Garbage Served, Garbage Generated

Written by Andrew Selden
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What does former Rep. John Mica, who loved to use Amtrak as his personal punching bag and once held a press conference to obsess and whine about the cost of Amtrak hamburgers, think of “Contemporary Dining”? I don’t believe even he could stomach it.

In 1837, Hans Christian Anderson published a modernized and revised version of an ancient fable, under the title, “The Emperor’s New Clothes.” In it, the vain and foolish Emperor is taken in by charlatan weavers who promise him a glorious new wardrobe, magically invisible only to stupid and unworthy people. No one, including the Emperor, is willing to admit that the new costume is invisible to them, until a child cries out, “But the Emperor has no clothes!”

This parable remains instructive in the 21st century, well represented by Amtrak’s “Contemporary Dining” fiasco.

“Contemporary Dining” is Amtrak’s euphemism for sharply degraded food service deployed in 2019 on Eastern interregional trains in place of conventional dining cars serving actual meals to passengers. Its pre-packaged food is offered only to sleeping car (First Class) passengers; coach passengers may use only the snack bar in the lounge car. It represents Amtrak’s latest attempt to starve itself (and, apparently, its customers) into prosperity. Like the farmer who seeks to cut costs by steadily reducing the feed for his horse, until the horse dies of malnourishment, this will not have a happy outcome.

Customers on Amtrak’s interregional trains typically are on board for journeys that span two to as many as ten meal periods. They cannot be expected to go hungry that long, or to forage during station stops.

Since the advent of rail passenger transport, rail carriers have undertaken to feed their guests along the way. Lineside restaurants like the famous Harvey Houses, and station platform vendors as in third-world countries, are ways to do this, and externalize costs in the process, but they impose a time penalty, delaying the progress of the trains at the same time that they degrade the quality and attractiveness of rail travel.

Most U.S. and Canadian railroads eventually brought food service on board. On-board services now range from snack trolleys in the aisles up to simulations of top-end fine dining in separate dining cars, and everything in between. The more ambitious the service, the greater the cost, much more in the labor required to execute the service than in the food and consumables provided. A café car can serve wonderful food with just one or two employees, which is common on corridor trains in Europe, but the number of customers is limited by the skill and stamina, not to mention the union contracts, of the employees. A café car with but one or two employees cannot adequately feed three meals a day to trains full of 300 customers on multi-day trips.

Hence, the dining car. With a galley and 48 seats, and a staff of four to ten or so (Superliner diners, used mainly on Western trains, were designed to employ a crew of eleven in peak periods, to serve 72 seats), railroad dining cars could easily feed 300 passengers real meals in a dignified, satisfying and respectful manner, three times a day.

But the labor costs remain high. Amtrak’s union agreements have resulted in very-well-compensated on-board food service employees, the hourly cost of whom can be three to five times greater than similar employees in stationary restaurants. Fares must be set at levels sufficient to recover these costs, whether on a Rocky Mountaineer-type cruise train or in a VIA Rail Canada or Amtrak sleeping car fare. And they are: Amtrak dining car costs have traditionally been covered by a transfer of about 10% of the remarkably high sleeper accommodation charge to the dining car account. Amtrak’s Superliner dining cars can turn a profit on these fares, despite the elevated labor cost, as demonstrated by the short-lived 24-hour diner service years ago on the Sunset Limited, described here recently by Bruce Richardson. But current Amtrak management seems unaware of that history, focused instead on abating costs rather than improving overall financial results. Contemporary Dining therefore is a completely unnecessary initiative.

Management, however, lacking a meaningful or accurate internal cost accounting system or any system at all capable of gauging marginal or incremental costs of particular activities, and compensated with bonuses based in part on achieving “cost reductions,” sees the dining car accounts as a target to be slashed, rather than as a component of an overall travel experience designed to elicit repeat business at amazingly high prices, as cruise lines and airlines do (in First and Business Class). We have noted previously that customers in this segment of Amtrak’s business are its most remunerative, taking into account all of the costs of generating their revenue, as well as representing by far the largest segment of the business. Driving them off with bad service and bad food hardly seems a prudent strategy.

Yet slash away Amtrak did, resulting in Contemporary Dining. My wife and I experienced it on a recent journey from Springfield, Mass., to Chicago on Train 449, the Boston section of the Lake Shore Limited, leaving Springfield at 3:20 PM and arriving in Chicago at 9:45 AM the next morning, traveling in the sleeping car.

Diners on the Amtrak Crescent in a new Viewliner dining car while traveling through Catlett, Va., September 9, 2019. (Harrison Keely/Washington Post)

In the new scheme, the customer enters the dining car, eight cars back from the Boston sleeper (or just forward from the two New York sleepers), to find a delightful new CAF USA-built Viewliner dining car with 42 seats and a traditional galley, but staffed by a single employee. Depending on the employee, one may encounter different service schemes. Amtrak’s preference is that customers queue up outside the door to the galley (how customers are supposed to know this isn’t clear, as no instruction is provided), and take turns asking the one employee for the food they want, from a menu taped to the wall. In other cases, the employee may invite the customers to seat themselves at one of the ten and one-half booths (the missing one and one-half booths have been replaced by four cardboard trash bins—a hint of what’s to come), where the employee will take their order.

If ordered at the door, the customer is expected to stand in the rocking and rolling car (thank you, CSX, for the mediocre ride quality) while the employee repairs to the galley to assemble the requested items, possibly microwave some of it, and pack it all into a brown paper bag (the bags don’t fit well on the galley’s serving counter and are awkward to handle), which then is handed to the waiting customer. The customer picks up his own plastic utensils from a nearby table and then … well, is on his own to figure out whether to sit at a booth (if one is open) or wander back to his sleeping car, which might be as much as 650 feet and eight cars removed from the diner. The microwaving will surely have worn off by then. In other cases, the employee may deliver the requested “food” items without the brown paper bag to the customer at his booth.

After eating the “meal,” does the customer bus his own trash (and it’s all trash—nothing is re-usable)? Or is the sole employee expected to clean up, too? Nothing in the car instructs the customer, but to the especially observant, and to the frequent user of fast food establishments, the four cardboard trash bins may be a clue.

Does one tip the employee for this “service”?  We’ll guess that most do not (we did), any more than one tips the counter help at the Burger King.

Comparisons to the dining car environment and service envelope of the past—one conjures the famous scene in North By Northwest of Cary Grant and Eva Marie Saint over dinner in the dining car of the New York Central Twentieth Century Limited—can only bring tears to one’s eyes, so far have we fallen.

Run, Cary Grant, run! It’s airline guy Richard Anderson coming to take away your railroad dining car food!

But Contemporary Dining is worse, much worse, than its service envelope. There is the food itself. Bet the house that Richard Anderson has never eaten it while under way on the Lake Shore Limited (if he rides his trains at all). What is offered up to the unwitting dinner customer is a five-inch, round black plastic dish of food that can best be characterized as a $4 frozen “TV dinner” that’s been left in the microwave a few seconds too long. It is dry and flavorless, and a bit scorched around the edges. The three-inch side salad is better. Some of the entrée offerings have enough red pepper baked into them as to be inedible to many Americans. The only almost-hot offerings at breakfast are instant oatmeal and an “Egg McMuffin”-like sandwich (hint: it’s better at McDonald’s). A tiny dish of fruit and a cup of yogurt are also available, as are dry cereal boxes like you give your children, and cellophane-wrapped muffins like one sees in an airport. No fast-food chain offers food this unappetizing. It’s like the “free” breakfast at the Budget Inn motel.

The plastic dish at the top of the photo is “beef tips.” The one below is shrimp, rice and sausage, which had so much pepper in it my wife couldn’t finish it. It was awful on a level that bordered on the comical. I have no idea what coach passengers think when they see this. “First Class” it is emphatically not. These dishes are cheap TV dinners that were microwaved too long (by the caterer, not the Amtrak LSA). By contrast, dinner the next night—we connected in Chicago to the Empire Builder—was delightful, the car was heavily used, and we enjoyed a pleasant conversation with the strangers with whom we shared the table. It was a completely different universe from 49/449.

This is what Amtrak offers to its First Class sleeping car passengers, while first class customers on VIA and Rocky Mountaineer and every passenger on every cruise ship on the planet enjoy food better than they experience at home, served by professional and dignified servers in a warm and welcoming physical environment.

Which brings us back to our vain and foolish Emperor and his equally vain and foolish staff:  The Emperor in point of fact has no clothes. What are these people thinking?

Contemporary Dining is an unnecessary, appalling and disrespectful rejection of the company’s most lucrative passengers. It is something that appears to be designed to drive off First Class passengers, rather than incentivize repeat business. There is absolutely nothing “First Class” in “Contemporary Dining.” In the restaurant industry, this is called “Serving up moose manure and calling it chocolate pudding.”

“This is what Millennials want!” cries Stephen Gardner, Richard Anderson’s second-in-command. “Millennials are the future!” Employees on the front line know better: Millennials, they point out, aren’t riding in the sleeping cars (they can’t afford the price), and the majority of passengers who do use the sleepers want to take their meals—real meals—in the company of others in the dining car, not fill their Roomettes with crumbs, food odors and trash. Millennials may be hermits, but the rest of us aren’t. When Millennials are old enough to be able to afford sleeping cars, they too will want real meals in a real dining car. The social dimension of rail travel matters on longer journeys.

“Contemporary Dining? Hey Amtrak, this is Contemporary Dining, not the crap packaged in plastic you force us Millennials to eat!”

Short of eliminating food service altogether, one would be hard-pressed to design an on-board food service more likely to deter passengers foolish enough to prefer rail from acting on their preference.

And that goes directly to the competence and intentions of the people at the top of Amtrak’s food chain who seem to think that Contemporary Dining is a good idea. It isn’t. It is so manifestly and thoroughly awful that it calls into question the competence and actual intentions of its designers. People this far removed from the realities of interregional passenger rail service (the company’s largest and most important business segment) in this era, and from the actual characteristics, needs and preferences of their most important customers, have no business running the company.

Lavishing free food and adult beverages on the Northeast Corridor in First Class on a 90-minute trip on Acela Express while trashing the meal service for the highest-fare-paying passengers embarked upon days-long trips on the interregional trains emphasizes just how far out of touch with the actual business of the company Amtrak leadership is. They have things totally backwards.  They need to get dressed, and leave.

Andrew Selden is President of the United Rail Passenger Alliance.

Categories: High Performance, Intercity Tags: ,