Amtrak petition update

My lunch and dinner on board

My lunch and dinner on board

Santa Barbara train station at dusk

Santa Barbara train station at dusk

Well, I had hoped for a quick and easy victory. To gather 15,000 signatures from around the nation and the world, to present them to Amtrak’s CEO, and to be told, “Yes! We have heard you, and we will commit to carrying vegan meals on board all long-distance Amtrak trains, no later than the end of 2015.”

It would have been so awesome!

That’s not how things have unfolded thus far. But the campaign continues, and I’m seeking your help.

First, a campaign status update:

On February 12th, my Change.org petition hit 15,000 signatures. I was ecstatic at the response, and at that milestone I decided it was time to “present” the signatures to Amtrak’s CEO, Joseph Boardman. On February 16th, I sent him the following email:

Dear Mr. Boardman,

I love to ride the train!  I have taken short trips in the NW corridor on the Cascades, and I’ve also taken three long-distance journeys in the past 15 years, one on the Empire Builder and two on the Coast Starlight.  I appreciate rail travel for many reasons, and I would love to see Amtrak thrive into the future.

I’m writing to you today with a request.  Perhaps, by now, you have seen the petition I started on Change.org, about three weeks ago: www.change.org/p/joseph-boardman-offer-vegan-meals-on-the-standard-dining-car-menu  Since then, more than 15,000 people have signed, from all across the USA.  (Even some international Amtrak riders have signed.)

We would all like to see vegan meals (strict vegetarian: no animal products) offered on the standard dining-car menu of all Amtrak trains.  We appreciate the vegan offerings in the lounge car (notably the packaged vegan burger) but the dining car is an important part of long-distance train travel, and many of us have had trouble trying to order our meals 72 hours in advance.  If you could offer a vegan entrée option on the standard menu for breakfast, lunch, and dinner, you would help many vegans—and others with dairy allergies or other dietary restrictions—to enjoy and choose rail travel that much more.  Further, as many of the petition’s hundreds of comments show, many non-vegans would like to have this option available as well. (I’m pasting below a few of the comments; you can view them all on the Change.org site.)

I applaud your efforts to reach out to a new, younger demographic by increasing your Facebook and Instagram presence, offering the Amtrak residency, and other initiatives.  Updating your menu to appeal to this demographic would give you another great opportunity for positive media coverage and increased ridership.

I request that you make this update to the menu no later than the end of 2015.  (Of course, sooner would be better!)

I hope to hear back from you within the next few days, and I look forward to sharing your response with everyone who has signed on to this request.

Thank you for your time!  I look forward to hearing from you soon.

Sincerely,

Maren Souders 

Portland, Oregon

A few selected comments:

Shawn Gould, Santa Cruz, CA:  “I don’t want train travel to become extinct. It needs to stay current. Offering vegan options is one way to show the public you care about their needs and train travel belongs in the 21st Century.”

Amy Shields, Birmingham, AL:  “I often travel with vegan and vegetarian friends and family members, and I know how frustrating it can be to try to get a decent meal away from home. People who choose not to eat meat or other animal products for any reason – health, religion, ethics, etc. – would greatly benefit from expanded menu options.”

Joyce Fineout, Fairview, OR:  “We, love, Love, LOVE the train! But we also love the benefits that a vegan diet brings to ourselves and to animals! Please, help us balance our love of train-travel AND our compassionate lifestyle! Make vegan meals a regular part of the travel experience of all of us! Thank you!”

Amber Kerr, Mountain View, CA:  “Vegan meals aren’t just for vegans. They can also be beneficial for people who have other dietary restrictions (such as keeping kosher or halal; lactose intolerance; or food allergies). They also can, and should, be a part of every American’s diet at least sometimes – vegan meals are often healthier and better for the environment. And they certainly do not need to be more expensive or less appealing than the other meals on the menu. Adding vegan meal options makes good business sense as well as being a matter of fairness and accessibility. I am a frequent Amtrak rider (on the Capital Corridor line to Sacramento), and I often order a meal during my three-hour trip from San Jose. I would certainly order a vegan meal if one was available.” 

On February 19th, I received the following response from Amtrak’s VP of Customer Service, Thomas Hall:

Dear Ms. Souders:

Thank you for your email correspondence to Mr. Joseph H. Boardman, President and Chief Executive Officer of Amtrak.  Mr. Boardman has asked me to respond on behalf of the Corporation.

As the Vice President of Customer Service, my department is responsible for Amtrak’s Food and Beverage program, and I appreciate you contacting us regarding the availability of vegan meals on our trains.  We have been hard at work on our special meal programs.  I’m sure that you will be interested to know that we do currently offer vegan compliant meals on our long distance diners and Acela Express First Class services.  We have, in the past, offered vegan meal options on our regular menu without a special request (as we do with vegetarian meals).  Unfortunately, the customer response was quite low and resulted in excessive spoilage which drove our expenses unacceptably high.  In an effort to control expenses, we have included the vegan options in our special request program and they are readily available with the normal 72 hour advance notification.  Passengers can make a vegan meal request at the time of booking by calling our reservation number, 800-USA-RAIL (800-872-7245), which is available 24 hours/7 days per week. 

As information, our current vegan offerings include the following options: 

Dining Car

Breakfast- (Advance notice not required)

  • Continental Breakfast

o   Cereal w/soy milk

o   Fresh fruit

o   Grits (prepared with water only)

o   Steel Cut Oatmeal served with soy milk or raisins.

 Lunch and Dinner-

  • Garden Salad (Advance notice not required)

o   When served with Light Italian or Balsamic Vinaigrette dressings

  • Garden Vegetable Bean Chili

o   This vegan chili combines tomatoes, pinto beans, white beans, onion, carrots, corn, red & green bell peppers, lima beans, zucchini, garlic, scallions, and a blend of spices.  Served with Orzo pasta.

  • Spicy Udon Noodles w/ Coconut Curry Vegetables

o   This vegan Asian style pasta uses wheat flour noodles with vegetables (baby corn, snap peas, roasted red pepper strips, broccoli, garlic, and scallions) in a Thai style red chili coconut curry sauce with toasted sesame oil.

 Café Car

  • Vegan Burger
  • Roasted Red Pepper Hummus w/ Pretzel Crisps
  • Fruit and Nut Trail Mix

We continually strive to improve our Food and Beverage program and we know this amenity is important to our customers, especially on our long distance service. We are also under enormous pressure from our stakeholders to eliminate the losses associated with food and beverage and must do everything that we can to keep expenses under control.  We constantly re-evaluate our programs and will continue to search for alternatives that might allow us to provide vegan choices as regularly available menu items in the future.  Customer feedback is very important to us when making decisions regarding the service we offer, and please be assured we have taken your comments and those who signed the petition under serious consideration.  Every decision we make is implemented wholly with the purpose of ensuring the financial excellence Amtrak requires to deliver intercity transportation into the future with superior safety, customer service, and efficiency.

Once again, thank you for taking the time to send us your comments and we appreciate your support of Amtrak service. 

Sincerely,

Thomas Hall

Vice President Customer Service

I appreciated his acknowledgment of the petition—and was interested and concerned to read that they had experimented with on-board vegan options in the past—but I was not satisfied with the lack of acknowledgment of the current difficulty in ordering ahead, nor with the lack of a commitment to making a change within the timeline of this calendar year.  So, on February 23rd, I replied with the following:

Dear Mr. Hall,

Thank you so much for your prompt and detailed reply to my email.  I know you are very busy, and I appreciate the time and consideration you took to reply.

I can certainly appreciate the various pressures–financial and logistical, and probably others–under which Amtrak operates, particularly in regards to food service.  I am very willing–and excited–to do everything I can to help reach a win-win situation for both vegans (and others with dietary restrictions) and Amtrak’s bottom line and smooth operating procedures.

I was not aware that you had tried offering vegan meals on the standard dining car menu in the past.  I’m very surprised to learn that the demand was lower than it apparently is for the current non-vegan vegetarian items on the menu.  I wonder if perhaps the particular offerings were not as popular as alternative vegan offerings might have been… and also whether enough time has elapsed since that trial period that a significantly higher percentage of travelers might now be interested.  (The popularity of the Change.org petition, as well as my anecdotal personal experiences and discussions with others, suggest to me that it’s likely that would be the case.)

My problem–and that of a number of others who commented on the petition–with the 72-hour request protocol is twofold: 1) It is inconvenient, because sometimes people plan trips less than 72 hours ahead, and even when they do, they may not remember, or realize, that they need to make a special meal request in order to have vegan options in the dining car.  At this point in the restaurant industry, many diners expect that vegan options will be available without making special arrangements, so they may not think to do so.  2) In my own most recent experience–and that of several others I have spoken with–I did make the appropriate request at least 72 hours in advance, but the meals were not on board when I arrived.  (In my particular case, this was apparently because of some sort of logistical problem with that train or its tracks, such that the train had not made the planned commissary stop.  However, I received no notification of this, so I was quite disappointed to discover, upon arriving in the dining car for my first of three meals, that I would need to order side salads and baked potatoes in lieu of the chili and pasta I had anticipated.)

I would love to continue this discussion, either by email or (preferably) by phone, so that we can generate some win-win possibilities for action.  I am more than happy to do any legwork I can; I am well connected to many vegan communities, and would be happy to research food-service options or seek out others who might be willing to offer cost-effective, or even pro-bono, consulting to Amtrak in order to update the menu offerings. I really want to reach an outcome that will work for everyone!

Thank you for your consideration.  If you are willing to talk by phone at some point, please let me know your availability, or feel free to simply call me at [my personal phone number]. 

~Maren

It is now March 8th. I have not received a reply.

I am not giving up on this campaign, because I care deeply about animal rights, and I believe that vegan options should be readily available on all Amtrak trains.

However, I can also empathize with the plight of Amtrak as an institution, and the position of Mr. Hall as an employee. They are both under tremendous pressures, both to simply keep Amtrak alive (ever since its inception in 1971, there have been continual Congressional efforts to defund it out of existence) and to run it in a fiscally responsible and logistically smooth way.

I am quite certain there is a way to meet all of our needs here.

I am turning to one of my favorite tools—Nonviolent Communication (NVC)—as I brainstorm the next step in this effort. One of the foundational NVC principles is that we all have common human needs, and that in any conflict or challenging situation, it is possible to find a solution that meets everyone’s needs, if we all pay close attention to what those needs are.

So, I pulled out my handy-dandy set of Grok feelings & needs cards, and wrote down all the needs I could think of, for four parties:

  • Myself
  • Vegans in general (as well as vegan supporters and other plant-based dieters)
  • Amtrak as an institution
  • Mr. Hall individually

I noticed that there were three needs that seemed to be shared by all four parties:

*Consideration

*Ease

*Help & support

Other needs for Amtrak and/or Mr. Hall:

Balance, appreciation, acknowledgment, to have one’s intentions seen, structure, security, understanding, respect, to be heard, and—perhaps most importantly—efficiency.

Other needs for vegans and/or me personally:

Integrity, equality, health, hope, inclusion, respect, to be heard, dependability, compassion & empathy, contribution, meaning & purpose.

So! My question—for myself, and to all of you—is, How do we proceed, recognizing all those needs?

I have considered a few strategies:

*Seeking more petition signatures

*Personally sending more emails, or making phone calls, myself

*Encouraging petition supporters to contact Amtrak reps directly (hallt@amtrak.com, joseph.boardman@amtrak.com; needless to say, please be respectful and polite if you choose to contact them this way)

*Seeking media attention, either in vegan publications and/or mainstream media

*Seeking out people, committed to the cause, who could offer direct logistical help to Amtrak employees and decision makers in implementing these new meal plans.

I think all of these could be useful strategies (particularly the last three) and I am in the process of determining which might be the most effective—and efficient—uses of my time and energy. I am open to input as I move forward; I wish for this to be a community effort.

So I ask you, dear reader: What strategies would you prioritize? And/or, is there some way you are personally willing to get involved? Do you know someone I should contact?

Let’s get this done!!

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