Amtrak foodservice still in flux

Changes confirmed for 'Auto Train,' 'Crescent,' and 'Silver Meteor;' others pending
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Broiled salmon, mashed potatoes, and green beans on the 'Crescent' in July 2019.
Bob Johnston
WASHINGTON – A leaked Amtrak presentation that describes the elimination of Auto Train’s coach dining car and introduction of so-called “contemporary” pre-packaged meals on the New York-Miami Silver Meteor and New York-New Orleans Crescent may not be the last word on proposed changes, Trains News Wire has learned.

“We are still working to finalize details of the menu and dining environment on the Auto Train and other long distance trains,” Amtrak spokeswoman Kimberly Woods explains in an email.

When responding to questions about Auto Train changes outlined in a July press release, Woods noted at the time that coach passengers’ breakfasts would still be complimentary even though the food would no longer be served in a dining car. The earlier-dated presentation, however, says that “coach class tickets will no longer include complimentary meal service (dinner or breakfast).”

Woods’ response Tuesday acknowledges that other aspects described in the presentation, such as a “festive environment” for Auto Train coach passengers, or what “enhanced room service” in sleeping cars actually means, have not been determined.

The document also outlines elimination of existing sit-down meals on the Chicago-Washington-New York Cardinal and the Chicago-New Orleans City of New Orleans. These trains offer microwave and convection oven-heated, pre-made entrees to both sleeping car and coach passengers. The Cardinal’s breakfast menu, which hasn’t changed since October 2017, touts a passable “Classic Railroad French Toast” that can be served with bacon or sausage.

The plan explains that on board food preparation and table service will be replaced on these and other single-level trains on Oct. 1, by “a small quantity of ready-to-service meals,” presumably similar to current offerings on the Chicago-New York/Boston Lake Shore Limited and Chicago-Washington Capitol Limited.
A “contemporary” breakfast on the eastbound 'Lake Shore Limited' in June 2019.
Bob Johnston
On a recent trip to New Orleans on the Crescent, dining car crews confirmed to Trains News Wire that their jobs would soon be eliminated, but were not given a date.

As on the Lake Shore and Capitol, the presentation says coach travelers will purchase food in the trains’ cafe cars and will not be allowed in the Viewliner II diner, which will then be reserved for sleeping car passengers only.

Although breakfasts, dinners, and lunches are included in the price of a sleeping car ticket, Trains News Wire observed a ratio of about 60% sleeper passengers to 40% coach passengers eating meals in the dining car on the Crescent. The car was minimally staffed, with one chef, one lead service attendant, and one server. Meanwhile in the train’s cafe car out of Washington on July 20, every table was taken and a steady procession of passengers from the train’s four coaches lined up for food.

The July 11 presentation does indicate that the Cardinal will gain a Viewliner II diner to be used as a “sleeper lounge” with “private, exclusive access” for sleeping car passengers. This means the current two-sided Amfleet II “diner lite” car will be dropped in favor of the Amfleet I “split club” with 18 business class seats on one side and a half-car lounge section on the other. Though business class passengers will get one complimentary alcoholic beverage, they will not be welcome in the Viewliner II “lounge.”

Before 2018, when the tri-weekly Cardinal was truncated to Washington during Penn Station track construction and as a result lost 40% of its ridership, it was regularly assigned two sleeping cars during the late spring, summer, and fall. But since then it has operated only with one Viewliner with three roomettes blocked for on board service crew members. If the July 11 plan is implemented on Oct. 1, the crush on the Cardinal’s coach and business class passengers will be exacerbated while the Viewliner II will host fewer travelers than on any other Amtrak eastern train.
Coach and sleeping car passengers eat dinner aboard the southbound 'Crescent' and Viewliner II dining car 'Madison' on July 20, 2019.
Bob Johnston
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