Is the Amtrak dining car headed for the same fate as plastic drinking straws — a form of social extinction prompted by societal changes in attitude?
In an effort to save more than $2 million annually, Amtrak recently announced a plan that will phase out the dining car and freshly prepared meals on many of its trains.
Many contend the soothing nature of the dining car was the last symbol of train travel when it provided a unique, exotic experience. Others contend those romantic memories have been just that for many years, citing bad service and mediocre food on the once Five Star eateries.
My earliest memories of train travel are centered on trips to the dining car. It was a respite from the monotony of the clicking tracks and scenery that too soon became uniform.
Back then, the dining car was no place to fool around. I remember my mother washing our faces and straightening our clothes in preparation for our trip to the dining car.
Starched white tablecloths and napkins indicated a sense of quality and class, and the food, as I remember it, was good.
But, there’s always been more to the dining car than just the food or individual attention. Due to its limited seating, guests were often seated with customers who they didn’t know. For some it was an awkward experience, but, for many, it was a chance to meet new people and share experiences.
It was all part of a menagerie of experiences that made train travel popular and often the preferred option for travelers seeking options to air travel.
The mystery of that era is hard to find when you board an Amtrak train these days. I suppose train travel has become more of just a travel option than an anticipated journey.
According to Amtrak officials, that personal interaction and those chance personal encounters with strangers prompted officials to make the move beginning this fall.
One explained that millennials don’t like the idea of sitting with people with whom they are unacquainted, and are more comfortable with pre-packaged meals served in their berths.
If that’s true, it’s sad.
But, I believe there are a majority of millennials who, given the choice, would still opt for the dining car, especially those who have suffered through a pre-packaged sandwich in the club car.
And that theory that millennials are uncomfortable interacting with strangers also is questionable in my mind.
Sure, it’s true we live in a world of conveniences that don’t enhance personal interaction. We have our groceries delivered to our doors followed by take-out served up by a delivery driver, and buying clothes at the department store is the exception, not the rule.
The new dining car policy follows that line of thinking and officials say customers welcome the flexibility of extended ordering hours and room service versus the often long waits and limited selections in the dining car.
Trips that require overnight travel for one night will be the first routes affected by the changes, and an Asian noodle bowl will replace steaks cooked to order.
Understanding the immense pressure on rail travel, and its record of unprofitable operation for decades, it’s hard to criticize them for attempting to save money by eliminating kitchens and staff aboard the trains.
But, I think they might be underestimating the potential backlash created by the changes, and they might be surprised to learn that the dining car is a part of Americana that travelers are not anxious to surrender.
If the changes don’t work, and Amtrak revives meal service served by wait staff, you can be assured the fault will be placed firmly at the feet of the group that caused the problem: those doggone millennials.