I tried Amtrak's new 'contemporary' dining car - and it was immediately clear why so many people want to save the old one
- Earlier this year, Amtrak announced an overhaul of many dining options on its long-distance services on the East Coast.
- The biggest change was that custom-cooked, made-to-order meals would be going by the wayside in favor of read-to-serve options.
- Even before the changes took effect, the backlash was quick and fierce from rail fans across the country.
- I set out on a cross-country journey this week to see for myself what the new food was like, and found many of the passengers' worries were not only warranted, but completely correct.
ABOARD AMTRAK'S LAKE SHORE LIMITED - The fact that airline veterans now make up a bulk of Amtrak's c-suite is on display perhaps nowhere more than in the agency's new, "contemporary" dining car offerings.
Beginning in October, many overnight trains east of the Mississippi River bid adieu to the traditional white tablecloths and custom-cooked meals that hearkened to an earlier age of rail travel. They were replaced by what is essentially airline food: microwaved, individual-sized meals, heated from frozen storage.Amtrak's leadership, to their credit was up-front with passengers about the need for change: the company has a mandate from Congress to save money, especially in the dining cars. But a remark by Andrew Wilander, Amtrak's head of customer experience, in late September, rubbed riders the wrong way.
"We want to simplify the process," he told the Washington Post. "On the single-overnight, long-distance trains, we have a mandate from Congress to take the loss on the food down, and we're going to keep driving that down. The simplest way to do that is to go to a single food car and then have choice for customers."
On Tuesday, I set out on a cross-country Amtrak trip of my own to find out why, among other things, the dining car was such a favorite of rail fans around the country. And it was clear when I first sat down why the changes had left a bad taste in some peoples' mouths.