What We Lose When We Lose the Am­trak Din­ing Car

On the un­ex­pected plea­sures of eat­ing with strangers in close quar­ters


ALMOST A DECADE AGO, I made two good de­ci­sions. The first was to move from New York to New Or­leans. The sec­ond was to get there by train. I boarded the Cres­cent at Penn Station, car­ry­ing a small, soft-sided cooler that con­tained a loaf of bread, a stick of dried Ital­ian sausage, blocks of cheese and pâté, a bag of my mother’s choco­late chip cook­ies, and a bot­tle of Bulleit rye. I was not go­ing to go hun­gry. I had pur­chased what Am­trak calls a roomette, an in­ge­niously de­signed closet that was, in the best pos­si­ble way, like trav­el­ing in an air­plane bath­room. I spent most of the 30-hour jour­ney there, in bliss­ful iso­la­tion.

But I was equally thrilled each meal­time, when a knock came at my cabin door, alert­ing me that it was time to emerge and weave my way to the din­ing car. While I have almost com­pletely for­got­ten the meals I ate there (I be­lieve that at least one was filet mignon, that clas­sic sig­ni­fier of lux­ury), I re­mem­ber each of the din­ing com­pan­ions with whom, as a solo trav­eler, I was ran­domly joined. One was a young woman head­ing home from North Carolina. She told me about the hot sausage po’boy at Two Sisters Restau­rant in the Treme, a sand­wich I made it my busi­ness to try dur­ing my first week in town, and still seek out at the restau­rant’s new lo­ca­tion in New Or­leans East. An­other com­pan­ion, a man in his 50s, sold parts for air con­di­tion­ing and re­frig­er­a­tion sys­tems, a sub­ject he did not tire

“I re­mem­ber each of the din­ing com­pan­ions with whom, as a solo trav­eler, I was ran­domly joined.”

of dis­cussing. I can’t say I came away shar­ing his en­thu­si­asm, or that I re­tained much of what we dis­cussed, but I re­call the plea­sure of listening to him—the jar­gon, the anec­dotes, the opin­ions about ar­cane mat­ters of the re­frig­er­a­tion arts, all rolling hyp­not­i­cally along as we ate, like a sooth­ing echo of the wheels be­neath.

Look, the world is al­ways try­ing to break us apart, not least at the ta­ble, where we’re reg­u­larly told that the glo­ri­ous fu­ture con­sists of ever more ef­fi­cient de­liv­ery ser­vices that prom­ise we’ll never have to cross paths with strangers on our way to get­ting fed. Am­trak an­nounced in Septem­ber that it would be sus­pend­ing tra­di­tional din­ing­car ser­vice, the kind with white table­cloths and cooked-to-or­der food, on most overnight routes east of the Mis­sis­sippi. The com­pany blamed mil­len­ni­als, those all-pur­pose scape­goats. (“They want more pri­vacy; they don’t want to feel un­com­fort­able sit­ting next to peo­ple,” ac­cord­ing to a, pre­sum­ably non-mil­len­nial, Am­trak exec.) But this process has been go­ing on since… well, at least since we aban­doned trains for the in­di­vid­ual co­coons of the au­to­mo­bile. All the more rea­son I wish Am­trak, of all en­ti­ties, had stuck to its guns. If a rail­road can’t de­fend the fun­da­men­tal hu­man plea­sures of get­ting there to­gether—whether to your fi­nal des­ti­na­tion or a full belly—then who will?

Am­trak has re­placed its tra­di­tional din­ing car (left) with “flex­i­ble” air­line-style meals (be­low) on most of its overnight routes east of the Mis­sis­sippi.

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