More Than Just French Toast
June 4, 2021
Amtrak's improvements to dining on the Western trains are a welcome downpayment on further improvements to come.
By Jim Mathews / President & CEO
Yes, it’s true. Amtrak is doing more than just restoring what was previously a kind of “meh” traditional dining on the Western trains beginning June 23rd. They’re offering a much better menu with chef-prepared food -- steaks, salmon, the seemingly iconic Railway French Toast and one I’m personally looking forward to: the artisan grilled cheese with three different cheeses and bacon.
And Yes, it IS worth celebrating. Within minutes of Amtrak’s announcement, the negative comments began to flow in, both on Amtrak’s social-media channels and here to us at Rail Passengers. What about the Eastern trains? What about the Texas Eagle? What about Coach passengers? All of those concerns are real, valid concerns, and we’re disappointed, too.
But if anyone thinks we have never raised those issues with Amtrak management, well, you’re very much mistaken. And much more important, as of today Amtrak leadership is increasingly open to additional work on these issues. While we’re going to keep fighting -- obviously -- to restore dining across the entire system and to get Coach passengers into the dining car, let’s not dismiss the very real victory Amtrak’s announcement yesterday represents.
Anyone with toddlers will tell you that the best way to get the little ones to behave is to reward good behavior. Amtrak offered up some good behavior this week -- real tablecloths, no more butcher-block paper, real glassware, real silverware, reduced trash waste, ceramic plates on their way and genuine attention to the customer experience...right down to details like real whipped cream on the French Toast instead of spraying it out of a can. Good behavior, worth encouraging.
One item we’ve been nagging Amtrak about for years is getting ingredient lists into passengers’ hands so that those with special restrictions can safely choose their food. With the change announced yesterday, passengers will be able to scan a QR code with their phones and be taken instantly to the most current and up-to-date ingredients lists for the food that is actually loaded on their train. More good behavior, worth encouraging.
Leadership told us this week that the rigidity often on display in dining cars past will be gone (unless the on-board crews don’t read the memo). If you prefer a lunch entree at dinner, that will be OK. If you want to add some bacon to a cold continental breakfast, no problem. If you want some Greek yogurt with your three-egg omelet, well that’s OK too. Good behavior. Worth encouraging.
Our work is hardly done. We want to see some version of this menu implemented across the system and not just the Western trains. We want to see the Cafe Car offerings improved along with the dining car food. We want to see more healthy options available as choices, and we want to see more care taken for those with special dietary needs, whether gluten-free, vegan, kosher or those with food allergies. I’m allergic to eggs, nuts and shellfish, so this is something I can appreciate personally. But when Amtrak addresses these issues, we should reward them for that, too.
In all of my conversations with Amtrak leadership about these concerns, I’ve found a real willingness to engage. I’m genuinely optimistic that we’ll see progress on all these fronts in a few months’ time...just as I was encouraged last year when I assured our members that Flexible dining on the Western trains was only temporary.
But meanwhile we’re seeing meaningful progress, today, on an issue important to many if not most of our members. My advice? Take the win and keep on fighting.
"The National Association of Railroad Passengers has done yeoman work over the years and in fact if it weren’t for NARP, I'd be surprised if Amtrak were still in possession of as a large a network as they have. So they've done good work, they're very good on the factual case."
Robert Gallamore, Director of Transportation Center at Northwestern University and former Federal Railroad Administration official, Director of Transportation Center at Northwestern University
November 17, 2005, on The Leonard Lopate Show (with guest host Chris Bannon), WNYC New York.