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Amtrak Sunset Limited
A Brief Travelogue for a Brief Trip
including a Simplified Dining Service experience

Yesterday Friday March 31, I went from my house in Palm Springs and drove with a friend of mine to Downtown Los Angeles for a meeting. After the meeting I went to Los Angeles Union Station and purchased a ticket for train #2 the Sunset Limited for Palm Springs. The train was due to leave at 2:30 PM and arrive in Palm Springs at 5:06PM. I boarded the train and we left right on time.

The train had two sleepers, a transition car, three coach cars, a diner and café car. Now the café car is simply a traditional coach car with regular seating on the upper level and the café portion on the bottom level of the car. I was advised that this is temporary as the Sightseer Lounge cars are being changed over to accommodate the new dining program that Amtrak will install on most long distance trains. This train now has the new [Simplified Dining Service] program in the dining car. I asked the dining car steward Ellery Ramirez to explain what exactly is the new [Simplified Dining Service] program. Mr. Ramirez stated that all meals are precooked and warmed in a microwave Oven, not a convection oven, in the lower level of the dining car by the chef.

[Ed. Note: The Simplified Dining Service states that meals are to be prepared in the "convection" oven and not the "microwave" oven. In order to try to accommodate all the passengers on the train in a timely manner, many crews have been violating the Simplified Dining Service food preparation instructions and using the microwave instead of the convection oven. This has resulted in many complaints by passengers of undercooked and overcooked meals with uneven heating. Hopefully these problems will soon be worked out by Amtrak. Amtrak has is sending managers out to various trains to make sure that the new Simplified Dining Service is being implemented properly.]

The meals are then placed on a disposable plastic plate and served to the customer. The plastic plates have the Amtrak logo and the look of china plate at first glance but then it becomes pretty obvious that it is just a plastic plate. Mr. Ramirez also stated that some passengers, especially those who are frequent riders, are not pleased with this new service while others do not complain. And according to Mr. Ramirez even under the old dining car system many of the meals were in fact precooked, however the chef could also spruce up some of those meals but cannot do that with this new system. There are some problems such as trying to heat an omelet which takes 20 to 22 minutes and there were other examples. Would have to say that I found Mr. Ramirez to be very friendly, conscientious and dedicated to his position.

Mr. Ramirez introduced me to Chef Tony White an Amtrak employee of 17 years. Mr. White stated he preferred the old system in the dining car where he could prepare meals as he was trained and he advised he had fewer complaints under the prior system. As an example Mr. White said he could use the grill for French toast which he cannot do now and when preparing a hamburger he simply places the packaged item in the microwave, not on the grill and he cannot add lettuce or tomato. I must add that now the chef is the only person in the kitchen. This new program presents many questions.

The train arrived in Palm Springs about 30 minutes late which was not a problem, but the train had to back into the station. Apparently freight train was partially blocking the station approach track. This was a very enjoyable trip, much better then driving on interstate 10 on a Friday afternoon.

Bob Manning

[Editorial Note: Some of the terms in this travelogue had to be changed from "Diner-Lite" to "Simplified Dining Service." At present, there is a great amount of confusion in the field about the difference between these two terms, even among people that are very familiar with current activities at Amtrak. Most of the long distance Amtrak trains are in the process of converting from "Full Dining Service" to "Simplified Dining Service" over the next few months. This process will probably be completed before Summer 2006 in all trains that are being transitioned to it. There are some long distance trains that will not be converted to "Simplified Dining Service" in the near future, including the Amtrak Empire Builder. No trains have been as yet converted to "Diner-Lite" and there are no scheduled dates of conversion for any trains as of this writing. "Diner-Lite" is a complete reconfiguration of the Dining and Sightseer Lounge Cars. Once they have been converted for "Diner-Lite" service, these cars will serve as both the main dining area on the train as well as the lounge area on the train. At this time, Amtrak is considering various reconfiguration layouts of these cars. There are no reports yet than any particular reconfiguration has been chosen and no cars have as yet started to undergo a reconfiguration. Thus, as of Spring 2006, "Diner-Lite" has not gone into effect anywhere. The change in Dining Service that you will experience on many of the long haul Amtrak trains is called "Simplified Dining Service." Yes, microwaves are being used. The prepackaged food is not designed to be heated in a microwave and this is causing significant problems in the quality of the food being served to passengers. The prepackaged food is designed to be heated in a convection oven. Hopefully Amtrak will have a solution to this misimplementation of Simplified Dining Service soon.]

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