Changes Coming To Eastern Amtrak Dining Cars

by Kev
Capitol Limited Sleeper Lounge

Changes Coming To Eastern Amtrak Dining Cars

Last update: September 18, 2019

For many passengers who travel on Amtrak’s long-distance trains, the walk to the dining car is something many look forward to as they roll along the countryside. But soon changes are coming to some of Amtrak dining cars and here is what you need to know.

This article evolved a lot since it was first published. I left a few sections in but crossed them out to show how this story did develop from the first release date at the end of July 2019.

Amtrak contemporary food box

The boxes are gone, now meals come on trays. These boxes were my first experience with the Contemporary Meals aboard the Capitol Limited in June 2018

What to Expect With The Changes to these Amtrak Dining Cars

Starting October 1, 2019, Amtrak is changing the dining options for passengers riding long-distance routes beginning and ending east of the Mississippi River (listed below). At this point, the western train routes are continuing with the traditional dining car food.

According to the Rail Passengers Association Hotline #1,125, starting October 1, 2019, Amtrak is expanding the “contemporary food” offerings to all east coast trains.

Amtrak Long-Distance Trains Already Serving Contemporary Food

Amtrak Trains Changing to Contemporary Food

  • Auto Train (Not changing until January 2020 more information below)
    • Lorton, VA (Washington, D.C.) -Sanford, FL (Orlando, FL)
  • Cardinal
    • Chicago, IL – New York, NY
  • City of New Orleans
    • Chicago, IL – New Orleans, LA
  • Cresent
    • Chicago, IL – New York, NY
  • Silver Meteor
    • New York, NY – Miami, FL
  • Silver Star– Dining cars are returning in 2020 according to a 9/13/19 Amtrak press release.
    • New York, NY – Miami,  FL
Viewliner Dining Car

An inside view of a Viewliner Amtrak dining car

Internet Rumor Control

I have been reading several Facebook posts on a few Amtrak fan groups; there several bitter people spreading a lot of miss-information out there. I know shocking, who knew there were negative people on the internet spreading conspiracy theories.

Rumor one:

Amtrak is pulling the dinning cars and no more food for sleeping car riders. This statement is false. Amtrak is suspending the traditional meal service on the trains listed above. Amtrak will continue to offer food a complementary food option for sleeping car passengers as part of their ticket.

Rumor two:

Amtrak is selling off its fleet of Viewliner Dining Cars (starting Oct 2, 2019). This rumor is far from the truth. Amtrak needs dining cars for the new meals system to work.  Amtrak will use the refrigerator space and warmers for food storage and prep.

The below trains will use the dining cars as sleeping passenger lounges.

Capitol Limited Sleeper Lounge Car

Former Capitol Limited dining car, now a Sleeper Lounge Car

The first Amtrak Dining Cars to change before October 1st

Capitol Limited and Lake Shore Limited already switched to the new “contemporary food.” These trains offer hot and cold pre-packaged boxed meals for those staying in the sleeper cars. Either you can consume meals in your room or the “sleeper car lounge” (aka the dining car)

Coach passengers did not have access to the new food services. These trains will bs join with the same service and offering of the other train after the change.

 The new food offerings

After October 1st, 2019, these are the offering for meals, but they will no longer be in boxes anymore.

The full NEW menu

The new menu summary (updated 9/14/2019 ):

  • Lunch & Dinner:
    • Asian Noodle Bowl, Red Wine Braised Beef, Chicken Fettuccini with Broccoli, Creole Shimp and Andouille, and pasta and meatballs for the kids
  • Breakfast:
    • Deluxe Continental Breakfast: Muffins, yogurt, fresh fruit, hard-boiled eggs, cereal, oatmeal, and breakfast sandwich
  • Dessert:
    • Blondies and brownies
  • Beverage:
    • One complimentary alcoholic beverage for both Business Class and Sleeper Class, unlimited soft beverages for both Business Class and Sleeper. For the complete list of drinks, check the menu above.

Amtrak Meal

Amtrak Contemporary Meal: Red Wine Braised Beef – Photo Courtesy of Amtrak

Train Specific Changes

The Cardinal

The Cardinal is adding a Viewliner “Sleeping Passenger Lounge” to its consist. Amtrak will pull the current Cafe car, and the Bussiness Class Cafe Car will be used for retail, lounge space, and offer Bussiness Class.

According to an “Onboard Service Changes memo” (11 July 2019), Amtrak will continue offering a business class. According to both website and app, Bussiness Class after October 1, 2019, is not available on this train. I am not for sure if this is a “glitch” at this point or if Amtrak is going to discontinue this service. The same is true for the Lake Shore Limited.

As of August 22, 2019, Amtrak’s business class service is bookable for the Cardinal and the 448/449 (Boston) section of the Lake Shore Limited trains after October 1, 2019.  For a few weeks, booking this class was not available on these trains. 

The Auto Train

Amtrak stated in a press release on July 15, 2019; Amtrak will “upgrade” the service of the Auto train, starting January 15, 2020.

According to the press release, “Customers in the Sleeping Car will notice enhancements such as upgraded towels and bed linens and other pleasantries in each room. The dining car will feature a new menu and the addition of complimentary wine to the dinner service. This complimentary dinner service will become an exclusive amenity to Sleeping Car customers[…]”

While Amtrak brags of the upgrades for Auto Train sleeping car passengers, there seems to be a lot of downgrades. A few of these upgrades Amtrak describes should be system while upgrades such as towels and bed linens.

The complimentary dining car meals for coach passengers will discontinue, but Amtrak will offer a continental breakfast for those travelers. This train will use Cross Country Cafes that will sell new meal offerings, snacks, and beverages. Amtrak also claims that there will be food trucks at the stations before departure for all to use before.

Kids Meal

Amtrak’s Kids Contemporary Dining Meal – Photo Courtesy of Amtrak

Updated Changes Since This Post Was First Published (9/18/2019)

Rail Passengers Association is working with Amtrak on our behave to make the riding experience better.

Here are a few changes that they worked on with Amtrak (Hotline 1134);

  • The boxes and bags are going; now there are trays which are better if a few ways,
    • More tablespace
    • Better presentation
    • Reducing waste
  • Amtrak is working on restoring coach passengers ability to buy meals
  • Improving technology to ensure there are enough meals for all passengers
  • Amtrak is working on updating the onboard ovens to work better with this service

While this is not the same as the traditional dining car services, but it is somewhat of an improvement over what Amtrak was offering for contemporary meals.

Other improvements coming incudes

  • Updated seats on eastern trains
    • These seats look similar to the updated Amfleet I seats used on many regional trains
  • Sleeping car upgrades are coming including new blankets, and other amenities are coming to all long-distance trains starting with the Auto Trains

Amtrak is not planning to change the dining experience on two-night overnight trains, and according to the Rail Passenger article, Amtrak never planned on making changes to those trains.

This new food service does give passengers more flexibility with their meals. I am interested in seeing if the experience changes with this system rolled out to more trains. Having a dining car on the Cardinal will be a nice upgrade, but I will miss the Cardinal Burger. And the return of a dining car to the Silver Star will be welcomed by many sleeper car passengers.

Amtrak box meal

Chicken Penne Alfredo served on the Capitol Limited (March 2018)

Presentation is Everything

Ditch the boxes, for they make the meal impersonal, they are bulky and wasteful. I can’t believe they are the most effective way of feeding people. Adding at least one more employee would help, so people do not have to wait so long for their meal to wait in line to order. This process is not the same as a cafe car, where people expect to wait for their food.

If Amtrak served the same or similar food on Amtrak’s signature plastic china with real silverware, the presentation would be better. I am less concerned that the food is microwaved or re-headed. With my experience with retail and foodservice, I know many restaurants reheat a lot of there food you order. And the “freshly made” food was not made that day nor even at that location.

I like how the president can CEO of the National Rail Passenger Association put it:

The problem isn’t the food itself, it’s the way the whole experience is handled. […] We understand the need to make lighter fare available to match the tastes of many modern travelers. But as it’s currently executed on the Capitol and the Lake Shore, too often food items run short, there aren’t enough hot options, and the presentation is perfunctoy and off-putting. ~  Jim Mathwer -Rail Passengers President and CEO

Amtrak box meal

This meal was part of the first phase hot meal “contemporary meal” offered by Amtrak, beef short rib. (Lake Shore Limited October 2018)

My Experience With New Meal Program Fall 2018-Spring-2019

My experience with the contemporary meals included twice on the Capital and once on the Lake Shore.

As of now, your meal comes in a wooden box, including everything from entrée to napkins. Often the attendant includes a green reusable bag so you can take your meal to your room if you choose.

What I liked:

  • Amtrak added hot food to the choices, the first time around was only cold food choice
  • I love that they ditched the breakfast boxes for a more continental breakfast
    • New opportunities included hot options including a sandwich and oatmeal
  • I love the complimentary beverages and beer or whatever adult beverage you want with your meal
  • The brownies are pretty awesome and the caramel cheesecake in the jar from the first few times

What I didn’t like

  • The boxes are bulky and take up too much space on the table
  • Too much confusion on how the program works (more so on the Capitol)
    • Wasn’t clear if you bus your table or not, I did because the attendant was too busy
  • I am okay with reheated food; anyone who has worked food service knows how much food at restaurants is just heated. I would rather have my meal on plastic china with real silverware. That brings us to the next point

With All This Said

With all this said, please do not let this deter you from riding the train or taking another trip. While food is essential, it does not make up the whole trip. It is more important now than ever to ride Amtrak and make your voices known.

I have been keeping an eye on the comments of several Amtrak groups over this topic, and the responses are great to grim.  It amazes me how many people commented on the quality and type of food when they never tried new meals. Somehow these trolls knew precisely how the food taste. Or other comments were from people who are complaining that rail service is not like it was in the ’50s, well not much is like it was in the ’50s, including airline services. When was the last time you received a meal on a domestic flight?

For me, this is not a “Chicken Little” situation but a wait and see how Amtrak’s develops the dining service. I am willing to give things a go. I have experience in both retail and foodservice and realize that many ideas, like this, don’t always roll out the final form, and things need some time to evolve.

Capitol Limited Breakfast

A few of the offerings of Amtrak’s contemporary breakfast, more options are available.

Let Your Voice Be Known

Constructive feedback to Amtrak (and elected officials) can help with changes, but you have to be specific. Comments such as the new service sucks, I hate the food, and bring back the old food are not constructive. From my experience of reading retail customer surveys, comments like those, although recorded, tend to get ignored. (If you ever want to give praise or feedback to Amtrak, you can do so on this page.)

Like I said before, we need to ride the trains instead of throwing our hands up in the air. A comment from a passenger goes further than a comment from an armchair rider.

I am thankful that we have a nationwide rail service in the United States.

The best thing we as travelers can do is to approach rail travel with our best positive attitude and have realistic expectations. Expecting to recreate the “Snow Scene” from White Christmas is no longer a reality. The sad truth is the golden age of train travel is gone (outside of private cars and very select tourist trains). In fairness to Amtrak, the golden age of travel has passed across the board, including flying.

Like I said before, let Amtrak know what you think, especially the good, but also things you don’t like as well. If we do not continue to use Amtrak because of every change we don’t like, we will lose rail travel altogether.

Keep yourself in check and keep traveling, and see you on the rails!

Safe travels!


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Charles W Wibel August 21, 2019 - 6:21 pm

Due to financial issues a sleeper on Amtrak is not always possible. No problem as I can sleep anywhere any time. What I do find a problem is not being allowed a served sit down meal east of the Mississippi River. Therefore, When I travel Amtrak on those trains I will bring my own china, silver, linen and real glassware. I will order in the cafe car and then find an empty seat and spread out my finery. I shall not be denied a civilized meal even if Amtrak wishes to take unto the future Greyhound bus style.

Danny September 4, 2019 - 8:43 pm

Kev, I notice you say the Silver Star will continue to not have dining car service but they are included in the list of trains changing to contemporary food. Does this mean they will offer the new meals in the lounge car for purchase? Just curious because I am taking a trip in March from NYP to FL and was going to take the Silver Meteor but the Silver Star timeline is a little better for me. Any info you can provide would be great! Thanks!

Kev September 4, 2019 - 9:24 pm

Hey Danny!
Thanks for your question, I put the Silver Star on my list originally because it’s an eastern train and the rumor was that it was changing as well. Sadly with the latest information available says the Star is going to continue without any dining car service, just the cafe car. The boxed meals will not be for sale either.
Your food option for the Star are whatever you bring on and the cafe car. I don’t mind the cafe car food on that train. I ate several of the selection on other Amtrak trains.
Because there is not a dining car, the Star rooms could be cheaper than the Meteor. If “contemporary food” and a “Sleep Lounge Car” are not essential to you, I would take the Star or whatever one is cheaper.
I hope this helps if you have any more questions, please let me know!
Safe Travels!

Danny September 4, 2019 - 10:35 pm

OK great thanks! I’m a huge auto train fan and have done those deluxe bedrooms many times. I think I could handle the cafe car plus bring some stuff on the Silver Star. Will give it a shot! Appreciate your work.

Kev September 5, 2019 - 6:55 am

I am glad I can help! The Autotrain is the only Amtrak Long-Distance Train I have not been on, so if you need someone to come along sometime, let me know haha!

Danny September 6, 2019 - 5:56 am

You know it bro!


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