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Column: Derailing the dining car experience

  • Shawn Braley illustration

  • Margaret Drye. Copyright (c) Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

For the Valley News
Published: 12/7/2019 10:20:16 PM
Modified: 12/7/2019 10:20:13 PM

Back when we had only seven children, my husband and I took the family on a train trip from White River Junction to San Francisco and back. We took up three bedrooms in an Amtrak sleeping car and had our breakfasts, lunches and dinners in the dining car.

Having all three meals in a separate car was a welcome diversion during a cross-country trip with seven children who ranged in age from 14 down to 7 months, six of them boys. At that time, back in 1995, Amtrak offered a kid’s meal called Choo-Choo Chewies: “For our guests under 12. Enclosed in a colorful box containing games, riddles and special surprises.” Entrees included macaroni and cheese, hot dogs and beans, fish sticks, or cheese ravioli. Choo-Choo Chewies made it easy for the kids to decide what to eat. Adults had a harder time, because there were some wonderful options. I remember one afternoon during the trip, watching the snowy Rocky Mountains pass by, when I realized that the hardest decision I had to make that day was whether to have the filet mignon or the chicken cordon bleu at dinner.

Part of the benefit of being sleeping car passengers was that meals in the dining car were included. Add up sleeping arrangements with all meals complimentary and, as long as you had the time to travel, which we did, the price was comparable to flying. Today, in the interest of saving money, Amtrak is “re-inventing” the way it does meals on overnight trains, especially those in the eastern United States, and a lot of the romance has gone from the trip.

The female members of our family still at home recently went to see the new Downton Abbey movie. The part of that series I always liked was the fine dining, with elegant tables and attentive staff. Dining in the Amtrak dining car is somewhat like that. There are white tablecloths and real silverware, waiters, adult beverages and fresh food cooked to order. Watching waiters who can safely serve a tray of beverages on a bumpy stretch of track is like watching a ballet. Because there is communal seating in the dining car, it is almost like being at a formal dinner at the Manor, where you talk to the assigned person on your left or right.

Apparently, Amtrak thinks millennials, a demographic it is trying to reach, don’t like to eat with strangers. Part of this change is directed at them. Unfortunately, they won’t know what they are missing. We have had some amazing and interesting people as dinner partners over the years, from foreign tourists to the editor of the personal library of a well-known historical figure.

They won’t know what they are missing in the way of food, either. The traditional dining car menu right now on the Zephyr, the overnight train from Chicago to San Francisco, features items like cheese quesadillas with eggs and tomatillo sauce for breakfast, Angus burger or steamed mussels for lunch, and Norwegian salmon for dinner. As of October, though, a similar menu is available only on the long-distance overnight trains out West (with the lone exception of the East Coast Auto Train.) Sleeping car passengers on trains east of Chicago, like the ones that operate in New England and the Northeast Corridor, get “flexible dining,” prepackaged food options — like chicken fettuccine or Creole shrimp, plus a pasta-and-meatballs kid’s option — that they can eat in their rooms or in the new version of the dining car that still has booths, but no tablecloths. Passengers in coach seats are relegated to the Amtrak Café, which offers what you might expect: yogurt, muffins or an egg-and-sausage sandwich for breakfast, and hot dogs, hamburgers or pizza for lunch and dinner. It’s all edible, but nowhere near inspiring.

After all the recent rail improvements in our region — faster speeds, shorter travel times, a new station in Springfield, Mass. — dropping the dining car seems like a step backward. Dining cars have been part of the experience since Amtrak was founded in 1971, and have been part of American train tradition since forever. Remember the famous 1941 Glenn Miller song Chattanooga Choo-Choo? “Dinner in the diner / nothing could be finer / Than to have your ham an’ eggs in Carolina …”

When you take the time to travel by train, you want a meal experience that will go down in legend and song. The traditional dining experience provides that. Even if Amtrak is able to save money with its new food service model, I’m willing to bet that no one will ever write a million-selling hit song about the wonders of the Amtrak Café.

Margaret Drye lives in Plainfield.




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