Rail riders may soon be packing dinner jackets for their travels as traditional dining is back on Amtrak.
Starting June 23, six long-distance routes including the California Zephyr, Coast Starlight, Empire Builder, Southwest Chief, Sunset Limited, and Texas Eagle will offer dining options for sleeper car customers that harken back to the golden age of rail travel.
Amtrak’s catering has been lacking in recent years following cuts to the dining service, as Insider’s Graham Rapier found when riding between New York and Chicago in 2019. But new options for breakfast, lunch, and dinner will be available that will make riders look forward to mealtimes.
New tabletops hadn’t been installed by the time of the tour but they are coming. Meanwhile, the old blue cushions and coverings with which loyal Amtrak riders are familiar will be replaced with a cleaner looking design.
White tablecloth service is resuming and being upgraded to beyond what was offered even before the pandemic. For the interim, a full spread of Amtrak-branded plates will be used but they’ll soon be replaced with full china in around three to four months.
Customers will once again have multiple choices for each meal, featuring both new items and old favorites.
For breakfast, “Amtrak signature railroad French toast” is back by popular demand but with a twist as fresh cream and mixed berries will be added on top.
Also on offer for the optimistic morning meal is a made-to-order three-egg omelet, scrambled eggs, and a continental breakfast. Sides include hardwood smoked bacon, pork sausage links, and chicken sausage links.
For lunch, comfort food is the name of the game. The “artisan grilled cheese” and “natural Angus burger” are two classic handheld choices.
But there are some healthier options on the table. Caesar salad with grilled chicken and “savory chili” are also menu options.
Dinner then caps off the meal service and another treat for customers is that appetizers are back on Amtrak. The lobster crab cake is the signature appetizer but other options include a green chile cheese tamale that’s served in the husk, as well as a mixed green salad with baby brie.
Then it’s time for the entree, where the flagship dish is the “signature flat iron steak.” The eight-ounce black Angus steak is accompanied by a cabernet reduction sauce and served with baby green beans, carrots, and either cheddar polenta or a baked potato.
Other options include pan-roasted chicken breast, grilled Atlantic salmon, and tortellini with pesto cream.
Both lunch and dinner are topped off with dessert. Three options are available including a flourless chocolate torte, Philadelphia cheesecake, and carrot cake.
One complimentary alcoholic beverage is offered with dinner but there is a bar selection that includes new wine options from Kendall-Jackson, Chateau Ste. Michelle, and Dark Harvest.
For younger travelers, a children’s menu is also available with kid classics like grilled cheese, roasted chicken breast, white cheddar macaroni and cheese, and a hot dog.
And to top it all off, a fresh flower will also be on display at each table.
While a three-course meal with drinks might seem like a multi-hour affair, Amtrak has a train full of patrons to serve and have limited time to do it. Riders won’t be rushed out but won’t be spending hours in the dining car.
Customers traveling in sleeper cars, whether they be full rooms or the smaller roomettes, have the dining service included in the price of their ticket. Reservation times for the dining car are given to passengers by the cabin attendant.
Communal dining will be available with the new service and the premise is simple: a table full of different passengers sit at one table and share a meal, as Insider’s Áine Cain experienced on an Amtrak train from Orlando, Florida to New York in 2019.
The rear section of the car, however, will be available for individual seating should riders not want to dine with others. Some prefer the individual setting and now with the pandemic, Amtrak wants to ensure that riders can feel comfortable by offering the service.
Sleeper car customers can also take their meals in their rooms if they don’t want to venture to the dining car.
Coach customers won’t have access to the dining car and instead will get their meals from the onboard cafe, located in the Sightseer Car.
But Amtrak is working on ways of getting coach customers into the dining car, including selling dining plans that allow them to buy a certain number of meals.
Pickup or seat delivery options are also on the table for coach customers, Robert Jordan, Amtrak’s vice president of operations customer services, told Insider.
Amtrak will look to expand more dining options to coach customers after a period of three or four months, once the traditional dining offering has been fully implemented.
But at least in the dining car, rail travelers will get to enjoy the best Amtrak dining experience in years when traveling long-distance through the American West.
The White House maintains that the funding will “Improve healthy, sustainable transportation options for millions of Americans by modernizing and expanding transit and rail networks across the country while reducing greenhouse gas emissions.”
“Amtrak is ready to support this vision for greater public transit,” an Amtrak spokesperson told Insider.
But the compromise comes with billions of dollars being left behind at the station. Only $66 billion will go to combined passenger and freight rail projects instead of the $80 billion initially allocated for Amtrak.
The national rail provider quickly jumped on board the infrastructure train in March and unveiled its “Amtrak Connects US” plan. New rail lines were imagined and major cities without existing rail services like Phoenix and Nashville, Tennessee were promised connectivity to the national rail network. An investment in high-speed rail was notably absent.
Parts of the plan may still be implemented as the infrastructure plan still represents “the largest federal investment in passenger rail since the creation of Amtrak,” according to the White House, but the key victory for Amtrak would be a new weapon in its arsenal against freight trains.
Amtrak trains outside of the Northeast Corridor primarily run on tracks owned by freight companies that are, by law, required to give preference to Amtrak trains. But that’s not often the reality on America’s tracks and lengthy delays are often incurred by long-distance passenger trains as a result.
Rep. Peter DeFazio’s House Transportation Committee is spearheading the effort to give Amtrak the right to have federal courts settle disputes with freight companies.
“Right now they’ve got it the way they want it,” DeFazio said of rail freight companies in an interview, as reported by the Wall Street Journal. “So we’re going to change the law and give Amtrak better access.”
Amtrak’s enthusiasm surrounding the planned $80 billion investment also didn’t go to waste. States and localities across the US, excited by the idea of new rail service, have been eager to work with Amtrak on new state-sponsored routes.
In Colorado, officials are working towards a new rail line along Interstate 25 in what’s known as the Front Range corridor between Fort Collins and Pueblo, according to the Denver Post. Amtrak is also petitioning Congress to make it easier for states to get new services by not forcing them to foot a lion’s share of the bill, which is what the law requires at present.
Amtrak spokesperson Marc Molinari attributes the excitement to Amtrak finally going on the offensive instead of having to constantly defend itself and its spending.
Roger Harris, Amtrak’s chief marketing and revenue officer, told Insider on June 15 that the $80 billion plan was “extremely ambitious” but “even part of it would be revolutionary.”
It’s been an exciting year for Amtrak. After devastation by the pandemic in 2020, the National Rail Passenger Corporation this year released its plan to better connect the US with $80 billion from President Joe Biden’s infrastructure plan.
Since then, rail travel has been making a comeback with more travelers staying within the US while vacationing and choosing Amtrak as an alternative to driving or flying.
Riding the rails has also been cheaper than ever with Amtrak offering incredible sales to stimulate demand. The latest sale on offer is for the USA Rail Pass, which offers 10 trips on any of its train lines for only $299.
Now, Amtrak is investing $28 million in upgrading its long-distance trains, known as Superliners and Viewliners. Riders can look forward to upgraded seats and rooms plus a new dining experience on six long-distance western routes.
Amtrak unveiled the new products in Chicago on Tuesday. Take a look inside the upgraded Superliner experience.
All classes of service with see upgraded products with the investment, from coach to the sleeper suites.
The tired blue cloth seats of Amtrak’s past have been replaced with more modern-looking seats with improved cushioning and upholstery.
For riders in the Northeast, the seats are similar to the updated products on Northeast Regional trains.
Seats are still arranged in a 2-2 configuration with no middle seats.
And each seat has a pitch of 50 inches, giving riders nearly double the legroom compared to a coach seat on a US airline.
Paper headrest coverings have been removed entirely from the cars, which Amtrak says reduces waste onboard the trains.
As many as 120 coverings per car needed to be discarded and replaced multiple times over the course of a single trip. Massive amounts of waste were created from the covering alone and it added to the cabin attendant’s workload.
Tray tables remain where riders can eat, drink, or get work done on a laptop using Amtrak’s free WiFi.
And two power outlets are still offered at every row.
The new seats also feature footrests that come in handy during long stretches of sitting.
Coach tickets don’t include many amenities, besides a generous baggage allowance of two checked bags and two carry-on bags, but a cabin attendant does assist passengers throughout the journey.
The coach cabin extends across both levels of massively tall Superliner and better views can sometimes be had on the top level.
One little-known fact is that conductors can actually reverse the orientation of seats so groups of up to four can face each other.
Routine maintenance programs are also being implemented to ensure that seats and carpeting don’t reach a state of disrepair. Seats will always look as close to brand-new as possible.
Coach passengers will also enjoy better sleeping arrangements as the new seats offer a deep recline complete with leg rest.
There are no dividers in between the seats, offering greater room to stretch out if riders don’t have a seat neighbor. The two seats are roughly the size of a twin-size bed.
Amtrak still doesn’t plan to offer bedding to coach passengers but riders are more than welcome to bring their own. Each passenger, after all, is permitted to bring up to two carry-on bags that can be used to store some pillows and blankets.
The next updated space is the Sightseer Car which features larger windows so riders can take in the views of the journey.
The configuration of the seats remains largely the same but the seat cushions are changed. Riders can choose from a two-seat pair…
Or a single-seat, depending on their preference and how many passengers are in a given group.
All coach and sleeper passengers have access to the shared space with first-come, first-serve seating.
Also offered in the car are standard tables where groups of four can sit.
All tables are open for seating with Amtrak moving away from a pandemic policy of blocking certain tables for distancing.
Cushioning on the bench seating has also been updated with a cleaner look, similar to the style of the coach seats.
Food and drinks from the cafe car can also be enjoyed here as coach customers currently don’t have access to the dining car.
Another change that riders can be excited about is that Amtrak is returning to traditional dining on select long-distance routes.
California Zephyr, Starlight, Empire Builder, Southwest Chief, Sunset Limited, and Texas Eagle trains, which see the most meals in Amtrak’s network, will be the first to see the new program.
Three meals in the dining car are included in the sleeper car fare and communal dining will be offered once more.
Riders that choose to dine independently, however, can choose to do so.
Amtrak-branded plates will be first used when traditional dining is restored on June 23 but china will soon be used in the service.
New staples include French toast with fresh whipped cream, flat iron steak, lobster crab cakes, and Philadelphia cheesecake. And to top it off, fresh flowers will be placed at every table.
Robert Jordan, Amtrak’s vice president of operations customer services, told Insider that the dining service will better than what was offered even before the COVID-19 pandemic.
Next to be upgraded are the rooms. This is the largest room available on the train and can house up to two adults traveling together.
Inside is a sofa and armchair, both of which have been updated in the new design. Gone are the paper head dressings that constantly needed to be replaced.
Here’s what the old rooms looked like with the blue cloth seats.
Riders in these compartments also have a dedicated attendant, dining car access, and get lounge access at Amtrak’s Metropolitan Lounges.
Showers in the rooms remain largely the same but feature one big change: individual soap, shampoo, and conditioner bottles are being replaced with dispensers.
The move saves costs and reduces Amtrak’s environmental footprint by not having to dispose of single-use plastic bottles. Hotels have been making the shift towards dispensers, as well.
New towels are also being introduced in the showers.
A new lotion dispenser has also been added to the in-room sink.
Next on the list are the roomettes, the smaller two-person rooms that are a fraction of the size of standard rooms.
Roomettes are set up in a simple configuration with two seats that face each other.
It’s tight quarters at just six feet and eight inches long and three feet and six inches wide. But the closeable door offers additional privacy.
Roomette seats are markedly bigger than standard coach seats, however, and are ideal for couples traveling together.
Once again, the newer roomette seats replace the old blue cloth seats.
The bedding, pillows, and linens in both the rooms and roomettes are also being updated with a new design.
Roomette passengers do have dining car access but can choose to take their meals in their rooms, using the center table.
The car attendant can make the bed while riders are enjoying their meal to minimize disruptions.
Amtrak will have the entire Superliner and Viewliner fleet converted in the next three years.
Riders seeking out these train cars specifically, however, won’t be able to do so just yet. Amtrak says there will be no way to tell if a particular service will have updated products because the cars are interchangeable.
Northeast passengers, particularly long-distance trains departing from New York’s Pennsylvania Station, won’t see the new Superliner cars as they can’t fit in the Hudson River and East River tunnels. But smaller Viewliners that can access New York will be similarly upgraded with the new products.
Chicago-based lines, as well as the Auto Train, will be the first to see the updated products.
After a year-plus of coronavirus-induced stress and boredom, many Americans are eager to travel again.
Looking ahead to an expected boom in summer travel, Amtrak is luring travelers in with the relaunch of its USA Rail Pass. The ticket, which Amtrak launched last week, allows people to spend a month criss-crossing the country on Amtrak trains for a flat fee.
Through June 22, the pass is discounted by 40% to $299 from its usual price of $499. It doesn’t allow for unlimited train travel, but rather the $299 includes the purchase of 10 rail segments over the course of 30 days.
According to Amtrak, each segment of a trip occurs when a passenger gets off of a train. So a trip with one connection uses up two segments, but one long direct ride would only be one segment.
The USA Rail Pass is only good for coach seats and doesn’t let passengers book more premium accommodations like sleeper cabins or first-class seats. Still, at an average cost of $30 per segment, the pass offers massive discounts, given that a single segment can cost hundreds of dollars.
For instance, one round-trip ticket on the 1,377-mile-long Crescent line from New York to New Orleans can run you close to $500. The USA Rail Pass would pay for itself after that trip alone.
Buyers have 120 days to book trips using their USA Rail Pass after purchase. They then have 30 days to use up the 10 segments from the date of their first trip.
President Joe Biden’s administration has restored about $929 million in funding for the California high-speed rail project, reversing a cancellation by President Donald Trump’s administration.
In May 2019, the administration said the state hadn’t stuck to its original plan for the high-speed rail between San Francisco and Los Angeles. The Federal Railway Administration mentioned in a letter that month California’s “repeated failure to submit critical required deliverables” and make progress on the project.
California and its High-Speed Rail Authority responded this year with a legal action against a grouping of federal agencies and officials, including the transportation secretary Pete Buttigieg.
They requested that the grant funding be restored, saying the Trump administration’s cancellation was “arbitrary, capricious, an abuse of discretion, or otherwise not in accordance with the law.”
The parties entered talks in March, according to Reuters. A month later, Biden introduced a sweeping infrastructure proposal with about $80 billion for upgrades to Amtrak and other federal and state rail services, although high-speed rail projects were notably absent.
The parties reached a settlement on Thursday, June 10, which restored the funding and barred California from bringing future claims over the funding cancellation.
California politicians praised the funding, with House Speaker Nancy Pelosi releasing a statement saying it was “great news for our state and nation.” She said the funding would keep the “transformative project moving down the track.”
California Governor Gavin Newsom announced the news on Thursday night, saying the project had more than 35 active construction with an average of about 1,100 workers on site each day.
“Tonight’s action by the federal government is further proof that California and the Biden-Harris Administration share a common vision – clean, electrified transportation that will serve generations to come,” he said in a statement.
California voters in 2008 approved $9.95 billion in bonds to partially fund the project. In the 12 years prior to that, the state had spent about $60 million on “pre-construction” activities, according to the state’s Legislative Analyst’s Office, a nonpartisan advisory group. The total project was expected to cost about $68 billion.
When completed, the train promises to be among the quickest in the US. Hitting speeds over 200 miles per hour, it will make the trip from San Francisco to Los Angeles in about 2 hours and 40 minutes, according to the state.
Newsom and Trump traded tweets about high-speed rail in 2019, before the Trump administration cancelled the $929 million.
“California has been forced to cancel the massive bullet train project after having spent and wasted many billions of dollars,” Trump said on Twitter. “They owe the Federal Government three and a half billion dollars. We want that money back now. Whole project is a ‘green’ disaster!”
Newsom called Trump’s tweet “fake news,” adding: “This is CA’s money, allocated by Congress for this project. We’re not giving it back.”
Construction on the first leg was expected to be completed in 2029.
Jim Mathews, president and CEO of the Rail Passengers Association, told Insider that Amtrak may still be decades away from true high-speed rail and is still readjusting from an era of extreme cost-cutting.
“As recently as three years ago, Amtrak senior leadership was out talking about how routes have to make a profit and long-distance routes shouldn’t exist,” Mathews said, referring to the tenure of former Delta Air Lines chief executive officer Richard Anderson that saw Amtrak’s most nostalgic offerings cut in a bid to save costs.
Before Amtrak can even consider a brand-new high-speed rail network, there’s still a backlog of repairs to work through on its existing lines. And unlike regional transit authorities, Amtrak’s network stretches from sea to shining sea, leaving a lot to maintain and update.
“There’s all these sort of boring infrastructure investments that you got to do,” Mathews said.
On the Northeast Corridor, where Amtrak has its only high-speed service with the Acela, Mathews said that it would cost around $50 billion just to get the line to a “state of good repair.” That’s 62.5% of Amtrak’s proposed $80 billion funding from the infrastructure bill in just repairs alone and not even laying the foundation for true high-speed rail in the Northeast.
True high-speed rail would require new infrastructure, including straight lines of track so trains can achieve their top speeds. In congested regions like the Northeast, that means spending millions if not billions just to purchase property along the line’s planned route.
“Politically, high-speed has a different ring to it and I think Amtrak is probably unwilling to step into that,” Mathews said. “From their point of view, they’re like, ‘Hey, we just want to run our trains. We want to run more trains and we want them to be on time.'”
Amtrak is already spread thin in its languishing nationwide network. Existing infrastructure across the US has fallen into disrepair and battles with freight railroads prohibit Amtrak from being competitive on existing lines.
Private companies have instead spearheaded the effort to bring high-speed rail to the US. Brightline built a high-speed line to connect West Palm Beach and Miami in Florida that will soon be connected all the way to Orlando. In Texas, the Texas Central Railroad is developing a high-speed rail line that will connect Dallas and Houston in only 90 minutes.
California has even taken up the mantle with a new high-speed rail line between Los Angeles and San Francisco. Construction is currently underway with the 800-mile line taking at least 14 years to complete at an estimated cost of at least $68 billion, according to Architect Magazine.
Critics of Amtrak and its money-losing ways look too much at the big picture, according to Mathews, and not at the smaller journeys that are more in line with Amtrak’s original congressional charter. Only around 10% of riders take the full length of a long-distance service like the Empire Builder between Chicago and Seattle, for example, whereas most customers are taking the train between intermediary stops.
“The vast majority of trips take place in between,” Mathews said. And those short-distance trips between say Staples, Minnesota and Wolf Point, Montana, where convenient air service is a distant dream, is Amtrak’s bread and butter. Fares are comparatively lower than flying and trains can better accommodate passengers that face issues when flying, whether it be because they require medical devices or the nearest airport is hours away.
Keeping those smaller cities connected is also the reason why Amtrak rushed to get long-distance trains back to daily service after they were reduced to three-times-weekly service during the pandemic. Restoring them to daily service may have seemed counter-intuitive from a revenue perspective but the move ensures more Americans that rely on the rails have access to it.
When Amtrak does eventually enter the high-speed rail realm, it may be relegated to the lines that private companies haven’t already scooped up. But Mathews believes that’s alright because the rail corporation’s purview, after all, is to serve the entire country – profitable or not.
The overnight trains between Washington, DC, and Boston are getting slightly more bearable with upgrades coming this spring.
Amtrak will offer private rooms on late-night Northeast Regional trains running between Washington and Boston starting in April. The once-daily trains already depart in the evening and arrive in the early morning after a near-10-hour journey in each direction but have been limited to standard coach class and business class seats.
Three types of bedrooms will be offered for purchase including the Viewliner roomette, bedroom, and accessible bedroom. The smallest and narrowest room is the roomette with dimensions of three feet and six inches wide and up to six feet and eight inches long.
Starting at $288 for one traveler on the full route, the roomette offers two seats that convert into sleeping berths at night stacked vertically. Shower and restroom facilities, however, are not located in the room and are shared in the car.
The bedroom is double the size of the roomette with a width of up to six feet and eight inches and a length of up to seven feet and six inches. It offers a sofa and adjacent armchair for seating and two berths stacked vertically for sleeping, as well as a private shower, sink, and restroom.
An accessible option for the bedroom is also available with an in-room sink and restroom but no in-room shower. The accessible shower is located elsewhere in the train car.
All rooms come with a dedicated attendant and access to Amtrak’s lounges in Boston and Washington. The Metropolitan Lounge, formerly known as ClubAcela, is comparable to an airline lounge at an airport with complimentary food, drinks, and snacks available for Amtrak’s top customers, as Insider found during a visit to New York’s brand-new Moynihan Train Hall at Pennsylvania Station.
Travelers also receive a complimentary alcoholic beverage after boarding and a continental breakfast before arrival in Boston and Washington. Bedding, towels, linens, and pillows are all included in the room rate so customers don’t have to worry about bringing their own.
Washington to Boston service on train 66 departs Union Station at 10 p.m. and arrives in New York at 1:55 a.m. followed by Boston at 7:58 a.m. for a journey time of nine hours and 58 minutes.
Boston to Washington service on train 67 departs South Station at 9:30 p.m. and arrives in New York at 2:30 a.m. followed by Washington at 7 a.m. for a journey time of nine hours and 30 minutes. On Fridays and Saturdays, however, times differ and the service is offered as train 65.
The journey times are markedly slower than the daytime trains. A standard trip from Washington to Boston on the Regional, for example, is only around eight hours – a two-hour difference from the overnighter. Acela still provides the fastest service between the two cities, with average journey times of under seven hours.
Trains will also still make station stops at numerous intermediary points along the corridor like New Haven, Connecticut; Wilmington, Delaware; and Trenton, New Jersey, as well as a 45-minute layover in New York City. Travelers can book the rooms for any stretch of the journey.
The first private room-equipped trains run on April 5 and are now bookable on Amtrak’s website.
Next stop: Disney World, hopefully at a time when the pandemic will be in the rearview mirror.
Brightline, which currently operates trains between Miami and West Palm Beach, announced on in late November a deal with Disney World to build a station there as it extends service north to Orlando.
The Disney World station is planned for the Disney Springs complex, the company said. Brightline’s extension to the Orlando International Airport is set to open in 2022, but the company did not provide a timeline for the Disney station.
Brightline, which has been hit hard by the pandemic and hasn’t run any trains since March, hasn’t slowed down its aggressive expansion in both Florida and California. A route from Los Angeles to Las Vegas is set to break ground this year.