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Amtrak: Dining at 40 mph

Amtrak: Dining at 40 mph
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  • Amtrak: Dining at 40 mph

    Post #1 - April 17th, 2005, 9:16 pm
    Post #1 - April 17th, 2005, 9:16 pm Post #1 - April 17th, 2005, 9:16 pm
    Would you ever go back to a restaurant if this happened to you:

    Your reservation says 8:30, a confirmation in writing even, but when you show up in the dining room at 8:30 the waitress yells at you to get out, and says she’ll announce when you can be seated. There will never be an announcement, but you go in when you see different people seated there from before. Despite the fact that half of the tables remain empty, you are seated at a booth with 3 strangers, and told you have to order right away or else you will get no food at all until breakfast tomorrow morning.

    Dining on Amtrak is certainly a unique experience, and you know that it will have its limitations compared to other restaurants, but in ways you might never have imagined. But hey, what other restaurant could you walk into, and afterwards walk out into a different city?

    People who take Amtrak are different from the usual crowd you see at the airport, and the ones who show up in the dining car are a special subset of that. They are:
    (1) The Elderly – they have time on their hands and are angry at not being able to eat earlier than when Amtrak tells them. They keep looking at their watch and complain to anyone who will listen.
    (2) The Train Adventurers – these people got on the train on Texas and California. They will only get off the train at the East Coast because the train will not go any farther. If they could buy a train ticket to Europe, they would have been there by now.
    (3) The Freakshow Attendees – never took a train before, and are increasingly horrified at their one Amtrak experience. They are the ones worried about the train being late, constantly ask where they are, when they are going to arrive with the delayed schedule, and run up big roaming bills on their cell phones calling everyone they are supposed to meet.
    (4) The Amtrak Venerables – a loose connection of people going on relatively short trips, and those who will not fly. These people have been through everything that can go wrong with Amtrak and know to expect the worst short of derailment into a gorge. They learn to smile when things don’t go wrong, and never ask any Amtrak employee anything, because they won’t believe the answer anyway. Their heads are not looking out the window, but down at their books, magazines, and work.

    The Capital Limited is supposed to leave at 5:35 every evening, but it’s rarely on time. Much of the journey East from Chicago to South Bend the train must yield right of way to freight trains. So it’s not unusual for you to sit in the train, stopped somewhere in Indiana, the South Side of Chicago, or even worse, inside Union Station. Once inside the train, the seats are comfortable, much more so than an airline, with plenty of legroom and a wide first-class sized airline seat. The conductor comes through to collect tickets, and to take dinner reservations. He hands you a confirmation slip with whatever time he gives you. Usually by the time the conductor comes through the coach car, the earlier dinner reservations are sold out and it’s 8:30 or nothing, which is just fine with me.

    Traveling by train is very convenient for me; I can walk to the station, and I always have plenty of reading to catch up on. If I get to Toledo a few hours late, it really doesn’t matter to me if I can get work done. And besides, taking the train is just a neat way to travel. You see the countryside, the old towns, and history all around you as you slowly but surely chug along to your destination. There’s a lot more attachment to the land than just seeing airports and highways. And it’s a lot more comfortable than dealing with airports, airlines, and airplane seats. Amtrak is sort of a social safety net for travel; no matter how much the airlines want to charge you for a flight, Amtrak is always there to take you to where you’re going for a reasonable price. Following ATA’s demise, American charges upwards of $500 for weekend trip to Toledo, while Amtrak is available for about $80. It’s also a trip to the past; you see how people used to travel, and all of the small towns built up around railroad stops along the way. A lot of old, abandoned factories, long shut down. Grain silos out of use, and smokestacks that puff no more. Much of Northern Indiana and Ohio are modern-day wastelands, with the remnants of industrial and farming eras gone by.

    At 7:30 The Elderly start to line up outside the dining car for their 8:30 reservations. No one told them that it was 8:30 Central time; they complain to people around them that since we’ve past South Bend, we’re now on Eastern time and the dining car should honor their reservation.

    At 8:30 I walk into the dining car, only to be yelled at and thrown out. I walk in around 9, and am seated and told I have to order right away. She yells at me for asking her to serve me dinner at 10pm. I gently remind her that I have a reservation and it’s only 9 since we’re still in Indiana where there is no daylight savings time. She gets more upset, saying how she can’t be responsible to know where we are at any given time. I know the menu and routine, and choose between the NY strip steak, roasted lamb with garlic, and the special of the evening, braised beef tips in bordelaise sauce. Calculating in my mind the dish that is least likely to come out awful, I go for the NY strip. My dining companions do not make the same calculation, and go for the other two.

    First course is always a salad of coarsely chopped iceberg lettuce and julienne carrots, with your choice of standard dressings out of a bottle. Rolls are served with the salad, which are sometimes freshly baked, and other times cold and rubbery. The entrée is served with your choice of baked or mashed potatoes, and a vegetable, usually green beans or “roast” corn (it’s out of a can). The steak is hit or miss; last time it was great, this time it wasn’t – a thin, grey layer of meat, with bordelaise sauce poured over the top to try and hide the fact that it’s as far from a NY strip cut that you can get and still call it meat. Unfortunately the lamb and braised beef were indistinguishable to my poor tablemates who ordered it. But the real gem on the menu is a $10 demi-bottle of BV Coastal cab. So while the train is slowly chugging along through the industrial wasteland, and you chew each bite of the meat you were so hoping would be steak, your cares drift away with a few glasses of wine and conversation with strangers at your dinner table. The combination of bad service, inexplicable delays, being packed in with strangers, and wine makes for an interesting way to meet your fellow travelers. The train rocks from side to side, and everyone at the table and the other tables sways in unison with the train. The trip may be slow, the service may be awful, and the view outside may be bleak, but there’s still wine in my glass, and I’m in no hurry to finish it.
    there's food, and then there's food
  • Post #2 - April 17th, 2005, 9:51 pm
    Post #2 - April 17th, 2005, 9:51 pm Post #2 - April 17th, 2005, 9:51 pm
    Rich,

    I've taken the train two times in the last ten years: once from Chicago to Seattle to LA to home, and then from Chicago to Denver and back. I find train travel very relaxing, and I like eating on the train, even though the food is usually mediocre at best. I do find the service very uneven (some great, some terrible), but the best service I received was when we had a sleeping car -- the guys who work those cars know what they're doing. The rest seem unhappy with their career choice.

    As an option to Amtrak cuisine, I have brought my own bottle of wine, some good cheese and bread. Not sure if this is within regulation, but one upside of slipshod servers is that, even if it were prohibted, no one would much care.

    Hammond
    “Nobody exists on purpose. Nobody belongs anywhere. Everybody’s gonna die. Come watch TV?”
  • Post #3 - April 17th, 2005, 10:25 pm
    Post #3 - April 17th, 2005, 10:25 pm Post #3 - April 17th, 2005, 10:25 pm
    Every January, when I was a kid, my family and I would Amtrak up to Ann Arbor and Back for the Ann Arbor Folk Music Festival. I wasn't much of a fan, but didn't really have a choice in the matter.

    The highpoint of the (short, 5 hour) trip for me was always eating zingermans and fragels and playing gin rummy in the club car with my dad on the way back.

    Beth takes amtrak whenever she comes down here, so pretty often, but mostly just sleeps :)

    I'm really concerned about the future of Amtrak. It will be sorely missed if it goes away -- $40-60 roundtrip for chicago to detroit is an amazing price. Cheaper than gas, usually cheaper than greyhound, and cheaper than a plane ticket.

    -ed
    Ed Fisher
    my chicago food photos

    RIP LTH.
  • Post #4 - April 17th, 2005, 10:49 pm
    Post #4 - April 17th, 2005, 10:49 pm Post #4 - April 17th, 2005, 10:49 pm
    Hi,

    When I was in college, I took Amtrak from Chicago-Washington, D.C. a few times. It was a 22-24 hour trip, which was late every time. The meals were simply heat and serve via the microwave.

    We had many years ago, an older employee who recollected the days when taking a train to your destination was a pleasurable experience. He would conduct his business day in Chicago, then go to the train station after work. The train bound for New York left at 6 or 7 PM. He had a steak dinner before retiring to his berth. After breakfast in the morning, he stepped off the train in NYC to attend to his business meetings. He said it was roughly a 12 hour ride.

    To accomplish the 12 hour journey to NYC, you need tracks in excellent condition allowing high speeds. The slow as molasses journey from Chicago to Washington was largely due to poor track conditions forcing slower speeds.

    A few years ago, a friend was lamenting her NYC girlfriend's financial condition. Her proof of impoverishment was her friend taking the train from NYC to Washington, D.C. I giggled informing her taking the train between Washington-NYC-Boston was more sensible than a plane. If you consider the time it takes to get to the airport with 2 hours allowance for security and perhaps your plane is late, then a 3-4 hour train ride isn't so dire.
    Cathy2

    "You'll be remembered long after you're dead if you make good gravy, mashed potatoes and biscuits." -- Nathalie Dupree
    Facebook, Twitter, Greater Midwest Foodways, Road Food 2012: Podcast
  • Post #5 - April 17th, 2005, 10:57 pm
    Post #5 - April 17th, 2005, 10:57 pm Post #5 - April 17th, 2005, 10:57 pm
    Cathy2 wrote:To accomplish the 12 hour journey to NYC, you need tracks in excellent condition allowing high speeds. The slow as molasses journey from Chicago to Washington was largely due to poor track conditions forcing slower speeds.


    Another problem is that, in my experience, Amtrak trains always give priority to freight trains if there's a shared bit of track. I think if the rails were in better shape and Amtrak didn't defer to much slower freight, it'd be a more popular way to travel.

    That, and if they were ever on time.

    Beth's train used to be scheduled to get in at 3:45pm on fridays. After a few months of it always being late, Amtrak apparently gave up and changed the arrival time to 4:40. It's still late sometimes.
    Ed Fisher
    my chicago food photos

    RIP LTH.
  • Post #6 - April 18th, 2005, 8:17 am
    Post #6 - April 18th, 2005, 8:17 am Post #6 - April 18th, 2005, 8:17 am
    It's a real shame that Amtrak is being used as a political football these days (and as it's a bipartisan effort I shake my head at both sides equally), especially as the phrase "flyover states" has come into vogue, and we may lose the option to do anything other than fly over 'em. I'd imagine it's hard for the employees to rally much enthusiasm and job morale under the current circumstances.

    I haven't taken Amtrak since I moved here, but after enjoying Milwaukee with LTHers last fall, weekend overnight trips up there have been on my mind. (The Northeast Corridor was always the pampered baby of Amtrak, and always my first choice whenever I had to go from Boston to NYC, Philadelphia, or DC.)
  • Post #7 - April 18th, 2005, 9:41 am
    Post #7 - April 18th, 2005, 9:41 am Post #7 - April 18th, 2005, 9:41 am
    gleam wrote:Another problem is that, in my experience, Amtrak trains always give priority to freight trains if there's a shared bit of track. I think if the rails were in better shape and Amtrak didn't defer to much slower freight, it'd be a more popular way to travel.

    That, and if they were ever on time.


    Actually, it isn't Amtrak giving priority to the freight trains - it's the freight companies giving themselves priority on rail that they own.

    Amtrak's Inter-city Business Unit (ie: the long haul rail) owns pretty much zero rail outside of the stations and yards that it operates. They run their trains on rail owned by freight carriers and as such are subject to the whims of the carriers.

    My info is a bit dated - I was on a contract working in Amtrak's offices and rail yards in various parts of the country for two years in the tail end of the '90s, but I'm rather certain the rail situation hasn't changed since then.

    One of my favorite clients within the company to interact with were the two guys in charge of doing all of the purchasing and negotiations for train foodservice - generally meetings with them ended in me hauling back loads of snacks to pawn off on coworkers. The big shakeup in '99 involved Amtrak ditching their in-house foodservice and outsourcing it to one of the large operations that also handled the bulk of the airlines foodservice. (The name is eluding me.) I have no idea who's handling it at this point.

    The high-speed commuter rail on the east coast is a different story entirely - it's electric, the rail is owned entirely by Amtrak, and I'm told the trains are a joy to take compared to the intercity lines. (Amusing anecdote: The electricity is delivered via overhead wires. In tunnels the wires are only a couple feet from the roof - just enough to prevent the wires from arcing to ground. When it rains pigeons will often land on the wires and walk under the overhang of the tunnel, along the wire. When this happens the pigeon becomes a conductor, the wire arcs to ground, and there's a small explosion of feathers and the smell of roast quail fills the air.)

    I always avoided taking the train except when I'd have to run to conferences in Milwaukee - that's really a nice ride and it's generally faster than driving.
    -Pete
  • Post #8 - April 18th, 2005, 10:05 am
    Post #8 - April 18th, 2005, 10:05 am Post #8 - April 18th, 2005, 10:05 am
    Pete wrote:Actually, it isn't Amtrak giving priority to the freight trains - it's the freight companies giving themselves priority on rail that they own.


    That answers that, thanks for the clarification. However, weren't the rails mostly built with the money of, if not the labor of, the federal government? It seems they missed a good opportunity to give priority to passenger trains, or at least passenger trains funded by federal money.
    Ed Fisher
    my chicago food photos

    RIP LTH.
  • Post #9 - October 27th, 2018, 1:59 pm
    Post #9 - October 27th, 2018, 1:59 pm Post #9 - October 27th, 2018, 1:59 pm
    Hi- I have taken Amtrack down to New Orleans a few times. The train leaves around 8:30, and I just get something to eat at Union Station, and then I bring some fruit and other munchies to eat on the train. I have bought coffee on the train before, but I have never used the dining car going down to NO. I am flying down to NO this week, and I am taking the train back. I could not get cheap flights coming back. The train leaves New Orleans at 1:30, and arrives at Union Station at 9:30 the next morning. I am considering eating dinner in the dining car on my way home. Has anybody eaten in Amtrack's dining car recently? Is the food any good? I could also potentially get off on my way home and purchase something where ever there is a long enough stop to buy something. Anybody taken the train home from New Orleans and have any recommended stops I could try? I realize that the food in the dining car is not going to be fantastic, but I am not a super fussy eater. I just don't want them to serve me a microwave dinner. Thanks, Nancy
  • Post #10 - October 27th, 2018, 2:54 pm
    Post #10 - October 27th, 2018, 2:54 pm Post #10 - October 27th, 2018, 2:54 pm
    You might want to read through the train travel forum on TripAdvisor = https://www.tripadvisor.com/ShowForum-g ... ravel.html
    "At a formal dinner party, the person nearest death should always be seated closest to the bathroom." George Carlin
  • Post #11 - October 28th, 2018, 1:41 am
    Post #11 - October 28th, 2018, 1:41 am Post #11 - October 28th, 2018, 1:41 am
    Hi- Thanks for the link. That link led me to the Amtrack Unlimited forum, where I found out that Amtrack has been told that they have to reduce their food costs, and so the City of New Orleans route has eliminated the chef that used to be on the train, and they now only have two people manning the dining car. It sounds like everything is microwaved, and the food is not as good as it used to be.
  • Post #12 - October 28th, 2018, 5:03 pm
    Post #12 - October 28th, 2018, 5:03 pm Post #12 - October 28th, 2018, 5:03 pm
    Thanks for the information provided above by NFriday and Dave148. I'm considering taking the train from NOLA to NYC next month, and was wondering what food the train can have and what I should bring myself. Microwaved food is ok just for one dinner. I just need to bring more fruit.
  • Post #13 - October 28th, 2018, 10:15 pm
    Post #13 - October 28th, 2018, 10:15 pm Post #13 - October 28th, 2018, 10:15 pm
    Hi- NOLA to NYC might still have a chef. Apparently the City of New Orleans train has the worst food right now. You can go on Amtrack and find out what food they are going to serve on your train. From what I understand if you spring for a sleeper, meals are included in the price. You should really go on the trip advisor link that Dave gave and on amtrackunlimited to find out more.
  • Post #14 - October 29th, 2018, 9:54 pm
    Post #14 - October 29th, 2018, 9:54 pm Post #14 - October 29th, 2018, 9:54 pm
    I've taken Amtrak a couple of times round trip to Dearborn, MI this summer. I brought my own snacks each time; it's not a dining car type of trip, but in the near future I expect to take the plunge and go for a longer trip out west. I love traveling by train though it works best when you don't care when you arrive because sure enough there are always delays as we know (usually for freight right-of-way) and I just enjoy the journey because as the song goes, "the point of a journey, is not to arrive." And I'll be honest. I didn't want to get off after 5 hours. I guess we'll see how much I love it after a few bad meals in the dining car but for now it's ok by me.
  • Post #15 - October 30th, 2018, 12:31 pm
    Post #15 - October 30th, 2018, 12:31 pm Post #15 - October 30th, 2018, 12:31 pm
    Hi- Thanks for the link. That link led me to the Amtrack Unlimited forum, where I found out that Amtrack has been told that they have to reduce their food costs, and so the City of New Orleans route has eliminated the chef that used to be on the train, and they now only have two people manning the dining car. It sounds like everything is microwaved, and the food is not as good as it used to be.


    Not really related, but one time, while in New Orleans, we were visiting the Backstreet Cultural Museum when a jazz funeral for Charlie Sims, one-time chef on the City of New Orleans rolled by. We were urged to join the second line, which we did. It was a great experience meeting a lot of New Orleans-types eager to share memories of a unique man. By all accounts, the food on that train used to be a lot better! Read more about him below.

    https://www.nola.com/music/index.ssf/2017/02/charles_mr_charlie_sims_chef-o.html
  • Post #16 - November 1st, 2018, 7:01 am
    Post #16 - November 1st, 2018, 7:01 am Post #16 - November 1st, 2018, 7:01 am
    NFriday wrote:Has anybody eaten in Amtrack's dining car recently? Is the food any good?
    yes, on this particular Amtrak line in Jan of this year, only reverse of what you are doing.

    The "meal" choices are basically a sandwich. In speaking with a friend who takes train trips with his father all over the US & the world, the Chicago-NOLA Amtrak is the worst food choices out of all the US Amtrak lines. I had visions of some nice dining yet was met with a low grade cafeteria sandwich & chips. Not quite the experience portrayed in this Amtrak Video: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=36-rW_CxXes
    I did absolutely nothing and it was everything I thought it could be.
  • Post #17 - November 5th, 2018, 3:37 pm
    Post #17 - November 5th, 2018, 3:37 pm Post #17 - November 5th, 2018, 3:37 pm
    Hi- I just got back from New Orleans, and the train got into Union station two hours late. From the reading I have been doing on the board at Amtrack Unlimited, the City of New Orleans has the worst food out of all of the trains. I only saw one person in my car make a reservation for the dining car. I came prepared this time, and so I did not buy any food on the train. I fixed myself a huge salad with smoked turkey and a red pepper from my sister's garden. I also had some of the oranges I bought at a farmer's market in NO on Saturday, and I had some garlic pita chips that were left over from a retirement party that a friend of my sister put on Saturday. They were actually good. I told my sister how bad the food was supposed ti be on the train, and she said it can't be that bad. Some people are just too fussy about what they eat. She has only ridden that train once. Thanks, Nancy

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