"The Dining Car Problem"

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jruff001

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No, this is not meant to be yet another thread about how awful and unhealthy the Flexible Dining food is. There are already dozens of threads and hundreds - probably thousands? - of posts about that. Rather, this is meant to spark discussion about the economics of providing the good, old-fashioned "traditional dining" that so many here grieve about losing.

I came across this fascinating promotional document from 1950. Even way back when, railroads were struggling with providing dining car service, were concerned about how uneconomical that was and were trying to find the floor for passengers' tolerance. See the "Single Entree" and "Short Order" services on pages 12-13, which were being tried as potential answers to "the dining car problem" (PRR's words!) and the concern throughout the document about reducing waste and losses. But of course they were spinning cost-cutting efforts as leading to "better" meals and service for passengers.

The real meat (get it?) starts on page 16 with "The 'Why' of Dining Car Losses."

Better Meals and Service for You

How would YOU run a for-profit traditional dining car? Or, OTOH, justify continued taxpayer subsidies for that slab of animal being served to you as you cross Montana when current sleeping car fares and the Silver Star experiment would seem to suggest that most people aren't willing to pay nearly enough for it to make financial sense?
 

jis

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Maybe instead of navel gazing at the sorry path taken by passenger service in the US it is time to look at places that have managed to run the service successfully, and swallow our pride and ego, and try to emulate them. Emulating would include understanding how their costs and revenues are structured and seeing what is adaptable. I for one would like Amtrak to take a close look at DB's IC/EC operations and see what can be learned from them, and perhaps emulate them. Obsessing about for profit dining cars is a fool's errand and everyone knows it, and yet that is one thing that keeps generations of consultants kids through school and college. 🤷‍♂️

Maybe the Nightjet model has a lot to teach us at least for the one night trains.
 
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jruff001

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Maybe instead of navel gazing at the sorry path taken by passenger service in the US it is time to look at places that have managed to run the service successfully, and swallow our pride and ego, and try to emulate them. Emulating would include understanding how their costs and revenues are structured and seeing what is adaptable. I for one would like Amtrak to take a close look at DB's IC/EC operations and see what can be learned from them, and perhaps emulate them. Obsessing about for profit dining cars is a fool's errand and everyone knows it, and yet that is one thing that keeps generations of consultants kids through school and college. 🤷‍♂️
I am not sure Germany would be a very useful comparison just because it is a small place geographically. Perhaps the biggest inefficiency identified by the PRR in the link was crew and equipment scheduling, largely because of the downtime that is inherent with long distance, overnight service. A short-distance network wouldn't have that issue to nearly the same degree. You can basically be open and serving from terminal to terminal. (Yes, you COULD do that all night, but not many people are going to be looking for a full meal at 0200.)

I'd be more curious about the economics of dining cars on the long-distance trains in Russia. That would seem to have challenges similar to the Amtrak model.
 

jis

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Russian LD trains usually have a large menu but only a small part of it is available on any given train. Also the Restaurant Car is not designed to serve everyone on the train but only those that want to pay for it. A vast majority of the riders of the train arrange to have their own food from wherever. In that sense they are similar to pre-90s situation in the US before Amtrak chose to include food in Sleeper fares.

India got rid of all Restaurant Cars except one on the Deccan Queen, around 1970 and replaced them with Pantry Car with at seat service. On some trains where food is not included in the ticket this is for those who wish to pay for the food, and on other trains where the ticket includes food it is for serving everyone on the train. In the latter they serve 4 meals a day to upto 1400 passengers, something that is hard to achieve with a Restaurant Car, unless there are multiple ones, which of course runs contrary to the policy of minimizing non revenue cars on a railroad where demand far outstrips capacity on all major routes.

Fortunately with a little infusion of additional rolling stock we in the US are unlikely to far outstrip capacity by demand, so in that sense the Diner may be safe, as it is unlikely to get overwhelmed into extinction.

As for economics of it, I doubt very much that Russia. Germany, India or China expect their food service to be separately profitable, as long as the train does relatively well, and even there, I doubt they expect each train to be individually profitable as long as the company meets the budgetary goals. This Mica thing is a peculiarly American and Floridian obsession if you will, and applies selectively to only those things that you wish to undermine.
 
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Nick Farr

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I for one would like Amtrak to take a close look at DB's IC/EC operations and see what can be learned from them, and perhaps emulate them.
Basically, DB ICE meal service is basically the same thing as "flex dining" but with slightly better presentation. They reheat packaged foods and instead of serving the TV dinner to you with a few holes poked in the foil, they actually plate it for you. They are able to get fresh bread, and occasionally a few other things fresh. They also take a lot more thought and care into how they nuke the prepackaged things. They usually also have a soup of the day and a beer on tap of some kind.

The only thing really stopping Amtrak from going this route are updates on the rolling stock, staff training and logistics. On the LD trains, they could probably modify the kitchens and retrain some of the OBS to take care of meal preparation duties (which is little more than opening the bag, nuking it and plating it).

Cafe car attendants already do a lot of this. Amtrak's DB cafe car attendant counterparts have a lot more room to prepare and store things because the don't have that long counter or open space in the serving portion of the car.
 

crescent-zephyr

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How would YOU run a for-profit traditional dining car
I would start by encouraging more people to dine and upselling them on drinks, desserts, etc.

Encouraging sleeping car attendants to provide room service opens up more tables in the diner so that’s a win.

There should also be an option for coach passengers to order food from the diner to be eaten at their seat or in the lounge car.

That would be a start.

Also hosting paid wine tastings each afternoon and try to sell bottles of the wine as well as souvenir wine glasses.
 

Anthony V

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We may have already found the solution to "the dining car problem" back in the 1990's. That is to run the dining car 24 hours a day, like they did on the Sunset Limited back then. During that experiment, the dining car on that train actually made money because they got more use out of an asset with high fixed costs by doing this, which increased revenue. This is because of the fact that the only way to lower the fixed costs of an asset is to get the most use out of it and because of the fact that when you do that, the increased amount of revenue will be more than the increased costs of more frequent use of the asset. This is for the same reason that passenger rail advocates like us push for increased frequencies of all Amtrak routes, because experience shows that ridership and revenue goes up faster than costs, while at the same time making better use of assets with high fixed costs, which in these cases are train stations, and dining cars, when you increase frequency or hours of service.
 

jruff001

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We may have already found the solution to "the dining car problem" back in the 1990's. That is to run the dining car 24 hours a day, like they did on the Sunset Limited back then. During that experiment, the dining car on that train actually made money because they got more use out of an asset with high fixed costs by doing this, which increased revenue.
I have seen this rumor before here. It makes zero sense; and do you have data to show it was actually profitable? I find that hard to believe. You probably can't even cover the additional crew costs from the handful of people who would want a meal in the middle of the night.

If it was so successful why did they end it?
 

jis

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We may have already found the solution to "the dining car problem" back in the 1990's. That is to run the dining car 24 hours a day, like they did on the Sunset Limited back then. During that experiment, the dining car on that train actually made money because they got more use out of an asset with high fixed costs by doing this, which increased revenue.
Interestingly I have never seen any documentation from Amtrak about it making money. I have seen many repeated assertions from people outside Amtrak that it made money though. So who knows for sure?

Indeed I would actually like to see a credible documentation from something published by Amtrak that says it made money. People with a special axe to grind can claim whatever they wish and try to establish it as a fact by repeated assertion every chance they get.
 
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crescent-zephyr

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24 hours wouldn’t have required additional crew before Simplified Dining kicked in. You would just schedule the crew appropriately.

I’m not sure why it’s hard to believe that a dining car being open more hours could make more money (or lose less as the case may be). Part of the goal of the Cross Country Cafe was to allow dining car food available all day to all passengers. (Not 24 hours but same schedule as the cafe - so like 6 am to midnight or whatever closing time is.).
 

jruff001

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24 hours wouldn’t have required additional crew before Simplified Dining kicked in. You would just schedule the crew appropriately.

I’m not sure why it’s hard to believe that a dining car being open more hours could make more money (or lose less as the case may be).
So why did they stop doing it?
 

IndyLions

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24 hours wouldn’t have required additional crew before Simplified Dining kicked in. You would just schedule the crew appropriately.

I’m not sure why it’s hard to believe that a dining car being open more hours could make more money (or lose less as the case may be). Part of the goal of the Cross Country Cafe was to allow dining car food available all day to all passengers. (Not 24 hours but same schedule as the cafe - so like 6 am to midnight or whatever closing time is.).
So why did they stop doing it?
I can see some employees rebelling against it. Nothing wrong with increased activity during working hours as long as there is appropriate downtime.
 

Trogdor

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Interestingly I have never seen any documentation from Amtrak about it making money. I have seen many repeated assertions from people outside Amtrak that it made money though. So who knows for sure?

Indeed I would actually see a credible documentation from something published by Amtrak that says it made money. People with a special axe to grind can claim whatever they wish and try to establish it as a fact by repeated assertion every chance they get.
I've seen repeated assertions from one person that it made money. That person didn't necessarily have the greatest of credibility, either.
 

jis

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I've seen repeated assertions from one person that it made money. That person didn't necessarily have the greatest of credibility, either.
Indeed that is my problem with it exactly. The only person who has repeatedly asserted it has low credibility and others have said so either pointing to said person or appealing to your reasonablness about believing things that are apparently obvious to some taking them at their word about it.
 

MARC Rider

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Of course traditional dining cost more than the revenue it brings in. Back in the day, the railroads made the mistake of trying to emulate restaurant service at a grand hotel, but on wheels. In order to have that level of service, you have to hire a lot of people. You also have to have them on the job, even if there aren't any customers. While the dining car has a captive audience of customers, that audience is limited, and a good proportion of the passengers don't patronize the dining car and never will. However, the dining car crew has to be on hand, and be paid even if it's a slow period, and the train has few passengers and even fewer dining car patrons. The dining car itself needs to be maintained and operated on a continuous basis, and the railroad needs to purchase more dining cars than are strictly needed so that they can continue to offer dining service when dining cars need to be pulled for maintenance. The costs per diner are probably higher than that of a land-based restaurant, and there's a limit on the amount of revenue that it can yield; thus clever marketing schemes can only make minor effects around the edges.

Better get used to Flex style dining. It's the wave of the future. The only reason traditional dining is viable in land-based restaurants is because restaurant workers are poorly paid and work irregular hours. When this is no longer the case, expect a entrees at your neighborhood Denny's to start at $35 (in today's money.) Either that, or you're going to be ordering over your phone and picking up the meal when you arrive, like they do at Panera, and even Panera will cost more, because they have a pretty big kitchen crew, even with mostly pre-cooked stuff, as they have to individually heat and plate everything. Anyway, forget about special orders, the public will just have to learn to eat what's put in front of them.

Hopefully, even if some form of Flex dining continues, we can get Amtrak to improves the quality of the food offered and increase the variety a bit.
 

Palmland

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I believe the OBS personnel on the Canadian are cross trained to work as servers in the diner, SCA, or other jobs. I think assignments are managed by the Dining car steward. Better utilization of personnel might improve service and help control costs. I’m also surprised Amtrak hasn’t tried to promote beverages and snacks in the train, perhaps using airline style carts. That’s an easy revenue source. But perhaps union contracts wouldn’t permit this?
 

IndyLions

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I have two questions regarding the VIA Ocean style, East Coast catering option.

1. Could it be stocked strictly at the end points? Or would it require mid trip restocking? If they committed to using the VLII diners on all the east coast routes, it seems to me they would provide sufficient cold storage and prep equipment to last for an entire trip. What is the longest trip? The Cardinal? The Crescent?

2. Would it automatically preclude them from promoting the use of the Diner with Coach passengers? Seems to me they would want to stock a number of meals that’s pretty close to what they need, and eliminate the variability of coach passenger consumption.

Number two is the biggest argument against catered meals - and a big argument against Flex meals, in my opinion.
 

crescent-zephyr

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I have two questions regarding the VIA Ocean style, East Coast catering option.

1. Could it be stocked strictly at the end points? Or would it require mid trip restocking? If they committed to using the VLII diners on all the east coast routes, it seems to me they would provide sufficient cold storage and prep equipment to last for an entire trip. What is the longest trip? The Cardinal? The Crescent?

2. Would it automatically preclude them from promoting the use of the Diner with Coach passengers? Seems to me they would want to stock a number of meals that’s pretty close to what they need, and eliminate the variability of coach passenger consumption.

Number two is the biggest argument against catered meals - and a big argument against Flex meals, in my opinion.
VIA ocean’s diner require the same amount of crew that Amtrak’s “traditional dining” requires.
 

IndyLions

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...I’m also surprised Amtrak hasn’t tried to promote beverages and snacks in the train, perhaps using airline style carts. That’s an easy revenue source. But perhaps union contracts wouldn’t permit this?
While they could always do a better job of promoting it on all routes including the NEC - café cars on long-distance trains are already heavily patronized. I haven’t been on a long distance train yet when there wasn’t frequent lines in the café car.

I’ve been on trains in Europe with cart service. I’m not a fan. It’s much easier to get up and get what you need when you need it, then wait for that one time during the trip when the cart comes by your seat.
 

IndyLions

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VIA ocean’s diner require the same amount of crew that Amtrak’s “traditional dining” requires.
But it doesn’t require a chef - which seems to be the position that Amtrak is hell bent on eliminating in the east. Maybe because they don’t perform non food related tasks?
 

crescent-zephyr

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But it doesn’t require a chef - which seems to be the position that Amtrak is hell bent on eliminating in the east. Maybe because they don’t perform non food related tasks?
I don’t think that’s true. Amtrak wants to reduce all f&b personnel which is why the eagle & city are down to 1 solo LSA.
 
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Mailliw

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I'd replace table service with counter service along the lines of fast-casual dining; sleeper passengers retain the option of room service.

I have two questions regarding the VIA Ocean style, East Coast catering option.

1. Could it be stocked strictly at the end points? Or would it require mid trip restocking? If they committed to using the VLII diners on all the east coast routes, it seems to me they would provide sufficient cold storage and prep equipment to last for an entire trip. What is the longest trip? The Cardinal? The Crescent?

2. Would it automatically preclude them from promoting the use of the Diner with Coach passengers? Seems to me they would want to stock a number of meals that’s pretty close to what they need, and eliminate the variability of coach passenger consumption.

Number two is the biggest argument against catered meals - and a big argument against Flex meals, in my opinion.
Number 2 is easily fixed. As long as sleeper fare includes meals then it's a known factor how many meals to order, especially if you allow advance entree selection. Coach passengers can simply be given the option to pre-purchase a meal package. Stock say 110% of need to allow for stuff like last minute changes of mine or dropped plates; then at a certain when all the pre-purchased meals are served allow walk-ups to buy unserved meals for a discount. If meals are no longer to be included with sleeper fare then all classes get the option of pre-purchased meal packages.
 
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