Commentary by Russ Jackson…with photos

When was the last time you had a meal in an Amtrak long distance train Dining Car? Those of us who travel on those trains occasionally notice the changes that may take place from trip to trip, but mostly this experience remains consistent in its presentation, both the in-car experience and the menus. Those readers who have not experienced the cuisine lately may want to see what the experience consists of in 2017. It’s nice to write positively about something we all care about.

In a recent trip report a writer told of his experience on a very long trip. (The number in parentheses is the number of on board meals available to him.) He started from Reno, NV, on the California Zephyr to Chicago (6). His itinerary expanded to the Capitol Limited from Chicago to Washington DC (3), Acela from DC to Boston (2), the Downeaster to and from Maine (2 in Cafe only), the Lake Shore Limited from Boston to Chicago (3), the Texas Eagle Chicago to San Antonio (4), the Sunset Limited San Antonio to Los Angeles (3, notable for no breakfast before arriving at LAUS but snacks available in the First Class Lounge upon arrival), the Coast Starlight from LAUS to Emeryville (2), and the Zephyr back home to Reno (1). While there were a few stopovers, it was an almost continuous trip which would have cost $8,000. But, he did it all with Amtrak Guest Rewards points, meaning he, the railfan, was a frequent traveler. That adds up to 26 meals he was eligible to have in the Dining Cars on those trains, but it is unknown how many he had even though they were already paid for. What he wrote was there were no problems with any of the dining car on board crews except once, and the meals were all outstanding, well prepared, and without mentionable defects. That speaks volumes for the quality of the travel experience on Amtrak’s long distance trains today, unlike many years in days past.

My 2016 trip - Cheeseburger in roomette
The best value item on the menu? It’s a cheeseburger (Amtrak calls it the “Natural Angus Beef Steak Burger”), and it comes with everything, shown here delivered to a sleeping car room. The writer can attest to its excellence, to the last bite.

What is new? The menus have changed somewhat. Andrew Selden says, “There’s a new menu on the California Zephyr with more choices, more variety, more pizazz. Pretty decent food, too. (Cars are) still understocked, too.” It’s not just on the Zephyr, as all train menus have expanded. The old standby items like the (“cage free”) Scrambled eggs at breakfast, steak burger at lunch, and the flank steak or chicken on the dinner menu remain and continue to be excellent choices. This year a “surf and turf” selection has been added. Amtrak calls it the “Signature Field & Sea Entree with Steak & Shrimp.” This choice is not just on the Zephyr menu. To see all the menus go to Amtrak.com, then to Experience, then to Meals, Dining and Munchies. But, for a quick look at specific trains see this link: www.AmtrakFoodFacts.com . What doesn’t come up are the cash prices, but sleeping car passengers don’t worry about that as they can choose whatever they want and it is paid for already in the ticket price. The “Field & Sea” is $36, by the way, if you do have to pay the cash price. Our prediction is they won’t sell many at that price.

In other Dining Car news, there is no change in store for the New York to to Miami Silver Star which lost its full diner a year ago. Passengers who board that train find that the only meals available to them are in the Cafe car. Did you notice that the Star logo is not in the Amtrak Food Facts display here? There was an interesting development there. When Anthony Lee first alerted us to this display the Star was included, and that brought speculation that with the imminent arrival of the new low level “Viewliner” dining cars that the Star would resume having full service, as there was a full menu shown when that logo was touched. Within hours of us finding the Star logo it disappeared. Those new Viewliner Diners have finally started coming out of the CAF plant in New York, the latest two were delivered the week of April 24. Two down, and 23 to go, and the Star will have to wait a while…if ever. Amtrak likes to play the game of letting a change last a while and eventually it is accepted with no need to change back.

Amtrak Cafe car at Ft Lauderdale 4-2017
This Amfleet Cafe Car is still on Amtrak’s Silver Star, at the Ft. Lauderdale, Florida, station on April 20, 2017. (Photo by Anthony Lee)

Meanwhile, enjoy what you find on your trip. The menus have too many expensive items, which a family of four traveling in Coach could hardly afford on a cash basis. While there are menu items for children, and some crews will allow an adult or Senior to order from it, there is a limited amount of items stored on board on each trip. Andrew Selden is correct, above, when he says the Dining Cars are often “understocked.” Amtrak would say that Coach passengers on some long distance routes have an “at seat” menu. But, to entice them into the Dining Car how about having a grilled BLT available? Or other easy to stock items? The items available in the Lounge Car are cheap substitutes. So what if Sleeping Car passengers might order them, their money is already in the bank, so it doesn’t matter what they order, does it? Amtrak CEO Wick Moorman has been out riding the rails, almost all his travels being east of the Mississippi River, and he is aware of and understands the reasoning behind customer service But, as Daniel Carleton asks, “is it still the same nursing along of the long distance status quo until it goes away no matter how long it takes?”

In case you’re wondering, I’m looking forward to my next trip, and I do hope that the current Administration’s proposal to eliminate the long distance trains, not just the food and beverage service, doesn’t get lost in the shuffle of other budget items this fall and be adopted. Everyone seems confident that won’t happen, but be prepared. These days anything can happen.