Onboard analysis: Facing Amtrak’s food and staffing challenges

Onboard analysis: Facing Amtrak’s food and staffing challenges


Fifth in a series

CHICAGO — Food service on Amtrak’s long-distance trains has become such an exercise in repetition that something as modest as the cold meal service on the Portland, Ore., section of the Empire Builder is both a notable and welcome respite.

That’s one aspect of the current state of onboard dining, which suggests both immediate and future alterations.

The cold meals are offered to sleeping-car passengers because the Builder’s dining car operates on the Seattle section of the train that joins or splits at Spokane, Wash., on its way to or from Chicago. It’s a cost-effective compromise that makes sense. While Portland coach passengers can purchase cafe fare downstairs in the Sightseer Lounge, travelers in the sleeper have been served a continental breakfast westbound, with deli-style options for the eastbound dinner.

When Trains News Wire made the connection from the northbound Coast Starlight in Portland in late October, a fig and chicken salad was one of only two choices offered. But the tasty boxed dinner, which also includes shaved parmesan cheese, balsamic dressing, sliced apple, and a brownie, provided welcome variety from the eight meal-in-a-bowl “Flexible dining” alternatives served at both lunch and dinner to sleeping-car passengers on all western trains.

These meals migrated from the single-night eastern trains to their western counterparts in July, as Amtrak opted to reduce labor costs while facing uncertain demand, at the same time sleeping car patrons might reasonably expect room-service meals to maintain social distancing. In those conditions, transporting silverware, entrees, side dishes, beverages and deserts would be difficult to execute.

The western lunch and dinner menus were expanded slightly, although fresh fruit was dropped from an already woefully thin breakfast lineup. Other than oatmeal, the only hot morning item served from the dining car is an Egg McMuffin-style breakfast sandwich. The café sells a similar item, as well as a satisfying sausage, egg, potato and cheese “breakfast bowl” that was sampled on the California Zephyr.


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