Riding The Sunset Limited With Amtrak’s Food Service

Trip report for April 7, 8, 9, 2006, By James Smith, RailPAC VP South.

(NOTE: Mr. Smith writes this as a veteran train rider, not in his official RailPAC capacity. The opinions are his, not necessarily those of RailPAC.)

Amtrak’s Sunset Limited, trains 1 and 2, have not had a good on time performance for years. Now, they are saddled with, call it whatever you want, a downgraded food service mandated by Amtrak management. Some have written excuses for what has happened, but I challenge anyone to ride that train or any of the other similarly downgraded trains (all but the Empire Builder will be so by the end of May) and say what you experience is good for the future of the company. I have to wonder whether this isn’t an attempt to end long distance first class service once and for all, not because of the unfortunate Congressional mandate but because it would make things simpler for Amtrak management. It’s bad. Very bad.

My seven year old grandson and I boarded #2 at Los Angeles Union Station on Friday, April 7. The train departed almost on time. My grandson was riding as far as Palm Springs where his other grandparents would meet him, and I went overnight to El Paso, Texas. He loved his trip. What I am reporting on here is primarily about the food quality I experienced, and a little about safety and scheduling. The train was delayed, according to the current situation with the Union Pacific, but only had big delays in California, and mostly around the railroad’s Colton yard even though we were delayed at various times east of there including having to wait for four freight trains to pass us out near the Salton Sea.. The travel through Arizona and New Mexico went smoothly. The return trip on #1 to LAUS was four hours late on Sunday.

Comments are pouring from everywhere about the food quality. If you haven’t read it, there was a major article in the April 8 Wall Street Journal, titled, “Removable Feast: The Last Steak on Amtrak.” Be sure to also read the Special Report on what Amtrak should be doing to enhance food service revenue on www.railpac.org. While some have been excusing what Amtrak has done on these trains, I challenge somebody to try it, then defend it. I did, and can’t. I would not now recommend anyone ride a long distance train in first class, except on #7/8.

The food is bad. I had two dinners and two breakfasts on this trip. On the dinner meals my beef choice was Salisbury steak, and I can tell you its quality was that of a bad TV dinner: rubbery. For breakfast I tried the cheese omelette, which just stuck together. The omelette is the only egg choice (no fresh egg selections), and includes a sausage choice of links or a patty which tasted like it was prepared the night before, potatoes which were ok, and black beans. This breakfast item just cannot compare with a similar breakfast I’ve had on the San Joaquins, which was very good and much fresher.

A lady across from me at the breakfast table said the only thing this food is good for “is getting air out of your stomach.” How’s that for being direct? She didn’t want the sausage links after seeing mine. A gentleman across from me said, “No bacon and eggs?” and when told no, added, “I’m from the South. No grits?” This is a train that goes into the heart of the South, and grits are an important menu item to folks there. Did Amtrak think of that? A couple who were Amtrak savvy, loudly said, “Who made up this menu?”

A family on #1 had the other beef entree, and had to wait 40 minutes for their meals. There was only one waitress in addition to the steward; the diner was about 3/4 full. Because of furloughs to other employees, the young waiters and stewards are gone and only the ones with high seniority are left to do the heavy work and long hours. While attendants in the other cars can help out, it leaves their passengers without assistance, which is a safety issue. My sleeping car attendant had additional responsibility in the sleeper section of the transition car. I noted also, that there is no Sightseer Lounge car on the Sunset, a coach car has been converted to a snack bar on the lower level, but the seats upstairs are not available for revenue service! Only six crowded seats are on the lower service level. I heard that management is saying that the Lounge cars are in Beech Grove for maintenance, but there are three sitting in the Los Angeles yard and I’ve have heard there are others sitting unused in Chicago. The crew on this train cannot be blamed, as they worked very hard to live up to whatever expectations they could. I passed the new train “Manager,” (whom I saw only one other time on my trip when he came in the diner to get food) and replied when he asked me, that it was “the worst food I’ve ever had” on a train. A crewman was heard after I went by, saying, “guess he didn’t like our five star menu.”

For the life of me I cannot justify spending hundreds of dollars for first class accommodations and then come back saying anything positive now. I cannot excuse something that is just “bad.” To you readers I say, take a train, eat 6 meals and then tell me you like it. If you do, you have a bad appetite system or are lying. I’m not looking for “fancy,” I’ve ridden Amtrak too much to have that expectation. The plastic plates are ok, I could live with them, but paper cups for beverages? Just not appropriate. I heard no positive comments. I’m not alone feeling this way, the lady across from me said people are getting off the train in San Antonio, going to the nearby Denny’s, and bringing food back to the train. The serving hours on board have been extended, and that’s great, but I question whether travelers really want to reserve a breakfast time when they don’t know when they’ll get up. The reservation system seems to be working all right, though. They’ve had time to iron out most of the problems with this new system, so unfortunately what remains is what will remain.

I have to wonder if Graham Claytor was still Amtrak CEO if he would have stood still for this kind of meddling by the Congress and if he wouldn’t have killed this service downgrade before management could have it hit the rails. The bottom line on this current Amtrak food service is this: Once sleeper revenue dries up they can get rid of them. I dare Amtrak management, which must have devised this business without ever having ridden out there, and others who make excuses for them, to get on board and then make the same excuses. You can only defend what is right. This food service is wrong. Where is the Amtrak Board? Have any of them ridden (anonymously) and sampled it? My gut feeling is if someone gives you a mandate to do something and it’s wrong, then fight it or it is going to destroy your business. To excuse it makes you a part of the problem. This is not good for rail travelers. It’s bad. It will have a negative effect of revenue.

Yes, I will continue to travel by train, as it is the best way to go, but until sanity returns to the food service I will have a hearty meal before I depart Los Angeles and wait to have another meal at my destination. Am I writing to Amtrak about this situation? You better believe it! Your comments would be appreciated.

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