U.S., Pennsylvania Railroad History: Discount Full Meals for Dining Outside of Traditional Meal Hours

By J. Bruce Richardson, Corridor Rail Development Corporation; January 7, 2021

In the 1940s, the dining car department of the still mighty Pennsylvania Railroad, based on its 1916-adopted slogan that it was the Standard Railroad of the World, figured out a way to sweat their dining car assets better and provide more service to their passengers.

We don’t know if this idea came from the senior Pennsy Passenger Sales and Services managers in Philadelphia, or the actual Dining Car Services managers in Long Island City, New York, the location of Sunnyside Yard, which the Pennsylvania Railroad built in 1910. Appropriately for the soon-to-be Standard Railroad of the World, Sunnyside Yard was the largest coach yard in the world when built. Today, Sunnyside Yard is owned and operated by Amtrak and also served New Jersey Transit.

Even though by 1956, the Pennsylvania had more modestly styled itself as Serving the Nation, they did seem to understand the basic needs of their passengers perhaps better than many others.

For at least the full service overnight train the Spirit of St. Louis – perhaps for much more of the PRR passenger system – a handy paper folder/menu was handed out to passengers:

How You Can Save Money On
Delicious Plate Meals
By Dining EARLY or LATE!

Breakfast before seven
and enjoy this wholesome fare for 50¢

*Before 7 A.M.
Orange Juice
Minced Ham with Scrambled Eggs
Toast and Cup of Coffee

Lunch before eleven (or after two)
and enjoy this excellent meal for 65¢

*Before 11 A.M. – After 2:00 P.M.
Fish, Meat or Egg Dish
(Omelette if desired)
Served on Large plate, family style
with Potatoes and Vegetable
Bread and Butter, Dessert
Cup of Coffee, Tea or Glass of Milk

Dine before five (or after eight)
and enjoy a substantial dinner for 65¢

*Before 5:00 P.M. – After 8:00 P.M.
Same typical menu and price as for luncheon

*Standard Time, except in districts where Daylight Saving Time is observed. Served only in P.R.R. Dining Cars Except on New York–Philadelphia Hourly Trains and while P.R.R. Dining Cars are enroute on other railroads.

Please Present This Folder To Dining Car Steward

It pays to avoid “The Rush Hour”

During periods other than those specified, the dining car is open for service at the regular prevailing menu prices.

Cigars, cigarettes and beverages are on sale in dining car at all hours (Subject to Federal and State Regulations).

For passengers who prefer coach service, waiters pass through the train frequently, offering –

Fruit (Apple or Orange), 10¢
Sandwich, Cheese, 15¢
Sandwich, Ham, 15¢
Coffee, 10¢
Milk, 10¢
Candy, Chewing Gum or Peanuts, 05¢
Soft Drinks (Pop, Pepsi-Cola and Coca-Cola), 10¢
Fresh Fruit Orangeade, 20¢
Fresh Fruit Lemonade, 20¢
Playing Cards, Single Deck, 35¢
Playing Cards, Bridge Deck, 65¢
Cigarettes, 20¢

Pennsylvania Railroad

It’s notable that a single deck of playing cards had a cost of twice as much and more than a ham sandwich. It’s also notable the Pennsylvania did not simply wait for passengers to wander into one of the food service cars – it took the food and various sundry items directly to coach passengers in their seats.

The Spirit of St. Louis operated between New York Penn Station and St. Louis Union Station via Pittsburgh, Columbus and Indianapolis and was a full service train which included a dining car, lounge car, sleeping cars, observation car, a bar lounge coach, and coaches.

What we have learned from this offering is the Pennsylvania’s dining cars were open all day, from early morning to late evening. As the dining car was/is always the most expensive piece of equipment in a passenger train consist, the dining car service managers found a way to achieve the highest and best use of their dining cars by being open to passengers for whenever it was convenient for passengers to dine and offered the reward of lower costs for off-hours. What else did this accomplish? It leveled out the “rush” of traditional meal times, making the dining experience more enjoyable for passengers who were not compelled to abandon their tables as soon as possible after completing their meals.

This also kept pressure off the stewards, waiters and kitchen staff by leveling out the demand so everyone could be served properly. This was an early example allowing passengers the freedom to dine when they chose, not on some pre-defined regimen dictated by the convenience of dining car employees or the stingy allowance of on-the-clock time for dining car staff.

It was a time when customer/passenger service mattered more than artificial goals set by non-railroaders for passenger trains. It was a time when convenience, service, and performance all mattered and were recognized.

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