The Abilene and Smoky Valley Railroad has announced its 2023 dinner train schedule that includes 20 trains featuring a wide variety of food from area restaurants and caterers, and a special “Dining Car Heritage Series” representing railroads that have been an integral part of the A&SV’s history.
President and General Manager Ross Boelling said that the railroad’s Dining Car Heritage Series will feature cuisine that passengers would have experienced on the dining cars of four railroads, including the Missouri-Kansas-Texas on July 1, the Santa Fe (July 29), Rock Island (September 2) and Chicago North Western (September 23).
“We chose menus from these railroads because we have ties to all of them,” said Boelling. “Our 1902 wooden passenger coach was built for the M-K-T, the steam engine that will be powering these trains belonged to the Santa Fe, the track we operate on was laid by the Rock Island and our newly remodeled luxury passenger coach came from the Chicago and North Western.”
Boelling added that former Eisenhower Presidential Librarian Kevin Bailey and other A&SV staff historians have spent months pouring over menus and cookbooks from these railroads and consulting the historical societies of each rail line. Abilene caterer Lucinda Kohman has joined the A&SV staff in researching menus of the four featured railroads, and her firm, Lucinda’s Katering, will prepare the food for each Heritage train.
According to Bailey, some of America’s best cuisine was once found on railroad dining cars, and in the heyday of passenger train service in America, travelers were treated to quality food and special dishes often not available in their home communities. Railroads became known for certain menu features, and some lines even published cookbooks featuring recipes for their more popular dishes.
Bailey said that dining cars evolved out of necessity as railroads began spanning the country in the late 1800s and the problem of feeding hungry passengers became a major issue in train travel. People planning to take the train were initially advised to pack a lunch for their long journeys, while some railroads such as the Santa Fe and the Missouri-Kansas-Texas strategically placed restaurants along their routes. In fact, the Harvey Houses, the brainchild of Kansan Fred Harvey, became famous for good food at reasonable prices in the 1870s. Trains would stop for no more than 30 minutes at these establishments, forcing passengers to deboard, quickly devour their food, and return to the train before its departure.
Railroads soon discovered that a train packed with hungry passengers was a ready market for the concept of adding kitchen and dining cars. In 1867, rail car manufacturer George Pullman introduced the idea, and as more and more railroads made the investment of adding dining cars and food service, on-train dining became more and more popular with passengers, who tended to prefer taking trains with dining cars when making travel plans.
Tourist railroads across America today have resurrected the days of dining on the rails. Dinner trains are a common feature on rail excursions, and they remain as the most popular feature on the Abilene and Smoky Valley Railroad. Boelling said that people come from communities across Kansas to dine on A&SV dinner trains–some even come from adjoining states–to experience railroad dining.
Dining Car Heritage tickets are $80 per passenger and can be purchased through the A&SV website, asvrr.org.