- Earlier this year, Amtrak announced an overhaul of many dining options on its long-distance services on the East Coast.
- The biggest change was that custom-cooked, made-to-order meals would be going by the wayside in favor of read-to-serve options.
- Even before the changes took effect, the backlash was quick and fierce from rail fans across the country.
- I set out on a cross-country journey this week to see for myself what the new food was like, and found many of the passengers' worries were not only warranted, but completely correct.
ABOARD AMTRAK'S LAKE SHORE LIMITED — The fact that airline veterans now make up a bulk of Amtrak's c-suite is on display perhaps nowhere more than in the agency's new, "contemporary" dining car offerings.
Beginning in October, many overnight trains east of the Mississippi River bid adieu to the traditional white tablecloths and custom-cooked meals that hearkened to an earlier age of rail travel. They were replaced by what is essentially airline food: microwaved, individual-sized meals, heated from frozen storage.
Amtrak's leadership, to their credit was up-front with passengers about the need for change: the company has a mandate from Congress to save money, especially in the dining cars. But a remark by Andrew Wilander, Amtrak's head of customer experience, in late September, rubbed riders the wrong way.
"We want to simplify the process," he told the Washington Post. "On the single-overnight, long-distance trains, we have a mandate from Congress to take the loss on the food down, and we're going to keep driving that down. The simplest way to do that is to go to a single food car and then have choice for customers."
On Tuesday, I set out on a cross-country Amtrak trip of my own to find out why, among other things, the dining car was such a favorite of rail fans around the country. And it was clear when I first sat down why the changes had left a bad taste in some peoples' mouths.
All meals are included when you book a "roomette" or bedroom on a long-distance Amtrak train.
From New York, from where I began my journey to the West Coast, these include the "Lake Shore Limited" to Chicago, which I am riding, the "Cardinal," which heads to Chicago via Washington DC, the "Capitol Limited," the " the "Crescent" to New Orleans," and a few others.
There were more choices than on an airplane, but only barely.
The ticket also includes one complementary alcoholic beverage or soft drink.
After consulting my two table-mates, (due to limited space, community seating is encouraged), I went with the creole shrimp and sausage.
Hal, on his way home to Montana from Vermont, ordered the beef, while Peggy, a retired religious educator on her way to visit her son in California, had the chicken fettuccine.
"It's nothing like it used to be," she told me as we raced through the dark somewhere between Albany and Syracuse. They, too, had heard that Amtrak blamed the changes on millennials, and I took the chance to apologize profusely for yet another death caused by my generation.
The flavor was slightly above that of airplane food, though not being at 30,000 feet could have also affected my enjoyment for the better.
There's not much a splash of hot sauce and plenty of pepper can't fix, in my opinion, but slimy vegetables are not one of those things.=
"1-800-USA-RAIL!," the lone (and very busy) dining attendant quipped to an unsatisfied passenger. "I didn't make the changes."
"Your next train will be better," Hal assured me as we ate our "specialty dessert" brownies and watched the lounge car empty for the night. At this rate, there's only upward mobility possible.
Next I'm headed on the Empire Builder, one of Amtrak's longest and most popular routes where I've been assured by my new traveling companions that the food is still what it once was. Stay tuned!