Dinner in the diner --- then and now

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I'm thinking about how the experience has changed. This evening, my dinner took about 1 1/2 hours. We got served quickly, and the staff seemed efficient and were helpful, but they were clearly trying to emulate a standard restaurant dinner. But I remember years and years ago (the summer of 1975) when they actually has dining cars on the northeast corridor trains between Washington and New York. I was visiting my girlfriend in New Jersey over the summer, I would leave on Friday after work, and ride up to NYP. I would often go to the diner and get served a complete dinner between Trenton and Newark. Maybe the trains didn't go quite as fast as they do today, but the time difference over such a short run wouldn't be that different. How did they do it?

The menu was very simple: Fish for $2.50, chicken for $3.00, and a steak for $8.00 ($9.90, $11.90, and $31.55, respectively in today's money). them menu was printed on a check, and the diner marked his or her choice and gave it to the waiter. In other words, there was minimal talking with the waiter. The food came out very quickly. You ate and paid. The waiters were incredibly efficient, but they didn't waste time talking too much with customers. I also saw this system on a ride on the Broadway Limited I took in 1973. Then I didn't get to eat in a diner again until I took the Capitol in 1988, and by then, I think they were in restaurant mode. Anybody have any recollections of the change?
 

dlagrua

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If you go back to the Golden Days of railroading dining cars served gourmet quality food. Everything was fresh prepared and cooked to order. There were Lamb Chops, Veal, Chicken, Roast Duck & Fish dishes, soups, salads, deserts and a full choice of appetizers. Dinner was always served on fine china with fine glassware for the beverages. White tablecloths and fabric napkins were used. Each table was adorned with a fresh flower bouquet. It was like having a meal at a luxury hotel.

Todays they serve with paper napkins on plastic plates. Amtrak food is acceptable but much of it is prepackaged and just heated in a convection oven in the dining car kitchen. The exception might be the steaks, surf and turf, prime ribs and burgers. I compare Amtraks food to that which you might find at a place like Perkins Restaurant or Applebees. The food can be good but not great.
 
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zephyr17

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I'm thinking about how the experience has changed. This evening, my dinner took about 1 1/2 hours. We got served quickly, and the staff seemed efficient and were helpful, but they were clearly trying to emulate a standard restaurant dinner. But I remember years and years ago (the summer of 1975) when they actually has dining cars on the northeast corridor trains between Washington and New York. I was visiting my girlfriend in New Jersey over the summer, I would leave on Friday after work, and ride up to NYP. I would often go to the diner and get served a complete dinner between Trenton and Newark. Maybe the trains didn't go quite as fast as they do today, but the time difference over such a short run wouldn't be that different. How did they do it?

The menu was very simple: Fish for $2.50, chicken for $3.00, and a steak for $8.00 ($9.90, $11.90, and $31.55, respectively in today's money). them menu was printed on a check, and the diner marked his or her choice and gave it to the waiter. In other words, there was minimal talking with the waiter. The food came out very quickly. You ate and paid. The waiters were incredibly efficient, but they didn't waste time talking too much with customers. I also saw this system on a ride on the Broadway Limited I took in 1973. Then I didn't get to eat in a diner again until I took the Capitol in 1988, and by then, I think they were in restaurant mode. Anybody have any recollections of the change?
Two things. One is that in the 70's you generally a dining car staff that were career railroad workers who had been working the diners for decades. They knew their jobs, specifically for dining cars. They had also been trained and working at a time when the railroads had had regular dining car inspectors riding, and if the service was not proper, as well as efficient, they got written up for it. The second is by the late 80s, not only had they lost these highly experienced workers, but staffing had already been reduced.

In short, in the 70's, you were seeing the last gasps of traditional railroad service. In the 80's, it was fully Amtrakized. There is a world of difference.

Finally, the write your own check thing had been standard on all railroads virtually since the beginning of dining car service, with a few exceptions (NP took your order like a restaurant, I think). Amtrak dropped that in the late 70's. It was confusing to people unused to what had been widespread and widely known custom. There was an interim period that you checked off boxes, but that didn't last more than a couple of years, IIRC.
 
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John King

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My Dad was a fireman and engineer on the PRSL for many years, and we took lots of train trips. I don't remember too much about those rides except the apple pie ala mode. It was so good. Did I read right that now ice cream is served in a paper cup and no longer scooped? If so, I wouldn't call that a la mode - more like apple pie (if they still serve it) with a side of ice cream.

My sister and I are taking the CL and TE (WAS to DAL) and back next week - I can't wait. All she recalls is all the mail stops on the trains we used to take. They seemed to stop every ten minutes all the way from Philly to South Carolina! But it was great fun for a kid and fond memories of a different time.
 

Big Iron

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I'll preface this with me being 11 when Amtrak came into being. I do have vivid memories of the B & O diner on the CL. My take, and this applies to landlocked restaurants as well, is that the more formal the restaurant the less talkative the wait staff is. They take a more subservient role with a high attention to detail. The less formal restaurant the more the wait staff wants to engage you in conversation, perhaps blurring the fact that there is less attention to detail. This could be one reason you say that the waiters on the diners in the 70's were less talkative. I guess in the older days the level of service spoke for itself.
 

Bill Haithcoat

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My Dad was a fireman and engineer on the PRSL for many years, and we took lots of train trips. I don't remember too much about those rides except the apple pie ala mode. It was so good. Did I read right that now ice cream is served in a paper cup and no longer scooped? If so, I wouldn't call that a la mode - more like apple pie (if they still serve it) with a side of ice cream.

My sister and I are taking the CL and TE (WAS to DAL) and back next week - I can't wait. All she recalls is all the mail stops on the trains we used to take. They seemed to stop every ten minutes all the way from Philly to South Carolina! But it was great fun for a kid and fond memories of a different time.
I am an old timer and usually recognize old railroad names. Not sure about this, is it Pennsylvania Reading Seashore Line? It did not seem to have many or any diners,so I guess that was other railroads.

My grandfather, who died before I was born, worked for a railroad in Tennessee. I recall his widow, my grandmother, had to ride the slow trains not the big streamliners. I see you had the same problem.

Here is hoping you and your sister enjoy your upcoming trip.
 

PaulM

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I don't remember too much about those rides except the apple pie ala mode. It was so good. Did I read right that now ice cream is served in a paper cup and no longer scooped? If so, I wouldn't call that a la mode - more like apple pie (if they still serve it) with a side of ice cream.
I don't know if it was a fluke or not; but recently on the SWC I had cheese cake with blueberry topping a la mode. Of course, it could have been scooped out of the paper cup. But it sure looked like a regular scoop of ice cream.
 

Larry H.

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We rode three days on the Empire Builder the month amtrak took over. The diner was very attractive with etched glass panels dividing the car in places. Fresh Salmon after leaving Seattle was one highlight. The food was still very good even though it was the end of the line for Northern Pacific as a private company train. Probably the diner I recall the most was on the old GM&0 out of St. Louis for Chicago. It left about 6 am and till the bitter end it carried an old but well stocked diner. Those breakfast on board with a large bowl of freshly made oatmeal to start and pancakes and eggs an bacon had you so full we couldn't enjoy lunch in Chicago. Always a friendly crew, well maybe a bit too friendly as the Mater D' drank way too much during the layover for the return trip and could become pretty tipsy. In fact he lost his job eventually due to that. I always loved to peak in the kitchen as we passed the door in the hall, what a fascinating place so compact yet able to put out lots of complete meals well prepared. Fresh flowers on the tables and of course real silverware and china with glasses. Always was the highlight of the trip for me.

I think the biggest disappointment for me is when they stopped actually making the meals and putting a personal touch into serving the foods. I think it was years of Amtrak diners before they figured out how to get the carrots and broccoli even barely warm when they served your meal. Plus the old atmosphere was unhurried and no feeling of pressure to get up and let the next set of passengers in, maybe because they weren't serving as many people as a busy amtrak train does today. I know they were a safety issue as well but the diners have never seemed the same since the individual chairs and lamps on the tables or over them were done away with. Today diners are too much like Mc Donald's in design an not enough like your paying what you do..
 

oldtimer

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The removal of individual chairs and lamps on the tables is a safety factor that resulted from a ruling by the FRA. It was done to prevent flying objects in the event of an accident. The same ruling was responsible for the dividers that are now in the luggage racks over the seats.

Safety First is the motto on all railroads.
 

John King

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My Dad was a fireman and engineer on the PRSL for many years, and we took lots of train trips. I don't remember too much about those rides except the apple pie ala mode. It was so good. Did I read right that now ice cream is served in a paper cup and no longer scooped? If so, I wouldn't call that a la mode - more like apple pie (if they still serve it) with a side of ice cream.

My sister and I are taking the CL and TE (WAS to DAL) and back next week - I can't wait. All she recalls is all the mail stops on the trains we used to take. They seemed to stop every ten minutes all the way from Philly to South Carolina! But it was great fun for a kid and fond memories of a different time.
I am an old timer and usually recognize old railroad names. Not sure about this, is it Pennsylvania Reading Seashore Line? It did not seem to have many or any diners,so I guess that was other railroads.

My grandfather, who died before I was born, worked for a railroad in Tennessee. I recall his widow, my grandmother, had to ride the slow trains not the big streamliners. I see you had the same problem.

Here is hoping you and your sister enjoy your upcoming trip.
Yes - Pennsylvania Reading Seashore Line. Both freight and passenger. Atlantic City NJ to Philly, Atlantic City to Ocean City, Wildwood and Cape May. I don't recall diners on that line. Usually I rode in the locomotive with Dad, and on the Budd cars. He let me blow the whistle and would make a big deal about me driving - reminding me make sure I steered straight. He let me start the engines on the Budd cars. And we always rode for free. Unfortunately we didn't take many family vacations - although we did take a few after he retired. I remember the Broadway Limited and SWC, and the CNO and SL. Those were the days, weren't they?

My father used to bring home cases of canned soup from Campbell's - but the labels were missing. He had a cheat sheet that deciphered the codes on the tin cans - but we always misplaced it and ended up taking a chance on what we were opening. He said Campbell's Soup used 50% of the water in Camden, NJ, to cook vegetables.

Do current Amtrak employees get a family pass to ride for free?
 

had8ley

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Feb 27, 2006
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My Dad was a fireman and engineer on the PRSL for many years, and we took lots of train trips. I don't remember too much about those rides except the apple pie ala mode. It was so good. Did I read right that now ice cream is served in a paper cup and no longer scooped? If so, I wouldn't call that a la mode - more like apple pie (if they still serve it) with a side of ice cream.

My sister and I are taking the CL and TE (WAS to DAL) and back next week - I can't wait. All she recalls is all the mail stops on the trains we used to take. They seemed to stop every ten minutes all the way from Philly to South Carolina! But it was great fun for a kid and fond memories of a different time.
I am an old timer and usually recognize old railroad names. Not sure about this, is it Pennsylvania Reading Seashore Line? It did not seem to have many or any diners,so I guess that was other railroads.

My grandfather, who died before I was born, worked for a railroad in Tennessee. I recall his widow, my grandmother, had to ride the slow trains not the big streamliners. I see you had the same problem.

Here is hoping you and your sister enjoy your upcoming trip.



Do current Amtrak employees get a family pass to ride for free?
Yes, Amtrak employees do. I'm not certain of the set up for Amtrak employees but there is red, white and blue passes that can cost you almost as much as a regular ticket. I worked for a "participating" RR~ one that hung it up and gave equipment (or unloaded in some instances) for the right for Amtrak to take over pax service. My wife and I get twelve free round trips in coach annually. We cannot make sleeper res until 24 before the train departs the boarding station. We pay 50% for a room but 99% of the time the sleepers are in the high bucket if there are any left. I usually buy my own tix at low bucket insuring that I'll get on.
 

oldtimer

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With regard to Amtrak passes; the program is called "Red. White and Blue" and it is only for coach or the transportation portion of sleeper fares. It is three tiered with the buckets based on historical passenger loading and a reservation or station agent must make the reservation and they are as follows

1) there are free days all the time on non-reserved trains. And on reserved trains these days are very few and far in between.

2) the next step is where you pay 80% of the high bucket coach fare and if the train does not sell out you will get a certificate that will return your money. This certificate is to be redeemed at a staffed station.

3) the final step is you pay 80% of the high bucket coach fare and do NOT get anything back.

These days are based on historical passenger load. It does allow 11 month out reservations for employees but the restrictions are harsh. My wife takes the Zephyr to Iowa a few times a year and she has yet to travel on a "free" day since this program started approx. 10 years ago. About 70% of her trips have been on a day that she pays 80% and does get it back in about 6-8 weeks. I have found for my personal travels that if it is an 80% day with no chance of a refund I have been able to get a discounted fare available to the public for less than my (now ex)employee rate. (my wife is still an employee so my disability status does not effect my pass rights and will not if the future)

A saying among the employees is that if you want to travel for free wait until February 31st.
 

The Davy Crockett

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I'll preface this with me being 11 when Amtrak came into being. I do have vivid memories of the B & O diner on the CL. My take, and this applies to landlocked restaurants as well, is that the more formal the restaurant the less talkative the wait staff is. They take a more subservient role with a high attention to detail. The less formal restaurant the more the wait staff wants to engage you in conversation, perhaps blurring the fact that there is less attention to detail. This could be one reason you say that the waiters on the diners in the 70's were less talkative. I guess in the older days the level of service spoke for itself.
Big Iron...

I was 10 when Amtrak was born, and I too have fond memories of the diner on the CL. Every time my meal gets served on plasticware today, I longingly remember the B&O china on the CL. What incredible works of art! I swear the food tasted better just because of the dinnerware! Just another aspect of now vs. then.
 

John King

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Jan 30, 2011
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Plasticware? Ugh. I was on CNO two years ago and kept the silverware as a souvenir. I hope they didn't switch to plastic utensils on my account.
 

The Davy Crockett

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John, I'm sorry to falsely alarm you. :angry: I can assure you that you can stop feeling guilty, as they still use actual metalware for the utensils. Homeland Security has not clamped down on this practice yet and I doubt that inventory control has noticed your transgression yet. :rolleyes:

That said, it is the dinnerplates, salad bowls, bread plates and finger bowls which are now plastic in most Amtrak diners. :unsure:

Now for a true confession: :help: I own a bit of B&O china and have this somewhat odd (?) fantasy of taking it to the dining car on the CL and putting my meal on it. I'm sure folks would think I've gone off the deep end, but I can't help but wonder if the prefabbed meals would tatse better and if the whole experience would somehow seem more refined. :ph34r: Heck, I might even take off my hat! :hi:
 

Big Iron

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John, I'm sorry to falsely alarm you. :angry: I can assure you that you can stop feeling guilty, as they still use actual metalware for the utensils. Homeland Security has not clamped down on this practice yet and I doubt that inventory control has noticed your transgression yet. :rolleyes:

That said, it is the dinnerplates, salad bowls, bread plates and finger bowls which are now plastic in most Amtrak diners. :unsure:

Now for a true confession: :help: I own a bit of B&O china and have this somewhat odd (?) fantasy of taking it to the dining car on the CL and putting my meal on it. I'm sure folks would think I've gone off the deep end, but I can't help but wonder if the prefabbed meals would tatse better and if the whole experience would somehow seem more refined. :ph34r: Heck, I might even take off my hat! :hi:
I would not think it odd at all. I'll bring my B & O plate and join you. I'll also bring a linen B & O embroidered table runner that went under the condiments and flower vase. I cringe today when I see the waiters roll up the paper table cover with all the platic plates to clean the table. More akin to a crab pickin than fine dining, not that a crab pickin isn't fine dining.
 

zephyr17

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John, I'm sorry to falsely alarm you. :angry: I can assure you that you can stop feeling guilty, as they still use actual metalware for the utensils. Homeland Security has not clamped down on this practice yet and I doubt that inventory control has noticed your transgression yet. :rolleyes:

That said, it is the dinnerplates, salad bowls, bread plates and finger bowls which are now plastic in most Amtrak diners. :unsure:

Now for a true confession: :help: I own a bit of B&O china and have this somewhat odd (?) fantasy of taking it to the dining car on the CL and putting my meal on it. I'm sure folks would think I've gone off the deep end, but I can't help but wonder if the prefabbed meals would tatse better and if the whole experience would somehow seem more refined. :ph34r: Heck, I might even take off my hat! :hi:
I would not think it odd at all. I'll bring my B & O plate and join you. I'll also bring a linen B & O embroidered table runner that went under the condiments and flower vase. I cringe today when I see the waiters roll up the paper table cover with all the platic plates to clean the table. More akin to a crab pickin than fine dining, not that a crab pickin isn't fine dining.
I'd consider crab pickin' good eatin' as opposed to fine dining :lol:
 

The Davy Crockett

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John, I'm sorry to falsely alarm you. :angry: I can assure you that you can stop feeling guilty, as they still use actual metalware for the utensils. Homeland Security has not clamped down on this practice yet and I doubt that inventory control has noticed your transgression yet. :rolleyes:

That said, it is the dinnerplates, salad bowls, bread plates and finger bowls which are now plastic in most Amtrak diners. :unsure:

Now for a true confession: :help: I own a bit of B&O china and have this somewhat odd (?) fantasy of taking it to the dining car on the CL and putting my meal on it. I'm sure folks would think I've gone off the deep end, but I can't help but wonder if the prefabbed meals would tatse better and if the whole experience would somehow seem more refined. :ph34r: Heck, I might even take off my hat! :hi:
I would not think it odd at all. I'll bring my B & O plate and join you. I'll also bring a linen B & O embroidered table runner that went under the condiments and flower vase. I cringe today when I see the waiters roll up the paper table cover with all the platic plates to clean the table. More akin to a crab pickin than fine dining, not that a crab pickin isn't fine dining.
Sounds like a plan. Maybe we should also supply our own real homemade Chesapeake crab cakes. Think we could use a couple of them to cut a deal with the dining car crew? :lol:
 
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Big Iron

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John, I'm sorry to falsely alarm you. :angry: I can assure you that you can stop feeling guilty, as they still use actual metalware for the utensils. Homeland Security has not clamped down on this practice yet and I doubt that inventory control has noticed your transgression yet. :rolleyes:

That said, it is the dinnerplates, salad bowls, bread plates and finger bowls which are now plastic in most Amtrak diners. :unsure:

Now for a true confession: :help: I own a bit of B&O china and have this somewhat odd (?) fantasy of taking it to the dining car on the CL and putting my meal on it. I'm sure folks would think I've gone off the deep end, but I can't help but wonder if the prefabbed meals would tatse better and if the whole experience would somehow seem more refined. :ph34r: Heck, I might even take off my hat! :hi:
I would not think it odd at all. I'll bring my B & O plate and join you. I'll also bring a linen B & O embroidered table runner that went under the condiments and flower vase. I cringe today when I see the waiters roll up the paper table cover with all the platic plates to clean the table. More akin to a crab pickin than fine dining, not that a crab pickin isn't fine dining.
Sounds like a plan. Maybe we should also supply our own real homemade Chesapeake crab cakes. Think we could use a couple of them to cut a deal with the dining car crew? :lol:
I think we could make dining cars profitable with those. BTW, I like your tag line from "I Know You Rider" heard that a few times at the Dead shows I used to frequent in my younger days.
 

OlympianHiawatha

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At least we still have the Diners to enjoy on long distance trains. If the airlines got control, we'd be fighting over a few morsels of peanuts or a pretzel!
 

The Davy Crockett

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Messages
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John, I'm sorry to falsely alarm you. :angry: I can assure you that you can stop feeling guilty, as they still use actual metalware for the utensils. Homeland Security has not clamped down on this practice yet and I doubt that inventory control has noticed your transgression yet. :rolleyes:

That said, it is the dinnerplates, salad bowls, bread plates and finger bowls which are now plastic in most Amtrak diners. :unsure:

Now for a true confession: :help: I own a bit of B&O china and have this somewhat odd (?) fantasy of taking it to the dining car on the CL and putting my meal on it. I'm sure folks would think I've gone off the deep end, but I can't help but wonder if the prefabbed meals would tatse better and if the whole experience would somehow seem more refined. :ph34r: Heck, I might even take off my hat! :hi:
I would not think it odd at all. I'll bring my B & O plate and join you. I'll also bring a linen B & O embroidered table runner that went under the condiments and flower vase. I cringe today when I see the waiters roll up the paper table cover with all the platic plates to clean the table. More akin to a crab pickin than fine dining, not that a crab pickin isn't fine dining.
Sounds like a plan. Maybe we should also supply our own real homemade Chesapeake crab cakes. Think we could use a couple of them to cut a deal with the dining car crew? :lol:
I think we could make dining cars profitable with those. BTW, I like your tag line from "I Know You Rider" heard that a few times at the Dead shows I used to frequent in my younger days.
Thanks. I use to listen to Europe '72 over and over and over again back in the day...
 

SP&S

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Sounds like a plan. Maybe we should also supply our own real homemade Chesapeake crab cakes. Think we could use a couple of them to cut a deal with the dining car crew? :lol:
That reminds me, a while back crab cakes were one of the evening specials in the diner. Certainly not home made but right tasty, I'd order them again. In fact, over the last couple of years the food in the diner has improved markedly.
 
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When I think about dinner in the dining car I recall in the late 50's probably 58 or 59 I won a 4-H trip to MSP from North Dakota. We went on the NP

and boarded in the evening so had dinner on the way. We had salmon and I have tried at every good seafood restaurant I have been in to get salmon as good as that on the Northern Pacific, but never has anything been close. Anyone else remeber eating salmon on the Northern Pacific.
 

Bob Dylan

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When I think about dinner in the dining car I recall in the late 50's probably 58 or 59 I won a 4-H trip to MSP from North Dakota. We went on the NP

and boarded in the evening so had dinner on the way. We had salmon and I have tried at every good seafood restaurant I have been in to get salmon as good as that on the Northern Pacific, but never has anything been close. Anyone else remeber eating salmon on the Northern Pacific.
Had some in Canada on Canadian Pacific back in the day before VIA that's still the best I ever had! Just wish I could afford to ride the Canadian to see if they still have Salmon that good, I know VIAs food on that route is first class! :)
 
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