Items for the Well-Trained Traveler

A frisbee, a beach towel, ceramic coffee tastefully decorated with the word “Amtrak” repeated seven times, or a set of four plastic coffee mugs with photos of Amtrak locomotives are the sum and total of the souvenirs offered by this brochure. All were inexpensive (double prices to get today’s dollars) but were also cheaply made (no doubt made in some Asian country).

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The brochure comes complete with a mail-in order form, so the listed prices apparently included shipping. The word Frisbee is trademarked by the Wham-O corporation, but it did not do much to defend its trademark. As this brochure puts the word frisbee in quotation marks, I suspect that, though Amtrak used the name, it didn’t actually buy its flying disks from Wham-O and thus was carelessly violating the company’s trademark.

Amtrak 1989 Lunch Menu

A railcar shortage allowed Amtrak to dramatically increase bedroom fares in the 1980s. To mitigate this increase, as well as the downgrading of dining car menus, Amtrak began giving sleeping-car passengers free meals. This 1989 lunch menu was used by such first-class passengers to make their menu selections. No doubt another, slightly more formal menu was used for coach passengers.

Click image to download a 415-KB PDF of this menu.

Crudely photocopied on cheap paper, the menu is anything but first class. Nor are the meal selections: burgers, grilled cheese, a vague “regional” sandwich, a bowl of chili, or a hot turkey or beef (ask your attendant which) sandwich. All were pretty tasteless.

See More of America for Less

This 1987 brochure offers three attractive fare plans. Two of the plans are based on dividing the country into three regions: east of Chicago and New Orleans; west of Denver and Albuquerque; and a central region between Denver and Chicago. The first fare plan allowed passengers to take any round trip within either the Western or Central region for $129.

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The second plan allowed round-trip travel with one stopover in a 45-day period. Within any one of the three regions, this cost just $150; within two regions, it was $200; for the entire country, it cost $250. While far from a rail pass that allowed unlimited travel, it did allow passengers to effectively take three one-way trips for a modest fare. Continue reading

Welcome Aboard the Empire Builder

This brochure is dated 1986, but was distributed in the same sealed plastic wrapper as an Empire Builder route map, quite possibly the same one shown here a few days ago even though that one was dated 1984. This brochure describes the on-board amenities, including feature-length films shown in the lounge car, games in the dining car, and a hospitality hour with complimentary snacks in the lounge car.

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The brochure notes that, when the Portland and Seattle sections operate west of Spokane, the lounge car went to Portland and the diner to Seattle. The diner had a lounge area offering snacks and beverages while the lounge car offered “light meal service.” The train continues to operate this way today.

Real Chinaware

After a few years of bad food on plastic dinnerware, Amtrak announced that it would offer real china on the Coast Starlight and perhaps one or two other trains. Again, I forget exactly when this happened, but it was sometime in the mid-1980s.

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As shown by the menu below, the food itself was pretty much unchanged from the 1985 menu presented yesterday. Printed on ordinary paper, the menu itself was even cheaper than yesterday’s, which was printed on glossy paper. Continue reading

Amtrak 1985 Menu

Some time in the early 1980s–I think it was about the time Amtrak inaugurated the Portland section of the Empire Builder–Amtrak cut back on its dining car service. Many of the hot meals, even such things as French toast, were pre-prepared and microwaved on the trains. Ceramic plates were replaced by plastic dishes and trays. I previously derided Amtrak food of the 1970s as a cut above Denny’s, but after these cutbacks it was far worse than Denny’s.

Click image to download a 1.0-MB PDF of this menu.

This 1985 menu illustrates that the menu selection was cut way back–only four or five choices for each meal and no a la carte sections–which in turn symbolizes the parallel decline in quality. To ease the pain of the transition, Amtrak offered free coffee to all its riders, and I recall an Amtrak executive saying he approved of the changes because it meant a higher percentage of riders would get to enjoy food services. The free coffee didn’t last long, but the inedible food did.

Empire Builder Route Guide

For Amtrak’s first ten years, the Empire Builder went to Seattle but did not have a Portland section. That was rectified by the time this 1984 brochure was published. Like the Willamette Valley, I rode on the first run of the Portland section in 1981 and reported on it for Passenger Train Journal.

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Burlington Northern had a business car on the end of the train and I somehow wangled an invitation to ride in the car for part of the trip. I remember we were easily going the speed limit of 79 mph–probably closer to 85–and the car gave a sudden lurch around one corner. All of the BN executives made a note of where that was so they could get the track fixed right away so future trips of the train could stay on the advertised. At Amtrak’s invitation, I returned via the Seattle section of the Empire Builder and then took one of the trains from Seattle to Portland.

Columbia Gorge Train-Boat Tours

For $75 in 1983 (about $185 in today’s money), two people could stay at the historic Columbia Gorge Hotel, enjoy the hotel’s “world famous farm breakfast” (no longer available), and have a rental car for a day in scenic Hood River, Oregon, a stop on Amtrak’s Pioneer. A two-hour boat cruise was an added option for $7.50 per person, but the brochure doesn’t say how much rail fare would be from, say, Portland or Seattle to Hood River.

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The brochure does say that, late in 1983, the town of Cascade Locks, located a few miles downriver from Hood River, would put the Sternwheeler Columbia Gorge into operation. That sternwheeler is still operating today, which is more than can be said for the Pioneer, which was cancelled in 1997.

Amtrak California Zephyr

In April, 1983, the Rio Grande Railroad stopped running its three-day-a-week Rio Grande Zephyr and allowed Amtrak to run its Chicago-Oakland train over Rio Grande rails between Denver and Ogden. With that change, Amtrak renamed its San Francisco Zephyr to the more classic California Zephyr. Amtrak’s train didn’t have dome cars, but the new route was far more scenic than the previous route through southern Wyoming. This brochure, dated “effective April 24, 1983,” celebrates that change with major emphasis on the scenery and minor emphasis on the on-board amenities.

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The Rio Grande Zephyr was the last regularly scheduled Silver Age train, and for those of us who loved such trains April 24 was a day of mourning. I was on the last run of the Rio Grande Zephyr and reported on it in Passenger Train Journal. I recently rode the California Zephyr, and Amtrak employees are doing a decent job of hosting passengers. But the food is lousy and I still miss the dome cars.

Amtrak Train Fare

This menu suggests that, in 1981, Amtrak was no longer using laminated menus. However, the range of meals available in the dinners had improved since the 1980 menu shown here a few days ago. While that one just had a cold plate or hot turkey sandwich for a lunch meal, this one has five meals including baked lasagna, fish, and a chef’s salad, along with the usual burgers and soup and salad.

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The dinners are even more extensive, and include New York steak, baked chicken, roast turkey, prime rib, and trout. The breakfast menu included the usual eggs, cereals, and pancakes or French toast.