COVID-19 (Coronavirus) Pandemic: Amtrak Food Service Discussion

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Devil's Advocate

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Sorry, customers don't "deserve" anything. The only reason any business would want to go to the trouble of providing service unrelated to their business is because they think it will attract more net revenue. If it doesn't do that, than why bother.
Amtrak still advertises all the little niceties people might hope to experience with pictures of features and amenities that were removed years ago. It's only when people board the train they finally realize those photos don't represent the actual product being sold. Do customers really not deserve the product being advertised to them?

We've just spent the past 25 years in the airline industry experiencing incredible degradation of service, and until this epidemic hit, the airline industry was making money hand over fist. Why the hell should they waste money providing "service" when the rubes are going to fly anyway, and the managers and investors in the company can pocket that money?
The top brass and captain class do very well but the airlines themselves still need billions in taxpayer bailouts every few years just to remain solvent. When I'm flying internationally I avoid US airlines precisely because their service is crap and the customers either don't know any better or enjoy the masochism.
 

Devil's Advocate

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That is true, but to address that one does not require gourmet Diner service, which some appear to wish to have on Amtrak as precondition to their deigning to set foot on Amtrak, because you know? How can anyone descend to traveling by train without that?
What I've seen are people saying they want Amtrak to go back to what they used to serve a few years ago. Calling those meals gourmet food is a bit of a straw man stretch. If Amtrak doesn't want to serve better food they can lower the cost to reflect the reduced standard of service. It's the combination of paying top dollar fares for generic meal service that gets to me.

Where can you find first class seats for just a few $$$ more than seats on Southwest? I've stopped looking up first class fares because they are so many more multiples of the coach fares that it's not even worth considering for a domestic flight that hardly ever exceeds 5-6 hours and is usually a lot less.
I can usually find good airfare by being flexible with dates, durations, and destinations. On any given day there are a half dozen places I'd enjoy visiting if the price was right. The people who struggle the most to find deals are the folks who choose a specific place and date and then look for a low price. The variable that most people seem to focus on (when to buy) is also the most difficult to reliably predict. I've lost count of the number of times a supposedly educated person came to a travel forum with dates and destination already locked-in hoping someone could tell them that trip goes on sale the third Tuesday of the month at half past four in the afternoon. 🤦‍♂️
 

MARC Rider

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The people who struggle the most to find deals are the folks who choose a specific place and date and then look for a low price.
Well, isn't that the way most people travel? Not everybody is retired with no other family obligations and unlimited time on their hands and a desire to just travel wherever the fare is cheapest. Thus, business/first class travel is totally out of reach for most people.
 

Devil's Advocate

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Well, isn't that the way most people travel? Not everybody is retired with no other family obligations and unlimited time on their hands and a desire to just travel wherever the fare is cheapest. Thus, business/first class travel is totally out of reach for most people.
I have a standard white collar office job and travel with/to friends and family just like millions of other people. The main difference is that I keep my options open and look for deals before I request time off. On those occasions when I have a specific place and time to be I simply pay the going rate rather than pretend I have any control over when the price might drop in the future. For most of my life First and Business class were out of my reach but I'm a tall guy and as coach class kept shrinking my priorities changed and I started traveling less often in order to have a budget large enough to keep my knees from being crushed.
 

crescent-zephyr

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Well, isn't that the way most people travel? Not everybody is retired with no other family obligations and unlimited time on their hands and a desire to just travel wherever the fare is cheapest. Thus, business/first class travel is totally out of reach for most people.
I’m certainly not retired. It’s really easy to search for travel deals. I’ve also stayed at the Palmer house Hilton with executive level access for under $100 per night on a summer weekend.
 
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Thirdrail7

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The Acela first-class meals have been reduced to some sort of box "thing." The breakfast doesn't involve hot food and the lunch/dinner seems like some sort of cheese and meat tray.

I doubt there will be anyone on board to notice.
 

Mark P

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Bummed that flexible dining was extended through the month of June. Departing LAX on SW Chief on 6/29, looks like I'll be dining flexibly for 3 days...
 

Devil's Advocate

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Does anyone actually believe it’s ever coming back?
Full service dining seems unlikely to return under the current rules and conditions, but that's not the same thing as never coming back. Amtrak has survived threats I thought would take it down in the past and with the right government almost anything is possible, even improved dining. I do expect that Amtrak is going to need a lot more activism in the near future than it has required in the recent past. My representative is pro-rail but my senators are anti-rail. The best I can do is help convince them not to actively attack Amtrak during the next round of budget negotiations.
 
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Bob Dylan

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Bummed that flexible dining was extended through the month of June. Departing LAX on SW Chief on 6/29, looks like I'll be dining flexibly for 3 days...
Be sure and Stock up on some Real Food and Drink for your trip!!!
 

crescent-zephyr

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Full service dining seems unlikely to return under the current rules and conditions, but that's not the same thing as never coming back. Amtrak has survived threats I thought would take it down in the past and with the right government almost anything is possible.
I’ll agree anything is possible. I would have never expected to be able to get scrambled eggs again after the Bob Evans breakfast scramble so I’ve been wrong before.
 

MARC Rider

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I do expect that Amtrak is going to need a lot more activism in the near future than it has required in the recent past. My representative is pro-rail but my senators are anti-rail.
Sounds like one of the most important tasks for the activists (at least with regards to food service) is to keep the heat up on the creative accounting that makes providing food service look more expensive than it really is. Also, keep pushing on the idea that "premium" long distance service (i.e. the sleepers and diners) cross-subsidizes the overall net revenue for the train, and thus helps preserve necessary coach service for people traveling relatively short distances in rural areas not served by anything else. It's not spending tax dollars on "rail cruises" for rich geezers, it's having the rich geezers who want to take rail cruises support vital transportation links that connect rural America with the rest of the country.
 

Green Maned Lion

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Providing food service, especially with union employees, is actually very expensive. I don’t know where people get the idea that the costs are... Apocryphal.
 

MARC Rider

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Providing food service, especially with union employees, is actually very expensive. I don’t know where people get the idea that the costs are... Apocryphal.
The debate about Amtrak accounting (on the food service and other stuff) is based on the assertion that the inflated cost estimates for providing food service presented by Amtrak management include fixed-cost overhead items that are not eliminated by eliminating the service. Discussion of "union wages" may be clouded by presenting the wages "loaded" with overhead, making the workers look overpaid when they're not. I have managed contracts where labor costs were "loaded" like that, and one could get very warped ideas about what people are paid. For example, we were paying $100/hr for engineering techs, and the project manager on the contractor side, my opposite, was billed at $200/hr. I really doubt that the contractor was actually paying the Engineering tech $100/hr or the project manager $200/hr. If that were the case, I would have quit the government a long time ago. Anyway, why is there so much animus against the grunts who do this work? Don't they deserve to get paid a decent wage, even if they don't have some fancy college degree and fancy professional job?

Yeah, perhaps the union labor is more expensive than what's typical in the restaurant industry, but it's entirely possible that Amtrak could still run a decent food service program that's cost-effective. Remember, unlike a business run by a capitalist entrepreneur, the goal of Amtrak is not to maximize it's profits and get rich, but rather optimize the net revenue from the "premium class" long distance service as a way of cross-subsidizing the overall operating expense of the train. Unfortunately, we really don't know, because Amtrak accounting is so opaque that, for all we know, the dining car on the Sunset Limited gets charged for its "share" of clearing snow off the platforms in Syracuse, or electrical infrastructure on the NEC. Of course, even if the dining car on the Sunset Limited is scrapped, the costs for shoveling snow in Syracuse and electrical work on the NEC don't go away.
 

BLNT

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Nov 5, 2019
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Having not read this thread, can someone summarize what we should expect food wise on the Auto Train in a couple of weeks (Bedroom) ?

THANKS
 

lordsigma

OBS Chief
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Having not read this thread, can someone summarize what we should expect food wise on the Auto Train in a couple of weeks (Bedroom) ?

THANKS
On the Auto Train you will get the normal menu that's similar to what they've had the last few years (not the flexible dining - Amtrak calls it traditional dining but it's not exactly the same menu as what was served on the western trains. I would describe it as a step below that - it is a bit more institutional as they have to serve more people and there's less choices but still better than flexible dining). I wouldn't be surprised they are still encouraging (Perhaps requiring - someone with inside info or who has ridden recently may be able to clarify that) folks to eat in their room instead of going to the diner. You could probably check with Amtrak customer service to see if they are allowing people to eat in the actual diner (if you were looking to do that.)

Here is a sample menu - they do periodicly change the menu items so the entrees may not be the same but it will be a similar concept:
 
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Green Maned Lion

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Dec 27, 2007
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8,209
The debate about Amtrak accounting (on the food service and other stuff) is based on the assertion that the inflated cost estimates for providing food service presented by Amtrak management include fixed-cost overhead items that are not eliminated by eliminating the service. Discussion of "union wages" may be clouded by presenting the wages "loaded" with overhead, making the workers look overpaid when they're not. I have managed contracts where labor costs were "loaded" like that, and one could get very warped ideas about what people are paid. For example, we were paying $100/hr for engineering techs, and the project manager on the contractor side, my opposite, was billed at $200/hr. I really doubt that the contractor was actually paying the Engineering tech $100/hr or the project manager $200/hr. If that were the case, I would have quit the government a long time ago. Anyway, why is there so much animus against the grunts who do this work? Don't they deserve to get paid a decent wage, even if they don't have some fancy college degree and fancy professional job?
First of all, if I draft you a bill for services, I will make money selling you my labor. Do you really think the car techs at your local dealer makes $90-225 an hour? Because they really don’t. There are a variety of reasons for this, some perfectly legitimate about accounting for variables, and another is simply profit.

It is my understanding that Amtrak LSAs make about $35 an hour, I believe that is inclusive of benefits. If someone knows the number and disputes me, I won’t argue with you, but it is at least that. That means that a lounge/cafe car has to make $35 an hour in gross profits just to cover its labor, and I am fairly certain Amtrak doesn’t make a keystone on gross for food sales. There is also the considerable cost of buying, maintaining, and powering that entire car that has no revenue source but the food sales. I worked it out somewhere in the distant past, but if it came to less than $100 an hour in costs it would blow my mind.

If Amtrak makes a 33% mark up on food, and that would surprise me because the last catering contract I read was highway robbery practically, that means they have to sell $300 in food per hour just to break even. They could manage that on a Corridor train, most likely. However on an overnight train, let’s say the Lake Shore, they will run that car 19 hours. That is $1900 in cost. That requires $5700 in food sales. That must be done, bearing in mind that for 7 hours of the trip, that car is closed for business. It would surprise me if that was managed.

A minimally operated non-flex dining car requires an absolute minimum of three people - chef, LSA, SA. I would also presume the maintenenance to be higher, I was figuring $65 an hour for the Cafe, let’s take it to... $90? Plus your three crew, which is $105, so $195 an hour total, $3705 for the trip. That means, again assuming a likely generous 33% margin for the food, $11,115 in sales for the trip. The Lake Shore has two meals; so $5,557 per meal. Think they can manage that? I don’t. The Lake Shore carries four sleepers in peak times. That’s a maximum of 144 passengers. For the two meals, that’s minimum sales requirement of $78 a passenger. And it’s never that full, as many rooms carry only one passenger. It works out worse for a train with two sleepers and a longer trip.

Finally, allow me to explain that I point out problems like that in economic fact. I am actually pro-union; I think people should be entitled to a good living wage if they work appropriately hard. I think that is greatly beneficial to the whole economy. But that doesn’t mean that I am not going to point out that in a vacuum, meaning not including things like encouraging ridership, the food service Amtrak offers is a) expensive; and b) hard to do profitably, not impossible. That’s not a political statement, it’s a monetary reality.
 

BLNT

Train Attendant
Joined
Nov 5, 2019
Messages
95
On the Auto Train you will get the normal menu that's similar to what they've had the last few years (not the flexible dining - Amtrak calls it traditional dining but it's not exactly the same menu as what was served on the western trains. I would describe it as a step below that - it is a bit more institutional as they have to serve more people and there's less choices but still better than flexible dining). I wouldn't be surprised they are still encouraging (Perhaps requiring - someone with inside info or who has ridden recently may be able to clarify that) folks to eat in their room instead of going to the diner. You could probably check with Amtrak customer service to see if they are allowing people to eat in the actual diner (if you were looking to do that.)

Here is a sample menu - they do periodicly change the menu items so the entrees may not be the same but it will be a similar concept:
Thanks.

Yes - we actually prefer eating in our room (and that comes in handier now)!
 

RichieRich

Lead Service Attendant
Joined
Dec 2, 2016
Messages
272
Yes - we actually prefer eating in our room (and that comes in handier now)!
If you've every tried just walking up & down the train...imagine doing it from car-to-car carrying full dinners! I'd tip the guy $10/tray right then for the effort. Another $20 on de-training for the room. And that was BEFORE the China Virus.
 

Devil's Advocate

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If you've every tried just walking up & down the train...imagine doing it from car-to-car carrying full dinners! I'd tip the guy $10/tray right then for the effort. Another $20 on de-training for the room. And that was BEFORE the China Virus.
The dinners are packaged and carried in a bag. If the train moves the bag simply swings with it because it has this new invention called a handle. I'd happily carry it myself if I was allowed to do so. Just curious, but did you call 2008 the "America Recession" since it started here based on American policies before infecting the whole world's economy?
 
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Charles785

Train Attendant
Joined
Nov 24, 2017
Messages
79
It would really help if dining car food servers were not unionized; why on earth should Amtrak pay the artificial wage rates for union labor; I don't think other restaurants have to contend with labor unions for their food servers.

In most of the restaurant world, servers learn very quickly that the more pleasant their people-pleasing skills are, the better their trips are.
 
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