Rail passengers, like everybody else who travels, need food on long trips. That’s where the railroad dining car comes in. Like the sleeping car, the dining car was a product of George Pullman’s Pullman Palace Car Company. In 1835, the Philadelphia & Columbia railroad tested the first dining car, the “Victory,” the first buffet car. Even though meals were not cooked-to-order onboard, passengers could eat without having to stop for meals. Before dining cars became widespread in the late 19th century, passengers would stop at trackside restaurants while the steam locomotive pulling their train was serviced and refueled. In fact, the Atchison, Topeka, and Santa Fe Railway had “Harvey Houses,” built by Fred Harvey, where passengers would eat meals while their train was being serviced. Today, many of these Harvey Houses still stand, and have been converted to other uses, like hotels or offices.
Due to the fact that western railroads ran through long stretches of largely uninhabited land, they were the first to offer dining cars on their trains. In the book “The American Railroad Passenger Car (Part 1)” by John White, Jr, it is mentioned that the dining car was the last type of railroad passenger car invented. This is not completely true, as dome, parlor/lounge, and observation cars would come later.
Despite the above fact, the dining car was mentioned before railroads even built their first track in the United States. The man who mentioned this was Benjamin Dearborn, who had several different jobs at the time, wrote that “a network of railroads should be constructed that offered the choice of on-board meals” to Congress.
Even though dining cars are considered an essential service, they lost boatloads of money, largely due to the high staffing costs and limited seating in them. Despite this, the railroads still offered the service because they felt it was an important service that was necessary to attract passengers to the rails. When Amtrak took over passenger trains in the United States in 1971, they continued to offer full dining service with cooked-to-order food throughout the 1970’s. Beginning in the 1980’s, there would be periodic experiments on how to lose less money on dining cars. All of these experiments would fail, and Amtrak would go back to offering traditional dining. The most recent of these experiments was from 2018 – 2021, when Amtrak, under a mandate to eliminate food and beverage losses, tried “Flexible Dining” at first on long-distance trains east of Chicago, then expanding it to their western counterparts. The above mandate was repealed in 2020, and because this service was unpopular with passengers, Amtrak is in the process of bringing back Traditional Dining to the long distance trains.