Carl Fowler
Op Ed

Amtrak Cuts In Food Service a Mistake

Response to Congressional pressure, but will likely reduce ridership.

By - May 20th, 2018 04:31 pm
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Lakeshore Limited. Photo by Pi.1415926535 [CC BY-SA 3.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0) or GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html)], from Wikimedia Commons

Lakeshore Limited. Photo by Pi.1415926535 [CC BY-SA 3.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0) or GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html)], from Wikimedia Commons

Starting June 1, Amtrak’s Lakeshore Limited (the only daily service from New York and Boston to Chicago) and its Capital Limited (the only daily train from Washington to Chicago) will no longer offer First Class sleeping car passengers their currently included hot food choices!

Amtrak promises “New and Contemporary” dining instead: a “free” cold boxed sandwich or salad dinner, delivered to the passenger’s room. Breakfast will include one choice, cold breads and yogurt with sliced fruit. No “Railroad French Toast” anymore! Sleeper passengers paying hundreds of dollars more than the coach fare will receive one free alcoholic beverage with their cold boxes, but that’s not much compensation.

When Amtrak was created in 1971, one of its first challenges was to recover from the terrible on-board service many railroads had provided in the late 1960s. Faced with the financial loss of the mail contracts and competition from the interstate highways, carriers such as the Southern Pacific systematically degraded their remaining passenger trains using tactics which included removing the diner and lounge cars. The hope was this would so upset riders that they would cease to travel by train, and the carrier could get federal permission to end service. A notorious example was the train called the Sunset Limited, which from 1968-1970 offered only vending machine food on a two-day run!

Amtrak quickly restored proper food and beverage offerings, advertising “We’re Making the Trains Worth Riding Again”. Unfortunately, Amtrak recently has begun to copy these 1960s tactics, degrading the on-board experience which will discourage ridership.

Why is this occurring? Amtrak is under pressure from Congress to eliminate food service losses, but this approach is unreasonable and unnecessary. Do the cruise lines or airlines attempt to make money on food? Of course not; these costs are built into their fares. Amtrak has been doing this as well. Railroad diners never made money; they attracted business. Amtrak will keep lounge cars on both trains. Coach passengers may buy hot items like burgers and pizza. However, these items will NOT be offered as included meal options for sleeper patrons who have been paying much more for a ticket which historically included hot meals in the dining car!

Amtrak reduces food service staff to two employees under this experiment, but it already offers complete hot meals on the City of New Orleans, Cardina and Acela with only two employees. How? Pre-plated catered meals are brought to full temperature on-board and served in the diner. Why not on the Chicago trains?

“Those who forget history are condemned to repeat it”. Amtrak knows what happened in the past when the railroads systematically cut back amenities. Ridership collapsed. Disgraceful on-board service to sleeping car passengers (as planned) will lead to major ridership declines. For FY2018, Amtrak just received the largest Congressional appropriation for its National Network in history ($1.3 billion). It currently is taking delivery of 25 new dining cars for its eastern network. The innovative kitchens in these cars easily can provide hot meal service with no dedicated chef. As many millions of Amtrak passengers can recall “dinner in the diner, nothing could be finer…”. Cold sandwiches just don’t make the grade!

Carl Fowler is the retired President of Rail Travel Center/Rail Travel Adventures. He worked full time for over 35 years selling rail travel worldwide, including Amtrak. Mr. Fowler is a Vice-Chair of the Rail Passenger Association/NARP. These are his personal views.

Categories: Op-Ed, Transportation

10 thoughts on “Op Ed: Amtrak Cuts In Food Service a Mistake”

  1. Comfy Chair says:

    This just makes me glad that i own a car! Actually a small van which I can sleep in. Much more value for the money!

  2. sharon pendleton says:

    AMTRAK is self-destructive and will finally die from its injuries. This only puts the US further behind other countries which have efficient, fast trains with all the trimmings. Think Japan, France, Switzerland and many other nations that embrace the railroads and make them more than just an irritant. GET WITH IT USA. Make trains GREAT again…

  3. Tyrell track master says:

    Sadly, the trains from Chicago to the east coast are jokes anyway. As long as republicans continue to believe rail and transit are communist plots then we will still have to suffer from a car-only culture. Sad!

  4. 40+Years in the City says:

    Policy aside, serving all these meals in sleeping cars presents logistical problems. Amtrak sleeping cars are not equipped with any sort of a pantry, so the attendants will have no “marshaling area” for serving these meals. At mealtimes this will likely cause “traffic jams” in the corridors. There is no good place to stow the volume of waste likely to be generated by the containers, etc. used to serve these pre-fab meals. Finally, Amtrak will likely discover increased rodent problems in sleeping cars due to dropped scraps, discarded containers, etc.

  5. Guy4Life says:

    Who has 2 days to go from New York to Chicago? You know its like 3 hours by air.
    Trains are fine for commutor rail and freight but train trips, maybe we should also bring back the stagecoach.

  6. 40+Years in the City says:

    Lake Shore Limited CHI-NY is about 19 – 20 hours, NOT 48! Also, only a minority of passengers go the entire distance. Most travel to or between intermediate stations where air service is spotty or non-existent.

  7. TransitRider says:

    Tyrell, I’m curious. How are the trains between Chicago and the east coast “jokes”?

  8. Jim says:

    This is an absolute disgrace. According to Amtrak.com today (5/22/18), a Roomette from BOS to CHI costs $644 vs a coach ticket of $114 on 5/30/18. Price is exactly the same on 6/1/18. The article nails it on the head that the Acela can produce first class passengers with HOT pre-plated meals in their ticket costs. Why can’t these two lines? When they eliminated the Diner on the Silver Meteor, they adjusted the price to reflect the loss of service. But the fact that sleeper passengers can’t even get a hot burger from the cafe’ car? That’s just idiocy.

    There is so much more waste that can be eliminated before DESTROYING the nominal value you get with that $530 premium for a 22-hour trip.

  9. Tina Michels Nelson says:

    I’ve been planning a big, cross country rail vacation sometime in the near future. This is a trip that’s been on my bucket list for quite some time. In light of the elimination of dining cars for a relaxing hot, delicious meal, I will cross this trip off my list and fly or drive. Going the extra mile for service and a offering a bit of luxury has gone the way of the dinosaur. Cold box meals just feel like sadness in a container.

  10. TransitRider says:

    Let’s put the blame where it belongs—on Republicans who, in 1981, passed a law prohibiting any federal operating subsidy for Amtrak food and beverage service. Today’s cutbacks are just Amtrak’s latest attempt to meet an impossible requirement imposed by the GOP.

    Over the years, Amtrak has tried raising prices, switching to paper plates and plastic forks (saving the cost of a dishwasher), cutting dining car crew sizes, installing cash registers (cutting theft by employees), and including meals in first-class (sleeping car) fares. Nothing saves enough money.

    On-board food service is inherently more expensive than McDonalds because employee shifts start and end in different states, because part-time labor can’t be used (waiters can’t just go home when the lunch rush ends at 2 pm), and because applicable federal law (Railway Labor Act) essentially requires all dining car employees to be unionized.

    The (money-losing) hot meals on the East Coast Acela trains are possible because Amtrak’s East Coast trains make money and don’t get federal operating subsidy.

    The GOP would like to eliminate passenger trains entirely but lack the political courage to do so (Amtrak is actually popular in many of the “red-state” communities it serves), so they turn the screws by imposing impossible mandates like this.

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