 2020 2:26 AM

I live in Illinois, and our sorry state cannot even figure out how to pay our own bills.

Our governor is aksing for pension bail out money from the Covid19 relief bill....

How do you figure Illinois is subsidizing anyone? 

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Posted by Backshop on Tuesday, June 23, 2020 6:04 AM

AMTRAKKER

I live in Illinois, and our sorry state cannot even figure out how to pay our own bills.

Our governor is aksing for pension bail out money from the Covid19 relief bill....

How do you figure Illinois is subsidizing anyone? 

 

The state of Illinois isn't subsidizing the western states, the people of Illinois are.  They pay more federal taxes than are returned to Illinois.  Many other states pay less and get more.

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Posted by CMStPnP on Tuesday, June 23, 2020 8:23 AM

Backshop
The state of Illinois isn't subsidizing the western states, the people of Illinois are.  They pay more federal taxes than are returned to Illinois.  Many other states pay less and get more.

I do not place a lot of trust in those analysis because the larger populated states tend to also get huge Federal Grants that are left out of these calculations also hidden subsidies to the same states that are excluded.     So for example, NY state.   Do you think they include the Empire Corridor subsidies they get from the Feds for Amtrak in their calculations?     What about NY's benefit from the multi-Billion Dollar grant of the future Amtrak tunnels they are seeking?    What about berthing of visiting Navy ships and economic impact of that?    What about Federal Emergency aid and recovery (for example 9-11)?

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Posted by charlie hebdo on Tuesday, June 23, 2020 8:25 AM

JPS1

 

 
charlie hebdo
 JPS: Do you have any idea of what percentage of the loss on LD trains is stemming from sleeper service, including the "free" dining car service? 

 

Not really!  But here are some of the things that I found regard Amtrak's food and beverage losses.

A 2005 IG report indicated that sleeping car passengers received a higher subsidy than long-distance coach passengers.  The findings are dated, but the spread may still be present.   
 
As per Page 27 of the Amtrak Service Line Plans |FY2020 – 2025, the food and beverage loss in FY19 was $41.5 million, which was down from approximately $72 million in 2012. 
 
According to a 2013 IG audit of Amtrak’s Food and Beverage services, approximately 99 percent of the F&B losses were attributable to the long-distance trains.  The percentages may have changed since 2013, but I suspect that at least 90 percent or $37.4 million of the FY19 loss is attributable to the long-distance trains.
 
According to the report, a portion of sleeper-class revenue is transferred to the food and beverage account.  It is based on the menu price of meals consumed.  When the Marketing Department sets the prices for sleeper tickets, which includes transportation and meals, it does (did) not consider the cost of providing the food and beverages as per the audit findings.  The report found that the Great Southern Rail in Australia and the Rocky Mountaineer in Canada set ticket prices to recover the cost of food and beverages that go along with the ticket.
 
Here is something a gave me a bit of a chuckle.  Amtrak has to buy a liquor license for every state where booze is sold on its trains.  In 2012 it cost the company approximately $88,000 excluding the administrative cost associated with obtaining the licenses.  
 

Thank you for the information.  So services to some communities could be run at a smaller load if sleeper passengers paid the actual cost of sleepers plus F&B, maybe. 

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Posted by daveklepper on Monday, June 29, 2020 9:21 AM

I feel the need to reply to:

Some of my domestic rides before and after the coming of Amtrak included the Broadway Limited, Super Chief, City of San Francisco, East Coast Champion, Merchants Limited, and the Spirit of St. Louis.  I ate in the dining car on all of them.
 
 
 
I am 81.  Memories fade over time.  Having said that, with the possible exception of the India Pacific in Australia, I never had a meal on any of the aforementioned trains that of itself would have justified taking the train.
 
I disagree.  I remember having some really supurb meals on all the specific trains mentioned.  And in the worst cases on those specific trains the meals were at least good.  In addition, the Kings Dinner on the Panama, Fried Chicken on the GM&O, any meal in a B&O or NP diner, and every meal on the Rio Grande Zephyr was something to look forward to, a high-point of the trip, and contributor to wanting to ride the train.  I'm 88, and that is what I remember.  I have never enjoyed dinner more than savorinig the Rocky Mountain Trout on the D&RGW when my sister was traveling with me and also enjoying the meal, with the marvelous scenery at the same time.
 
And I am convinved that the station restaurant with take-out is the solution to the  problem.
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Posted by NKP guy on Monday, June 29, 2020 12:48 PM

daveklepper
I have never enjoyed dinner more than savorinig the Rocky Mountain Trout on the D&RGW

   Same here!  The single best and most memorable meal I ever had aboard any train.

daveklepper
And I am convinved that the station restaurant with take-out is the solution to the  problem.

  And I'm convinced this is an 1860's solution to the problem. 

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