U.S.: A Dining Car Primer; the importance of dining and lounge cars to the financial health of any train

Editor’s Note: This article originally appeared on this platform on December 10, 2020. Illustrations have been added to this presentation. – Corridorrail.com Editor

By J. Bruce Richardson, Corridor Rail Development Corporation; May 30, 2022

Looking into various North American railroad dining car operations reveals much more than just exciting and robust menus. Through the process we learn how various railroads valued – or, did not value – their passengers and the food and beverage revenue which accrued to the railroads’ bottom lines.

Perhaps the most glaring nugget which comes to light is how the railroads enhanced/protected their corporate images with passengers and the public through dining cars.

Northern Pacific’s North Coast Limited dining car, featuring the NP Big Baked Potato. This circa 1960 Northern Pacific publicity photo features a classic dining car steward wearing a blue uniform suit with a white vest. A dining car steward was as busy as any of the servers. The stewards seated all passengers, provided menus and dinner checks and then collected cash when the dinner was paid for. Before Amtrak it was rare for a North American railroad to provide meals included with the cost of accommodations. Internet photo.

Prior to the demise of the Pullman Company on January 1, 1969 when the company was dissolved and all assets were liquidated, most railroads with only a handful of notable exceptions offered Pullman sleeping car accommodations. A roomette was a roomette, and a double bedroom was a double bedroom, whether you were on Southern Pacific’s Golden State or a New Haven night train between Boston and New York City.

A New Haven Railroad lounge car in 1954. The railroads of the day had an excellent understanding that if passengers were in a lounge or dining car instead of at their seat or in their Pullman accommodation they were spending money beyond the cost of their fares. Well run lounge cars meant revenue. Internet photo.
Internet image.

A coach seat was a coach seat; most of them manufactured by the same company. They either reclined or did not, and had leg rests or did not. Every one of them had an ashtray for passengers who smoked.

Three categories of things distinguished one railroad from the other: dining cars, lounge cars, and onboard personnel. A Pullman porter could work any car from any railroad, because they all were essentially the same. In fact, Pullman sleeping cars were sent all over the country from one railroad to another to meet seasonal demand, often sporting a new exterior paint job to match the railroad/consist using the car. The pattern on the wool carpet in every part of the car was the same, no matter the car, and every room had a large brown paper bag for the clean storage of a traveling gentleman’s or lady’s hat while in the room.

It’s 1954 and The Milwaukee Road is promoting its unique Sky Top Lounge cars. The cars would later be sold to Canadian National Railroad where they ran as part of the Super Continental transcontinental consists. Internet photo.
The Milwaukee Road in the 1960s aggressively promoted their continuously open dining and lounge cars. Internet photo.

The dining cars were where reputations were made or maintained. Menus were designed for the broadest possible audience of passengers, whether through regional favorite foods or certain beverages available for the asking.

The railroads understood the dining car was the most expensive piece of rolling stock to purchase, and they made good use of each car. Some railroads offered breakfast service as late as 11 a.m. Luncheon was an event, not a nuisance. Dinner service went on as long as needed to feed every passengers seeking a meal. Some dining cars were open all day; passengers were urged to make use of the dining car for daytime beverage service, such as enjoying an afternoon cocktail. Other railroads had special afternoon events to draw passengers out of their seats or accommodations and into the diner to familiarize them with the offerings. Even if every passenger was offered a free glass of orange juice in the afternoon, it was a clever marketing ploy that allowed passengers to browse the dinner menus on the table to see what made them return hungry in the evening.

Louisville & Nashville Railroad 1960s publicity photo of a Dixie Traveler grill car. Grill cars provided a casual setting with a smaller and less expensive menu than dining cars and remained open longer hours. Many railroads used grill cars to extend their food service options but with fewer employees staffing the cars. Internet photo.
A New Haven Railroad grill car. Internet photo.
Southern Pacific Railroad’s Sunset Limited Audubon dining car. This circa 1950s publicity photo shows the elegance of the dining cars of their day. Internet photo.

Personal pride was part of the glory of dining cars. On many railroads, on each menu was a line which read: _____________ In Charge of This Dining Car. Beyond that, it was also customary for the head of the dining car department to have his name printed on the menu, as well as his mailing address. Passengers were urged to express their good or bad opinions of the dining car food and service to either/both the Steward or head of the railroad’s dining car department.

When being seated by the Steward, who was always attired in a formal suit and tie and vest, passengers were not quizzed whether they wanted a full meal or just perhaps a light breakfast of toast and tea. Those wishing less than a full meal were not banished to the lounge or café car, they were properly served. Some railroads did impose a minimum service charge per person, often in the amount of 35 or 50 cents. Also, if passengers desired to dine alone in their Pullman accommodations, there was often an additional charge per passenger of 50 cents for the service.

Former President Herbert Hoover and a dining companion have dinner in his Pullman accommodation in 1941 on New York Central’s famed 20th Century Limited. Internet photo.

While the dining cars of earlier eras did not have concerns about special diets such as gluten-free foods or low sodium diets, on most menus was a special note about dining cars trying to meet the special requests of as many passengers as possible, and Kosher meals at times were part of the service.

What is particularly notable is the large variety of foods and beverages available, all created in tiny kitchens mostly from fresh foods by large crews of chefs, cooks, and helpers. The Seaboard Air Line Railroad dining car crews often featured 10 employees, from the Steward to the dishwasher with waiters, chefs and cooks all doing their respective jobs.

The only thing disposable in a dining car was the fresh-cut flowers which adorned the tables in silver bud vases. Railroads all had their own distinctive china plates and services, silver sugar bowls, coffee and tea pots and silverware. The sugar bowls often contained cubes of sugar instead of paper packets, and even the salt and pepper shakers were railroad-specific. All of this was on snow white linen tablecloths, expertly changed after every group of diners left the table. Napkins, too, were snow white linen. The only paper items on the table were the menus and meal check.

It was the “extras” that made dining cars even more civil. Many railroads graciously offered finger bowls for passengers, and coffee and tea cups had appropriate saucers to match the cups. Appropriate courses had appropriate silverware. Soup was consumed with soup spoons; desserts with dessert forks.

On routes with heavy competition, such as transcontinental routes from Chicago to Los Angeles, or Chicago to Portland/Seattle or New York to Florida, travel times between competing railroads were often similar, as were fares. It was the amenities and quality of service that drove passenger choice, and those amenities including the quality of the dining car, quality of the lounge car – both Pullman and coach lounge cars – and other onboard services such as barber shops, radio-telephones, full baths, or stenographer service for traveling businessmen.

New York Central Railroad’s 20th Century Limited, one of the most famous, full service and luxurious trains in the world which operated between New York City’s Grand Central Terminal and Chicago. Designed by famed industrial designer Henry Dreyfuss, the train was often a major character in movies. It was an all-Pullman sleeping car train and carried two dining cars as well as lounge cars. Internet photo.
20th Century Limited dining car, circa 1960s. Internet photo.
20th Century Limited dining car kitchen, 1941. Internet photo.
Need to have a business conference while traveling on the 1941 20th Century Limited? The New York Central gladly accommodated its passengers. Internet photo.
In 1941, lounge cars on the 20th Century Limited were a busy place with a lot of cash flowing to the company’s coffers. Internet photo.
As busy as 20th Century Limited lounge cars were in 1941, a quiet spot was usually available, too. Internet photo.
Need a shave on the 1941 20th Century Limited? Before you make your decision to see how good the technique of this barber with a standard straight razor really is, keep in mind the fast train would be traveling at speed over main line, jointed rail track with a ride not quite as smooth as found today on continuous welded rail. Internet photo.
A barber for the men and a manicurist for the ladies in 1941 on the 20th Century Limited. Internet photo.
Even in 1941 on the 20th Century Limited, business never stops. That odd looking contraption on the left is a wax cylinder Dictaphone where the passenger would dictate his business correspondence and the stenographer shown above would type a finished letter on a manual typewriter. Internet photo.
No matter the view of Henry Dreyfuss’s 20th Century Limited design, it was striking. Internet photo.

The Santa Fe had the exclusive Turquoise Room on the Pleasure Dome of Super Chief; the only private dining room on rails. Union Pacific offered dome dining cars on the City of Los Angeles; eating pancakes while sitting in a dome car traveling nearly 100 mph over the desert was an unique experience.

Union Pacific’s Pullman dome lounge cars offered a relaxing atmosphere for drinks and conversation. Internet photo.
This 1957 Union Pacific publicity photo for the City of Los Angeles dome diner shows the main level dining area. Internet photo.
Union Pacific offered dome dining cars on the City of Los Angeles. This 1964 publicity photo is taken from the front of the car looking backwards towards the stairs to the main level.
Santa Fe Railway’s exclusive Turquoise Room, a private dining room in the Pleasure Dome only on the Super Chief. Santa Fe 1951 publicity photo from Wikipedia.

Some railroads had passenger services agents in addition to conductors and assistant conductors. While the train and engine crews (railroad and Pullman) only traveled the typical 100 miles for a full day’s work, the passenger services agents and nurse/hostesses were onboard for the entire trip. While the nurse/hostesses were allowed to sit in Pullman accommodations during the day when taking a break from their duties, they were NOT allowed to close the door of the accommodations.

The railroads often claimed their dining cars were money-losers when filing train-off cases with the Interstate Commerce Commission. But, even up to the day before Amtrak Day on May 1, 1971, many passenger trains were still overall profitable or at least breaking even. Dining and lounge car sales were just as important to trains as was head-end business on the locals. Railroad accountants and managers knew that a basic human need such as eating was just as important when traveling as when staying home, and they provided good dining cars to accomplish that. They respected, not disdained their passengers.

Lounge area below the Santa Fe bubble dome. Internet photo.
Santa Fe bubble dome upper level. Internet photo.
Lower level of Santa Fe dome. Internet photo.
Santa Fe also had full length dome cars. Internet photo.

Before the Walt Disney Worlds and Universal Studios opening in the Amtrak era, railroad dining car managers already knew a secret: When people are traveling away from home, whether it’s on vacation or for business, they are more likely to spend money freely. Dining car prices were not generally higher than most land-based restaurants, but they did offer choices that perhaps diners would not readily choose when eating close to home. Dining cars met a need of travelers, and they met the needs well, often in style and with grace while making solid overall contributions to the financial health of passenger trains.

As VIA Rail Canada knows today, as well as European and Australian passenger train operators, dining cars/food services are key to attracting – and keeping – passengers.

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