New dining options (flex dining) effective October 1, 2019

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I prefer to travel in a sleeper because it is a sleeper. I say that from the perspective of one who first traveled in a sleeper (occasionally) just before Amtrak, and many of the attendants dated from the Pullman era. I liked that the meals were reasonably good, and I enjoyed the fact that when I was a coach passenger, I had the option of getting a hot meal in the dining car. The food has been on the decline since the end of actual cooked food and the advent of prepackaged foods. The available selections grew fewer and the desserts devolved into microwave chocolate cake affairs or brownies. Flex? What's flexible? I think they just had to give it a specious name to make it appear that there was something better about it. No, it's just food that's at the level of meals available in the freezer aisle at the local grocery store.

What I pay for in a sleeper is (1) a bed (2) privacy (no potluck on who one gets as seatmates or coach mates--noisy and nosy versus quiet and delightful conversationalists; uncomfortably obese (3) a private toilet (4) nicer waiting room and (5) the ability to sleep and awake at my choice (shades closed to make it dark). Even some of the new standard of nominal meal service would be tolerable if Amtrak were able to train its personnel uniformly in hospitality. One is not seeking obsequious servants, but indifferent (sometimes bordering on hostile) service is not excusable. The lack of uniformity means that different staff folk impose different rules and procedures so you never know what to expect. I've never felt that the meals offset the price differential from coach. It's always been the amenities.

The underlying issue is the lack of a national commitment to invest in long distance train travel.
 

fdaley

Train Attendant
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Jan 25, 2020
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I don't know who else here is old enough to remember, but back in the '70s and '80s and earlier, everyone paid cash (or plastic) for whatever meals they chose to have in the dining car. Sometime in the late '80s, as I recall (i.e., I might be off by a few years), Amtrak decided to make dining car meals part of a "first class service package," included in the price of a sleeper room, and they jacked up the price of the rooms accordingly. (Actually, I think the price increase was quite a bit more in most cases than what one would have spent on a room plus meals under the old system.)

What's happened now on the eastern trains is that they've gutted the service package but left the room prices as high as ever.

In the '70s and early '80s, being young and closer to broke, I often traveled in coach, splurging for a sleeper (or a slumbercoach room) now and then. But I always managed to come up with the cash for diner meals. After the switch to meals being included in the sleeper price, it suddenly got harder for coach passengers to get access to the dining car. On busy trains, the dining car staff would take reservations in the sleepers first and then maybe not have any slots left, or only a few, for coach riders. So I began to make it a practice to just book a room on overnight trains.

In a way, it's the food that made me a regular sleeper customer. Without it, the experience is so diminished that I'm more inclined to just stay home if the trip is discretionary.
 
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Joined
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In a way, it's the food that made me a regular sleeper customer. Without it, the experience is so diminished that I'm more inclined to just stay home if the trip is discretionary.
That is exactly how I felt about going to Florida this year--usually I have gone on the Meteor from PHL to WPK, stayed a few days, and come back.

It is true that this year has been warmer at home than usual so far, with no blizzards, and that part of my travel money went for a root canal.

Even so, instead of thinking what a shame it was I wasn't going to Florida, my reaction was "No dining car--that was 90 percent of what made the trip so enjoyable--no reason to bother now."
 

Amtrakfflyer

Lead Service Attendant
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Feb 2, 2005
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437
“No dining car--that was 90 percent of what made the trip so enjoyable--no reason to bother now."


Whether you are a rail enthusiast or just looking at all the options to get from point A to point B the statement above sums it up.

Everyone except Amtrak knows they can’t charge the equivalent of first class airfare (or more) with no perceived amenities and expect it to be a viable option to the masses. Management needs to be removed before more long term damage is done.
 

neroden

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When I mention Amtrak to people who don't take intercity trains yet, their first question is whether there is a dining car. It is an inherently popular amenity. On trains where ridership is high enough and the trip runs across mealtimes, such as the LSL, it should be commercially valuable.
 

neroden

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Wait a sec.

Back in Post #1704 you stated But according to data reported by the RPA, LSL ridership actually rose 9% between FY2015 and FY2016 and little a bit more between FY2016 and FY2017 perhaps in spite of that degraded food service! So the tiny ridership increase was due to the degraded food?????

Now you're asserting the documented ridership decline between FY2017 and FY2018 was a result of the closure of NYC!!

My apologies for clicking on the [Show Ignored Content] box.
Sorry, misremembered, it was revenue which dropped FY2015 FY2017, rather than ridership. Makes my point better I think. You can always "buy" riders with low prices.

The cancellation of service to NYP was huge. I see a dropping revenue trend correlating with the food service cuts on top of the NYP cut effect. I also blame Amtrak for not advertising the return of NYP service.
 

crescent-zephyr

Conductor
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I still enjoyed my trip on the meteor. What I didn’t enjoy was not having decent food options. Even if everything was prepackaged if I could have picked a decent quality entree salad, a gluten free dessert, and goodness even a bag of plain potato chips I would be content.
 

rrdude

Conductor
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The food in domestic first class, imho, is much better than the food in contemporary dining, but not quite as good as the best traditional dining entrees like steak and salmon.

By anyone’s standards the food in domestic first class is presented better. Tablecloth, silverware, cloth napkin, ceramic plates, glassware etc.
Or, take Amtrak's own example, the food on First Class on Acela, while not GREAT, is 10 X better than the slop they throw at you in "Flexible Dining". Reminds me of the late 70's or early 80's, when Amtrak went to "Modified Meal Service" on ALL LD Trains. I actually had a meal "thrown", actually shoved/pushed back at me by an irate passenger in the diner. (to their credit, they apologized profusely later that day, and gave me a $20 tip.....)
 

rrdude

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The flex meals are not microwaved. They are warmed in convection ovens - same as Acela First Class and aircraft galleys.
But, you have to agree, they are not SERVED, or plated, or even TASTE, like ANY meal on Acela FC, or any FC domestic airline. Plastic, wrappers still on, plastic cutlery, paper napkin... CHEAP, CHEAP, CHEAP. Not what I expect for the big EXTRA $$$ we pay for a room. (Bedroom or roomette)
 

lordsigma

OBS Chief
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Sep 15, 2017
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838
Even so, instead of thinking what a shame it was I wasn't going to Florida, my reaction was "No dining car--that was 90 percent of what made the trip so enjoyable--no reason to bother now."
The traditional diner was definitely better than this new program but I can’t say that I agree that the food is 90% of what makes the trip enjoyable. I’ve always found the food mediocre but then again Im a relatively new rail rider and didn’t ride in the better days of rail travel. But just one person’s opinion.
 

fdaley

Train Attendant
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Jan 25, 2020
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Amtrak doesn’t care about ridership when it comes to these cuts - the key metric is did the loss number go down between FY17 and FY19. Did they lower the cost of carrying passengers on these trains.
If the measure of success is only whether the cost of providing food service has gone down, then clearly the contemporary/flexible food program is a great success. Amtrak now offers many fewer menu options, of much lower quality, and managed to eliminate a couple of jobs on every departure of the affected trains, so there's no question they're spending less on this amenity. But if they don't consider the effect on ridership, it's really just an exercise in boneheaded accounting.

When Amtrak switched from traditional dining to "contemporary" food on the Lake Shore and Capitol, the company estimated it would save $3 million a year because of the change. That sounds like a lot, but when you divide it by the 365 days a year that the trains run, and divide again by the four daily departures (two eastbound and two westbound) of the two trains, the savings works out to about $2,000 per departure. When you consider that number, it's easy to see how lost ridership could completely offset the "savings" from this change.

Suppose that, on any given night, there is one couple that would have spent $700 on a bedroom from Albany to Chicago but decides to stay home because there's no more dining service. Then suppose there's another couple that decides to fly rather than paying $1,200 (at one of the higher bucket prices) for a second bedroom on the train. Suddenly, with just two rooms going unoccupied, the net savings from contemporary dining on that departure is down to $100. Meanwhile, how many people in the remaining four bedrooms, 36 roomettes and two accessible rooms are having their "never again" Amtrak experience?
 

lordsigma

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Sep 15, 2017
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Flex dining surely doesn’t look great, I just think they don’t care about the affect on ridership unless it is enough of an affect that it negates the money they saved and losses actually go up. This year will be interesting - the reauthorization is going to be these executives and Amtrak board one and only chance to try to get congress on board with their ideas of diverting some LD money to corridors. If it’s flatly rejected, then perhaps you will see some of these managers leave. Everything is riding on that process.

At the same time while I think the contemporary food thing is an issue they could if they wanted to make the program at least acceptable to most passengers if they put in more effort. Whether they will well find out eventually I guess. But I do think there are other things that ultimately affect the viability of the train more - OTP and unaffordable prices. If you make a move like flex dining, but also fix OTP and reduce the prices to reflect flex dining and add more capacity with the new sleepers to also lower prices at peak times (which it seems they haven’t done) you might have a wash. Food plays a role but it isn’t the only factor.
 
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Qapla

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Jul 15, 2019
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757
They could have gone in he other direction and probably increased their profits more than what they did.

They could have actually, truly enhanced the meals. Made them better. Offer a premium meal with premium service in the sleepers - and raised the price. They may have found that they would have sold out more often ... and made much more profit than they have by reducing service and losing riders.
 

niemi24s

Conductor
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Feb 11, 2015
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2,162
Losing riders?

Much continued blather about the dire effect on ridership by contemporary dining on the CL and LSL by those who don't bother to look at current reported facts: http://media.amtrak.com/wp-content/uploads/2019/11/FY19-Year-End-Ridership.pdf A little arithmetic reveals that the combined ridership of the CL and LSL rose nearly 2% from FY18 to FY19. That's only about 0.6% below the average rise for all of Amtrak.
 

crescent-zephyr

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Oct 21, 2015
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They could have gone in he other direction and probably increased their profits more than what they did.

They could have actually, truly enhanced the meals. Made them better. Offer a premium meal with premium service in the sleepers - and raised the price. They may have found that they would have sold out more often ... and made much more profit than they have by reducing service and losing riders.
Or they could have encouraged sleeper passengers to use “room service” which would free up more space for Coach passengers. And also rolled out the “at your seat” meals to Coach passengers as well. You know, the ones that proved successful but Amtrak ended for no reason?
 

fdaley

Train Attendant
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Jan 25, 2020
Messages
24
Losing riders?

Much continued blather about the dire effect on ridership by contemporary dining on the CL and LSL by those who don't bother to look at current reported facts: http://media.amtrak.com/wp-content/uploads/2019/11/FY19-Year-End-Ridership.pdf A little arithmetic reveals that the combined ridership of the CL and LSL rose nearly 2% from FY18 to FY19. That's only about 0.6% below the average rise for all of Amtrak.
See Post #1709, which explains why the FY18 number for the Lake Shore is an anomaly. The ridership on both trains was down 8 to 10 percent from FY17, the last full year with traditional dining, to FY19, the first full year without it.
 

me_little_me

Conductor
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Jul 16, 2010
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That’s a very interesting point. For all intents and purposes they already did remove the meals. What’s left of monetary value? A three dollar breakfast and a five to eight dollar lunch and dinner. All three meals of the day represent less than a $20 total value.

That’s monetarily, the edibility and enjoyability value are closer to zero.

Back to the question if they did remove the current offerings from the sleeper fare how much would you expect the fare to actually go down?
Yeah. They didn't reduce the price for all the workers that are gone (cooks, servers, etc) as well as the reduced cost of the present meals or the reduced service costs since cleaning barely used diners must be a snap. On the other hand, they'll probably reduce the cost (but not the price) by getting rid of the last "server" and removing the Diner-Lounge from the consist to make the sleeper passengers buy cafe food. Then they'll modify unused baggage cars to make them into sleeper-lounges with bunk beds that millennials want (as Amtrak will probably claim).
 

neroden

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Flex dining surely doesn’t look great, I just think they don’t care about the affect on ridership unless it is enough of an affect that it negates the money they saved and losses actually go up.
It already has.

What really bugs me is that there are ways they could have provided food-not-cooked-on-board which wouldn't have had this effect. I've had good boxed food in other contexts. But there was a choice made to provide real garbage.

I'm with crescent-zephyr on this one. There was a period when I was happily eating the boxed caesar salads and cheese-and-cracker trays out of the Amtrak cafe. They just removed those, of course, in what seems to be an effort to drive passengers away entirely.
 

drdumont

Service Attendant
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It already has.

What really bugs me is that there are ways they could have provided food-not-cooked-on-board which wouldn't have had this effect. I've had good boxed food in other contexts. But there was a choice made to provide real garbage.

I'm with crescent-zephyr on this one. There was a period when I was happily eating the boxed caesar salads and cheese-and-cracker trays out of the Amtrak cafe. They just removed those, of course, in what seems to be an effort to drive passengers away entirely.
I still maintain that this is the case. Can we lay this at Anderson's feet? Likely.
There are other prepackaged meal options which are not too bad at all. Putting offal on the menu and calling it Chateaubriand is what is going on.
<Since it is Sunday and I am in a good mood, I used the word 'offal', rather than my first choice...)
 

crescent-zephyr

Conductor
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Oct 21, 2015
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So if I had to create something with the current system I would do the following -

Breakfast - Same as now without the breakfast sandwich and instead offer - warm cinnamon rolls or mini waffles and egg bites similar to the ones served at starbukcs (they come pre-made and frozen.)

Lunch - Offer a choice of entree salad or sandwich. The salads and Sandwich plates would be pre-made and would be served with the following choices - Tuna Salad, Turkey, Roast Beef, Veggies and Hummus. Everything would be pre-made so you just add the chosen protein to the chosen salad / sandwich plate. Add a pack of chips and choice of dessert.

Dinner - entree plates would be pre-made with side salad, garnish, and premium cold side dish. Hot Entrees would be - salmon, grilled chicken, beef, and a veg. Entree. The entrees would be heated up and added to the pre-made plates. You could offer choices of side salad and premium cold sides, as they could be pre-made before serving time... or you could just have 1 basic plate. Again add a choice of dessert.

Desserts should include at least 1 gluten free option.

This allows some options for customers to mix and match and customize based on diets. If the above would be too complicated... maybe only offer 1 or 2 choices with the entree plate for dinner and continue to offer the entree salads but not the sandwiches for dinner?
 

Big Iron

Conductor
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Nov 13, 2009
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I had my chance at Flex Dining this past weekend on 49 and 50. Had the Asian Noodle Bowl on 49 and the Chicken Fettuccini on 50. Both were awful. Eating the noodles was like chewing gum. Just overall tasteless and horrible presentation. Breakfast was just OK.

The LSA on 49 was wonderful, took my order and brought it to me. On 50 I sat down in the "car that you can eat food in" or whatever they are calling it now and the LSA hollered from behind the counter, " If you wanna eat you have to come here to order it." When it was ready she hollered again "hey you" (motioning with her finger with the come here gesture that mothers have made famous over the years) if you want to eat you need to come get it. My name and room number was on the manifest the LSA's had. The 49 LSA used my name, welcomed me and engaged me in light conversation. Eating on 49 was OK given the nice and conversational LSA but on 50 I felt like I was eating in a prison. I will be bringing on food or eating off the train for future LD trips. Both times there was only one other person in the car so not being over worked. The 50 LSA was talking to the onboard crew and surfing the net on her cellphone.
 

crescent-zephyr

Conductor
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Oct 21, 2015
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I had my chance at Flex Dining this past weekend on 49 and 50. Had the Asian Noodle Bowl on 49 and the Chicken Fettuccini on 50. Both were awful. Eating the noodles was like chewing gum. Just overall tasteless and horrible presentation. Breakfast was just OK.

The LSA on 49 was wonderful, took my order and brought it to me. On 50 I sat down in the "car that you can eat food in" or whatever they are calling it now and the LSA hollered from behind the counter, " If you wanna eat you have to come here to order it." When it was ready she hollered again "hey you" (motioning with her finger with the come here gesture that mothers have made famous over the years) if you want to eat you need to come get it. My name and room number was on the manifest the LSA's had. The 49 LSA used my name, welcomed me and engaged me in light conversation. Eating on 49 was OK given the nice and conversational LSA but on 50 I felt like I was eating in a prison. I will be bringing on food or eating off the train for future LD trips. Both times there was only one other person in the car so not being over worked. The 50 LSA was talking to the onboard crew and surfing the net on her cellphone.
My experience on the meteor was right in between the 49 and 50. The LSA wasn’t as rude or demanding as what you described, but was usually sitting in the booth talking with co-workers and when I asked a question “do you have iced coffee?”
She said “the menu is there on the wall”

It’s that attitude that has really made me fly more and more.

Oh by the way... they have taken iced coffee drinks off the menu in the cafe cars and Acela cafe too. Can’t have nice things anymore even if you are willing to pay.
 

OBS

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Nov 9, 2011
Messages
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Please take t
I had my chance at Flex Dining this past weekend on 49 and 50. Had the Asian Noodle Bowl on 49 and the Chicken Fettuccini on 50. Both were awful. Eating the noodles was like chewing gum. Just overall tasteless and horrible presentation. Breakfast was just OK.

The LSA on 49 was wonderful, took my order and brought it to me. On 50 I sat down in the "car that you can eat food in" or whatever they are calling it now and the LSA hollered from behind the counter, " If you wanna eat you have to come here to order it." When it was ready she hollered again "hey you" (motioning with her finger with the come here gesture that mothers have made famous over the years) if you want to eat you need to come get it. My name and room number was on the manifest the LSA's had. The 49 LSA used my name, welcomed me and engaged me in light conversation. Eating on 49 was OK given the nice and conversational LSA but on 50 I felt like I was eating in a prison. I will be bringing on food or eating off the train for future LD trips. Both times there was only one other person in the car so not being over worked. The 50 LSA was talking to the onboard crew and surfing the net on her cellphone.
Please take the time to report your experience on train #50 to Amtrak!
 
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