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Amtrak shows off upgrades to long-distance trains

The spiffed-up coaches and sleeper cars, and improved dining service, will be a big change for a fleet that was decades old — and showing it.

The inside of an upgraded Amtrak Superliner coach displayed on Tuesday, June 15, 2021 at Chicago’s Union Station.
Amtrak’s upgraded coaches will have new carpets and curtains, as well as more comfortable seats.
Sam Heller/Sun-Times

Amtrak passengers headed west out of Chicago will soon notice some big changes on board.

On Tuesday at Union Station, Amtrak unveiled upgrades being made to its double-decker long-distance Superliner trains.

The spiffed-up coaches and sleeper cars, and improved dining service, will be a big change for a fleet that was decades old — and showing it. Broken curtains, stained seats and worn-out cushions were among the problems, said Jim Mathews, president and CEO of the National Association for Railroad Passengers.

“We had this rolling museum out there and we needed to take care of it. Amtrak has figured out a way to very cost-efficiently start to deal with the problem,” Mathews said.

Now, the dated orange-and-brown color scheme many Superliner coaches sported is being replaced. They will have new seat cushions covered in a durable gray fabric that will still look new even after two years of service, Roger Harris, Amtrak’s chief marketing and revenue officer, told reporters at Union Station.

“It is almost like a first-class experience,” Harris said. “it’s pretty comfy for the price of the ticket.”

There will be new blue carpets and curtains to go with the sleek gray seats. The interior will resemble Amtrak’s high-speed Acela coaches, which connect Washington, Philadelphia, Boston and New York along the East Coast.

The first updated cars go into service near the end of this month, and over three years will be added onto all long-distance western routes. That includes trains out of Chicago, such as the California Zephyr and the Empire Builder, as well as the Coast Starlight, which runs from Seattle to Los Angeles.

Amtrak upgraded the Superliners’ lounge cars as well, and sleeper cars will have better sheets and new toiletries.

During the COVID-19 pandemic, Amtrak discontinued its traditional dining service. Now, with the positivity rate dropping and vaccination rates increasing, Amtrak will bring this service back, but with some major upgrades on western routes, starting June 23, said Amtrak Vice President Robert Jordan.

“We are building back better,” Amtrak vice president Larry Chester said, echoing the campaign slogan of President Joe Biden, an Amtrak booster who often commuted via train while serving in the U.S. Senate.

Amtrak’s dining cars will once again use metal utensils, with meals served on real china.
Amtrak’s dining cars will once again use metal utensils, with meals served on real china.
Sam Heller/Sun-Times

New menu items include vegan chili, lobster crab cake and grilled Atlantic salmon. Some staples, such as steak and French toast, will remain, Jordan said.

“To test the menu, we flew out chefs from Las Angeles, Seattle, and Chicago,” he said, “and they didn’t change a thing.”

For first-class passengers, not only are all three meals included in their fare, so is their first alcoholic drink at dinner.

For now, coach passengers will continue to buy food in the café car. In a few months, they will be able to eat in the dining car and buy food off the new menu.

The menu isn’t the only thing to getting an upgrade, Jordan said; that food will be served on china again, with real flowers in vases on the tables.

Amtrak also revealed its new U.S.-built diesel-electric locomotive, which is 10% more efficient and accelerates about 30% faster. The locomotives will give off almost no visible smoke and cut down on greenhouse gas emissions.

The 75 new locomotives will be added to Amtrak’s fleet over the next few years. They will replace units that had not been upgraded since the 1990s.

“We are positioning ourselves to do so much expansion for the future,” said Tamara Baggett, Amtrak’s manager of on-board services. “Our next five years are going to be awesome.”