U.S.: Stephen Gardner’s Amtrak lounge cars are the dining car’s lesser but potentially desirable siblings – if only they would allowed to be so

Editor’s Note: This article originally appeared in this space on January 5, 2021 and has been updated. – Corridorrail.com Editor

By J. Bruce Richardson, Corridor Rail Development Corporation; May 12, 2022

In the Amworld of President and CEO Stephen Gardner, passengers – especially coach passengers on long distance/inter-regional trains – are pretty much on their own when it comes to a meal providing real nutrition. Essentially, there is no respect from Stephen Gardener’s corporate planners at Amtrak for coach passengers. Coach passengers are thought of as not much more than bus passengers.

Only since Stephen Gardner became the unfortunate driving force for Amtrak policy have coach passengers been held with such disdain that it is presumed they may actually want to survive on a menu which makes a land-based, nutrition-free fast food restaurant seem desirable.

Amtrak dining cars on western inter-regional trains have recently returned to serving appetizing and fulfilling meals, but only for sleeping car passengers. Keep in mind the Superliner dining cars on these trains were designed and built to serve upwards of 400 passengers during a meal period. But, in Stephen Gardner’s Amworld all of that capacity is ignored and while well-fed sleeping car passengers pass their time satisfyingly full, coach passengers must stand in long lines in Sightseer lounge cars for meals not only unfit for a king, but unfit for a pauper as well.

Current dining car fare for sleeping car passengers on Amtrak western inter-regional trains such as the Empire Builder. Photo provided by Amtrak passenger.

On eastern long distance trains the horror of Flexible Dining are still prevalent with the same restrictions of only serving sleeping car passengers in newer Viewliner diners. But the catch here is not all of the overnight inter-regional trains even have a dining car; some such as the Crescent and Cardinal only offer a single, crowded cafe/lounge car with a too-busy convection oven.

Onboard services employees and train and engine crew employees on these trains often know better to board a train without their own supplies; it’s not unusual to see a bucket of the Colonel’s finest chicken providing crew nourishment, with envious passengers looking on in utter despair.

The Pre-Amtrak streamliner lounge car, once the haven of passengers seeking a refreshing beverage and civil conversation with fellow passengers has evolved – most would really say devolved to a lesser mandate as a cafe/lounge car – into a rolling fast food restaurant serving high-priced food wrapped and served in plastic, and with slow service in the 21st Century.

As the American dining car’s lesser sibling, the modern lounge/café car is a combination of uncomfortable booth seating, at many times a single overworked lead service attendant facing long lines of customers, not enough stock to last a roundtrip if there is no turn-terminal commissary, and menu choices not necessarily aimed at the majority of travelers. In reality, there is not much “lounge” left in the lounge/cafe cars because all casual seating has been removed in favor or rigid table booths. Any hint of a convivial atmosphere has long been erased.

As the Southern Pacific managers of California’s Coast Daylight understood, as the Pullman Company managers of Pullman lounges all across the country, as the Pennsylvania Railroad managers of the daily Congressional service on their Northeast Corridor trains all understood, Stephen Gardner’s Soviet-style management of commerce is always destined to fail. In the real world, a company creates a product and wants to sell that product to the widest audience of customers, and customers want to purchase that product as a free-market choice, not purchase it because it is the only “take it or leave it” product available.

On passenger trains, there are two types of cars: revenue and non-revenue. Revenue cars are those where passengers purchase transportation and accommodations such as coaches and sleeping cars. Non-revenue cars are everything else, including diners, lounges, crew cars and baggage cars. Every type of car – with crew cars playing a supporting role – has the ability to create income. Diners, lounges and baggage cars all sell a product, such as food and beverages and the haulage of excess baggage and express for a price.

The all-coach and parlor car renowned train – with a roughly 10 hour intrastate schedule for just less than 500 miles – the Coast Daylight typically had space for approximately 500 passengers and each terminal departure from either Los Angeles or the San Francisco Bay area carried an average load factor of 68% or 344 passengers in its pre-Amtrak prime.

To feed and nurture the travel needs of those passengers, Southern Pacific provided a three-unit diner which included a full dining car, kitchen car, and coffee shop car, plus a tavern car, plus a parlor observation/lounge car.

Both the coffee shop and diner provided full meals; one on white linen tablecloths, the other on placemats on tables. The menus were appropriate to the service, be it full service or a casual meal. The tavern car offered hard and soft beverages and typical light snacks such as peanuts.

Southern Pacific recognized its passengers on this noteworthy train came from all strata of passengers, from grandmothers to full families to businessmen. Southern Pacific recognized and appreciated that one size does not fit all.

Is the extensive range of Coast Daylight services necessary today? Yes, and no.

The concepts are still correct, but can be modified for today’s passenger trains.

For routes operating over 250 miles, there is a possibility at least two meal periods will occur.

While a full diner may not be necessary unless it is a long distance overnight train, the original concept of the coffee shop or lunch counter or grill car is appropriate. Meal menus do not need to be extensive, but some sort of full meal – other than a warmed-up hotdog or heated pre-prepared cheeseburger or cold salad – is called for. Items like stews or casserole single-dish meals fit the category. The bottom line is, people want hot food in many instances, not food that comes in a plastic wrapper. With the major innovations in food service and the use of conveniences such as air fryers/convection ovens, many desirable food choices are available for easy preparation.

Cross-country cafe offerings on the Texas Eagle. Photo by Russ Jackson.

For any train with a length of more than three coaches, two non-revenue cars are appropriate: a coffee shop/grill car, and a full lounge car. Some will complain about the car day/car mile maintenance costs, but, as dining cars of some sort are a necessity, properly marketed lounge cars can more than carry their weight financially.

Union labor is also not an issue. Dining car/food service union labor has been a favorite target of uninformed cost cutters. Well-trained and motivated onboard services employees more than make back their hourly and benefits cost if management has given them the tools to provide good service and backed them up with an innovative service plan that includes pre-boarding and onboard marketing to make passengers aware – and, appropriately hungry and thirsty – for the train’s food and beverage service offerings.

A full lounge car with a bar, comfortable seating, and proper ambience can only fail when there is an empty train. While thankfully smoking is no longer allowed on trains, lounge cars are still a desirable haven away from a coach, business class or parlor car seat.

Modern managers seem to have forgotten that one of the huge advantages of riding a train is not being confined to a single seat for the entire journey. The ability to stand up and move around at will, moving from car to car, is a distinct advantage over air travel or travel by bus or private vehicle. It’s a marketing/selling point no other type of non-waterborne travel can claim.

As passengers are rediscovering night trains and post-pandemic passengers are discovering private accommodations are available on passenger trains, the question of the exclusive lounge car for sleeping car passengers returns.

Amtrak’s newer Viewliner dining cars are being ill-used for this purpose – someone figured out that dining car space when not being used to serve meals can also be used as lounge space, too, for sleeping car passengers. While this is a gross-misuse of these expensive cars for a purpose they were never intended, the concept does point the way for the reintroduction of the sleeping car lounge.

Brian Rosenwald in the 1990s led the invention of the Pacific Parlour Car for Amtrak’s Coast Starlight, the successor to the Coast Daylight.

The Pacific Parlour Car was a full, bi-level car. On the lower level a movie theater was installed (this was before smartphones, tablets and laptop computers also served as personal movie/video devices), and the upper level had three main features: a bar/serving area, booth seating for those dining in the car for light meals and snacks, and a casual seating area that included deep swivel chairs for conversation and sightseeing. It was the perfect combination of what a modern sleeping car lounge should be to provide upscale amenities to sleeping car passengers.

VIA Rail Canada, sensibly, on the Canadian, still maintains a sleeping car lounge, and does it with part of the round-end, dome observation car with sleeping accommodations and the rest true lounge space. Any modern train with at least two sleeping cars, be it a single-level or bi-level train should have dedicated sleeping car lounge space, ideally as one half of a sleeping car and the other half revenue accommodations as the Pullman Company did successfully for decades.

Enlightened passenger rail management knows there is money to be made; it’s just a matter of how to go about it. Sensible things, such as mimicking cruise lines by pre-selling meal packages and lounge beverage packages tremendously raises the utility and income of non-revenue cars. Simply marketing food and beverage service as an integral part of the travel experience also makes a huge difference.

One thing social media demonstrates is the overall ignorance of first-time train passengers. It is not uncommon for there to be questions about whether or not any type of food service is available, even questions about sleeping car accommodations and whether or not bed linens and pillows are available as part of the accommodations charge.

Most of the confusion comes from the same problem, as stated before: Amtrak is America’s Best Kept Secret. If more people were aware their city or town had passenger train service and had travel choices such as multiple frequencies, it is highly liked demand would easily outstrip availability.

Those of us who have actually analyzed internal dining car numbers at the request of Amtrak know the reality of it all: Amtrak dining cars are not the cash drain it is claimed they are; with a few tweaks and a more realistic approach dining cars can more than carry their own weight from as financial standpoint.

Dining car prices are now outrageous and it’s a form of financial hocus-pocus. Since sleeping car meal costs are transferred from the dining car to sleeping cars (where accommodations charges are equally, if not more, outrageous), high prices simply mean more money is internally transferred to cover dining car costs.

Current prices are too high. On the Coast Starlight, business class passengers have been “allowed” to use the dining car, but at prices so high even a fine dining establishment would blush at the cost/offering ratio. For coach passengers paying their own way, simply offer a few lower-priced items which coach passengers could afford. The dining car overhead is already covered by the sleeping car passengers; maybe one extra crew member may be necessary and the cost of food needs to be covered, but that’s about it. Coach passengers in the dining car is simply creating “found money.”

Stephen Gardner’s Amtrak needs to stop insulting its coach passengers by providing less than desirable food service. Reopen the dining cars to everyone, allow the revenue to flow, and allow passengers to realize the full benefits of train travel. If passengers wanted to travel without reasonable access to food they would simply take a bus.

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