"The Dining Car Problem"

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jebr

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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.
There's a number of cities that pay a $10-$15 wage (with no tip credit for wait staff, so wait staff has to be paid that full $10-$15/hr.) and prices at sit-down restaurants have not shot up dramatically. Here in MSP, where minimum wage is in the $11-$14 range in most places, pricing is not substantially different than elsewhere. Yes, the $6.99 special at Denny's is $8.99 instead, and the 2 for $20 at Applebee's is now 2 for $22, but prices haven't tripled! The biggest reason that Amtrak's labor costs are higher is because there's a bunch of factors that Amtrak has to mitigate with higher wages - they can't really employ part-time employees such as students or people wanting to make a bit of extra money because they need to be away from home for days at a time, and you're now also having to give up your social and home life even more than if you were a full-time employee at a land-based restaurant (where you at least generally get to go home every night.) Thus, Amtrak has to pay a fair amount more to attract quality candidates - there's not a lot of people who find being away from home for days at a time, at least long-term, to be a plus. That's one of the main reason why Amtrak has such a difficult time profitably running a diner, and it's somewhat unique to Amtrak. The other side of the equation is that there's a very finite number of people that can be served, and that capacity is quite a bit lower than many restaurants.

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?
This is what baffles me the most with Amtrak's current food service offerings - having a chef on board with quality ingredients would make the experience a lot better and deliver quality food that can be customized to people's desires (at least when implemented properly.) The chef also would likely offset some of their cost simply by being able to use ingredients to prep the meal on-site, instead of needing to purchase pre-made meals from a vendor. This seems especially useful on the longer trains where trying to keep a quality meal fresh for three days with minimal restocking points is difficult if they have to be basically "heat-and-eat" once on board.
 

jiml

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VIA ocean’s diner require the same amount of crew that Amtrak’s “traditional dining” requires.
Correct. My most recent train trip was on the Ocean pre-Covid discontinuance. There was one "kitchen" staff involved in preparation and plating with 2 wait-staff eastbound and 3 westbound. On the eastbound only one end of the diner seating was used for both coach and sleeper passengers, but on the westbound there was clear delineation with coach and one server on one end of the diner and sleeper and two servers on the other. (There is a serving area for staff in the middle of the diner.) I had the the opportunity to talk to the "prep" person (same in both directions) and complimented her on her work. There is a difference between plating food and making it look like fine dining. She did the latter.
 

lordsigma

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A lot of good the great dining on the VIA Ocean is doing with the train not running. I understand the point of it being mentioned here - as a dining model that we wish Amtrak would consider instead of dining flexibly (and the argument is probably valid it seems the Ocean took a pretty good approach) - but just wanted to point out the irony of praising VIA rail in comparison to Amtrak when the train has been totally discontinued with no restoration plan in sight....

I think dining improvements start with the presentation. Start with a decent presentation and plating the food. Even reheated pre-prepared food comes off a lot better when you take the time to least make it look like you care. Next develop consistency with how your staff is heating the meals. The same meal can be decent or slop if not reheated properly. Once you've got those two figured out then assess where you are - if that still doesn't cut it then look at your sourcing and see if better products are available.
 
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dlagrua

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In this history of passenger rail the dining car was not there to make money but to accommodate the passengers and entice them to choose one route over another. Today there is no competition for LD passenger rail but if there is any plan to boost LD ridership; Amtrak needs to consider that a key selling point is providing fresh food and some amenities for the sleeper passengers.
Amtrak claims that the LD routes do not make money but I say that they do. The true operating costs must be on those routes alone and by not adding in the fixed costs on the NEC. As it now stands under Amtraks accounting system, even the Western LD routes assume part of the cost for the NEC all along its route for labor, track and station maintenance costs.
 

crescent-zephyr

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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.
Many hotel restaurants also lose money.

Amtrak is like that Econo Lodge in New York City that charges way too much but since every other hotel is taken you book it anyway.
 

Steve4031

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I agree with Jishnu. People in the United States need to think outside the box. We have this idea that we are different and exceptional. This leads to a s not learning from other countries. India runs a world class train system as does Russia and Germany. We can learn from all of them.
 

jiml

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A lot of good the great dining on the VIA Ocean is doing with the train not running. I understand the point of it being mentioned here - as a dining model that we wish Amtrak would consider instead of dining flexibly (and the argument is probably valid it seems the Ocean took a pretty good approach) - but just wanted to point out the irony of praising VIA rail in comparison to Amtrak when the train has been totally discontinued with no restoration plan in sight....

I think dining improvements start with the presentation. Start with a decent presentation and plating the food. Even reheated pre-prepared food comes off a lot better when you take the time to least make it look like you care. Next develop consistency with how your staff is heating the meals. The same meal can be decent or slop if not reheated properly. Once you've got those two figured out then assess where you are - if that still doesn't cut it then look at your sourcing and see if better products are available.
I think everyone is aware that the Ocean is suspended, and although it has been suggested as a model for single-night Amtrak trips in other threads, the content in this thread was someone asking a question, a partial answer to that question regarding staffing and firsthand support (including mine) for that answer. However, it is an example of how to serve what is essentially a flex meal.

An argument could be made that Amtrak's current (and continuing Eastern) dining could easily be resolved with an additional staff member in the dining car and the separation of the prep and serve functions. Having one person doing all that work is going to lead to inconsistency in every aspect from heating to serving to attitude. The food choices seem to have more to do with convenience (e.g. heating in the service container) and ease of clean-up, rather than the actual cost of food.
 

crescent-zephyr

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An argument could be made that Amtrak's current (and continuing Eastern) dining could easily be resolved with an additional staff member in the dining car and the separation of the prep and serve functions.
From the very beginning I said Amtrak should keep the chef position and either 1 LSA or 1 Server. Keep the traditional diner menu but drop the table service.

(CCC Cars would have an LSA anyways. The other trains could use just a server if they dropped the alcahol sales I think.)
 

Nick Farr

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I think dining improvements start with the presentation. Start with a decent presentation and plating the food. Even reheated pre-prepared food comes off a lot better when you take the time to least make it look like you care. Next develop consistency with how your staff is heating the meals. The same meal can be decent or slop if not reheated properly. Once you've got those two figured out then assess where you are - if that still doesn't cut it then look at your sourcing and see if better products are available.
Basically: This is it, entirely. This is everything I've been arguing for onboard dining.

Anything beyond a drive for consistency given Amtrak's current labor setup is unrealistic. We cannot even get the SCAs to be consistent about their service, how do we expect to hire Chefs to prepare fresh meals consistently?

Once the OBS are providing consistently good service, we can start to move on to dreams like freshly prepared meals.
 

Nick Farr

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Amtrak claims that the LD routes do not make money but I say that they do.
With the exception of the Auto Train, all the LD routes do not even come close to profitability by any accounting measure, period, end of story. They are all heavily taxpayer and lightly host rail subsidized.

Profitability is not and has never been the point of LD trains in the Amtrak era.

The primary purpose for the vast taxpayer subsidization of LD trains is to provide basic essential service to rural communities.
 

Nick Farr

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From the very beginning I said Amtrak should keep the chef position and either 1 LSA or 1 Server. Keep the traditional diner menu but drop the table service.
Disagree. On all the European services, the Cafe Car staff are all trained to do all the things. Add in the SCAs, and you can have a fully staffed Dining Car with less staff than you have now.
 

Cal

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Amtrak claims that the LD routes do not make money but I say that they do. The true operating costs must be on those routes alone and by not adding in the fixed costs on the NEC. As it now stands under Amtraks accounting system, even the Western LD routes assume part of the cost for the NEC all along its route for labor, track and station maintenance costs.
I would love to know the true validity of this statement. I feel that they do lose money, but come a lot closer to breaking even than they say.
 

Tlcooper93

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I would love to know the true validity of this statement. I feel that they do lose money, but come a lot closer to breaking even than they say.
I have also read and heard in various places that the LD trains are not as unprofitable as popular train ideology says.
The overhead cost of the NEC tracks is gargantuan, and whatever profit the NEC makes get eaten away by track maintenance. The LD routes don't pay for tracks, and sleeper prices do provide a nice blanket of extra cash.
I really do wish I could look at some numbers to find the actual facts.

I've ridden and tried food offerings on DB, FS, Trenitalia, SNCF, SBB and OBB. To be honest, I didn't like any of it. I never found Amtrak flex dining to be that far off from what was offered in Europe on comparably priced trains (we have to exclude all luxury routes). That said, the European offerings may be healthier to a degree.
 
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Nick Farr

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I would love to know the true validity of this statement. I feel that they do lose money, but come a lot closer to breaking even than they say.
Not even. In FY19, the national network received federal operating subsidies of $1.07 for every dollar of ticket revenue, not even counting state-level subsidies. That means if you bought a ticket for $100, taxpayers chipped in $107 to fund that service. States, depending on the service, contributed more.

I've written about this extensively:


I'm a CPA with experience in Federal Government and Non-Profit accounting who wants the LD trains to be profitable. That being said, I don't think they're going to get there nor should that even be a goal.
 

Larry H.

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I don't think that the old railroads made a mistake in offering fine dinning. According to the book on Railroad Diners they usually lost money but the object was to promote the companys image and provide the kind of meals many of the pullman passengers would have enjoyed if they went to a good restaurant near where they lived. Providing the kind of meals Amtrak has sunk to the past few years is not something that will want to make people decide to take the train as Biden wants. In fact its keeping a lot of business away, the opposite of what they really need. The diner and lounge should just be considered a cost of running a long distance train, not unlike the fact they need Engines to make it go.
 

Tlcooper93

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Not even. In FY19, the national network received federal operating subsidies of $1.07 for every dollar of ticket revenue, not even counting state-level subsidies. That means if you bought a ticket for $100, taxpayers chipped in $107 to fund that service. States, depending on the service, contributed more.

I've written about this extensively:


I'm a CPA with experience in Federal Government and Non-Profit accounting who wants the LD trains to be profitable. That being said, I don't think they're going to get there nor should that even be a goal.
You love your use of bold and italics don't you....
I guess its purely rhetorical.

I read your linked post (written just before I joined). You mind dropping a link to your sources?
 

Nick Farr

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The overhead cost of the NEC tracks is gargantuan, and whatever profit the NEC makes get eaten away by track maintenance.
Wrong, and wrong. The overhead cost of the NEC tracks is less than the deficit carried by the operating deficit for the rest of the national network. Further, Amtrak does not charge a market rate to the state-level commuter railroads for track and station access, it in fact subsidizes those state services.

If we look at all operating infrastructure spend in FY19, Amtrak spent $83.6M total, on the core NEC services, with another $0.612M on ancillary Amtrak services against a total operating infrastructure spend of $352M.

So, for a service that accounts for $1.377 BILLION, or 41% of Amtrak's total operating revenue (including state service subsidies), you're talking about a 10% total operating infrastructure spend where Amtrak owns its own rails.

If we're talking about capital expenditures, if we go back to the Level 1 accounts, you might be able to craft an argument that the NEC is not profitable without Federal grants. This is a bit misleading, since those grants for the NEC are to support infrastructure used by many other transit services other than Amtrak. But let's just say you ignore that inconvenient reality. If you wanted to make the argument the NEC is not profitable, you could say that the entire operation (trains and rails) is operating at a $131M deficit net of Federal Grants.

However--even this is inaccurate. Amtrak's operating revenue (not including Federal Grants) minus operating expenses is still a positive $541M dollars.

In other words, at the operating level, for every dollar of revenue on the NEC, taxpayers put in $0.37 and of that, ALL of it goes into capital (i.e. non-operating) uses.

The LD routes don't pay for tracks, and sleeper prices do provide a nice blanket of extra cash.
I really do wish I could look at some numbers to find the actual facts.

While expensive, the sleepers are in fact the biggest drag on LD train revenues because of their high labor and servicing costs, along with the fact that most of the users of sleepers are between two major cities as opposed to along an entire route.

This is not to say they aren't the biggest opportunity for growth. Honestly, they should have used a lot of that federal money to update the sleeper car rolling stock to something like what you'd find on OBB, to develop a truly luxury product. If you can get 80% occupancy from Chicago straight through to EMY, you could definitely make a nice profit on a new sleeper.
 

Tlcooper93

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Wrong, and wrong. The overhead cost of the NEC tracks is less than the deficit carried by the operating deficit for the rest of the national network. Further, Amtrak does not charge a market rate to the state-level commuter railroads for track and station access, it in fact subsidizes those state services.

If we look at all operating infrastructure spend in FY19, Amtrak spent $83.6M total, on the core NEC services, with another $0.612M on ancillary Amtrak services against a total operating infrastructure spend of $352M.

So, for a service that accounts for $1.377 BILLION, or 41% of Amtrak's total operating revenue (including state service subsidies), you're talking about a 10% total operating infrastructure spend where Amtrak owns its own rails.

If we're talking about capital expenditures, if we go back to the Level 1 accounts, you might be able to craft an argument that the NEC is not profitable without Federal grants. This is a bit misleading, since those grants for the NEC are to support infrastructure used by many other transit services other than Amtrak. But let's just say you ignore that inconvenient reality. If you wanted to make the argument the NEC is not profitable, you could say that the entire operation (trains and rails) is operating at a $131M deficit net of Federal Grants.

However--even this is inaccurate. Amtrak's operating revenue (not including Federal Grants) minus operating expenses is still a positive $541M dollars.

In other words, at the operating level, for every dollar of revenue on the NEC, taxpayers put in $0.37 and of that, ALL of it goes into capital (i.e. non-operating) uses.




While expensive, the sleepers are in fact the biggest drag on LD train revenues because of their high labor and servicing costs, along with the fact that most of the users of sleepers are between two major cities as opposed to along an entire route.

This is not to say they aren't the biggest opportunity for growth. Honestly, they should have used a lot of that federal money to update the sleeper car rolling stock to something like what you'd find on OBB, to develop a truly luxury product. If you can get 80% occupancy from Chicago straight through to EMY, you could definitely make a nice profit on a new sleeper.
Thanks for the bold and italics yet again. It really does help us all read english.
 

Nick Farr

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You love your use of bold and italics don't you....
Whatever I can do to get people to actually look at the facts and pay attention to them, as opposed to wishwash their way into their preconceived notions.

And honestly, using bold italics to get people to pay attention to the truth is still better than spouting off ignorant misconceptions.

 

crescent-zephyr

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Disagree. On all the European services, the Cafe Car staff are all trained to do all the things. Add in the SCAs, and you can have a fully staffed Dining Car with less staff than you have now.
I disagree. I don’t think Amtrak long distance trains should be copying European Services.

The concept of a chef on a train is not some crazy concept that doesn’t work.
 
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crescent-zephyr

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Whatever I can do to get people to actually look at the facts and pay attention to them, as opposed to wishwash their way into their preconceived notions.

You’re not posting facts, you’re posting your own opinions and claiming they are facts.

The documents you are posting do not back up your opinions.
 

Tlcooper93

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Whatever I can do to get people to actually look at the facts and pay attention to them, as opposed to wishwash their way into their preconceived notions.

And honestly, using bold italics to get people to pay attention to the truth is still better than spouting off ignorant misconceptions like you have.

I understand that you feel your career backs up your opinions, and I am not exactly qualified to comment on whether or not you are genuinely qualified. I'm a mere violinist. That said, even if I were telling someone here about the nuances of a Beethoven symphony, I would try to find a less condescending way of approaching it.
 
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jiml

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I've ridden and tried food offerings on DB, FS, Trenitalia, SNCF, SBB and OBB. To be honest, I didn't like any of it. I never found Amtrak flex dining to be that far off from what was offered in Europe on comparably priced trains (we have to exclude all luxury routes). That said, the European offerings may be healthier to a degree.
Although I haven't had that many Euro food offerings, I have had at-seat meals in FC in both Germany and the UK, as well as one in the DB Bordrestaurant. I'd generally concur with your assessment. Some were better than others, all were okay, none were memorable. In the DB diner there were two staff - one behind the counter preparing both food and drinks, plus a server who also worked the adjacent FC car.
 

lstone19

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One the issues that plagues food service accounting is the idea that food service needs to be its own profit center as if it operates independently of the train. It doesn't. It's dependent on the train and its passengers. Sitting at home, I can't decide let's go to the Amtrak Dining Car for dinner; I have to be on the train to patronize the dining car.

Instead of looking at it as its own profit center, it should be looked at in terms of how it improves the overall profitability of the train (keep in mind that a loss is just negative profit so I will refer to the financial bottom line as profit even when it's a loss). The presence of food service will stimulate transportation sales. I expect some people want food service available even if they don't plan to patronize it so it's available just in case they need it. If a train's profit is higher with food service (including all food service costs and revenue), then food service is worth providing even if when just the food service costs and revenue are considered, food service shows a loss. In such a case, while on paper more people have paid for transportation, their decisions say that part of what they paid for was to have food service available if they wanted it and some of that additional transportation revenue should be credited to food service.
 

crescent-zephyr

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One the issues that plagues food service accounting is the idea that food service needs to be its own profit center as if it operates independently of the train. It doesn't. It's dependent on the train and its passengers. Sitting at home, I can't decide let's go to the Amtrak Dining Car for dinner; I have to be on the train to patronize the dining car.

Instead of looking at it as its own profit center, it should be looked at in terms of how it improves the overall profitability of the train (keep in mind that a loss is just negative profit so I will refer to the financial bottom line as profit even when it's a loss). The presence of food service will stimulate transportation sales. I expect some people want food service available even if they don't plan to patronize it so it's available just in case they need it. If a train's profit is higher with food service (including all food service costs and revenue), then food service is worth providing even if when just the food service costs and revenue are considered, food service shows a loss. In such a case, while on paper more people have paid for transportation, their decisions say that part of what they paid for was to have food service available if they wanted it and some of that additional transportation revenue should be credited to food service.
Exactly. Just like many hotels lose money on food & beverage service. You can run a hotel without a bar and restaurant, but that’s a different class of hotel.
 
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