WHITEFISH, Mont., Jan. 7, 2007 — -- 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.
Another, younger passenger didn't seem to mind.
"The French toast is fine," she said.
But she did grumble a little about the plastic glass full of orange juice.
"Kinda' cheap," she said.
One of Amtrak's affable public relations directors, Marc Magliari, understandably defended all things Amtrak as he accompanied us on our two train journeys. But he was quite outspoken when the question of congressional threats to eliminate food service subsidies came up.
"We cannot do away with dining service on long-distance trains," he said. "In many ways, food service is the very heart of the train experience. It's the step beyond just getting you there."
Passengers on the Empire Builder could not agree more.
"It's well worth the extra money," said one man as he cut into a steak.
The Empire Builder (Chicago to Seattle) and the Auto Train (from Louton, Va., to Sanford, Fla.) are the only trains still living in the past and offering the full, traditional dining car service. For that, they typically charge 10 percent more than other Amtrak overnight trains.
"Yes, it costs more than the other trains," said an Empire Builder passenger. "But look at what we get."
She pointed to real china and stemware -- not to mention a fancy desert (chocolate bundt cake finished with an "elegant white chocolate drizzle").
A couple hours earlier, a wine-and-cheese tasting event was held, featuring regional wines and a choice of domestic cheese. One of the favorites was a creamy blue cheese from Faribault, Minn.
And guess what? The Empire Builder is the most popular of all Amtrak trains -- which begs the question: Why not keep the traditional menu and service alive on the other trains and simply charge a little more?
Magliari said Amtrak was looking at the Empire Builder "model" to see if other trains might follow, but it seemed doubtful. Congress wants even deeper cuts.
"The projected annual savings is just around $15½ million," said Rosenwald.
"The goal wasn't to get it down to break even or make profit," he added, and quickly noted that another $11 million in cuts is expected this year.
As for my preferences, I'd take the Empire Builder any day of the week. There is something about the elegant style of a full service/full menu dining car that deserves to be preserved.
Perhaps I remember too many old movies such as "North by Northwest," where Cary Grant and Eva Marie Saint flirted shamelessly after ordering brook trout ("a little trouty" says Saint, "but quite good.").
Come to think of it, maybe it's about the romance of the rails as much as it is about the food.
Speaking of which, there is no better way to see the Rocky Mountains than from the "sightseer lounge car" on the California Zephyr. The spectacular mountain passes and valleys cannot be enjoyed from an automobile racing down Interstate 70 -- at least not without risking an accident.
Yes, trains are slower. But occasionally, that's a good thing -- and a good thing for those who live in remote areas that are not serviced by the airlines.
Now if they could just restore the service and menu to the 60-year-old Zephyr, some of us old rail fans could have our cake and eat it too.