In Amtrak’s Dining Cars, a Tradition Nears Its End

Dining car
Amtrak's distinctive dining cars — as we currently know them — may be going away.
Rick/Creative Commons

For those who’ve partaken of a meal there, Amtrak’s dining cars are hard to forget. In a recent article about traveling across the country by train for The New York Times Magazine, Caity Weaver described the unexpected selection of diners who are matched up at the communal seating found within. “A white middle-aged man in motorcycle gear discussed leukemia treatment with a swish black grandmother,” Weaver wrote. “Another man, while gathering up armfuls of research books from a table, bid farewell to a farmer and suggested that he might run into him on the same train next year.”

There’s something simultaneously appealing and anxiety-inducing about potentially sitting opposite a complete stranger somewhere — but that’s part of the Amtrak dining car’s charm. This weekend, Luz Lazo at The Washington Post wrote that the traditional dining car experience may soon be bound for the annals of history: Amtrak has a new plan in mind for dining and lodging on their trains. 

“Amtrak says it is reinventing its dining service on long-distance trains, killing the traditional dining car to create more ‘flexible’ and ‘contemporary’ dining options,” Lazo writes. The change will be rolled out to overnight trips east of the Mississippi first, beginning this fall and expanding from there.

With the transition, Amtrak is doing away with the traditional onboard kitchen, switching to serving prepackaged meals and easing restrictions on the traditional serving times. The change allows the railroad to cut costs associated with cooking aboard and keeping up with the white-tablecloth service that was once known to rival high-end restaurants and clubs.

A representative from Amtrak cited several reasons for the shift, including appealing to the ever-present younger demographic as well as cutting costs. It’s part of a larger revamp of Amtrak’s travel experience, which also includes new sleeper car designs. 

Whether or not this new strategy succeeds remains to be seen — but Amtrak’s changing approach is likely to spark even more nostalgia among longtime rail travelers.

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