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Amtrak Simplified Dining Service
Report by Matthew Melzer
http://www.trainweb.com/sds/mm06g29a.html

I recently ate a total of 11 meals aboard Amtrak diners operating under the Simplified Dining Service regime on trains 20, 29, and 5. Of the three menu rotations, trains 20 and 29 were on cycle 2, and train 5 was on cycle 3.

This was my first exposure to SDS since its introduction. The variety and quality of the food remains laudable as compared to 'traditional' service, especially considering the controversy over SDS as a step backwards. In fact, the meals I ate rivaled or surpassed previous meals I've had aboard Amtrak. Comments from other passengers were also very positive. The SDS of today is apparently much evolved from its humble beginnings in December 2005.

Although, the perspective might be different for a vegetarian or vegan, as there remain few meals on any part of any of the three menu cycles that meet those criteria, especially the latter. (For vegans, there is Gardenburger for lunch, and a Stir Fry Vegetable Mix dinner only on cycle 3). Some may scoff, but this is an important segment of the traveling public. SDS menus are still evolving, and I eagerly await future additions. I especially look forward to new specials: Every night, the dinner special was country fried steak, which was also the only item for which I overheard negative reviews.

I did not mind the disposable plates, bowls, and tablecloths. But the plastic cups are very chintzy and flimsy. In general, Amtrak should be a beacon of environmental stewardship and I certainly hope that all of these materials are being recycled. My understanding is that recycling has been phased in since the beginning of SDS. But if not, that should change immediately. As it is, Amtrak is exposing itself to more criticism. Ironically, Amtrak is being less environmentally sustainable simply as a consequence of following Congressional mandates. Micromismanagement strikes again.

One change that I consider positive is that all tables now have baskets with a variety of salad dressing packets (although one could again criticize the waste from the packaging). But allowing self-service for dressing not only frees up the reduced crew for other duties, it's a good step towards sensitivity towards portions and dietary restrictions. The brands of dressings I saw were a variety of mostly T. Marzetti's with some Kraft and Cardini's.

There were two servers in the diners on all trains, and they did not seem overstretched in the least. The stewards also seemed to have a more active role in handling orders, not just reservations, seating, and transactions. I was expecting reservations for all meals, but apparently Amtrak retracted breakfast reservations (a good move; it seems inconvenient to force passengers to pick a meal time the night before). Lunch reservations on train 5 were done without slips. There was a form for the steward to record each party's name and size, and patrons were expected to go when their respective times were called. Their names would be called if they failed to show within 10 minutes. Names were recorded for dinners on train 5 as well, but slips were also distributed.

Here's a rundown of each of the meals:

My first meal was dinner on train 20. The roast half chicken was extremely juicy and flavorful, as good as it ever was. Accompanying rice and green beans were excellent. I was disappointed to learn of the loss of ice cream as a dessert item, but the cheesecake was excellent.

Three-cheese quiche breakfast with potatoes and turkey sausage was lively. The potatoes were well seasoned and the eggs did not seem soggy at all. Croissant was provided by default (SDS apparently features no biscuit option).

There was a Customer Service Manager who traveled the whole distance on train 29. She was very friendly and proactive, assisting passengers with problems and helping the diner staff with their duties. She told me that her duties were not limited to overseeing SDS, hearkening back to the days of Chiefs of On-Board Services.

The dinner rolls on train 29 were warm, which was a nice touch. The ravioli was zesty and rich, but parmesan cheese was unfortunately not stocked (the Customer Service Manager said she was already aware of the problem and indicated that the Chicago commissary should be stocking it for outbound and inbound trains). I consider the lack of parmesan a major sin for any restaurant that serves Italian food. On the other hand, now that Amtrak offers bar service in the diner, I was able to order a can of club soda (my beverage of choice) as my complimentary drink. At every table were wine lists and bar menus, which I did not see on the other trains. I had the Mississippi Mud Cake to finish, another fine dessert item, along with Bigelow Lemon Lift tea.

For breakfast, the Southwestern Omelet was substantial and tasted fresh-cooked. Amtrak seemed to have gotten its act back together with egg items.

My first dinner on train 5 was the seared salmon filet, which was tender and flaky and the portion generous. The rice was slightly undercooked and the green beans were not as flavorful as the ones I had on train 20, but still a good meal overall. The Chocolate Bundt was colossal; I could only finish half of it! I was pleasantly surprised with the availability of green tea, which I had never seen on Amtrak before. Unfortunately, the diner was not stocked with club soda for this trip. I did notice that wine was being served in real wine glasses!

Breakfast unfortunately featured paper napkins (and, as I would learn, so would subsequent breakfasts and lunches on train 5). I had the French toast, of which there were four thick slices. The crust was slightly hard, but it was much better than French toast I've had on Amtrak before. The tea was also a step up from the usual Lipton: It was Maryland Club Orange Pekoe Cut Black Tea.

I had the buffalo chicken pizza (apparently a Wolfgang Puck product). It was quite spicy, which I didn't mind at all. It also came with a side salad, which was fine. I had fruit for dessert, which I knew would be sub-par since Amtrak now only ever serves canned, pre-sliced, mixed fruit pieces. A young man across from me had a hot dog, which I noticed came with onions, lettuce, and tomato slices. Onions, I can understand. But who puts lettuce or tomato on hot dogs, especially children? Amtrak could save money by scaling that back.

I had the roast half chicken for dinner, which seemed about as good as the one on train 20. The rice was done just right, as compared to the night before. I had left my camera behind my seat when I left. As soon as I returned to my room, the steward made an announcement asking me by name to return to the diner! Her swift rectification of my carelessness was greatly appreciated.

For breakfast this time, Tuscan Omelet was even better and tasted fresher than the Southwest variety. The only problem was that my sausage was cold.

My lunch of Gardenburger with cheddar cheese on a kaiser roll was hard to mess up, but was excellent nonetheless.

Due to the lateness of our train, dinner was served over Donner Pass. Sleeper passengers were offered a handful of seatings of full diner service (with the only available sides being rice pilaf and broccoli, and the only dessert being the Chocolate Bundt). Paper napkins were used one again, and salad forks and plates for the rolls were missing. I had the roasted chicken pizza, which was much better than the buffalo chicken pizza, especially with the garlic and onion toppings and whole grain crust. Coach passengers were served complimentary beef stew or rice pilaf and broccoli from the upper level of the lounge (the steward led the service with help from the LSA and the two coach attendants).

My overall verdict from this week of Amtrak Simplified Dining Service food? SDS passes the test. The program got off to an apparently shaky start, and the service remains far from perfect. But Amtrak has demonstrated that it can indeed listen to customer feedback, and has already made great strides to improve its long-distance food service while keeping the micromismanaging Congressional financiers at bay. Nostalgia dictates that things were much better 'back in the day', or even just last year when none of the wares at the dining tables were disposable. But given the perverted political climate of politicians dictating business decisions, Amtrak is doing the best it can with what it has. Let's continue to hold Amtrak accountable for the service it provides, while keeping in mind that the greatest energies should be channeled to educate Congress why quality food service is a top loss leader, and that Amtrak will become Greyhound on rails if these necessary (and still attractive) amenities are decimated.

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