Nothing could be finer, than eating in the diner…well, maybe not!

Fred Harvey, George Pullman and Georges Nagelmackers must be spinning in their respective graves like so many dreidels. In this day and age one would call them entrepreneurs. Their common grievance: the atrocious service being provided by the railroads of their days.

Fred Harvey founded the Fred Harvey Company in 1876, spurred on by the horrible food provided by the railroads. That is if there was any food to be had at all. His idea of providing good food, decent service and treating his employees well, made the company a huge success. His “Harvey Houses” were located in railroad stations serving long distance trains, primarily those of the Atchison, Topika and Santa Fe Railroad. An entire train could be “fed” in about 30 minutes. Meal portions were apparently quite large. The story goes that pies at the Harvey Houses were cut into fourths to be served to customers.

Fred Harvey died in 1901 leaving one of the largest food service companies to his heirs.

George Pullman of course is know for having come up with the famous “Pullman Cars”. He wanted to control the whole travel experience, which was hitherto fairly awful. Just like the food, the wooden railroad cars were pretty bad and rode awfully. Pullman thought that there was money to be made by offering a much better travel experience to the public, and for that he thought he had to control everything related to it: From the quality of the ride of the railroad coach itself, to the inside accommodation of said coach, to the food being served and the service itself. Pullman cars were made out of steel and he invented and then incorporated the now ubiquitous vestibules and gangways between railroad cars. Pullman cars were generally leased to the railroad companies.

Pullman car service was apparently impeccable. The company hired black men, freed after the US Civil War, to be “Pullman Porters”. ( I  encourage my readers to click on this  link to read more about Pullman Porters and the associated racial issues!) George Pullman was no angel. It was he who had the military called in to break a strike at his factory in 1894, which left 30 striking workmen dead. He apparently fancied himself a modern day Jakob Fugger, company town and all. However unlike Fugger, Pullman ran the town, named after him, like a feudal baron, expecting it to make a profit.

Georges Nagelmackers was a Belgian who had traveled for some time in the US, which exposed him to the newly introduced Pullman Cars. Intrigued, he attempted to get George Pullman to collaborate in setting up a Pullman type rail service in Europe. Pullman, however, was not interested. Perhaps Pullman should have been interested, because Nagelmackers then went on to found what would become one of the most famous trains and train operating companies in the world: Compagnie Internationale des Wagon-Lits and it’s Orient Express. Nagelmackers’ thinking was just like Pullman’s and Harvey’s: how to make train travel less arduous, more enjoyable and safer. Nagelmackers went so far as to even prescribe the design dimensions for the teapots to be used on his trains:

Tea Pot Plan

Tea Pot design requirements for the Orient Express Company (Belmond Archives)

All this brings me to our National Railroad Passenger Corporation here in the US. Most of us know it as a portmanteau of America and trak: AMTRAK! (I suppose somebody did not know how to spell track correctly) In any case, AMTRAK was founded in 1971 as a quasi-public corporation, to be managed as a for-profit organization. The various private railroads had all but given up on providing passenger service, so AMTRAK was tasked to run a national long distance passenger rail service. I will not bore my readers with the details of AMTRAK’s history, suffice it to say, that when President Nixon signed the Rail Passenger Service Act in 1970, most politicians, Washington insiders and the CEOs of the major railroads expected AMTRAK to quietly disappear.

So, here we are in 2019 and AMTRAK is still around. The railroad everybody loves to hate! And some folks are going to even hate the railroad even more. Airlines have been doing a “race to the bottom” with ever worsening service, sardine like seating and now this fake “a la carte” pricing for some time. AMTRAK has generally resisted this. Sure, the rail cars are about 30 or so years old, but at least there is plenty of leg room. If AMTRAK says the ticket from A to B is $100, it is. There are no airline style “gotcha” fees. There is also the pleasure of having a meal in the dining car on one of AMTRAK’s long distance trains. The meals are not necessarily inexpensive, but generally quite tasty and fresh.

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Current dining car menu for AMTRAK’s “Crescent” (Trains 19 & 20)

Alas, it seems that AMTRAK has joined the aforementioned race to the bottom. Perhaps this is because AMTRAK has a new CEO. And he was the former head honcho, you guessed it, at one of the major US legacy airlines. Maybe they will start charging for window seats now! Or for bringing some luggage onboard! Or, maybe they could start charging for using the toilets, like Ryan Air is proposing! You think I am kidding? No, not at all. it seems that the first casualty of this insanity will be the meal service in the long distance train dining cars. AMTRAK states that coming this fall there will be no more dining service.

Apparently passengers are to get plastic rubber sandwiches and microwaved hockey pucks for their meals now. This is just wonderful! I have just ostensibly paid $1600 for a sleeper ticket from Chicago to Los Angeles and AMTRAK is going to feed me garbage for 5 meals on the train!?

Amtrak Bedroom

Price for a bedroom on the Southwest Chief in mid-November

A spokesperson for AMTRAK justifies their decision thusly: Millenials do not want to sit with other people, they want their privacy. Millenials do not want to interact. And AMTRAK would save $2 million a year!

One could be forgiven to think that this is just a bad joke. But no, that was what the spokesperson said. AMTRAK had $3.4 billion in revenue in 2018. $2 million seems like small potatoes. I would venture to guess that more than $2 million could be saved by getting rid of management waste at headquarters.

As far as millenials is concerned: I doubt that they would be spending a bit over $1600 on a sleeper, when they could just spend $350 and be in Los Angeles in four hours. Amtrak obviously hasn’t got their demographic vision right.

One other thing: perhaps it would be good to force millenials to get their darn noses out of their mobile phone screens. Or act like real beings by interacting with others. Just thinking…

Harvey House in Barstow, CA

The Harvey House at the Barstow, CA station (NPS photo)

Harvey House

Harvey House in Hutchinson, Kansas ca. 1920 (collectorsweekly photo)

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An early Pullman Sleeping Car (Smithsonian Institution photo)

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A modern Pullman car built originally for the Seaboard Coast Line (pullmanrailjourneys photo)

the Venice Simplon Orient Express passing through the Brenner Pass, Austria

Orient Express (Belmond photo)

1 Comment

  1. colin brierley says:

    Most of us just let it happen Ralf, and it occurs right across the board. Even animals have more protection than Homo Sapiens

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