Food service on Amtrak (ouch!!)

Posted by Fred Frailey
on Monday, April 13, 2015

As an experiment, Amtrak is eliminating the dining car on the New York-Miami Silver Star from July 1 until January 2016. Free meals for sleeping car passengers will cease, but fares for sleeping car space will be lower. I’m all for the test. I’ll tell you what would make it a worthwhile endeavor, and what will doom it to failure.

Congress has told Amtrak that subsidies for food service will cease in about four years. That’s the challenge — what does Amtrak do? President Joe Boardman has said that 100 percent of the loss rests with the 16 pairs of long distance trains. If that is indeed so, it is here that most of the economies should logically come.

New York-Miami is the ideal test bed for food service innovation. Unlike all the other routes, there are two daily train pairs on the route. The Silver Meteor has the shortest route and will retain its full service diner, in addition to a cafe lounge that also serves budget meals. The Silver Star operates via Raleigh, N.C., and makes a detour in Florida to reach Tampa. This is the train that will be the focus of the experiment.

I’m in favor of this test, first of all, because Amtrak has to do something. Second, with two trains as its test bed, Amtrak has the means to gauge passenger acceptance. Third, dining car meals have gotten about as bad as even I can tolerate, and I can tolerate almost anything.

To make this test fail, Amtrak needs to do nothing. Put all the burden on the existing cafe lounge attendant and the lines will reach legendary lengths. Keep the menu in the cafe lounge the same and sleeping car passengers will leave and never come back. The entrees in the cafe lounge are hamburgers and hot dogs wrapped in plastic and individual pizzas. The burgers and dogs come out of the microwave with the buns saturated in hot liquid from the meats. They are inedible from the get-go. Individual pizzas are first to disappear. So this is the future if Amtrak does nothing. If this is what Amtrak intends, I wish Amtrak had hired me to do the test.

Or Amtrak could add a second attendant to the cafe lounge to speed the processes, then expand the menu to include things that you and I really might want to eat. This is such a no-brainer that I seriously doubt that it will happen. Nobody answers the PR phone at Amtrak anymore, so I didn’t bother asking.

The question also arises: What if this is the future, like it or not? What happens to those 25 bistro-like single-level dining cars being cranked out for Amtrak in northern New York, to replace the Neanderthals of 60 years ago? Why, turn them into baggage cars, of course.

The quid pro quo for this hazardous duty on the part of its sleeping car passengers is lower fares. Reports on suggest discounts of more than $125 for New York-Miami roomettes on the Silver Star. This certainly gets my attention, if there is a KFC or Popeye’s near the boarding station.

PS: A lot of you have wondered where I am. I’ve been busy, first in France (Provence and Normandie, then Georgia (as in St. Simons Island) and finally in the hospital, getting a new right knee. I now know the definition of exquisite pain (try bending your new right knee 90 degrees, 20 times and holding 15 seconds, thrice a day). But pain only makes me madder on your behalf, and together we are going to raise some hell, right?  — Fred W. Frailey

Tags: Amtrak
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