News & Reviews News Wire Viewliner diner serving ‘flexible’ meals to be added to Crescent June 1: Analysis

Viewliner diner serving ‘flexible’ meals to be added to Crescent June 1: Analysis

By Bob Johnston | May 20, 2024

While welcome, move misses opportunity to restore true ‘traditional’ dining for all passengers

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Passengers eating in dining car
Lunch is served to coach and sleeping car passengers on the southbound Crescent as the train rolls through rural Alabama on July 21, 2019. The train has been operating without a Viewliner diner since 2020. The car’s unique set of double windows add a sense of openness, especially on a a route like the Crescent’s where trees often line the right-of-way. Bob Johnston

WASHINGTON — Beginning June 1, Amtrak plans to restore a dining car to the New York-New Orleans Crescent. However, initially only sleeping car passengers will be allowed to use it, and the food served will continue to be reheated “flexible” meals.

As reported in the Rail Passengers Association’s weekly Hotline email, Amtrak senior leadership confirmed those details, adding, “the railroad is in the process of identifying, hiring, and training additional on-board service crew so that within a few months, or perhaps next year, coach passengers on the Crescent might be able to enjoy a dining car meal.”

At Amtrak’s public board of directors meeting last December, president Roger Harris said the diner’s return was planned for 2024 [see “Amtrak officials outline new goals …,” Trains News Wire, Dec. 2, 2023]. Harris told News Wire after the session that a number of the sidelined cars — Amtrak has 25 Viewliner II diners on the active roster — needed mechanical work to fix water leaks and repair kitchen flooring.

Several participants in that impromptu post-meeting discussion suggested that management use the diner’s relaunch to develop a food service model for the train that would again permit both coach and sleeping car passengers to access the car.

Chef working in kitchen of dining car
Crescent chef Gene Benefield, at the time a 10-year Amtrak veteran, prepares dinner on the Crescent’s Viewliner diner steam table on July 21, 2019, month before chefs and servers were furloughed when management implemented a “flexible” dining model. Bob Johnston

Amtrak had offered full breakfasts, lunches, and dinners on all diner-equipped trains to every traveler from its inception until current management began downgrading food service on all eastern long-distance service except Auto Train in 2018. Most of the Crescent’s dining-car servers and cooks were furloughed with pre-packaged meals, for sleeping-car passengers, only substituted in October 2019. The diner itself was dropped in 2020 during the early stages of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Since then, the train’s Amfleet II café car has served snack-bar food to coach passengers and meals-in-a-bowl to sleeping car guests, who are given the option to eat in their rooms or in the same half of the cafe car used by coach travelers. Onboard service and operating crews occupy half of the cafe exclusively, leaving the small “public” section on the other side of the snack bar as the only lounge space for passengers from the train’s three coaches and two sleepers.

News Wire experienced the same crew occupancy situation on the Cardinal, which like the Crescent, has only a café car and no diner. On a Cardinal trip last December, coach passengers were not allowed to even enter the cafe to buy food for an hour during prime lunch and dinner meal periods while Amtrak employees occupied one half of the car. Amtrak did not respond when News Wire asked then who was in charge of managing Cardinal employees, which had been the topic of several complaints at the board meeting.

Food on table of dining car with view outside clearly visible
Pancakes and bacon are served leaving Atlanta on July 21, 2019. Bob Johnston

Adding a Viewliner dining car to the Crescent can alleviate the space shortfall, but only achieve its full impact if coach passengers are also allowed to enjoy the car’s benefits. Unlike the other eastern overnighters that have diners — the Silver Meteor, Silver Star, and Lake Shore Limited—this train attracts substantial additional patronage on a daytime segment: Atlanta-Birmingham-New Orleans. The train’s schedule offers four meal periods in each direction where customers with money to spend are not likely to opt for expensive room accommodations. Besides, sleeping car passengers have already paid.

Instead, the company is poised to implement the minimal staffing service sequence used on the Meteor and Star following the pandemic: start with flexible meals, introduce “traditional dining,” then allow a limited number of coach passengers in at meal periods. Management and employees should have enough evidence by now to realize that this model has resulted in underutilization and revenue generating for one of Amtrak’s most unique assets: the dual-windowed Viewliner diner.

Traditional menus and serving protocols are well established on the New York-Florida trains, so it shouldn’t take too long to implement them by expanding staff on the Crescent. Such a move provides an opportunity to substantially enhance the onboard experience on a now-downtrodden, once-proud long-distance train with plenty of unrealized revenue and ridership growth potential.

Former Amtrak and Southern Railway president W. Graham Claytor, Jr., who rode the train regularly, would expect nothing less.

11 thoughts on “Viewliner diner serving ‘flexible’ meals to be added to Crescent June 1: Analysis

  1. The ‘Crescent’, the former darling of the Southern Railway System, is subjected to so much humiliation under Amtrak. As Southern’s flagship, it was an all-Pullman sleeping car train between New York and Atlanta with coaches added between Atlanta and New Orleans on connecting lines, Alabama & West Point and Louisville & Nashville Railroad.

    Amtrak’s ‘Crescent’ is actually the reincarnation of the Southern Railway’s New York – New Orleans coach – Pullman streamliner, the ‘Southerner’ which ran on Southern’s own route to New Orleans from Atlanta. It was combined with the original ‘Crescent’ and renamed “Southern Crescent” when operation over A&WP and L&N ceased.

    Southern Railway was frugal in the streamlining of its passenger trains. The ‘Crescent’ and the ‘Southerner’ were its only two streamliners after downgrading two other streamliners, the Washington – Memphis ‘Tennessean’ and the Cincinnati – Jacksonville ‘Royal Palm’ (neè ‘New Royal Palm’) to secondary status by the late 1950s & 60s, respectively.

  2. This is B*S*. “Flexible meals” is not dining car dining. More el cheapo to hype the bonuses.

  3. I see two options for the Crescent and all the single-level eastern trains (a) return the Viewliner dining cars to the intended use and design as full service dining for all passengers on all trains thereby maximizing utilization/revenue from the dining cars, or (b) discontinue the dining cars on all single-level eastern trains and sell the cars to VIA or other interested parties. And the conductor gets one table only in the lounge for their office/paperwork, whether the dining cars stay or go. The crew can lounge in empty coach seats if they have nothing to do.

  4. Six years now and AMTRAK still needs lessons in customer service. It is disgraceful that they let crew take over passenger space. It is akin to shutting down food/cafe service early and locking whole cars where passengers could spread out.

    1. last time on an amtrak many years ago from la to creston iowa the dining crew could not get along…they were constantly yelling at each other

  5. The addition of pancakes at breakfast is a step in the right directon. The practice of mixing everything together for the lunch and dinner selections is a non-starter for me. This could be mitigated by offering sandwich choices for lunch and dinner.

  6. My wife and I once enjoyed traveling on Amtraks long distance trains. We haven’t taken a trip since they eliminated the dining cars. We’d love to travel cross country by train again. But until diners are brought back with FULL onboard staff and freshly cooked meals, that won’t happen. And by the way clean windows would be nice also. I’m not holding my breath till either happens.

  7. The operating plan called for the diner restoration to be in Q4 of FY-24 which would start July 1st. Amtrak’s next planned equipment restoration is to bring back a Sightseer Lounge car on the Texas Eagle!! If they were able to fast track a diner restoration on the Crescent, maybe they could do likewise for the Eagle’s lounge?

    1. My rare concise comment above is for Bob Johnston’s spot-on analysis. I am of course glad a diner is back on trains 19/20–the CRESCENT. But of course it should be open to coach riders.

      The LAKESHORE LIMITED apparently has been the test platform for the new version of the Flex menu, with meals served properly plated and at table. I would love to hear a report on this from a passenger on 48/49 since the table cloths, flowers and plated Flex entrees arrived.

      VIA has long offered near gourmet meals on the OCEAN that are actually brought on board cooked at the caterers and heated to serving temperature on-board. These meals are plated on-board and served in the dining room on china with flair! They work because the menu is carefully constructed to offer food that can be reheated in convection ovens without loss of taste. Also veggies are not reheated on the same plate as the entrees.

      The Viewliner II diners have the convection ovens. The test will be can Amtrak find Flex items that will allow them the same good fortune? Most restaurants today use many partially prepared meal items–so this is defintely not a new concept.

      But Amtrak must also exercise crew discipline. The staffer in the kitchen must not be lazy and use the microwave to save time when convection reheating is called for in the instructions from the commisary. The reheating “recipes” for each nenu item must be followed.

      The crews MUST NOT continue to lounge in seats intended for passengers.

      This behavior haunts not only the CARDINAL and the CRESCENT but is particularly bad on the TEXAS EAGLE–where the crews routinely ban coach passengers from using any of the 18 seats in the lounge end of the Cross Country Grill diner-lounge. A “good day” on the EAGLE sees coach passengers allowed to use a max of two tables, but only to immediately eat and then go back to their seats. The lounge experience is intended for the riders–not the crew. Staff breaks are fine–but at most two tables should suffice.

      Amtrak knows how to do decent service of this type. It’s the model for the ACELA First Class food service. Time will tell if the CRESCENT experience echoes the OCEAN or the TEXAS EAGLE.

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