This story was first published in Vox Magazine on July 28, 2011.
The Columbia Star Dinner Train stands like a dark blue serpent on the railway track on a sweltering summer evening. As I walk into the COLT Railroad Columbia Terminal, I’m greeted by two smiling car captains, one of who hands me my train ticket. I walk past them toward a small yellow stepping stool and five metal steps that lead into a dining car of the train. It’s still 30 minutes before the train’s departure, but the compartment is bustling with passengers. The temperature is cool, and soft music flows from the stereo speakers. Fourteen tables neatly arranged in two rows in front of windows run along the length of the car, leaving a narrow aisle between them. Each table seats four and is covered with a white tablecloth and set with neatly arranged white china and silverware. The seating arrangement means groups of fewer than four must travel and dine with strangers. I sit down at my table and exchange pleasantries with the couple already seated in front of me. Soon, wisps of smoke blow past our window, the engine whistles and the train is off on its maiden voyage.
After winter weather delayed the arrival of the train from Iowa, the Columbia Star Dinner Train opened July 15. The train’s general manager, Greg Weber, says the owners originally chose mid-Missouri as the location for the train service because the available track in Columbia and the city’s proximity to markets in St. Louis and Kansas City.
Mark Vaughn, owner of the Columbia Star Dinner Train, says he bought the dining cars in 2006 after the dinner train in Michigan, which the cars were part of, went out of service. The cars were then taken to Iowa for renovations. In February, the train was brought back to Columbia after the Columbia Convention and Visitors Bureau approved $45,000 from its Attraction Development Fund to add electricity and water at the train station and to ship the five cars and two locomotives. The city of Columbia also allowed the train to use its 21-mile-long COLT Railroad track between Columbia and Centralia.
The train’s launch was not without controversy, though. Although the train complies with the Americans with Disabilities Act standards for antiquated railroad cars, the train cannot currently be accessed by people in wheelchairs. Weber says the company has purchased a “fully handicap-accessible car,” which is in Iowa, and will be transferred to Columbia within a year if the train service is profitable enough to cover the cost of moving it.
The 224-passenger dinner train makes a three-hour round trip from Centralia on Fridays and Saturdays, and a 1.5-hour run to Hallsville on Sundays. On Fridays and Saturdays, a four-course meal is served that includes an appetizer, a salad, an entree and a dessert; passengers choose from grilled chicken, prime rib, baked salmon and vegetarian risotto for their main course. The Sunday brunch ride gives passengers the options of quiche Lorraine, French toast or veggie frittata. Coffee, tea and alcoholic beverages are served on board but are not included in the meal price. The meals are cooked in the kitchen car by a team led by Chef Scott Hampton, who previously worked at Jina Yoo’s Asian Bistro.
The train moves at a leisurely pace as the scenes outside the window change from bushes to thickets to backyards to open fields. We are met with waving, cheering crowds at every intersection along the way. Inside the train, the servers, including our car captains Amando Garcia and Brian Cunningham, are hospitable as they bring out a bruschetta appetizer, an assortment of breads with spreads and salad. Garcia also offers a complimentary shrimp cocktail for the table — which would normally cost an additional $10. My fellow diners, Bob and Amy Cox of La Plata, and I devour the appetizers in a matter of minutes.
The chatter inside the car lowers as the main course is served before we reach Centralia. The chicken dish consists of three pieces of tender, grilled chicken with a topping of mangoes and a side of roasted potato wedges and mixed vegetables, including tomatoes, bell peppers and onions. The mangoes add a refreshing, fruity flavor to the chicken. The roasted, hand-cut prime rib, served with a baked potato, looks succulent and is by far the largest of the main courses. The baked salmon is topped with a lemon butter sauce and comes with a side of risotto. The vegetarian risotto is topped with mushrooms, squash, carrots and spinach. The meal ends with a dessert consisting of a two-layer lemon cake.
Fellow diner Michele Spry of Columbia, who is traveling on the train with her husband and mother, is full of praise for the dinner train.
“The prime rib is phenomenal,” she says. “And although it’s (the train’s) first time, the service is top notch.”
Spry says she and her dinner companions thought about trying the dinner train as a change from eating at a restaurant. “This way there’s something new,” she says. “The moving makes it really fun.”
James Maylee, another passenger, says it is his first time on a train, and though he wishes it would move faster, he says the overall experience has been good. Maylee is traveling with his grandfather Clarence Hyatt Taylor to celebrate Taylor’s 88th birthday. Taylor worked for the railroads for 43 years. He has been retired for 28 years, and this birthday train ride is a look into the past for him. He says the dinner train is different from the trains he rode back in the day. “They’ve redone them a lot,” Taylor says, referring to the windows on the train, which he thinks now make the view better.
The train has been renovated extensively, Weber says, but it has a history, as well. The cars used on the train were originally coach cars from the Southern Pacific Daylight train that ran between San Francisco and Los Angeles between the late ’30s and the late ’60s. Each of the three cars has a different color of wood paneling, seats and carpets. The kitchen car was formerly a baggage car. The train has one locomotive engine on either end, so though it makes a 10-minute stop in Centralia, it doesn’t have to turn around for the return journey.
Sitting in front of me, Bob says he had set his expectations pretty low before the train ride. But the smooth ride of the train, the food and the atmosphere inside the car has made it an enjoyable journey for him, he says. The train, with its wood and brass interior, reminds passengers of a bygone era, Bob says. He is also fond of the traditional dining car seating arrangement in the train.
“You get to travel with people you have never met; you’re not hiding or sitting in a booth,” he says. “So that’s a wonderful experience.”
For the couple sitting at the table behind us, tonight will be remembered for much more than the train ride. Minutes after starting our journey back to Columbia, Amy alerts us, in whispers, to the table behind us. The three of us turn and find the man at that table, Michael Easton, proposing to his girlfriend, Cathy Jackson, sitting beside him. She accepts, and he slides the ring on her finger to make it the first engagement aboard the Columbia Star Dinner Train. We congratulate both of them, and later, after the train staff announces the proposal on the PA system, the car erupts into applause for the couple.
On the way back, the train travels faster, and light beams on the external walls of the train illuminate the scenery outside. Inside, the lights are dimmed and candles are lit.
At around 10:15, the train screeches to a slow halt at the Columbia station. As I exit the train, amid “good night” wishes from the cordial staff, I notice almost all the passengers are smiling and animated. For many, the train ride might be on the pricey side, but it definitely doesn’t fail to impress.