U.S., Amtrak, Passenger Trains and Dining Cars: What has History Taught Us?

By J. Bruce Richardson, Corridor Rail Development Corporation; December 31, 2020

As 2020 mercifully and thankfully comes to a close, what do we know about railroad dining cars and the passenger trains they make more enjoyable? What may be learned from history that is relevant to today?

First, we know what a modern dining car is capable of – meals some would describe as a feast, others would describe as substantial and satisfying. For the best example of this in North America, look no further than the VIA Rail Canada dining cars on the Canadian. Small kitchens with big, achievable ambitions and satisfied, previously hungry passengers.

We know food service, be it in a formal dining car setting or a cafe/lounge car, is important to passengers of all ages. There is no one dominant age group of passengers driving the desire for food – the desire is to eat satisfying, healthy food that meets the needs of a wide range of passenger ages and demographics. This requires something that has not been served in a plastic wrapper.

We know passenger trains are not merely large buses hooked together on steel wheels running on steel rails. Trains are moving hotels, with all of the same needs for passengers as are found in full service hotels. Comfortable and safe accommodations. More than a single, one-size-fits-all choice of accommodations. Food service available at hours when patrons want to eat, not when it is convenient for crews to provide service. Lounge service for those desiring more than just food; those seeking the relaxation of a selection of hard and soft beverages either before or after a meal, or creating an interlude of another choice.

We know in a post-pandemic 21st Century world, passengers want to travel in a safe, non-toxic atmosphere with plenty of personal space. This precludes sitting shoulder-to-shoulder in an airplane, with less than 30 inches of space between rows of passengers. Passenger trains are the only form of modern non-waterborne transportation which allows passengers to book private accommodations or coach accommodations with adequate personal space.

We know for passenger trains to be effective and financially viable they must be offered as a product which is desirable and a welcome choice for travelers, with a maximum of efficiency and passenger service and a minimum of the modern associated hassle of travel. This first and foremost includes adequate and appealing food service as found in traditional dining cars.

We know in Europe and elsewhere the night train is making a strong comeback, providing modern, efficient, and pleasurable intercity journeys in private accommodations with beds, in most cases negating the need for hotel use when traveling between major terminals.

We know it takes well-trained onboard and station services staff who have a desire to make journeys pleasant and notable. While it is true the majority of onboard services staff are first and foremost safety employees helping passengers, they are also the frontline face of every passenger train. A single employee having a grumpy day can create dozens of passengers who become “never again” passenger train riders. Onboard service employees must be hired from the best pools of talent, paid an honorable wage for the critical services they provide, have enlightened management which manages by example, not by decree, and subject to ongoing training to meet the needs of changing passenger tastes and desires.

Finally, we know passenger trains are a viable and desirable form of transportation that is critically under-marketed and under-utilized. Passenger trains in America, in the form of Amtrak are, as first said in writing by this writer 20 years ago, America’s Best Kept Secret.

As we enter into the wee hours of 2021 and a hope for a better world, we can hope the American passenger train finds a renaissance and new-founded appreciation by the traveling public, all while enjoying a memorable and healthy dining car meal.

Happy New Year to one and all.

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