Commentary by Russ Jackson
What would travel on Amtrak’s long distance trains be like if there were no Dining cars? We may be about to find out. For Coach travelers there might not be much missed as many of those folks do not partake of the expensive cuisine offered, preferring to bring their own food and/or purchase the offerings in the Sightseer Lounge car. First class passengers know all their meals are included in the cost of the Sleeping car ticket, and while those folks don’t always go to the Diner for every meal, or have meals served in their rooms, others enjoy going into the Dining car as a chance not only to have a good meal but also meet fellow travelers who may or may not have ridden on Amtrak before. The Dining car is a part of the lure of train travel. When the crew is as good as the food there is no better travel experience.
Another way of looking at it is Amtrak’s Food & Beverage Service is not only an integral part of the long distance train, but is a necessity when the trip is overnight and in many cases over two or three nights. According to Andrew Selden, President of the United Rail Passenger Alliance, “Amtrak says the average trip distance in the west is 800 miles more or less, and spans three or four meal periods. Thus, no diners no passengers.”
As usual Amtrak is reacting to the Congress in a panic. When the House of Representatives passed PRIIA 2015, it included the provision that Amtrak’s Food & Beverage Service must pay for itself within five years. Amtrak is slowly but surely going about the business of getting itself out of the Dining car business. Their mistaken theory appears to be the only way F & B will “pay for itself” is by cutting it to the bone.
Starting July 1 they will “conduct an experiment” on Amtrak’s New York to Florida Silver Star, one of the four north-south long distance overnight trains on the east coast. The Star’s Dining car will be removed from the daily train and at the same time first class fares will be reduced. Riders, first class and coach class, will have the option only of purchasing food and beverages from the Lounge car or bringing their own. The stated challenge is to see whether this “innovation” will affect “ridership” on the train while its sister train the Silver Meteor remains with the higher fares and full Dining car meals. This “experiment” will last from July 1, 2015, until January 1, 2016.
Do you think in your wildest dreams that Amtrak will admit this “experiment” has failed if it does so? No, it will be declared a “minimal success.” Why would they want to restore the cars and have to rehire the personnel they are so glad to be rid of? Can you see Amtrak’s CEO Joe Boardman triumphantly trekking up to Capitol Hill to tell those legislators that he has found the secret to achieve the mandate to eliminate costs? And, he tells them he has just begun. His next step in this process will be to eliminate the Dining car on all trips of one night. The full Dining car is already gone from the City of New Orleans.
Can you guess which trains would be next on the list? First would be the Texas Eagle, if he wants to take on that train’s promotion group TEMPO. The Eagle already has a Lounge car and a “Diner light” car, as does the City of New Orleans, so why not eliminate one car or the other? Passengers that travel beyond San Antonio when the through cars are attached to the Sunset Limited would have access to that train’s Dining car. It might be difficult to eliminate dining car service on any other eastern train now, what with 25 new Viewliner Dining cars being constructed, although that order could be modified.
Here’s the possible bombshell in this report. Name the one western long distance train that travels over only one night. Right: The Coast Starlight. Remember how they removed the Pacific Parlour Car during the winter for “maintenance reasons”? If you have decided that this writer is putting ideas in the heads of Amtrak management here, I assure you they are way ahead of the idea. What if the Starlight’s Dining car was removed (read that “saving money by eliminating staff”) and instead first class passengers were “allowed” to “take their meals” into the Parlour car. “Meals” of course means any food the riders bring on board, or order from the Lounge menu with the Parlour car attendant taking the order and bringing it back as happens now with full Dining car meals. Voila! The vaunted “Parlour Car experience” is maintained, with maybe some first class amenities continued to be thrown in at an extra charge.
What would the reduced fare revenues that result from the elimination of the Dining car surcharge on either the Star, Eagle or the Starlight mean? Would it matter to Amtrak management, since the long distance trains are mistakenly labeled “huge money losers” anyway? You can be guaranteed that the fare reduction would not come close to the cost of the eliminated food service. There would be a reduction in overall revenue, but that could lead toward eventual elimination of the Dining cars on the other long distance trains, “because,” we can guess they would say, “evidence has shown removal does not affect ridership and the revenues are down on those trains anyway.” As Fred Frailey said on his Trains magazine blog, “To make this test fail, Amtrak needs to do nothing. Put all the burden on the existing café lounge attendant and the lines will reach legendary lengths. Keep the menu in the café lounge the same and sleeping car passengers will leave and never come back.”
Before you decide that this writer is supporting this Amtrak “experiment,” think again. There are much more humane ways to go, Mr. Boardman, that will maintain the “Dining Car experience” of train travel and that have not even been considered from what is evident. One is the idea to GROW the demand for first class service in the Dining cars, and the other is out-source contracting of the Food & Beverage service. While the first idea would require ingenuity from Amtrak Marketing, the latter would never be acceptable to rail labor. So, where are we? Obviously they didn’t heed the advice of this writer when I wrote in March of this year about how a grilled cheese sandwich could help save the tradition for all riders. As RailPAC President, Paul Dyson, said in the 2nd Quarter 2015 “Steel Wheels,” “Penny-pinching customer-alienating ‘economies’ are the order of the day” at Amtrak.” RailPAC VP James Smith took the cause to NARP and Amtrak in Washington DC and told them that this new food service policy is unacceptable. Paul Dyson said, “They cannot cut to achieve commercial success, and they are trying to do just that.” There are many battles ahead for long distance train riders. Exciting? What would we do if everything was perfect? Have you expressed your opinion on this matter?