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U.S. rail review

September 11, 2019

Traditionally resistant to change, the U.S. rail sector is now being shaken up by the buzz of high-speed services and new operators like Virgin. Roger Williams discovers more

Q.It’s 150 years since the launch of Pullman restaurant cars. Are they still in demand in the U.S.?

A. Long-distance trains, which can take days to complete their journeys, still have restaurant cars, though sadly no longer with the style offered by Pullman. These include two long-distance trains in the east and seven in the Midwest, west and on the west coast. The trend towards healthier, lighter food has affected menus, but restaurants are still appreciated and really add to the customer experience.

Q.What other catering is provided commonly onboard?

A. Almost all intercity shorter distance routes have café services offering sandwiches, salads and light foods.This includes Acela Express services in the Northeast, the Downeaster service between Boston and Maine, the Empire Service between New York and Niagara Falls, five radial corridors emanating from Chicago, the Cascade Corridor in the Pacific Northwest, and three corridors in California. Most of the longer distance trains have a full restaurant car and a café on the lower level of an adjacent sightseer lounge car. Two overnight trains in the east have a new offer with passengers picking up a pre-prepared meal to consume it in their sleeping berth or in a lounge.

Q. Who are the catering service providers onboard these services?

A. Most Amtrak trains are self-catered, although New England firm, Nexdine Catering, caters the Downeaster. The Alaska Railroad uses ESS Support Services for restaurant, First class and snack bar provisioning.

Q. Are most of the logistics & supply managed in-house or outsourced?

A. Amtrak owns its regional commissaries located in or near train depots. Presently these are outsourced and operated by Aramark (of Philadelphia). However, Amtrak is currently tendering for the future. Other entities operate out of local kitchens and Acela First are currently sub-contracted to an airline kitchen.

Q. What’s the main offering?

A. Amtrak café car menus include sandwiches, hamburgers, salads, pizzas, pastries, and beverages including branded coffee, all subject to availability, which can be patchy. Hot snacks generally rely on microwave heating and point-of-sale marketing is low key, mostly menu-style posters with pictures. Some trains have seat-back menu inserts too. On restaurant cars, chefs prepare cook-chill meals and use a limited amount of cook-from-fresh items. On two eastern overnight trains, pre-packaged meals (with some choice and one hot item available) in a box and bag are offered to First class (sleeping car) passengers.

Q. How are meals served?

A. Acela First uses airline style tray meals, whilst restaurant car meals are plated. Presentations are fairly utilitarian, especially contrasted with VIA Rail’s excellent transcontinental streamliner, The Canadian.

Q. Is F&B retailed or complimentary?

A. On Amtrak and the Alaska Railroad, First passengers receive complimentary meals whilst all other F&B is retailed. Amtrak business class varies by region. Most include a soft drink, and sometimes a snack, proffered by the café attendant on display of the ticket. There is no pre-ordering technology as yet except for those with dietary restrictions dining in restaurant cars.

Q. How has the offer changed in the last 20 years?

A. U.S. railway traditions are conservative and slow to change, with considerable pressure from labour organisations. However, an influx of experienced airline industry management into Amtrak is influencing strategy and it’s been suggested that pre-packaged meals might replace traditional restaurant cars on most long-distance trains. These food preparation and service techniques might be expected to improve costs and consistency, but ultimately passenger acceptance will determine the success of such a significant change.

Q. Sum up the market?

A. Progress is slow, especially in comparison with Europe. Joining in with trade association International Rail Catering Group would offer operators the chance to network and share best practice for the future in a non-competitive environment, which would be useful for smaller operators like the Alaska Railroad and Virgin USA. That might help them embrace technology commonly used elsewhere in kitchens and to promote services and facilitate an enhanced customer service with a product offering that matches the demands of the next generation of travellers.