It's snowing lightly, and the predawn darkness hides everything. But a bright beacon can be easily seen. The double wail of a distant horn pierces the quiet. Amtrak's Empire Builder is pulling into the Alpine-style railroad station in this old West town on the outskirts of Glacier National Park.
During the next day and a half, it will be my task to sample the scenery and critique the food service before heading to Colorado to do the same on the California Zephyr. For a kid who grew up with a Lionel train set and lived near a train switching roundhouse, this is a dream assignment.
It will turn out that the scenery hasn't changed much -- though the food has. The menu on all but a few trains has gone from old-time custom-grilled steaks on nice plates and table linens to microwaved mac and cheese on plastic plates and paper tablecloths.
But first, a little background.
In recent years, Congress, which underwrites Amtrak to the tune of $1.3 billion a year, threatened to pull its subsidy unless the railroad did something about reducing food costs. The dining car was losing far more than it was taking in.
"The average was just over $2 of cost for every dollar of revenue," says Brian Rosenwald, Amtrak's senior director of customer service.
"Not a great business model," I add as we stare at a tumbleweed racing just outside the observation car.
"A very bad business model," he agrees.
Amtrak has been drowning in a sea of red ink for years, and expensive labor is one of the reasons. Rosenwald says the average Amtrak food service worker earns about $20 an hour and another $10 to $12 an hour in benefits. That's far more than a typical restaurant worker earns.
Of course, the average restaurant worker can go home at night -- not so with those on the train.
Still, the costs are high. Something had to be done. So Amtrak designed what it calls "streamlined dining service," which eliminates a cook or two in the galley and another food handler in the dining car above. Disposable plastic cups, glassware and plates eliminated the need for a dishwasher. Other cost savings include tablecloths that look like cloth but are made of paper.
And then, there's the food.
All but two of Amtrak's 16 overnight trains now stock pre-packaged frozen food. Some of it can be microwaved or heated up in a water bath. Other items can be "finished" on the grill.
Some of the traditional dining car entrees are now off the menu, like grilled-to-order strip steaks and the traditional railroad breakfast of sunny-side-up fried eggs. It takes fewer chefs to cook pre-made omelet mix and French toast.
There are still fresh flowers on the tables and real silverware, but the cutbacks have allowed Amtrak to go to a four-member dining car crew from six employees on many trains.
Chef Steve Randles says he misses the old days.
"Yeah, a lot. You see, we're professionally trained chefs, not warmer-uppers" he says.
He then reaches into the freezer and pulls out one of the new entrees.
"Mac and cheese: It'll be microwaved," he says.
What do passengers think? It depends on whether they recall the "good old days" of "classic training." One older passenger told me he missed fried eggs and bacon and couldn't understand why they were no longer on the menu.
"How much more work is frying an egg, as opposed to making an omelet?" he asked.
The answer is, quite a bit. Once again, it's about prepackaging the ingredients and limiting choices.