Meals on wheels. Oh my!

Posted by Fred Frailey
on Monday, April 23, 2018

Nothing should surprise us anymore. Yet you’d have thought that Little Green Men had landed at the Richard J. Daley Center and planted their Martian flag on the Chicago Picasso. No more dining cars! Soon, no more long-distance trains! The world is ending! It calls to mind a magazine writer, Thomas Frank, who has a habit of starting his long articles by saying, “If such-and-such is true, then. . .” and launching into his thesis. I usually say to myself, “No, Tom, such-and-such is not true, so everything you are about to tell me is BS.” That’s the case with the reaction to Amtrak’s announcement that for sleeping-car passengers starting June 1, it would substitute free boxed meals for full dining-car service on the Chicago-Washington Capitol Limited and Chicago-New York City Lake Shore Limited.

The news caused to light up like an exploding Christmas tree. Steam train entrepreneur Ross Rowland predicted: “My best guess is . . . eliminate all food service . . . strictly BYOB, double all fares, reduce top operating speed.” One overexcited poster said of Amtrak’s new CEO, Richard Anderson: “How about delving into this man’s background and looking for dirt on him. Can we find any financial impropriety or adultery? How about demonstrations at his home to make his life miserable?” Even the normally unflappable editor of Railway Age wrote on its web site: “I believe it’s part of a plan to dismantle the National Network.”

Those who fear this new arrangement the most appear to be unmindful of two important facts. The first is that most food that comes out of Amtrak dining car kitchens these days is not very good to begin with. I know from bitter experience. The best offering is scrambled eggs at breakfast; after that, quality rolls down the hill pretty fast (although the 1,088-calorie Angus Burger is sometimes okay). I dare you to order the beef entree on the Auto Train—it’s a foul-tasting round ball of grey meat called “beef shoulder tender.” Roasted chicken breast is hit or miss, fine one day, dried out the next.

In other words, what are we losing here, folks? The prepared sandwiches and salads and fruit plates headed for the Capitol and Lake Shore sound exactly like what sleeping-car passengers on the Portland-Spokane section of the Empire Builder have been eating for decades, and nobody seems to mind, including me.

The other forgotten fact, which Richard Anderson is not allowed to forget, is that Congress preordained this to happen. Embedded in the Passenger Rail Reform & Investment Act of 2015 is this command: “Beginning on the date that is five years after the date of enactment of [PRRIA], no Federal funds may be used to cover any operating loss associated with providing food and beverage service on a route operated by Amtrak.” (You’ll be amused that Congress also decreed that no Amtrak employee lose his or her employment due to implementation of this order.) Anyway, five years is up on December 30, 2020.

Now let’s talk about those food and beverage losses and what could be done about them, short of our eating from a box. Amtrak’s inspector general reported seven years ago that the company was losing about $80 million annually on food service, quite a bit of it for criminal reasons. Cited were inflating first-class meal checks, shorting cash-register sales, stealing inventory, and plain old giving the stuff away. There was also a lot of wasted food. The IG attributed 87 percent of food-service losses to the 15 long-distance routes. It stands to reason that the place to go to fix the problem is those same long-distance trains.

Amtrak should start by doing what the airlines have done, which is go cashless on board. This has been recommended for years, but the company won’t do it. I’ve been told that airlines experienced a 15 percent spike in airborne revenue when they went this route; employees aren’t tempted for money to stick to their fingers.

My other suggestion is to adopt a dining car menu like Amtrak offers its first-class customers on Acela—precooked and prepackaged food that is heated and served on board. These meals taste at least as good as what comes from today’s dining cars and usually better. Amtrak recently rotated between three such menus on Acela. Breakfast options included tomato confit omelet, steak and eggs, a fruit plate or a continental plate, along with granola bars and Dunkin’ Donuts coffee. Recent lunch and dinner offerings included Brazilian cod filet, Moroccan beef brisket, double fried chicken, and shrimp biryani, plus rolls and dessert.

There is no cooking onboard and no wasted food. A single attendant could serve about one plate per minute, working small microwave and convection ovens. Amtrak projects savings of $3 million a year on the Capitol and Lake Shore with cold box meals. It could save at least as much serving Acela-style hot meals—and make its customers a lot happier.

Finally, are the long-distance trains at risk, as so many people proclaim? If Richard Nixon and Ronald Reagan and Donald Trump couldn’t axe them, why would Richard Anderson even try? Anderson does want to run Amtrak more like a business and less like a hobby shop. In fact, he has an obligation to do so, because it’s our tax money making up Amtrak’s losses. I will bet my friend, the editor of Railway Age, a dinner at the Manhattan steak house of his choice, that Anderson will not even try to scuttle the long-distance trains this coming year. Whoever pays, it will be a memorable evening.--Fred W. Frailey

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