Hacker News new | past | comments | ask | show | jobs | submit login
End of an American tradition: Amtrak kills the traditional dining car (washingtonpost.com)
203 points by pseudolus 25 days ago | hide | past | web | favorite | 238 comments



Amtrak and the American Rail experience is dying because the current CEO of Amtrak is a former airline executive, and he's been filling the leadership ranks of Amtrak with other former airline executives.

There's certainly a broader discussion of rail finances in the US to be had compared to elsewhere in Asia and in Europe, given the vast size of the US and alternate means of transport. But the bottom line is that riding in trains in the US will likely start to have many of the same unpleasant experiences people have with airline travel, and that's a bad development.


Yup. Amtrak continues to spiral to its doom by simply not offering services that people want. Ridership is not an issue. The Northeast corridor is full of people who want to ride on Amtrak, but it's so wasteful much of the time and so inconvenient that there's hardly a reason to do it.

I want to go with my bike to new places, but I can't. Amtrak won't allow bikes on most trains unless they're boxed.

I want reasonable food for a day trip. All we get is a horrible boxed lunch.

I want a late train so I can have a reasonable day trip.

I want to know that the train will get me home on time. The delays on Amtrak are insane.

It's more expensive than flying.

What's the point? They offer an uncertain service, at a bad price, with poor hours.

Compare that to Europe, where trains are on time, the hours are good, there are many destinations, I can take my bike, etc. The Northeast is more than dense enough. Amtrak just doesn't care.


My dad was an industrial engineer for BN and designed natural gas powered locomotive systems (not just just the engine, but the tender, the gas pipelines and filling stations, etc). He was a railroad fanatic. A quarter of the basement was dedicated to model railroading. I have eaten on one of Burlington Northern's executive dining cars. A phenomenal experience, far nicer than anything I've ever seen in any airplane's first class cabin. Wood paneling, brass, sauteed salmon and glass windows so clean you forgot they were there. He went to the Soviet Union during Glasnost and had his own KGB agent. The Russians came to the US to negotiate technology transfer. I grew up in awe of the railroads. Our neighbor worked for Union Pacific. In my world, men worked in rail. I learned research was hard, and development was even harder but the national scale of the endeavor is what made it worthwhile.

I never understood why we never went anywhere on the trains. I went to Tokyo and was floored by the immensity of the passenger rail system. Even in San Diego I would ride my bike 17 miles down to the nearest station and take the Coaster into National City to go to work. And then, I was in DC for a month and I took the overnight Acela Amtrak Express from DC to Boston and back. Gritty, dirty. Like a noir film type ... gritty. For another $50 I could have taken a 1 hour flight after dinner and been in bed at a decent hour. As a citizen, I'm a fan of the idea of passenger rail. As a customer, I'm not a huge fan of Amtrak, at least under current management.


In the end, the mechanisms at fault here are core to American identity: individualism and blind trust in the free market, even where these fail — so I don‘t think this decline can be changed.

Free market, because first, rail leads itself to monopolies. Rail infrastructure is expensive, and you need significant area coverage until you can get enough customers. So if you built one, you as a rail provider will go at extracting the most possible value, since you don‘t have competition. Classic free market failure. The solution here would be to have at least four (proven number to avoid oligopolies) private train providers competing on public infrastructure. Since Americans shudder already at the word „public“, that‘s a significant hurdle.

Individualism because in the US, people have a propensity to not share rides with others. Same fear of „public“ IMHO, as long as public transportation is thought of existing solely for poor people until they can afford a car, nothing is going to change.


> "Free market, because first, rail leads itself to monopolies."

There's no reason why train operators should also own the fixed infrastructure. Truck companies don't own the interstate highway system, and airlines don't own all the airports.

Why not have private train operators (passenger & freight) bid for routes / slots / capacity on a publicly-owned rail network? Lucrative routes between major cities will return significant profits, while regional routes will require support/subsidy. But in either case, competition between operators promotes cost efficiency, innovation, and a focus on service quality.


We have that in the UK, and unfortunately it doesn't work very well. Obviously the UK is different to the States in a number of ways, but you might want to watch Shaun's video on the subject: https://youtu.be/nP95Frc0v4k


Yes, the UK model isn't perfect. For the most part, it doesn't result in true competition because train operating companies are awarded monopolies over regions and routes rather than actually competing against other. The few routes that really do have competition between operators (like London-Birmingham) are also the routes that have the most competitive fares!

One solution would be to auction off packages of "slots" on the most profitable, and capacity constrained, routes (eg: east & west coast main lines) rather than franchise them as single monolithic entities.

As for "not working very well", those who remember the days of government-owned-and-operated British Rail will attest that the current system is a significant improvement!


Italy has the concept of competition on the same route - at least on long distance routes, Italo compete with TrenItalia. The result is cheap, pleasant long distance service. It's a much nicer model than the UK has, certainly.


"Pleasant" is subjective. In the last couple years I had to do Venice-Rome relatively often. It's a 3.5 hours trip, if everything goes well. Usually it's been 4, and in a couple of occasions 6.


What happens if you're booked on a train from Company A and it doesn't run, and the next train is from Company B? Do you have to let it pass and wait for a Company A train, as that's all you've got tickets for?


> "What happens if you're booked on a train from Company A and it doesn't run, and the next train is from Company B?"

In the UK, you can buy expensive, flexible tickets which are valid on any train and any reasonable route, or you can buy cheaper tickets with various restrictions, typically one or more of:

- Valid only on a particular route/operator

- Valid only on off-peak services

- Valid only on a specific train/time

- Must be purchased a certain period in advance (usually by the previous day)

However, in the event of significant disruption, and trains are running late or cancelled, an announcement is usually made relaxing the cheap ticket restrictions. At the very least, if you have a cheap advance ticket and your train is cancelled or delayed, then you're allowed to use it on the next available service, regardless of operator.


the same thing as when it happens with your airline


> We have that in the UK, and unfortunately it doesn't work very well.

the problem isn't the model as Japan has the best trains in the world and runs on a similar one.

" As of April 2015, 211 companies and entities were registered with MLIT as railway operators in Japan.3 A number of these are involved in multiple activities, combining operations of both railway and other transportation services. "

https://www.eubusinessinjapan.eu/sites/default/files/railway...


Or maybe, the free market is just delivering a judgment you don't like.


It's always funny when people criticize the state of American rail based on their preferences and hand wave a solution into existence, as if it's all that simple.

Cars are much more practical for travel in the US largely because the cost of fuel is much lower than in Europe, Canada, etc. Perhaps in Europe cars would be used more if they were a more affordable option.


Cars are heavily used in Europe, too. And so are flights. Trains are great for people from America on vacation because it's a novelty and most of destinations are near each other.

I loved riding trains in the EU but often would need to rent a car or fly.


There's so much wishing and hand waving based on ideology here that it honestly is annoying to read many articles.


> The solution here would be to have at least four (proven number to avoid oligopolies) private train providers competing on public infrastructure

It's mostly privately owned, but you are basically describing the current state of the current US rail network. The United States has an extremely extensive intercity rail network, with dozens of operators. This was basically all built by the dreaded free market, by the way.

The trouble is that the large railroads are only moving freight, because of the misguided decision to nationalize 20 passenger rail systems under Amtrak. We should have just continued to subsidize passenger service under the private operators.


As I remember it subsidies weren't on the table. When Penn Central tanked politics limited the universe of solutions to either nationalization into Amtrak and Conrail, or death.


>free market

just a nitpick but land ownership-based industries, in which you get a license from the government to own and lease out monopolies on land, are inherently far from free markets. ive always wondered if land ownership could be made to be more free market-like.


I don't understand why they won't run a platform car on the back of the trains and sell tickets as a super-premium class. It'd be the most profitable seats on the train because of what you'd charge for the experience, much like how the few 1st class seats on an jet earns the airline more than the entire economy class.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=BzB5xtGGsTc

Sure, the product is basically the same - a ride from Point A to Point B. But if you offer a private dining room, an observation lounge, a steward who attends to just you and 3 other cabins, you can charge way more than an economy seat.

By only focusing on the "Point A to Point B" aspects, they're entering a downward financial spiral.


Unfortunately for the cross-country routes they already have pricing -- for the sleeping berths -- that's airline first class level, with service that's nearly indistinguishable from just having a bucket seat. One of the few "perks" was...wait for it...meals in the dining car.


In Italy we have a business class which also has small (4 people) private rooms so you can have meetings while traveling. Not exactly what you had in mind, but still an extra over the "point a to point b" aspect.


I specifically didn't mention a business class ticket, because except for the Northeast US, there won't be any business travelers because the trip takes too long -- they'll fly.

But in the Northeast, offering a small private office so that some colleagues can work during the otherwise non-productive 4 hour trip from Boston to New York makes a lot of sense.


I'm not familiar with travel times in the US at all, but aren't there any trips outside of the North-East area (I don't know, North to South California?) that would make sense by train and that are long enough that this small meeting room concept would make sense?


There are cities within distances where it would make sense in several regions, but the speeds would be terrible because infrastructure is not up to the task (example: 300 miles in 7 hours 45 minutes). The rails don't support high speed service, there is no electrification, and the rails themselves are owned by freight companies. If the time was productive, you might get some small number of people to take it, but the excruciating slowness wouldn't appeal to many people.


What I have heard is that the sweet spot for high-speed rail travel in the US is to place major stations about 300 miles (500 km) apart. So running from Texas to Minnesota up the middle of the country you'd have 6 or 7 major stations. Travelling East-West from New York to Los Angeles, you'd have 11 or 12 major stations.

The only viable (and still not funded) project is the Southeast Corridor project, from Washington DC to Atlanta Georgia. Top speed is likely to be about 110 mph (180 kph). Average speed will be lower because the passenger trains will always be held up by slower freight trains (no dedicated tracks, like the TGV has)


I never understood why we never went anywhere on the trains.

Cargo makes more money than people transport and most people preferred air; and short range rail is very expensive due to all the legal barriers.

We have an amazing rail system in the USA, it's just not about people transport. It, along with barge and truck, make the modern US possible.


Yes; the tracks are owned (or maybe just operated) in a lot of places by the freight rail companies.

This is a bit of a tangent, but one of the most frustrating things about riding the passenger rail (I've experienced this most going through upstate New York) is being slightly behind schedule, and then falling far, far behind schedule by having to wait for a freight train using the same stretch of track to pass.

As I understand it, passenger trains are always supposed to be given priority. But in practice it never seems to work out that way. The dispatcher or whoever's making the decision often prioritizes the freight.


Because, depending on what the schedule the freight is on and the terms, it can cost a lot of cash if the train is late. There are a lot of moving parts with freight, so passengers are no where near the priority.


I get that, but technically Amtrak has priority. None of the freight railroads abide by that unfortunately....


I think a great many more people would be affected if those freight railroads didn't get to go first.


They sell the cardboard bike boxes at most stations. The baggage guys would give me used ones for free. When I was in the US the total was $25 for the bike fee and the box. All you need is a pedal wrench and some hex keys to remove the handle bars.

Compare to the airlines fees for bikes. If you have something heavier, you might not even be able to pack it aboard an airplane. Then there is the inconvenience of traveling to and from an airport. Even with an airline, you'll still need to take off the pedals and bars.

Amtrak is not the best, but still better than air travel for cyclists. For the cost of a flight + bicycle baggage fees I can get a room on Amtrak.

Sure the food isn't the greatest, but you can also pack your own and include a bottle.


Carry on bicycle service is available on only a few trains and even then there are very few spots. You can easily run out and there's nothing you can do with your bike at that point.

If you really look into it you'll discover that the notion that checked bikes are available on most trains is a lie. There are so many exceptions. Just because it's available on a train, doesn't mean it's available at your station. Only the bigger stations allow them and you have no way of getting your bike off the train otherwise. So if you want to go somewhere nice to bike around, you're mostly out of luck.

I'm not going to deal with taking the handlebars and pedals off all the time in a train station.

What am I going to do with that box? I ride my bike to the station.

The checked bike thing is horrible even if you're willing to deal with all of this insanity.

> Amtrak is not the best, but still better than air travel for cyclists. For the cost of a flight + bicycle baggage fees I can get a room on Amtrak.

Air travel is far cheaper than Amtrak in the Northeast. Checked bicycles are about $40 to fly with if you pick the right airline and $20 on Amtrak. But what's even cheaper is travel by car. Just rent a car for the day and you don't need to deal with any of this.


Amtrak is now claiming that most routes have bike racks. https://www.amtrak.com/bike-faqs

Personally, I'd still prefer to have mine boxed to prevent scratches.


Scratches? My daily commute on the Caltrain quickly cured me of this concern. The bike racks on the Caltrain are simple and effective IMO, but essentially just cram bikes together with elastic straps.

It’s a great way to unblock lots of people to utilize trains that wouldn’t otherwise. 2 or 3 cars of the train are devoted to bikes. That certainly is indicative of the environment and the temperate California weather, but still. Makes for a marvelous multimodal commute for me.


> The delays on Amtrak are insane.

The is because Amtrak must share lines with much slower cargo trains.

Amtrak will file for "track windows" where they have exclusive access to the track for higher speed travel - but if they miss the window (for example a passenger had luggage trouble and delayed the train by a few minutes) then they are stuck behind cargo trains.

And once that happens they have no way to recover their original time table. The train will be late all the way to the final destination! And not just a little late, travel time will double.

I'm not aware of any good solution for this.


In Europe passenger trains never wait for cargo to pass. Different priorities.


The US has this type of prioritization enshrined in the same piece of legislation that created Amtrak in the first place.

Actual use of this almost never happens, however.


It happens sometimes, if there's delays and it'd make more sense for a cargo train to go in front of a slower commuter train. But absolutely not on the scale it happens at in the US.


Amtrak delays are terrible even on the northeast regional, which doesn’t share with freight rail.


But they share with commuter rail. And Amtrak and the local commuter rails (particularly Metro North) are locked in a perpetual pissing contest.


European rail services share with other passenger rail as well. Sharing with other passenger rail doesn’t create the same issues.


They’re run by the same company though. The SNCF is notorious in letting long distance trains first, making commuters unhappy.


Sections of passing track?


Most of the American rail network is now owned by freight railroads who have actively dismantled electrification, double or quadruple track, etc.

This is because unlike other forms of transportation, railways are required to pay property taxes, so they're incentivized to have as little improved property as possible.


This seems like it might be the entire crux of the issue? If taxes are incentivising people to reduce lines to the bare viable minimum then that's what you're going to get in terms of service.


In all my days of Amtrak criticism I haven’t heard about property taxes, can you link me a source? (Not doubting you, I would like to read about it)


This varies by state, but:

Minnesota does: https://www.revenue.state.mn.us/railroad-property-tax#

New Jersey does: https://www.state.nj.us/treasury/taxation/railroadtax.shtml

Missouri does: https://apps1.mo.gov/stcoriginalassessment/report/CompanyRep...

The problem was so bad at one point that one of the steps taken to arrest the rail industry's decline was to ban property tax discrimination against railroads: https://www.thetaxadviser.com/issues/2014/dec/tax-clinic-10....

You never see this in Amtrak discussions, because Amtrak does not own the vast majority of the rails it runs on, and people couldn't care less about private companies. For highways and airports, they're pretty much all on publicly owned land, so they don't pay property tax because that would be silly.


Also, with such high costs it'd be better to just kick the "offending" passenger out. Or lock the doors 10 minutes prior to departure (i.e. plan to depart 10 minutes after the official departure time, but not let new people in during that window).


Ten minutes?? U.K. trains will be open at the station for less less than a minute and a half at the most and that’s plenty. Tube trains will dwell for only 20 seconds and often less - but then that’s because you have 30+ per hour


That's just one example. Lots of things can cause delays.

And your 10 minute plan gets complicated when you consider they pick up passengers at multiple stops along the way. If they waited an extra 10 minutes at every stop they might ending up causing themselves an even bigger delay.

But I don't have specific info on what things are causing the most delays.


Without dedicated passenger rail tracks and doesn't own much of the tracks Amtrak runs, this will always be a problem. But investing on a passenger-only track network in US must be hideous expensive, and I wonder we can see any progress on this from federal government.


I've ridden trains throughout Europe and in the USA. I live in Europe but when I come to the USA I try and take trains when I can. Yesterday I took the Amtrak from LA to San Diego. I just love taking trains over other modes of transit.

I agree with all the criticisms of Amtrak that I'm hearing in this thread and that are common for Americans. But I want to tone down the love of European trains a bit. Amtrak is much much cheaper than trains in Europe and in general you get more legroom. European trains have shitty food, as does Amtrak. Actually the best food I had on a train was in the early 1990's on a trip from Warsaw to Prague on a soviet era train. It was actually cooked in a fancy dining car.

The UK has wrecked their train network. Delays are terrible and the network doesn't receive any real new investment. I blame Thatcher. A few weeks ago there were no trains between London and Leeds over a bank holiday weekend. For 3 days there were no trains between London and Leeds. This affected me and I had to change my plans. I suspect that this affect all travel north out of London for 3 days. How can you rely on a network like this? Sure they give you advance notices, but where is the redundancy in the network?

Dutch trains are better, but they're mostly just for commuting. Distances are short so the Dutch rail network is basically what Americans would consider a suburban light rail network. Like privatization everywhere else, the private elements of the Dutch rail network play games with timings and commitments to 'juke the stats'. For example, a late train may be cancelled because the penalties for cancelling trains are less than for a train being late. Yes, this actually happens.

I have less experience with German, French, and Italian trains. But at different times in my life I have been screwed over by them as well. Delays, cancellations, confusing rules that only the locals understand. Trains in these countries are still considered a second rate service compared to airline travel. And how exactly am I supposed to take a train through Paris exactly? Let's say I am in Belgium and I want to go to Lyon. How can I do that without taking the Paris metro or taking some stupid long route? Answer, you can't. Because trains don't go through Paris.

So in short I don't want Americans to think that European trains are all that great. They're much more expensive and come with their own problems. They lack redundancy and delays in one part of the network can cause problems in other parts of the network.


> when I come to the USA I try and take trains when I can. Yesterday I took the Amtrak from LA to San Diego...

If you've mostly taken trains in the US on the coasts, or for long cross-country trips, you may have an overly rosy view of the situation here.

I live in a mid-sized US city, the capitol of its state, with a metropolitan area population of around one million (city A). To reach the nearest city of at least this size (city B) by car is only a two hour (<150 miles) straight drive along the interstate. Both these cities have train stations serviced by Amtrak.

The only itinerary Amtrak offers to get from A to B using their service passes through city C, which is more than 500 miles from city A or city B. It's a 30 hour trip.


How many people do you think would want to take that train from city A to city B every week? Since most American households own cars, and most probably value the higher flexibility and lower cost that the car affords them, I'd be surprised if there was more demand than a few hundred train riders per week. Running frequent and convenient trains for such a low number of passengers would be prohibitely expensive.


Your description of European trains is rather pessimistic and negative.

UK train network is not perfect, but generally is in a decent state of repair. It does receive large amount of investment regularly (less so under Conservatives but still a significant amount) - and main disruptions of the recent years were caused by either railway worker strikes fighting for their rights or changes to timetables that were too ambitious (because of the amount of new services added to the network).

Yes, the maintenance closures are annoying - but no piece of infrastructure can avoid periodical maintenance. You usually get 6 months' notice and in most cases a diversionary route. In fact even then you could get to Leeds from London via the West Coast mainline and then Transpennine routes. And it certainly didn't affect all travel to the north - depending on how you count them, London has 3 to 5 separate rail routes to there.

The assumption that delays, cancellations, and odd rules are particular to only railways is frankly bizarre. And so is your statement that train travel is considered a second-rate service here - it is all of course highly anecdotal, but on routes that are competitive with local flights (and longer distance routes with high speed trains) - trains are usually considered to be the better option (although that might have something to do with the never-ending cost saving drive by the airlines).

Your particular example of travel from Brussels to Lyon is also incorrect now, as French railways recently introduced direct high-speed services avoiding Paris (and building even more tracks for that). Crossing Paris old-style involves a Metropolitain trip, but that is not an unusual problem for most places (Boston's infamous North-South railway gap comes to mind).

I have experience with Amtrak, UK, French, and German railways - and I don't think I ever saw Amtrak tickets cheaper - unless you are comparing them to some last-minute train tickets on over-subscribed services in Europe. In fact I was under a distinct impression of Amtrak being noticeably pricier.

And finally, railway redundancy in US is typically way worse - Amtrak doesn't own most of the tracks it runs on and is treated as a second class citizen there. And any contingency route is likely to be untested and not ready for use due to cost-cutting. And apart from North East Corridor most of Amtrak routes are double track only, shared with freight.


I just got back from a 15 day trip in Switzerland. Their train system was amazing. We trained everywhere; there where intercity trains every hour at least.


And before someone says “funding”—on a per passenger mile basis, Amtrak receives similar funding to the French rail system, and over three times as much as the private UK rail operators.


True for some recreational travel, but Northeast Corridor is still pretty good for business travel where it would mostly be competing with driving for the DC-Philly-NYC portion. It's comfortable, plenty of room to work even in coach, and you can easily rebook tickets if you need to reschedule.

Outside of the Northeast corridor, yeah it's pretty impractical compared to almost every other alternative.


Keep in mind that European trains are typically more expensive than flights even on richly priced air routes. Far, far more expensive if you include low cost air connections.

And then the profitability of short distance routes is a direct product of the density of population.

This would look differently if airlines were charged for the CO2 externalities (i.e. not receive a de facto subsidy). But we all know how's the carbon pricing going in America ...


That's not totally true, train can be cheaper depending on when you buy your tickets and compete with low cost airlines. If you also add the fact that you always arrive in the city whereas some airports requires a train or a taxis to get to it (which increase the overall price of your journey). At least that's the case in England and France where I often take the train.


Train stations aren’t always centrally located, especially in China where HSR stations can be as far away from city cores as airports. Japan also has some of that for smaller cities (eg Gifu vs Gifu-Hashima).


The French state railway company SNCF has a low-cost service high speed TGV service called Ouigo that also uses stations on the periphery of some cities (while regular TGV goes into central stations), just like low-cost airlines.


Sounds weird. The reason China and japan do is way is to keep the HSR track as straight and short as possible. Bringing a train into a city that isn’t an end point would probably slow it down a lot.


With Gifu-Hashima and other "rural" Shinkansen stations the reason is usually political. For example Gifu Prefecture would not allow the line to pass through the prefecture without a station being built. From Gifu city center it's actually faster to take a train to Nagoya and change to Shinkansen there, especially since every train stops at Nagoya and only a few at Gifu-Hashima.


In the case of Ouigo, I believe it’s in part because the station and track owner charges less to use peripheral stations than for central stations, and in part for price discrimination, so less price-sensitive business travelers and wealthier travelers aren’t tempted to go for the cheaper option.


> Keep in mind that European trains are typically more expensive than flights even on richly priced air routes

I have a lot of experience taking trains all over Europe. In almost no case was a train cheaper than flying once I included transportation to the airport. The few times a train costs more the difference is marginal and you'd end up flying Ryanair or Easyjet --- no thanks.

> And then the profitability of short distance routes is a direct product of the density of population.

Not a problem in the Northeast in the US. Only Amtrak can fail to offer a service that works everywhere else in the world.


I assume you meant to say train was usually cheaper. This will greatly depend on the country: for example in Germany trains are fairly expensive, a well-ahead booking (say, six months in advance) across the country usually ends up having the train option twice as expensive as a flight.

That said, I don't understand the hate for easyJet. It's one of my favourite airlines, being straightforward, well-informing, and no more crammed than your usual cattle class option in a traditional airline.


Agree. I flew both Ryanair and EasyJet on a recent European trip and they were fine. The base cost of the flight was ~$26. We had to check luggage so they ended up closer to $50.

In this case it wasn't that the trains were more or less expensive, but they were just slow from point A to B. I think Americans have a romantic notion that trains are great all over Europe, but it really does depend on the country. Western Europe, with Italy and Germany in particular seem to have a great high speed rail system. Eastern Europe has trains, but they are not nearly as efficient time wise.


The reason those airlines are so inexpensive is because they us Wray their employees, have to pay no tax on anything, and they get subsidies from politicians next to useless airports.


> a well-ahead booking (say, six months in advance)

You can only book train tickets three months in advance in Germany.


Last I was checking was for October tickets in May. Also, according to https://faq.trainline.eu/article/220-train-tickets-booking-h... it would be six months.

That said, currently they seem to reach only to mid-December so I don't really know.


I don't think that's fair to Amtrak. In Canada, Via Rail also fails to deliver the service that works everywhere else in the world.


Tons of people take Amtrak on the Northeast Corridor. In fact they have capacity expansion plans. And they turn a good profit. It’s just that they lose the money in the rest of the country.

Especially the Acela mostly competes with short haul air flights. People who are really price sensitive take the bus (or dive).


Amtrak earned $524 million from the Northeast corridor in 2018. The rest of the system lost $540 million dollars in 2018. The Northeast corridor is not the issue for Amtrak.


2018, Amtrak had $3.4 billion in revenue 2018, Uber had $11.7 in revenue


The boarding process at major stations (New York Penn, Washington Union Station, sometimes Philly) is so frustrating and unnecessary. It forces passengers to get there early to line up, and makes dwell times super long. There are lots of little operational things like this that Amtrak could improve.


The trick with NY Penn is to just go down to the NJ transit level. Same platforms. No lines.


Could you expand on this a bit? Might be traveling via Amtrak soon to/from Penn and would like to make the experience a bit smoother. I've been on NJT once before but didn't notice anything about Amtrak on those platforms.



They turned off the displays on that level that used to show the Amtrak track numbers, so now you have to wait upstairs and then go down.


On the NJT screens too? Amtrack track assignments still show on the DepartureVision web site.


It’s not clear to me why the seats on the “all reserved” Acela at least are not actually reserved as on most trains of this type. Penn is also just kind of a mess generally although it is slowly improving.


Now allowing a bike, unless it is in a box, is what gets me. I don't understanding the reasoning behind this.


> Amtrak and the American Rail experience is dying because the current CEO of Amtrak is a former airline executive

What would you prefer?

Delta is a well-run airline. Its former CEO knows B2C transport. Flying is, broadly speaking, preferable for business travellers to rail. That is due to service failures by Amtrak. Failures someone who has tackled these problems is uniquely qualified to solve.

The alternative, hiring rail enthusiasts with no understanding of competition, is what got us unto this mess.


I agree with you general point. But business travelers also take air on most routes because it’s a lot faster.

I’m pretty sure I couldn’t justify the time or the money as business expenses to start taking 24 hour overnight train trips rather than a 2-3 hour flight.


If you’re a passenger rail fan, I’d highly recommend reading Randal O’Toole’s book “Romance of the Rails: Why The Passenger Trains We Love Are Not The Transportation We Need”[1]. The author is a passenger rail super-fan, but does an excellent job detailing the extremely high costs that make it difficult for passenger rail to compete with other transportation options, and explaining the history of how we got to the current state. Even if you’re a skeptic of his thesis, I think you’ll enjoy the details of the book.

[1] https://www.amazon.com/Romance-Rails-Passenger-Trains-Transp...


Is this the same Randall O'Toole who lobbies against any public transportation anywhere?


Yes - he definitely lobbies against various rail projects, for reasons that are spelled out in the book. He’s advocated in various cases for buses as an alternative, so I don’t think “against any public transportation anywhere” is a fair characterization.

You don’t have to agree with his thesis to find the book valuable though. It’s useful to understand where people on the other side of the debate are coming from, and even someone with opposite views will probably enjoy the detailed history of passenger rail in the US that he presents.


That’s a really bad development, especially with increased scrutiny on the environmental impact of domestic air travel, which is growing exponentially. It’s a horrible product with a worsening customer experience that’s harming our planet yet enjoys a near monopoly in the U.S.

I have been closely watching the Texas Bullet Train ambitions to use Shinkansen trains to connect Houston and Dallas. 90 minutes. Privately funded at $15 billion.

Interestingly, current legal debate is whether or not the organization can call themselves a railroad before they are actually operating a railroad. They have 30% of the route’s land needs secured, but they’d absolutely need to exercise eminent domain to complete the project. And to do that, they need to be a railroad.

I often think that if Elon really wanted to combat climate change, he’d take on domestic air travel, and to do that well would likely mean some sort of rail project. Maybe self-driving cars and better battery tech will get us there first; I’m just doubtful.

Meanwhile I’m headed to a funeral this week and my only viable option is an airplane on an airline that wants to nickel and dime me to death and punish me for being a customer.

https://www.citylab.com/transportation/2019/04/texas-central...


It sounds almost like regulatory capture. Are the airline people actively trying to destroy commuter rail? What can be done about this?

I am more excited by rail than flying, and I know other Millennials that are as well. I thought it was starting to come back into vogue.


Have you taken Amtrak anywhere recently? The people I know who are most excited about rail travel are people who have never used it outside of a small commute.

Flight is much more convenient and in most instances cheaper.


Intercity rail travel in Australia is slightly faster and significantly more comfortable than a bus, at roughly the same price. Rail travel in the US somehow manages to be slower than Greyhound and more expensive than flying.

I usually avoid flying when equivalent land transport is available and will take less than 8 hours, since it seems like a waste of fuel, but trains are absolutely not exciting when you're sitting in a 40 year old carriage lumbering along uncambered track at the same speed as freight.


I rode the California Zephyr from Chicago to Emeryville in May and I LOVED it. The dining car was a big part of it, because I really enjoyed meeting strangers and having a chat with them. The food was decent for what it was. My roomette was small but it was enough space for me (traveling solo).

Even though we were 13.5 hours late (due to weather outside Omaha), it was a great experience and I'd love to do it again.


The California zephyr is an awesome route, especially between Denver and Emeryville, and as you point out, the dining car was a fun experience that gets you to meet other people from other walks of life. Many seniors and retirees, but also people from the middle of the US (that I'd normally would never meet in California) that talked about their experience living there.

I've been severely delayed on an Amtrak train as well, and IMO that's part of disconnecting. Depending on the train, you might have no Wi-Fi, no cellphone signal, and no control over when you get to your destination. Just need to relax, look at the scenery, and have a drink from the cafe car.


> Flight is much more convenient

And that’s a big deal when people don’t have 4+ weeks of vacation per year.


Even those of us with quite a bit of vacation don’t generally want to spend a week of it riding across thousands of miles for what’s often a premium over business air.

I get the attraction—just took the sleeper from London to Edinburgh—but it just doesn’t make sense for routine travel outside of a few relatively short routes like the northeast.


Or people who never have to rely on it. My wife and I took Amtrak daily for two years between Wilmington and DC. It totally soured me in rail and government.


I take it weekly. A much calmer experience than flying. Get to the station and just walk onto the train.


Rail transport is convenient enough in Europe and many Asian countries. It is just US railways are broken, old and nobody invest into high speed trains. Even the richest state in US failed to build just one track, which was supposed to be the fastest in US, but a snail-slow compared to Japanese or Chinese railways.


> It is just US railways are broken

No. Geography.

American population centres are disparate. Comparisons to Europe, with its tightly-packed industrial centres among centuries-old farms, are silly.


No, they're Quixotically trying to balance Amtrak's finances, which always has been bad. If Amtrak was an airline it would have declared bankruptcy over and over and over again through its history.

This sounds like cyclical political pressure brought about when anti-train politicians are elected. It's virtue signaling. As for the underlying problem: imagine if interstate highways and airports were subjected to local property taxes the way rail infrastructure is.... conversely, imagine if the government built out high-speed rail infrastructure as aggressively as it did high-speed auto and air infrastructure....


Honestly attempting to balance Amtrak’s finances at this time is the wrong choice - there are some serious operational realities that need to be changed before it can run with balanced finances while providing worthwhile service.


The American rail experience is dying because of the Passenger Rail Investment and Improvement Act of 2008. Anderson and the management he has brought in are implementing the goals mandated by Congress.

Amtrak may be dying as we have known it but it is not dying. It is transforming into mostly a regional passenger train service focusing on the highly profitable Northeast corridor.

If the public values the traditional American rail service they need to let Congress know this and that they are willing to continue to subsidize it to a large degree. To date they have not.


And it at least may be worth mentioning that Amtrak came into being in large part because essentially all its predecessors had been losing money and merging--culminating in the largest bankruptcy in American history up to that point in 1970 (Penn Central).

I have a sometimes hankering at least for the idea (if not the likely reality) of taking a long-distance Amtrak train trip. But I'm not sure I could really justify why middle-class American taxpayers should subsidize my Chicago to Seattle train ride.

Maybe there's a market for private luxury long-haul trains with a "flexible" schedule across routes in the West.


The real reason is politics: Amtrak has never had the funding needed to provide decent service but if they ever talk about reducing service they’re going to hear about it from every member of Congress whose constituents use the affected service. If we invested in capacity building (as climate change says we need to) they might have enough traffic to support those routes, and if we formally dropped the political angle they’d just drop the unprofitable route. As with the USPS, this in-between status is forcing a lot of visible symptoms which people rarely look beyond.


That’s not true. Amtrak subsidies work out to about $0.24 per passenger mile. That’s three times higher than the UK’s per mile subsidies: https://www.pinsentmasons.com/out-law/news/government-subsid...


That’s only part of the picture: you also have to factor in ridership levels and infrastructure before you can accurately compare systems.

For example, Amtrak has constant scheduling issues because they don’t have priority over freight trains and many shared chokepoints which are very expensive to fix. If you’re comparing their performance to a system with dedicated right of way or priority scheduling, you need to include the costs spent building that infrastructure to avoid a completely misleading comparison.

Similarly, a system which has high ridership needs less subsidy since it has higher fare revenue for the same base operating costs (think about how those passenger miles change going from 60% occupancy to 80% when the operating cost of basically unchanged). Since the U.S. has massively subsidized car travel and often deliberately avoided rail improvements (think Chris Christie wasting a billion dollars to avoid expanding the congested NJ-NYC connection), there are many cases where American routes have the same operating costs but aren’t as competitive as the same route would be in Europe or Asia because we’ve chosen to subsidize road travel instead. Any meaningful discussion needs to at least acknowledge the difficulties of comparing numbers.


Well, they’re different bad experiences—which, unlike the airlines, you can’t really buy your way out of to a significant degree.


> “Some people really like (the dining car) and view it as sort of a nostalgic train experience,” Wilander said. “Some people, especially our new millennial customers, don’t like it so much. They want more privacy, they don’t want to feel uncomfortable sitting next to people” they don’t know.

Is this really true? Do millenials or younger people in general have an aversion to meeting strangers in public? Perhaps teaching kids not to talk to strangers has gone too far; I fear that if society has default_distrust_strangers=True, that could be pretty harmful.

Personally I love meeting new people in real life. It's quite refreshing compared to the highly curated experience of "discovering" people online, if that's even the right word for it.


Anecdata: I recently read a thread in /r/NYC about using the subway. A comment there really rang true that many people would rather use google to figure out which direction a station's trains are heading than simply ask the people coming out of the station. If you assume people who would be savvy enough to do this would skew younger than yes, I can see it as true.

Second anecdata: I manage a fairly large team of millenials, and to the person they generally describe themselves as highly introverted, to the point that it seems radical that when I'm in meetings with customers simple things like asking customers questions for clarification seem crazy to them.


It’s really a shame how insular people have become. Just today I had very pleasant conversation with a couple from Toronto after I helped them figure out which station the train was stopping at.

I noticed their Blue Jays jersey and asked if they had a game and we chatted about baseball, the sights in New York they’d visited, and Toronto.

I really enjoy my little conversations with strangers and find it hard to imagine a world where immediately upon stepping outside I’ve got headphones in and am totally insulated from the world around me.

No judgement, I get it, not everyone is gregarious, or in the mood for a chat with a stranger at every given moment.

But it sure is a more pleasant and fulfilling world for me when I’m interacting with other people even if it’s just for a few small moments here and there.

Hell, I spent a train ride talking to a man from Newark about all the clothes he stole from JC Penny’s that day. I don’t condone that behavior and I wouldn’t have struck up the conversation with him. But when he talked to me I listened and learned he got some of those clothes for his nephew. Even people you might judge as bad are trying to bring joy to others a lot of time and it’s certainly interesting to hear people’s perspectives. He showed me his food stamp card and told me how he was excited to help his friends have groceries, of course he was really hoping they’d make him a meal with them too!


As somebody who's definitely an introvert, I feel like this is a skill worth picking up. Small talk was agony for years, but eventually with enough practice I got the knack. It has made my world a lot bigger.


My wife is the opposite of me in that she's never met a stranger. I like it, because I get to occasionally have these unique experiences that I'd never find myself in on my own.

So we're waiting to catch a train back to Prague and she ends up chatting with this other American who was there with her daughter. They continued talking the whole way back on the train and we ended up having dinner and romping around together for the rest of the night.


> A comment there really rang true that many people would rather use google to figure out which direction a station's trains are heading than simply ask the people coming out of the station.

Well yeah why would you bother someone else with a question you could easily answer yourself?


This is usually how I view things as a millennial. With the infinite amount of information that's available at ones fingertips it seems almost ignorant sometimes to not seek out information on your own terms instead of asking someone.

However I will say I have had to develop the skill of knowing when to stop searching my own and just ask someone


Sometimes you get an answer even faster when you ask for help


At the expense of the other person's concentration and time, which is selfish.


Thank you. That's exactly why I avoid bothering people. Sure I might take 5mn to find out on my own, but I don't think it's worth saving 2mn if I'm taking up 3mn of somebody else's time, the total time wasted increases and now I'm involving innocents.


I live in a very congested European capital and I actually do like to give advice to people from outside the city on which tram or bus they should take and from where exactly. Often times I give my advice even if not directly asked, i.e. when I overhear someone in my vicinity asking for directions. We are social creatures and thinking otherwise is the real selfish thing to do.


Almost everything you do is 'at the expense of the other person's concentration and time'.

This comment, for example.

Humans are a social species. These "interruptions" are close to the only thing we exist to do.


Unlike interrupting somebody on the street, your comment is only taking concentration and time from people who voluntarily choose to read the comments.


If your concentration is that important you can almost always ignore the person asking for your help.


Then my guilt for being rude would disrupt my concentration terribly.


I'm always happy to give directions to someone. It barely takes any time, and it makes me feel useful.


So am I! But I try to be considerate of others by looking things up myself rather than asking questions that could be easily Googled.


Sometimes you get stuck in long conversations; sometimes the other person doesn't even know the answer; sometimes the other person can't even understand the question.


Don't forget when someone very confidently gives you the answer that is completely wrong.


But go to a neighborhood bar in New York City or a tech Meetup or an arts event or anything else and you'll find plenty of millennials mingling with strangers.

In the subway, people are rushing to leave and get where they're going, lots of people have headphones on and those who don't are wary of scammers and muggers. There have been jokes about strangers not talking in the subway system for decades.


many people would rather use google to figure out which direction a station's trains are heading than simply ask the people coming out of the station

I don't think this is a Millennial quirk, I'm at the tail end of the Baby Boomer generation, and I do the same, I just got back from a trip to Europe and used my phone the whole time to navigate the London underground and Paris Metro.


My perception of that story was that people that are actively in need of additional assistance are taking a possibly less direct route to that information (unlocking phone, opening google, inputting query, waiting for results) simply to avoid interacting with a stranger.


A stranger is much more likely to give you incorrect information or simply not know the answer to your question. Why bother, in the most literal sense of the word?


Why do you think it's to avoid interacting with a stranger? I have fast, accurate information at my fingertips (and it literally only takes a few seconds to take out my phone, unlock with my finger, squeeze to activate Google Assistant and say "directions to Westminster Abbey").

My phone will tell me which train to take (and which destination sign to look for), how many stops to travel, the names of the stops, as well as how long until the next train.


The OP question isn't about explaining complicated directions, just literally which way the train is heading, by the people who just hopped off that same train. "Hey does this side head towards x?" "Yep." Faster than Siri.


I'm also in this camp. While I'm waiting for the train, I'll spend the time staring at subway maps and timetables. After a few days, I can start giving directions to other tourists even though I'm not a local either.


> many people would rather use google to figure out which direction a station's trains are heading than simply ask the people coming out of the station

That's still not ok. When you get directions it tells you the end of the line it's going towards. If you aren't sure, you have to ask someone.


One of my favorite things about riding the New York subway was asking people for help (this was in 2011). I was completely unable to navigate using the maps in the stations so I had to ask for help. Riding the subway that way turned out to be remarkably easy.


To be fair, talking with customers seemed terrifying to me when I was a new developer. But eventually I realized that the job was only done really when they were happy, so the best thing to do was to learn to talk with them.


> anecdata

I am curious as to about when this word started to be used in favor against "anecdotal data".

On a related but side note: must every phrase be shortened?


> must every phrase be shortened?

YMMV, but IMHO yes.


I find it unfortunate the apparently real prospect of having "a full and complete in-person conversation using only acronyms" a la that scene from MASH [irony realized] has moved from aware comedy to ridiculous in-person reality.


There's still the Amtrak observation car, which is fantastic for striking up conversations.

One time I got seated on the Coast Starlight observation between two model train enthusiasts.

One had sold his business manufacturing extremely authentic model train cars and had gone to work for Dell, but when I met him had just left Dell to go work for the person he sold his train business to.

The other was a day laborer who saved up money to take train rides as vacations. I still remember what he said as he was disembarking: "People ask me why don't you ever get married, and I tell them, 'I am married! I'm married to the trains.'"


No that's a different experience. In the observation car you mostly sit facing the panoramic windows, observing the views. In the dining car four passengers sit together facing each other. That makes it much easier to get started talking to strangers just because the way you sit.


You can find plenty of articles online claiming that communal tables are a restaurant trend to attract millennials, so... different consultants claim the opposite about millennials and this is just an excuse.


This is because 'millenials' is such a broad age group now in their 20s-30s, and is now the largest population cohort in the US, so if you say something broad and vague it's probably true for a good chunk of people even if it's not all "millenials."


Meeting new people is fine. I was robbed while I slept by the person below me in a Couchette in Europe, so maybe shoving people together in uncharacteristically intimate situations isn't universally grand.

I don't want to meet friends while I'm eating. I've taken sleeper trains in the US with my wife, and we both didn't like the communal seating.


I won't speak for my entire generation, but I'm fairly introverted and wasn't thrilled with the dining car setup on Amtrak. I wouldn't say I was "uncomfortable", but it was sort of awkward.


My awkwardness has subsided somewhat by being more confident in my conversations, especially during awkward silence. I used to get anxiety from talking to strangers; not from the conversation itself, but the unknowns (how long will this last? is my story amusing enough for tnhe other person? is it polite to stop talking now? do I need to "wrap up" the conversation?) Now if I don't feel like talking anymore, I'm no longer worrying about whether I'm being rude, I just sit in silence and don't add anything else. Move on to your next thought or back to what you were doing and don't imagine the myriad ways the other person may be perceiving it. Once you don't let awkward silence occupy your mind, you'll find your conversations flow in and out much smoother and you have substantially reduced social anxiety.


I'm not quite a millennial, but typically don't enjoy chatting with random people on public transit like buses, trains, or airplanes.

Nothing against them personally, but particularly with airports or Amtrak stations, all the things that happen before the point I'm in my seat are often a little stressful and draining. As an introvert that means I need alone time to recharge.

Further, there's guidelines or social norms that may make one feel "trapped" in a conversation they don't want to be in. On an airline if it's bad enough to ask an attendant for a new seat because other ways of getting someone to stop have failed, that's an incredibly embarrassing and stressful situation to be in.

This isn't a scenario I encounter often, but I imagine there's also instances where someone is uncomfortably being hit on that would likewise upset them. And particularly traveling alone on an Amtrak at night, depending on circumstances, that could be a pretty scary situation for some.

So ultimately there's quite a few reasons I barely scratched the surface of why some may not enjoy it. There's nothing wrong with not wanting to engage in conversation. As much as you may long for days when people would chat more openly, many may long for a day when that is no longer the default expectation.


I guess I consider myself "Oregon Trail Generation" , and I'm also a bit of a rail enthusiast, so I try to work it into my travel.

I don't think the privacy narrative makes sense. You're already traveling with some stranger in the next seat. You don't get significantly less privacy in a dining car. It probably fits within other cultural norms like smaller counter-service-only restaurants. If they're feeling tension in a dining car, they're going to have a full on panic attack in the coach!

What it does mean is that the value proposition for eating on board went down significantly. All you had to do to get the sale was offer reasonable food at fair prices. I don't need Michelin-star dining, but if you can match a basic chain diner (Applebee's or the like) with the convenience of "eat when you're hungry instead of waiting for your arrival and to find a place, and enjoy the scenery while doing so", you're a compelling value proposition.

I was livid about this when I rode the UK Great Western services recently; for 20 GBP extra between Swindon and Plymouth, first class was supposed to include a meal. Instead, you got a snack-box that looked suspiciously like the one you'd spend 7.99 USD for on Frontier Airlines. Needless to say, I packed my own meals for the rest of the trip.


On UK rail most of what you’re paying for by upgrading to first class is a guaranteed seat. I’ve never seen the first class carriages full, but I have regularly sat in luggage racks or on the floor in standard.


Is it super cheap and will save the company a lot of money but is a terrible experience? Claim millennials will love it. That's the best way to sell it shareholders and the media. If you look closely, you'll see this pattern over and over.


My company are doing this right now with a hot desk only policy. It never seems to occur to people that maybe millennials just want to be given choices, rather than have some old man telling them what they want.


Millennials love old men telling them what they want.


Yes, this is definitely what's happening with Amtrak in the article, and it's a damn shame.


The stereotype is that Americans are more prone to talking to strangers in public. Not sure if you're from the US, but in some parts of Europe starting a conversation with a random person in public would be considered at least weird.


Deutsche Bahn hasn't ordered cabin-style train wagons (little compartments for six) for the new ICE, only open floor train wagons.

(I'm sure there is correct terminology for those types, I just don't know the terms).


But will the new trains have dining cars? I remember a public backlash when they last talked about getting rid of them due to being not profitable, and am guessing things haven't changed for the better. Eg you pay 29 EUR minimum for a Hamburg-Berlin ride, compared to 9? for a bus.


>Eg you pay 29 EUR minimum for a Hamburg-Berlin ride, compared to 9? for a bus.

Long distance bus are much cheaper, but also much less comfortable and less reliable. DB gets a lot of flak for one hour delays on the first snow, my bus was delayed 3 hours at the start of winter. In general delays seem much more frequent with the bus. The concept of connecting to a different bus also doesn't exist (probably because of unreliable travel times), meanwhile with the train I can travel from anywhere to anywhere.

I would love cheaper trains, but they are already cheaper than traveling long distance by car and much more enjoyable and reliable than long distance bus. They lose badly to cheap flights though.


> The concept of connecting to a different bus also doesn't exist (probably because of unreliable travel times), meanwhile with the train I can travel from anywhere to anywhere

Flixbus will offer you connections with multiple legs, but the transfer time will always be 3-4 hours minimum. They're well aware that usage of public highway leads to random delays due to congestion.


I frequently commuted on the ICE (on the Netherlands end of the line) for a couple of years. Always rode in the dining car. Many times was quite empty - just me and the 1 or 2 server(s) dedicated to the dining car. I loved it but always wondered how it worked out for them financially. I often had my own 4-person dinner table with breakfast, tea and laptop spread across the table. Made for a luxurious, quiet and productive commute!

I must also say that the service, friendliness and humor of the staff on the ICE was almost always exceptional!


It's clearly not financially efficient.


They still have dining cars. They aren't profitable but seen as a value proposition of trains (no food in the bus). You also don't get randomly seated there, it's where you go to eat.


I have met people on the train when I used to take one from Orlando to Hollywood to visit my spouse when we were dating for different holidays. I had no idea there was even a food cart till somebody mentioned it and even then I didnt want to leave my belongings unattended. I was carrying everything I needed for the weekend.


This is just my personal experience, but as a younger-than-Millenial college student, I really enjoyed meeting strangers in the dining car. Being on a train by yourself for three days gets lonely.


As a millenial I don't feel this way at all. Reads more like an ad hoc justification than anything


You disagree that millennials and younger are much more screen focused and much less face-to-face comfortable than previous generations?



High speed rail in China is also killing the traditional dining car. In my experience, Chinese dining cars on non-high speed rail are amazing. Food is cooked freshly on the car and you can meet random interesting travelers sharing your table.

You used to even be able to get freshly made meat and vegetable dishes on the Guangzhou to Hong Kong (Hung Hom) intercity route.

High speed rail has for the most part either totally ditched the dining car or switched to pre-packaged boxed meals that aren't particularly interesting.

On my most recent long-haul slow train trip from Hong Kong to Beijing in 2016, a university professor from Beijing decided to sit across from and repeat government propaganda to me as if she was the first person to ever tell this foreigner who speaks fluent Chinese these things. "Did you know China has 56 ethnic minorities?" "Did you know China has 5000 years of history?"

I made a point to visit a dining car on an east coast Amtrak route several years ago after my amazing China dining car experiences hoping to get some of that traditional dining car experience and found to my disappointment that even then they were only serving pre-made meals.

I guess it's hard to justify pulling and staffing a full kitchen and stocking it with fresh ingredients.


I think one has to accept that some of these nostalgic things will inevitably retire, like the record player. We'll eventually get new things though, maybe dining cars in autonomous vehicles, who knows. We're currently in an awkward transition where old things are gone and new things aren't here yet, so being human is shitty.


I encourage you to not read the news so much if you actually feel this way. Talk to some older folks too-they’ll tell you about the way it was only 30-40 years ago. Almost everything is so much better today. The world is so much wealthier, smarter, and more connected.

I meet people from all over the world daily. Today, I can be sitting anywhere and order food from kilometers away and have it within a half-hour. I can do my job anywhere and anytime (besides a few windows of time for meetings). Yes, there are a few things that have gotten worse, but the overall picture is so much brighter than it used to be.


I've also done long rail trips in the US and China. Shanghai to Hong Kong and San Francisco to New York. Only did the high speed in China though so I don't know what I missed there.

I guess it will soon be too late, but the fresh dining experience you wanted still exists on the Western half of Amtrak service. From SF to Chicago I was slamming back steak and clams. The meals come with the sleeper car.


Newest HSR trains have buffets, 1 per 8 cars.

Configurations for short routes don't have them.

Do you really need a dining car when the longest route in the country is only 8 hours long?

Packaged meals on HSR do worth their price. Whatever meal I had in the past 7 years on the rail was cooked fresh.


I agree dining cars aren't needed on high speed rail because of the short amount of time passengers are on the train. That doesn't mean I can't miss the old 24+ hour trains with dining cars.

I wasn't aware of the HSR buffet. Look forward to trying out!


Packaged meals on the Beijing to GZ HSR were pretty bad. The trip was only 8 hours (BJ to ChenZhou Hunan), but you do get hungry between there and then. Having said that, I didn’t feel like checking out the dining car (if there was one). Having been on longer trips on normal fast trains with hard sleepers, the dining car was definitely useful.


"Officials, learned, for example, that the public’s perception of food boxes wasn’t as favorable as it hoped, and that passengers wanted more hot food options."

You know what has hot food options and no food boxes? Cooked-onboard meals at a table in the dining car. Seriously, did anyone focus-group this move at least?


And just to continue the theme, is there room for a kitchen on an airplane? Is there room for a kitchen on an intercity bus? No, that happens to be one of Amtrak's few and desperately-needed "unique business propositions." That's their moat, if they have one. It's not like they can be fast like a plane, or cheap like a bus. All that's left is "good." They can serve you a steak cooked to order. Some sense of luxury, of which hot meals are a part, is one of the few things that makes the passenger feel like Okay I'm not a total loser or hopeless aviophobe[0] for choosing this way of traveling. I can tell my incredulous friends and they'll see my point. I can brag that I woke up with Glacier National Park rolling by the windows and went down to the dining car and had French toast and met a guy who runs a tractor shop in a farming town thousands of miles removed from my life.

It's so counter-intuitive to cut that service out, I just can't help but suspect that it isn't meant as a business move at all, but rather as just another cynical salvo in the longstanding (since Reagan I guess) political effort to choke Amtrak out.

[0] There is also 'aviatophobe' but that sounds too much like 'the fear of Erlich Bachmann.'


This is nuts. I am a millennial. And I love the dining car. Not just the food is good (the steak really is good!), but the experience of actually talking to people who you would never really talk to in real life. Social media has made it easier than ever to connect with my friends, but that has taken away opportunities to talk to strangers.

Also on long distance trains if you are in a sleeper car your meal is free. I get it, the price is really just included in your ticket, but psychologically it nevertheless feels amazing to order steaks or mussels for free. Getting rid of the dining car would also greatly diminish the value of sleeper tickets.


I adore dining cars. There is something SO COOL about a self-contained restaurant which takes in power, water, and ingredients in one side and delivers fed people out the other. For people who don't know the first floor of these cars is generally a kitchen, the second a dining room where folks order (ordered) off a menu and were served food by a waiter. They've been a part of American trains since at least the mid-1880s, but no longer...


If you assume they're correct about the dining car being less popular, I wonder what would happen if they rebranded it to draw on "food truck" imagery. :-)


Hell, don't just evoke food trucks, make a business opportunity for food truck operators. Lease the diner car, or hook in privately owned diner cars. They could create a whole new sector of food trucks.


I hope someone buys one and tows it to San Francisco and sets up a hip new restaurant in it.


They could call it something cool that evokes its history as a dining car!

I’m thinking ‘diner’ would be a good choice...


It has to be something ungoogleable and be a word that's commonly used in everyday life. I'm thinking "grub" or even "food"


Of some interest, the diner aesthetic has a lot to do with railroads: https://www.atlasobscura.com/articles/why-do-diners-look-lik...


dcurtis and I did the California Zephyr back in 2008 (or 2009) and the dining car was interesting as a fairly representative example of the Amtrak experience. You could tell there was still some magic there, but the china was replaced with flimsy plastic, the food was of poorer quality than what you'd get on a United international flight in Economy class, and - yes - you did have to sit next to people you didn't know.

But you could easily imagine it as a rollicking good time, not unlike a cruise ship: fine tableware and china, well appointed interior, with cocktails and wine, next to other fascinating characters. The observation car is OK and all, but it's not the same.

Millenials don't like it because the experience isn't authentic enough.


> United international flight in Economy class

I never took a United flight in 2008, but I took both one and a Amtrak in 2016, and the food in the train was 100 times better than the disgusting stuff United serves you. They are the worst airline in economy for this.


Was thinking about that last line for last 12 hours. What does constitute an authentic experience these days?


Last time I’ve been to a dining car was on a Budapest—Vienna train a few years back.

My personal opinion on this, having a dedicated dining car (A) reduces the probability of fellow passengers eating in their seats around me and (B) provides an optional location to escape to if desired.

It’s not eating itself that bothers me, just the place-appropriateness of it—I can block the noises but not the smell.


I've traveled on that train a significant amount of times; there's multiple models. The old one has the nice dining car - the newer trains have like 4 tables.

Most food eaten on that train is actually eaten by people in their seats, and this is true across most European train routes.

I should note, that I love the dining car and nothing is better than a good coffee and watching the scenery go by.


The one I took seemed like a somewhat new(ish) model both from inside and outside, but I’m hazy on details and wouldn’t be able to find a photo of it now. It was an enjoyable ride! (EDIT: Four tables sounds about right[0], but it was still okay.)

Yes, it’s allowed to eat in regular cars and I wouldn’t say anything to anyone if they do it—but if at some point it starts to bother me, I like to be able to voluntarily put myself in a café-like environment of the dining car where I naturally become more tolerant to smells and noises. The change of context makes a big difference.

[0] The dining car looked the same as in this article: http://don.at/references/don-denrailjets-der-oebb/


Ahh, yeah that's the modern ones. The old school ones are even better -- they have one that leaves ~ 7am I think. It's a not as nice as this, older less fancy, http://www.mavnosztalgia.hu/en/galeria/241 but it's honestly my favorite.

It's so much nicer than the new ones -- but the new ones normally are only half the car and there's normally business class or something taking up the rest of the car.


I'm so glad I got to experience a cross-country trip on Amtrak last year, before this change. The dining car was a sort of Grand Budapest Hotel experience, a reference to another time that I'm not even sure ever existed. A sacred piece of Americana. Sad to see it go.


The menus:

https://www.amtrak.com/content/dam/projects/dotcom/english/p... https://web.archive.org/web/20190324104909/https://www.amtra... https://www.amtrak.com/content/dam/projects/dotcom/english/p...

So indeed there's the loss of the steaks, eggs, french toast, etc. in favor of stuff that can be cooked in a microwave oven. On the other hand there weren't many choices to begin with compared to a restaurant.


The dining car has been full with a waitlist on every train I’ve taken that had one.


Amtrak with its dining car and special services, rules and atmosphere is unique and many people will miss it. But it is as well a very old fashioned way to travel that does not really fit nowadays to get from point A to B. It is so increadible slow since the railway are so old, the trains have to wait to let pass goods traffic... If the US given its vast size wants to profide an ecological alternative to cars and airplanes they would be the need to own the rails, make them fast, build a real network to get everywhere... So everything once has an end, as coal mining has.


That’s so weird, part of the reason I liked taking the train is that they had cars with tables where you could put your laptop.

As a millennial I feel like I’m bothering people all the time and I really like having an “excuse” to be around strangers.


This is sad, some friends of mine recently booked a cross country train trip for their honeymoon, the spoke specifically about being excited to experience the dining car.


I met my wife on the Amtrak dining car! Political conversation with 3 other strangers turned into the most important relationship in my life. Shame its going away - to be honest tho it was in the same state most things are these days - the status quo is pretty substandard and lousy, and it seems instead of improving things, the conversation is simply about axing it entirely...


MSN has a copy of this article and doesn't prevent ad blockers: https://www.msn.com/en-us/news/us/the-end-of-an-american-tra...


What a Bull shit answer, blaming millennials as it cuts back on dining-car meals. He keeps cutting services, as station agents, you have one person looking over 2-3 cars. Keep reading all the articles about Richard Anderson, he is an airline person, and I read that he still has a large amount of stock in airlines, I believe that is a conflict of interest. 90% of the people who eat in the diner are sleeping car passengers, very rarely do you see coach passengers eating in the diner. I hope he goes before he destroys all of the Railway clubs who rely on Amtrak for excursions that keep railway history alive for future generations. Pitifull !!! He needs to go!!!


I just did some calculations: If every person on earth flies only once a year (to and from), we would increase daily air passengers from 2.7 million to 44 million (1481% increase), we would also increase the number of daily flights from 44.000 to 650.000.

Meaning, if you fly only once a year, you should consider your self privilege. If you fly more often then that, you should consider your self a carbon hog.

We really can’t afford to loose the train network in America. If we are going to be serious about preventing climate catastrophe (or at least minimize it) people have to stop flying for anything other then emergencies and inter-continental travels. People are going to have to ride the trains as long as Boston to L.A. if they have to get there regularly.


America continuous its never ending search for more profits at the expense of being human.


Is Amtrak even profitable now?


The NEC is profitable.

Let me ask you this: are highways profitable?


I've never seen a traditional dining car on any of the long distance western European trains I've ridden on. I'm not sure how this is specific to the United States.


And yet I'd put money on the fact that you've never eaten in a dining car.


millennial customers, don’t like it so much. They want more privacy, they don’t want to feel uncomfortable sitting next to people

The post-millennials are going to grow up wondering why there’s absolutely nothing to do but sit at home watching streaming video and endlessly scrolling through social media. I feel privileged to have lived before millennials destroyed everything worthwhile.


As a millennial, I'd argue that this, like many "millennials are destroying X" things are more signs of questionable economic developments and acute problems in society - and nothing millennials specifically "want".

Also, a person who is completely dependent on online services for any kind of decision or activity in life is probably the wet dream of many business leaders and politicians - so I think there are a lot of forces right now moving people in that direction.

Whatever the reason though, I think post-milennials are already getting fed up with it right now (or at least certain groups of them): Studies show that "Gen-Z-ers" are, taken as a group, more miserable than generations before them, with smartphones appearing to be a deciding factor. They also seem to become more politically active as well.

So I think we're currently on the trajectory to a Black Mirror/Brave New World kind of future, but it's not clear at all if we'll arrive there. We're living in interesting times.


Millennials are just the excuse to cut corners, costs and /or absolve executives of blame for bad business decisions.


I had good experience of dining car in Amtrak. Took the train route from Virginia to Florida (Auto Train). Instead of sitting in the seats for long time, this was a good break for kids. Absolute fun as a family. Hope they will continue this tradition along with the needed changes.


Previous discussion about Amtrak’s dining car (around the first time the dining cars end was announced in 2018) here: https://news.ycombinator.com/item?id=16882231


When's the last time you saw an advertisement to ride a train? Maybe trains are dying because they link up locations that are less convenient for people and nobody knows that trains still exist outside of metro lines?


This is disappointing, there are quite a few train tours in the US I wanted to take my kids(0,2) to when they are a little older. I hope they don't ruin these great family adventure options!


This is a nice PR twist in what's effectively a simpler story: mismanagement, absolutely horrific train systems, downright fraudulent monopoly with no updates to any technology. Well what could go wrong?

I remember just a few years ago, sitting in an Amtrak admiring the view... Well the train tracks for three hours really while waiting out on a BNSF rail to pass through. Yep, oil and shipment are more important than human beings.

And the dining car was an outright joke, they microwaved some shitty prepackaged food even then. This was on multiple long hauls, mind you, not one of those short day trip feel good trips (which I admittedly took as well).


Oh one of the best parts of Amtrak is great food and meeting other people.

Makes no sense to attempt to follow airline fare. It's unique in American modes of transportation.


Super sad. I really enjoyed talking with people in the dining car. The idea that I'm sharing a real dinner with other people, not just tucking into a sandwich at my assigned seat, was part of the romance of long distance rail travel.

This reminds me of how bizarre it is when you're in a coffee shop with little tables that can fit 2-4, but because there's one person at it, nobody shares. Our personal bubbles have grown bigger. Is there a way to hang a sign that says "open to socialization - I don't bite" ?


Coffee shops that wish to encourage socialization can provide large tables which seat 6-12 rather than two-tops.

I was a regular at a coffee shop for 7 years, and this was one of the reasons. (RIP Rebecca's Coffee House.) I met lots of people by striking up conversations with someone seated at the same large table.

(Some people don't want to talk, but if you have the social skills to read the signs, it's no big deal.)


I think you would need a "no devices" rule there or else a 12 top would just become the home of 5 people on laptops.


Even without such a rule, it's still a social win over 5 two-tops with one patron each, as far as I'm concerned — and it's probably a wash for per-square-foot revenue.


Simple question: why aren't trains a big thing in the US? They are in Asia and Europe.

Any readings on the topic much appreciated.



One more stop in the quest of USA to degrade its infrastructure everywhere, as other countries improve theirs...


Last time I took Amtrak, all the dining car had were stale plain bagels. That was twenty years ago.


You are probably talking about a Cafe Car, not a Dining Car. A dining car is (was) a fully self-contained restaurant. This move is essentially replacing that with your stale bagel vendor.


You're getting the café car (https://m.amtrak.com/h5/r/www.amtrak.com/cafe-car) confused with the traditional dining car (https://m.amtrak.com/h5/r/www.amtrak.com/onboard/meals-dinin...)


Last time I rode Amtrak (2016) the food was fairly good. Not exactly a five-star restaurant, but much better than airline food.


Definitely. I rode the California Zephyr earlier this year and really liked the dining car. The staff was great and the food was decent. It wasn't the best meal ever, but it was definitely my best meal in a moving vehicle. And I liked the structure the fixed dining hours gave to the day. This change seems like a loss to me.


I always hoped to ride this train some day and try out the dining car.


I used Amtrak a lot in that era and I've never seen that.


So, airplane food then.

This article is completely disingenuous. First, the reason American millennials don't take trains is that Amtrak scheduling is ridiculous except on the east coast. It ain't about the dining car.

Second, the guy Trump put in charge of Amtrak has said his mission was to kill it. This is obviously just the first step. It won't bring millennials onto trains because that's not the goal. The goal is to reduce ridership of people like me who enjoy using Amtrak. Mission accomplished.

Edit: I may be repeating a railfan conspiracy theory above. I can't find a link that confirms Richard Anderson ever said he wanted to kill Amtrak and Trump didn't put him in charge. Hanlon's Razor applies.


tl;dr: "The railroad anticipates the change will save it about $2 million a year."


But cost 5 million in lost sales.


We call this process shittifying


Or as the Fed would call, "Hedonic quality adjustments".


As if a dining car was a specifically _American_ tradition.


I'm trying to remember the last time I was on a train (a real intercity train, not a commuter train or light rail). It's been at least a decade.




Guidelines | FAQ | Support | API | Security | Lists | Bookmarklet | Legal | Apply to YC | Contact

Search: