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Will full service dining ever return to the Western trains?

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jruff001

Train Attendant
Joined
Jan 23, 2020
Messages
90
I would be interested in knowing more specifics of your perspective on the economics of the traditional dining cars vs. "flexible" dining, if you're able to provide more detail.
Basically, traditional dining cars are an absolute money pit due to labor costs. Of course there are other factors as well, but the labor costs are what makes the issues insurmountable, IMO. Including benefits (a gold-plated health care plan and essentially a defined-benefit pension in the form of Railroad Retirement), the SAs are probably about the highest-compensated waiters in the world. And for operational reasons, especially during delays, the crews spend lots of time on duty being compensated when the diners aren't actually open and serving customers.

Huge built-in inefficiencies and costs that regular restaurants don't have to deal with.
 

joelkfla

Service Attendant
Joined
Oct 16, 2018
Messages
179
And yet when you depart a city like Chicago there can easily be hundreds of people boarding, so its mostly the fact that the rail systems in our nation haven't begun to hold a candle to what other nations have accomplished, and most of them offer some consist with very elegant dining still.
I fully support full-service dining on Amtrak, but ...

People keep throwing out trains in other parts of the world as shining examples. I've never traveled to Europe, but I've watched quite a few trip reports on YouTube. With the exception of a couple of marquee trains, most of the overnight trains offer either a cafe car with limited seating (sometimes just barstools at a counter), or a light breakfast delivered in the sleeping accommodations.

Europeans who review Amtrak travel prior to the Flex downgrade seem to be rather surprised and pleased with our former full diner service.
 

joelkfla

Service Attendant
Joined
Oct 16, 2018
Messages
179
Many of the European trains are 12 hours or less. They don't have and shouldn't have the kind of dining options that a 48-hour route in the US (or overseas) would have.
Yes, the ones I've seen are generally overnighters, departing around 6-9 a.m. and arriving the next morning.
 

Manny T

Lead Service Attendant
Joined
Jun 7, 2015
Messages
493
Location
Chicago IL
My last European overnight was Paris to Venice -- with dinner in the restaurant car. There was one sitting -- we all came in, sat down, were served an appetizer, then the chef came around with a pot and served everyone the same dinner (I remember veal stew) and sides, later he came around for seconds, and there was dessert. It was great. This obviously wouldn't work in the US -- no choices! no substitutions! take it or leave it.

These days the Paris-Venice night train is different (the Thello) but they still have a restaurant. Here is the menu:
I think I'll have the spelt salad, followed by duck confit and a cheese plate.
Note at the bottom of page 2, there is an asterisk and a footnote that tells exactly which items are from frozen food, so I guess the other items are fresh or prepared on board.
 

toddinde

Service Attendant
Joined
Apr 23, 2015
Messages
132
Location
Sierra Vista, AZ
Come on. Who was riding the big name trains with fine dining. Retired middle class like today? Students? No. It was mostly well heeled and business executive types. And even then the private railroads lost big money on passenger service once the airlines came in. It's so silly to compare Amtrak to trains like the 20'th Century Limited when you look at the clientele of each. Amtrak is here to provide transportation to the masses. Now I agree there is a middle ground that Amtrak should be offering to it's Sleeper passengers, bu they have to get that food mandate changed by Congress.
You raise a good point. What killed the Pullman business was the end of business travel by rail. Those sumptuous dining car meals were paid for on expense accounts or government/military travel. Without that, something simpler is in order.
 

20th Century Rider

OBS Chief
Joined
Jan 26, 2020
Messages
706
Location
Oregon Coast
Amtrak is still saying full service dining will return to the Western trains September 1. As much as I would like to believe that,and with no end to this pedemic,I don't think that will happen.

Sandwiches would be a welcome respite from the current offerings. Is there a logical reason they couldn't do this? It doesn't require a cook. How about cheesecake for dessert? That abysmal brownie doesn't cut it. Nothing seems to change and the sleeper prices remain high.

One of my legs next month is from Chicago to Utica. $320 is the roomette and rail fare price. Subtracting the rail fare of $76,that is quite high for a 9:30PM departure with no dinner and those sorry breakfast items. I opted for business class. Then again,as long as people are willing to pay,Amtrak will charge it.
You're very right for calling the sleeping accommodations overpriced... the flex flop situation can only be described at this point... abusive. Tiring, bland, tiny portions, full of sodium and fat, and carcinogens from the plastic containers when heated [well documented]... and that breakfast sandwich? I saved it to eat later in the morning... by then it was congealed into a waxy greasy mess. My ticket to travel next January from coast to coast in a sleeper will probably be cancelled before the August 31st deadline... even though it's on points... I just don't want to go!
 

toddinde

Service Attendant
Joined
Apr 23, 2015
Messages
132
Location
Sierra Vista, AZ
My last European overnight was Paris to Venice -- with dinner in the restaurant car. There was one sitting -- we all came in, sat down, were served an appetizer, then the chef came around with a pot and served everyone the same dinner (I remember veal stew) and sides, later he came around for seconds, and there was dessert. It was great. This obviously wouldn't work in the US -- no choices! no substitutions! take it or leave it.

These days the Paris-Venice night train is different (the Thello) but they still have a restaurant. Here is the menu:
I think I'll have the spelt salad, followed by duck confit and a cheese plate.
Note at the bottom of page 2, there is an asterisk and a footnote that tells exactly which items are from frozen food, so I guess the other items are fresh or prepared on board.
We could certainly do something like this in the US.
 

crescent-zephyr

Conductor
Joined
Oct 21, 2015
Messages
2,720
It may be helpful to note the different types of services we are talking about here -

"Full Traditional Dining" would be Amtrak Dining pre-"Simplified Dining Service" and would be similar to VIA Rail Canadian Dining - LSA, at least 2 servers and at least 2 in the kitchen. This allows most food to be prepared on board, "real" plates, glassware, table cloths, etc.

"Simplified Dining Service" was when Amtrak dropped the staffing significantly in 2006. Plastic plates and glasses, 1 employee in the kitchen. Originally all of the food was pre-made but then it was decided that 1 chef could still cook a few items on board. Scrambled eggs, Steak, etc. (Before SDS you could order eggs any way you like, because there were 2 cooks in the kitchen... when SDS first began, it was a reheated "Bob Evans" scramble egg bowl. The compromise was scrambled eggs only.

"Cross Country Cafe" - was when Amtrak tried to create 1 food service car that could serve as both diner and lounge. There would be 1 LSA who was basically the cafe attendant. There was an "all day menu" similar to the cafe menu and then during meal times passengers could order entrees that came from the kitchen downstairs. This lasted a few months (?) on the City of New Orleans and Texas Eagle until the cars reverted to Traditional Dining Car use.

There were several mix-ups after 2006. Some trains like the Empire Builder, Capitol, and Coast Starlight got back the china and glassware. For a short time the Capitol operated a version of the Cross Country Cafe as the lone food service car with 1 LSA, 2 servers and a chef. This was almost like the original CCC service only the menus were completely separate. Traditional Cafe menu at the counter, traditional dining car menu in the dining room.

"Contemporary Dining" - is now... when Amtrak has a small menu of pre-prepared TV Dinner style menu items that are heated up by 1 LSA in the "Sleeper Lounge" that is separate from the LSA in the Cafe.

For the same staffing costs we could have something like the Cross Country Cafe with 1 LSA and 1 Chef.
 

Rasputin

OBS Chief
Joined
Jan 17, 2019
Messages
745
You raise a good point. What killed the Pullman business was the end of business travel by rail. Those sumptuous dining car meals were paid for on expense accounts or government/military travel. Without that, something simpler is in order.
I think that is exaggerated except for some single night trains such as the Broadway and 20th Century which did cater to business travel. Otherwise, there were a lot of middle class and ordinary folk traveling by long distance trains before the airplane era and it was certainly not all business travel. Some by sleeper and many more by coach. Much business was done rather tediously through the U.S. Mail and not by business travel . If you look at the railroad menus from the 1950s, $2.50 as I recall would be a high price for a good dining car meal on a named train. That would be about $24.00 today. Hardly an extravagant expense.

I rode on a number of long distance trains in the late 1960s and the 1970s, usually by coach. I normally ate full meals in the dining car and there was never a question about whether coach passengers were welcome in the dining car. We were always welcome. in earlier years there were some trains which had separate dining cars for sleeping car passengers and coach passengers but I think they were gone by the late 1960s.
 

me_little_me

Conductor
Joined
Jul 16, 2010
Messages
3,265
That’s $45 per bedroom/roomette if the sleepers are full on the LSL. It’s also a savings of $1.46 million per year. Not chump change.
Meaningless to a company taking in hundreds to a thousand dollars per room. I still remember when my company in the late 80s cut out the fresh fruit and donuts for all employees. That was probably 50 cents to a dollar per employee per day and at 210 work days, amounted to the vast sum of up to $10 MILLION per year.

Their profits were in the multi-billions. Their salaries were very high - $40K average? - (a major computer manufacturer in the prime of their existence) but $10M sounded like so much to the bean counters. Had the company had twice that number of employees and twice the profit it would sound twice as bad but the cost would still be only $200 per person per year.

IT IS CHUMP CHANGE! Not to you or I but we don't take in that kind of money. And that number is based on management claims, not documented and verified public facts - or the future loss of business - from a management team wanting to get rid of LD.

And if you don't believe they want to get rid of LD, read the comment (in Trains Mag Sep 2020 P7) by Chris Koos, nominated in May by President Trump to the Amtrak Board of Directors: "I do know the direction going for Amtrak right now - including the Amtrak board - is to severely curtail or eliminate the long-distance routes."
 

me_little_me

Conductor
Joined
Jul 16, 2010
Messages
3,265
Basically, traditional dining cars are an absolute money pit due to labor costs. Of course there are other factors as well, but the labor costs are what makes the issues insurmountable, IMO. Including benefits (a gold-plated health care plan and essentially a defined-benefit pension in the form of Railroad Retirement), the SAs are probably about the highest-compensated waiters in the world. And for operational reasons, especially during delays, the crews spend lots of time on duty being compensated when the diners aren't actually open and serving customers.

Huge built-in inefficiencies and costs that regular restaurants don't have to deal with.
That doesn't explain the poor quality and variety of the food. That is based PRIMARILY of not SOLELY on food costs which have little if anything to do with employee costs. That same employee that's left can provide more variety and better quality if they were handed that better food.
 

Nick Farr

Lead Service Attendant
Joined
Dec 25, 2019
Messages
264
Location
Michigan
I know I'll be in the tiny minority here, but the dining car change doesn't change the sleeping car value proposition too much for me personally. On a long-distance trip what matters to me the most by far is a bed to sleep in at night, and privacy. The dining cars have been going downhill for so long I don't see this as a huge change. (Plus I was enjoying being seated with strangers less and less. Newer / younger Amtrak dining car passengers seem so completely surprised by and uncomfortable with the arrangement, it had been becoming just an awkward experience for the whole table most of the time.)
I totally agree with this. Getting seated with non-English speaking passengers is just plain awkward.
 

Ferroequinologist

Service Attendant
Joined
Jan 18, 2016
Messages
147
Conversely, I wonder what percentage of posters here have ever worked for Amtrak or had to be responsible for managing something within Congressionally-mandated budget restrictions. :p

Frankly I agree with the concept that no taxpayer money should go towards funding a nice dining car experience for sleeping car passengers.

Editing to add: I don't expect a hotel to provide three meals / day for no extra charge.
Why do you agree?
 

Ferroequinologist

Service Attendant
Joined
Jan 18, 2016
Messages
147
The problem from my perspective is that Amtrak expects us to pay Waldorf Astoria prices for sleepers and gives us vending machine level food. Charge Bolt Bus prices and I'm okay with tiny 'flex' meals of simple carbs and sugar. It's what I'd expect. But Amtrak is painting itself into a corner--they can't survive on a clientele of nothing but hard-core railfans and Amish folk. Provide a decent level of amenities--food that wouldn't cause a riot if it were served at Denny's--and you have a lot more repeat business, given the inherent attractiveness of relaxing and watching the scenery go by. I think most people don't expect high-level restaurant food on a train, but, for the price paid, they are entitled to expect food that is at least moderately healthy and tasty.

Incidentally, if they really were catering to millenials, I guarantee that the obscene amount of unrecycled trash involved with flex dining is a real turn-off.
What they serve is extremely unhealthy and, ironically, being served by what is really a nationalized rail passenger service, hence the US government is promoting high sodium, high sugar, diabetes and high blood pressure inducing food + incredible paper and plastic waste at a time of increased health and environmental consciousness. Where is Michelle Obama and her healthy food campaign when we need her?
 

Ferroequinologist

Service Attendant
Joined
Jan 18, 2016
Messages
147
You said that really well! On behalf of the many of us trying to get the massage to Amtrak, Thank You! And as everyone [except Amtrak] knows, the millennials are wanting good food and service too!!!
Someone posted that millennials only want fast food but I live in a neighborhood with a lot of professional millennials and I see them spending (pre Covid of course) a LOT of money in high end restaurants. There's a highly rated restaurant near me that (before Covid) always had a LINE of people waiting for the place to open. You need a couple of months or more to get a reservation. A meal costs $200 or more for two + the cost of wine, tax and tip. Most of the people I see waiting to get in are young. Seems to me that there is a definite market for quality food. I also see loads of millennials in Whole Foods paying a lot for quality organic food, fresh fish etc so I have no idea why people think millennials are only into fast food. If anything I think a lot would enjoy LD travel in sleeping cars if they had good food and service. They don't even KNOW that LD trains exist!
 

20th Century Rider

OBS Chief
Joined
Jan 26, 2020
Messages
706
Location
Oregon Coast
Seems to me that there is a definite market for quality food. I also see loads of millennials in Whole Foods paying a lot for quality organic food, fresh fish etc so I have no idea why people think millennials are only into fast food. If anything I think a lot would enjoy LD travel in sleeping cars if they had good food and service. They don't even KNOW that LD trains exist!
So what does that say for Amtrak execs who base food service upon millennials ???
 

crescent-zephyr

Conductor
Joined
Oct 21, 2015
Messages
2,720
It is generally not a good use of taxpayer money to fund or subsidize what is basically a leisure activity of the relatively wealthy.
Just to clarify... what’s the leisure activity?

Travel?
Dining Cars?
Sleeping cars?
Long distance trains?
 
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