Could a Grilled Cheese Sandwich Help Save Amtrak’s Food & Beverage Service?

As we say on the radio, “but first….”

Two major Amtrak-related items have occurred this winter.  First was the cutbacks in long distance train consists in January and February.  Second was the U.S. House of Representatives actually passed a bill, and it was one that affected the future of Amtrak and what its customers will find on board that could alter their future travel plans.

Readers know by now that not all of the cars taken from the western long distance routes  a) sat idle,  b) may or may not have had “needed maintenance,” and  c) are probably back in service.  The 29 Superliner coaches removed, for instance, were run on the Midwestern routes out of Chicago where their additional weight helped the trains travel in snow and ice conditions in place of the lighter Horizon cars.  However, that meant they were not available for higher demand that could result on western routes.  What was saved?…salaries of furloughed employees.  As for the removal of baggage cars replaced by Superliner Coach-bag cars, that idea didn’t survive the first few weeks as crews found that putting piles of bags and skis in them, for example, was very time and space consuming.  The Pacific Parlour cars were removed from the Coast Starlight, but returned on schedule, and while there is no definitive report yet as to whether anything was done to them during that down time, they are welcome back.

On March 5 the “Passenger Rail Reform and Investment Act of 2015” (PRRIA, H.R.749) passed the U. S. House of Representatives on a roll call vote of 316-101,  after it had passed out of committee with a unanimous vote.  On the House floor several amendments were offered and passed, but the big one to eliminate all federal funding for Amtrak offered by Rep. Tom McClintock (R-CA) FAILED, as it got only 147 votes.  Amtrak does have some bi-partisan support.  What was most interesting was 46 of those who voted to eliminate Amtrak’s subsidy turned around and voted for the final bill.  One of those was Rep. Ryan Zinke (R-MT).  When a Missoula TV station asked him why, he said his votes were “a ‘shot across the bow’ to let Amtrak know that we are serious and take fiscal accountability and transparency seriously in Montana.”  While he supports rail travel, he thinks the country needs a better plan and wants to make sure that Amtrak spends its funds in cost-effective ways, eventually functioning without government funding.  But, with the Empire Builder being so important to Montana he  continues to support Amtrak for now.  That’s what is in store for Amtrak in its Congressional relations in the future, and they cannot alienate too many supporters like Rep. Zinke.

In recent reports Amtrak is contending that the Northeast Corridor “is making a profit” and the states are paying for the “state-supported” short corridor trains, while it is the federal government that is paying for the long distance trains…clever language that conveniently leaves out that some costs of the NEC are slyly charged to the other two services, but all NEC capital costs in reality are paid for by the federal government.  NOWHERE in PRRIA 2015 is there incentive for Amtrak to work to sell more tickets or increase revenues.  GROWTH is not something this Congress thinks about, and Amtrak has not shown interest in doing so either.

What ended up being in PRRIA 2015?  While most of the bill is related to financial aspects and directives to Amtrak, there were some items directly related to customer services.  One, contained in the bill out of the committee chaired by Rep. Jeff Denham (R-CA), was Denham’s proviso that pets (dogs and cats) can travel on Amtrak trains.  While seemingly a minor item to be contained in a reauthorization bill, when you learn that Denham’s pet bulldog, Lily, was denied access to a train you can see its genesis.  Mr. Denham is a force to be reckoned with for sure, and Amtrak will no doubt comply.  Disability-assist animals have always been welcomed on Amtrak trains, and back in the days of the Santa Fe’s passenger trains pets could accompany elderly passengers in roomettes, with attendants “walking” the animal at station stops when requested.

Included in PRRIA 2015 is the provision that Amtrak’s Food & Beverage (F & B) service must be totally self-supporting within five years or be eliminated.   So, since it is a subject dear to our hearts, here goes.  First is the absolute fact that without the F & B service there will be diminishing patronage of the overnight trains.  Many think this is the intended poison pill that would result in the elimination of these trains.  Rail advocates recognize this possibility.  Now, what can be done to improve the cost recovery of the F & B besides a big slashing of service?  Provide incentive and marketing to passengers to get more business in the dining cars and lounge cars.

Several times in the past this writer has suggested that a simplification of the menu and longer serving hours could increase sales without increasing costs.  A reasonably priced grilled BLT at lunch would be an item that everyone understands.  Hence, use bacon already available from breakfast, use lettuce and tomatoes that are already there for salads, and you have a BLT to pop on the grill.  Some of Amtrak’s menu items have such fancy names few people want to experiment.  At one time Amtrak California had table service on its San Joaquin trains, with several menu choices.  Some rail advocates were invited to “tasting” sessions to pick new items, and we enjoyed doing so.  However, were we being too fancy in our selections?  Table service was eventually ended.  When a high revenue rider is on a long distance train for two or three days, the menu becomes something of great importance!

And now for our grilled cheese sandwich.  Does anyone not know what one of those is?  Amtrak experimented with one some time ago, but the sauce was so awful even the crews didn’t recommend it.  A simple GC with tomato at a reasonable price would be a winner.  When I was on the faculty at Palomar College, the “Comet” grilled cheese and tomato sandwich was the biggest seller in the cafeteria!  The cheeseburger is the best item on the Amtrak menu and should be available at dinner too.  Dining car service SHOULD BE AVAILABLE FOR LONGER HOURS.  Marketing the on board F & B service usually is only a loud p.a. recitation by the LSA about what is on the menu and at what price along with the harangue about seating and “wait to be seated.”  That is a start, but when a rider hears that his steak dinner will cost $25 PLUS salad and beverage, that’s a turnoff.  Print the menus with color pictures, make the p.a. announcements colorful (it “ain’t the steak it’s the sizzle” that sells, to use an old radio advertising axiom).

A look at Amtrak’s dining car menus finds the contents are identical on all routes except the Auto Train and Acela.
Surely there is room for the addition of two simple popular items, and more if they are interested in finding out what their passengers will buy and eat more often.  Every little bit of GROWTH helps, particularly since it generates additional revenue!
Well, we keep trying.  We expect that RailPAC and NARP will continue to press for Food & Beverage service at a level long distance train riders deserve, will accept, and return for another trip.

A Senate version of PRRIA 2015 has to be passed and a conference committee has to reconcile the two bills.  There is no guarantee that it will become law in its present form, but if it does train riders will have to live with whatever is left of Amtrak until the next re-authorization happens and that will be at least five years away.

Russ Jackson has been writing rail passenger advocacy articles for 30 years, and was editor of RailPAC’s Western Rail Passenger Review.  He lives now near Dallas, Texas and frequently rides Amtrak trains.

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