There was a Brooklyn-Irish merchant marine who kept bragging about his flings in port; a middle-aged man in a Chicago Cubs jersey and cap who told grizzly tales from his years in a street gang, back when he was “the leader of a thousand men”; and a retired civil servant from Harlem, who initially approached the table to tell the man in the Cubs cap that his stories were “terrorizing” an Amish family seated two rows away. “I’m from the street too and I’m not impressed,” he said, though he was impressed with the merchant marine’s duffle bag of whiskey nips, so he took a seat and a drink. The Amish family and a few other nervous eavesdroppers eventually left and soon we were barking at each other around a single table in an otherwise empty car, hushing only when the porter came through, until dawn filtered in and the track lights turned off.
At 6:30 on the dot the four of us finally lurched toward the dining car and sat at a table set with china and flatware on a white tablecloth. A rose sat in a small vase by the window. The menu had a picture of powdered thick French toast with berries and cream; I ordered that. A waiter soon placed it on the table, along with bacon, eggs, pastries, and coffee, all freshly prepared by the onboard chef. As we glided alongside the Erie Canal in the morning sun, filling our bellies, our slobbering bullshit quieted into earnest conversation about transitional periods in all of our lives, and wary anticipation of what would come next. We entered that dining car as four strangers, but by the time we departed we had shared a table, shared our pasts, and were hopeful for each other’s futures. I don’t think that connection would have been possible if it hadn’t been for the disarming power of a hot meal on a moving train.
The magical communal breakfast I experienced back in 2005 was likely the beginning of the end of traditional rail dining service as we know it. In 2017, Amtrak hired a new CEO, Richard Anderson — a former Delta Airlines executive, if that tells you anything about his culinary commitment — following demands from Congress to eliminate food service losses from the national rail service; Amtrak has always operated at a loss and like most transportation infrastructure, it depends on government subsidies to maintain operations. They eliminated traditional dining service on two lines in 2018 and on several more the next year. It seemed passengers didn’t even want traditional train car dining anyway. In 2019, Peter Wilander, then Amtrak’s vice president of product development and customer experience, told the Washington Post that millennials “want more privacy, they don’t want to feel uncomfortable sitting next to people” they don’t know.
It was during this period that I embarked on my second-ever long-distance train trip, this time to fulfill my 4-year-old son Marcel’s dream of riding a “night train.” It was the same route I’d taken 14 years earlier, but headed the other way, to Chicago. I had spent weeks hyping him up about the “train restaurant,” and knew he’d be impressed by the bustle of the cooks maneuvering in the galley kitchen, searing steaks on the griddle, and shouting orders as pots and pans rattled overhead. This was pre-pandemic, so I also told him we’d likely share a table with some interesting characters. Come dinnertime he scampered in front of me toward the dining car, paused at the vestibules to power-kick the green OPEN buttons, and then raced forward again. We arrived in the cafe car, Amtrak’s a la carte snack bar (where, generally speaking, there is never much action or enticing food), and I asked a porter where the dining car was. He shook his head and said, “They did away with that on this line.” I told him how disappointed I was, and started talking about the nice place settings and the thick French toast; he raised his hand, looked away, and said, “Man, don’t even talk about it.”
Instead, Marcel and I were about to experience what Amtrak has dubbed “flexible dining service” — microwaved dinners in black plastic trays, like airplane food, that are easy to take back to your sleeper and eat in isolation. I ordered a plastic tray of limp charcuterie thinking it was the only meal that would be spared the microwave treatment. Dinner is included for sleeper car passengers; they also throw in an alcoholic beverage. I chose Maker’s Mark — it felt like an apology, alluding to the whiskey nips from that train ride of yore. Marcel got a bag of Goldfish and a tube of Go-Gurt and we headed back to our roomette to put together a wooden grasshopper kit before tucking into bed for the night. I hoped for a serviceable breakfast the next morning but we awoke to dried-out Jimmy Dean breakfast sandwiches in plastic bags. In what I think was supposed to be a promotional video, you can see Madison Butler, communications manager for the Rail Passengers Association (RPA), the train advocacy group that helped Amtrak get founded and funded — also a chef — trying to dress up the breakfast sandwich with mustard and mayonnaise packets: “I’m not gonna say it’s a bad experience… but I am gonna put more mustard on my sandwich.” In the end, we opted to skip the train breakfast and waited for lunch in Chicago.
If you’ve taken a U.S. train ride of considerable length over the last few years, and especially if you traveled during the pandemic, when flexible dining was implemented system-wide, this is likely what your eating experience has been like — a sad melding of airplane food, without the speed and efficiency of actual air travel. But now, it seems there may be a light yet again at the end of the train tunnel. In June, Amtrak announced that it’s bringing traditional dining back to some trains. They are currently only offering traditional dining to sleeper car passengers on most trains, but there are plans to expand. And with a president who has famously taken around 8,000 Amtrak rides on his D.C. to Delaware route, and Democratic representatives in Congress like Tennessee’s Steve Cohen, who can’t get over boyhood memories of railroad filet mignon, Amtrak may soon be able to afford enough steak to go around: There is $66 billion earmarked for Amtrak in the Senate-passed infrastructure bill. Hundreds of communities around the country depend on rail service for access to work, medical services, and other essential travel. But all travelers deserve to eat well, especially those crossing long distances — and some of that money could end up improving food service.
There was a time before Amtrak that many refer to as the “golden age” of railroad dining. From the late 19th century until the Great Depression, American railroads served regional cuisine that rivaled the best restaurants in the country. In 1925, railroads served around 80,000 meals per day, according to Jeri Quinzio in her book, Food on the Rails.
Dining by Rail author James Porterfield wrote that Midwestern trains served freshwater fish from the Great Lakes and East Coast trains served saltwater fish from the Chesapeake Bay; the Union Pacific Railroad “hunted for four years before it found, in a little valley in Utah, just the right kind of raspberries”; the Chesapeake and Ohio Railway offered a “Chesapeake Bay fish dinner” — layers of local flounder, oysters, potatoes, and white onions baked in a casserole and topped with a cream sauce. A Colorado railroad served passengers fried Colorado mountain trout in brown butter with julienne potatoes as they passed through remote stretches of the Rockies. The Welcome Table author Jessica B. Harris wrote in the Chicago Tribune that southeastern menus reflected the predominance of Black rail chefs, with dishes like “ham with pineapple fritters, plantation beef stews, biscuits, cream of peanut soup, baked sweet potatoes, and scalloped oysters.”
Sadly, that level of luxury was costly — in 1925, trains spent $10.5 million on food service, according to Quinzio. Managers underpaid and overworked Black cooks and porters, beginning just after the Civil War, to trim the budget. A New York Times article from 1886 reported that porters could work 37 hours straight, make $16 a month, and have to pay for their own uniforms ($18 a piece) and meals.
Butler, of the RPA, says that the inequality was just as bad inside the dining room. “The upper classes were in those fancy dining cars but everyone else was back in [steerage].” I would never have been sharing a table with disparate souls, like I did in 2005. According to Butler, it’s our romanticized notion of this so-called golden age that’s been an obstacle in adapting the dining car to modern life. “We need to eliminate the overly decadent bourgeois narrative attached to the dining car, because it’s unsustainable,” they said. “There is a middle ground between decadence and TV dinners and it is not unreasonable to expect that on an overnight trip. Through publicly paid infrastructure we can have something that is nicer for everyone without being ridiculous.”
Butler, who travels all over the country on Amtrak through her job with the RPA, says her most valuable dining car experiences on Amtrak have been while breaking bread with strangers, like the time she split a bottle of wine with an 84-year-old widow who had sold her condo and was traveling the country on Amtrak out of three suitcases. “Train people are built different,” they said. “They aren’t in a rush and they mingle in a way you wouldn’t at an airport. I’ve seen lots of people who would normally be polarized interact with each other in that liminal space on board.”
Butler’s organization, the RPA, was founded as the National Association of Railroad Passengers in 1968 to advocate for a national rail service that would take over for the ailing private railroads as plane travel became more commonplace in the late ’50s and ticket sales dropped. By 1965 only 10,000 passenger cars were in operation, 85 percent fewer than in 1929. Desperate to save on labor costs, the New York Central line introduced the Meal-a-Mat vending machine: You’d buy a railroad classic like lobster Newburg and heat it yourself in a “radar oven” (read: microwave). If you want a taste of what eating rubbery microwaved seafood on the train might have been like, just try the sesame-glazed salmon on any of Amtrak’s trains offering flexible dining today. The end of the private passenger railroad was near.
In 1967 the railroads lost their U.S. Postal Service first-class-mail contracts and went into free fall. The RPA was finally able to successfully advocate for the National Railroad Passenger Corporation, what we know as Amtrak. In 1971, with funding from Congress, Amtrak assumed control of most of the privately owned passenger railroads and purchased 140 dining cars to go with them. By 1983 the remaining railroads had been canceled or turned over to Amtrak. And while Amtrak passengers weren’t served seven-course meals with swordfish mains like they were on the private lines in the ’20s, they ate well, tables were open to everyone, and cooks and other workers were treated with more dignity.
I asked Robert Wiggins, an African-American chef on the Capitol Limited between D.C. and Chicago in the 1980s, if he liked his job. “I loved it,” he said, recalling “good union protection” and leeway in the kitchen. He made all of his sauces from scratch, improvised menus, and advised the national menu-planning board. He would usually have strip steak, flounder stuffed different ways, and a chicken dish like cordon blue or francese on the pass at dinner time. Wiggins would spend his break time in Chicago visiting local gourmet shops for special ingredients. His proudest moment was when Jesse Jackson showed up to hang out in the kitchen. “He said, ‘What have you got for me, chef?’” The reverend wanted ribs, and Wiggins was ready for him.
Menus from Amtrak’s train lines were far smaller than those of the luxurious private railroads during the golden age, but they were well-executed and often inspired by their region. A Crescent line menu from the 1980s offered wines from vineyards along the route. For the Virginia ham with orange raisin sauce they suggested a Winter White chardonnay from Pindar Vineyards in New York. A Southwest Chief menu from the ’90s showed New Mexico steamed tamales for lunch, served with cilantro and black beans. In the early aughts, Amtrak began assembling chefs for the Amtrak Culinary Advisory Team; they would meet each spring to develop dishes in their test kitchen. James Beard Award-winning chef Jamie Bissonnette worked with a team in 2017 that included chefs Roberto Santibañez and Matthias Merges. Bissonnette said, “Matthias had a great ramen dish that he developed for one of the white-tablecloth long-distance trains. There was Moroccan beef with chickpea salad and harissa barbecue sauce and a shrimp biryani. [The biryani] was good enough that I twisted around the recipe and put it on the menu at one of my restaurants.” Bissonnette’s Indian spiced shrimp biryani ran for just a short time before the first of the serious food service cuts began.
Like on the private railroads, Amtrak’s food service program has always been a loss leader; it never made money. In fact, Amtrak hasn’t turned a profit since its inception in 1971. Butler says, “Some people think the ticket sales cover the budget, but it isn’t set up to be a for-profit company. It is a national service more like the post office or a library.” Not everyone agrees with this philosophy. In 2012 Rep. John Mica of Florida criticized the national rail service for losing $833 million on food service over the previous decade. In 2015 he worked language into the surface transportation law that required Amtrak to develop and implement a plan to eliminate losses from food and beverage service within five years. Then came Anderson from Delta.
While controversial, the new CEO quickly achieved the best financial performance Amtrak has ever seen, through a combination of layoffs, making short-haul trains on the East Coast between urban centers more reliable, and introducing attractive pricing for groups and sleeper car passengers. When he eliminated traditional dining, he “sparked outrage among labor unions and rail passenger groups,” and inspired six pages about Amtrak food service in last year’s House Democratic infrastructure bill, according to a 2020 article in Roll Call. A Change.org petition calling for the return of traditional dining generated more than 157,000 signatures, and Tennessee Rep. Cohen reported 118,000 written complaints about its removal. RPA CEO and president Jim Mathews told Anderson during a meeting of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee in November 2019, “It’s not just the food … It is the experience of meeting people on the train and having that shared meal.” Later that month, Anderson told a Boston public radio station, “Our biggest challenge is I go testify in Congress and all we talk about is French toast on dining cars.”
Anderson left Amtrak after his three-year contract expired, and the company now has a new CEO, William Flynn, and a new president, Stephen Gardner. Butler says Gardner “has a great vision for long-distance routes” that, with the commitment of state and federal governments — and the private railroads whose track Amtrak rents — might actually come to fruition.
Robert Jordan, Amtrak’s vice president of customer service stations and onboard (which includes food service), said that since bringing back traditional dining to select routes in June, “Our customer satisfaction index has jumped 20 percent.” There are several vegan and gluten-free options and more appetizers, including lobster crab cakes over farro with butternut squash and a vegetarian tamale with Hatch chiles and cheese. The Angus flat iron steak has returned as a main course along with a tortellini dish with pesto cream. LA-based Amtrak chef Frank Villasenor told Trains.com that he notices “more marbling” in the steaks being supplied than there was prior to 2018, a fresher vegetable selection, more varied and colorful garnishes and spices to choose from, and sauces and edible flowers to dress up the chocolate tortes, cheesecakes, and carrot cakes. “On a plate-by-plate basis [traditional dining] is equal to the cost of flexible dining,” says Jordan. He adds, “When it comes to overhead costs we had to take payroll out of the equation because we’re dictated by Congress to bring back all of the food service workers who were furloughed during the pandemic.”
If the good feedback and Congressional support continues, Jordan says the next steps would be to expand traditional dining to coach customers again, and finally back to the East Coast.
Ultimately, the lifespan of the traditional train dining experience will be up to the passengers, and we’ll see in the coming years if Wilander, Amtrak’s former customer experience VP, was right that younger generations would rather eat alone. It certainly isn’t true for me, an elder millennial. I won’t likely be back on a train until traditional dining returns to routes leaving from New York. I hope that it happens soon so my son can experience the glory of train dining before he hits the age when he’d rather be holed up in a roomette with his phone. If popular support for Amtrak and its dining car dies out with the oldest generation, we won’t have anyone to push back the next time there is an unfavorable CEO or Congress. In that case, we’ll lose traditional train dining as we know it, and with it, a rare venue where people of all stripes can still sit and connect. I’m not hopeless, though. The train ride is long, Wi-Fi is spotty, and if the food is enticing, people will be compelled to close their laptops, walk to the dining car, and eat.
Mike Diago is a social worker, writer, and cook based in New York’s Hudson Valley. Jarred Briggs is a freelance illustrator based in New Brunswick, Canada. He loves creating conceptual illustrations with splashes of color.