Wednesday, February 20, 2013

Dinner in the diner....

...nothing can be finer.

A line from "Chattanooga Choo-choo", but it's true.  If you've never eaten a meal on a train in a dining car, you're missing out on a unique experience.

Once upon a time, it was a staple of train travel.  But, as long distance train travel has become a novelty, so has "dinner in the diner".  Most people have never experienced it.

Dinner trains and tourist trains.  

Just about every tourist rail line has a dining experience.  Some have full dinner trains where you ride just to have a meal.  Some have a dining car where you can have lunch during the regular trip.  It's fun.  The scenery goes by, usually slowly - most tourist lines don't exceed 25 mph.  The food is good - usually provided by a local restaurant and delivered to the train just before departure.  But, the emphasis is on the "Dinner" part and not the "Train" part. This is first and foremost a dining or tourist experience - not transportation.

It's nice, but everyone you meet is there for the same reason you are.  Fun and food - and that's it.  Not that that's bad - there are some really terrific ones out there.  Take a look at the Napa Valley Wine train or the Rocky Mountaineer for example.  (Both on my "to do" list!) They are first-rate and then some, but still a very homogeneous experience.

The Amtrak experience.  

Amtrak operates a skeletal network of  trains that cover long distances on overnight journeys.  These are the last remnant of the trains that used to blanket the country before it was common to fly or drive long distances.  They have sleeping cars with small bedrooms, a lounge car for snacks and sightseeing and a dining car.

The railroads tried hard to hang onto the long distance traveler  Here's an old Santa Fe news reel ad for the Super Chief.

The Santa Fe and other roads were fighting a losing battle.  The airplane siphoned off the lucrative business traveler and the highway got the rest.  Most of these trains disappeared in the 1950s and 60s.  The best of the remnant were saved by Amtrak in 1971 and most continue to this day.

The Amtrak long distance trains aren't much different from the Super Chief (stay calm, my railfan friends...)  They all carry coaches - there are no more "all first class" trains today, and the level of luxury is a bit lower.  There are only roomettes and bedrooms to choose from and there is no barbershop (not sure I'd want a haircut on a moving vehicle, anyway!).  In fact, Amtrak's Southwest Limited covers nearly the same route every day.  It takes 43:15 instead of 39:45, though as there are a few more stops and more freight traffic on the route.  But, they all have full service dining cars.

The route of the Southwest Chief crowed with freight trains (2004)

When you travel by car, you are in your own cocoon and don't have to interact with anyone along the way at any kind of personal level.  Even when you stop for meals, you might talk to your server a bit, but other than that, you are in your own world at your own table.

You won't starve, but you won't meet anyone.

When you fly, even though you are packed into an aluminum tube at maximum density, it's rare that people chat with the strangers next to them all that much.  Flights are usually quick.  The attitude is "lets get this over with!" The seating arrangement already imposes on your personal space - trying to maintain what's left of it takes some effort.  And, it's loud.  And, there aren't any readily available conversation starters. So, you sit there and read your book and listen to your iPod.  On international flights, you still get "food" - delivered to your already overcroweded space.  Try not to drop you coffee on anyone!  (It makes them mad.  I found this out once.)


The train is different.  You are on for a long time, you have some space and there is an element of shared experience.  Long distance train travel is not a common occurrence for most people.

Amtrak's Empire Builder (April 1973)

The dining car is not quite like going to a restaurant.  You do wait to be seated, just like a restaurant, but since space is at a premium on a train, you are likely will be seated at a table with other people.  This is a good thing!  Unless you are planning to spend your meal time staring at your iPhone, it is very likely that you will wind up talking to those other people at your table. It would be rude, not to!

The most common first question is "Where are you headed?" followed by, "Where did you get on?" and "why are you travelling?"  That's just the start.  Usually, you spend almost as much time chatting as you do chewing.

Who will you be sitting with?  Typically, the diner draws more patrons from the sleepers than the coaches.  You'll find senior citizens travelling for fun, vacationers, people from the small towns en route that don't have nearby airports, students, aero-phobes, railfans and people who just wanted to try the train for the experience.  Pretty much a good cross section of the US.

Lounge car people on the California Zephyr (May 2006)

The other attraction of eating in the dining car is that the view out the window is constantly changing.  Sometimes, it's astonishingly stunning, rolling along a river valley, through a gorge or over a snow-capped mountain range.  Sometimes, it's the forgotten side of a dirty, old town.  But, it's all part of the trip.  You can't ride one of these trains without becoming more wise about the US and it's people.

Rolling through Nevada (May 2006)

The menu is more limited than a restaurant, typically a half dozen or so choices, but much of it is prepared on the train in the kitchen of the dining car.  Fine cuisine?  No.  A decent meal?  Yes.  And, the price is reasonable.

Amtrak meal (photo from

Uh, oh.

Which brings us to the future.  The price of the food is reasonable.  The cost to deliver it to your table is not.  Amtrak loses a bundle of money on their long distance trains.  A lot of it is in the food service area.  Not only does that dining car take up space on the train and fuel to haul it around, the cook and dining car attendants live on the train and need their own sleeping space - usually part of a sleeping car - which is the most valuable space on the train.  Plus, you need to stock the train at the beginning of each run. In the whole, it is a very labor and cost intensive operation.

Somewhere down the line, push will come to shove and Amtrak will be either drop a lot of their long distance trains or have to modify the service quite a bit.  The dining car as it has historically existed, may be a casualty.

So, if you want an unique experience, get it while you still can.  You might even consider a out-and-back day trip on a long distance train, just so you can try the dining car.

I could take the Crescent to Birmingham and back.  Breakfast on the way out. Dinner on the way back. Hmmmm...

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