Getting there is half the fun

Written by J. Bruce Richardson, Corridor Capital LLC
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Amtrak’s Sunset Limited.

Almost 20 years ago, there was a good solution which Amtrak experimented with to make its dining cars on long distance trains perform better financially: It was the 24-hour dining car on the Sunset Limited. This was accompanied by an onboard promotion of “When You’re Hungry, You’re Hungry” and promotional materials were placed in every coach seatback and sleeping car accommodation.

It was a financially successful experiment that ended because the management of the Sunset went from one business group to another, and the succeeding business group management invoked the “not invented here” reason for ending it.

The basis for the experiment was sound: Instead of cutting a dining car’s offerings as a way to prosperity, the opposite was done, expanding to prosperity and making full use of an expensive asset.

When the Superliner fleet was built, the single most expensive piece of rolling stock was the 72-seat dining car. Ironically, the dining cars on all Amtrak long-distance trains are the least-used piece of rolling stock, only being open to passengers for at most 11.5 hours out of a 24 hour day if the train is operating over a transcontinental route. The 24-hour dining car reversed that mistake.

The 24-hour dining car recognizes another important factor of train travel: The trip to and from the destination doesn’t have to be the unpleasant grind found in today’s air travel.

Back in 1952, Cunard Line, the premier transatlantic cruise line, recognized the coming competition from fast air travel (the initial planning for what would be the Boeing 707, launched in 1957, was already under way), created an advertising campaign with the catch-line, “Getting there is half the fun!” Today, that same slogan should apply more and more to passenger train travel as the comfortable alternative to air travel.

When sleeping car passengers are on vacation, they may wish to break their routine of an early breakfast then off to work, enjoying a leisurely breakfast mid- or late morning. When a dining car routinely closes early as it was customary to close the Sunset’s breakfast service at 9 a.m., it eliminated a lot of choices for passengers trying to enjoy a less-hurried travel experience.

At the time, the Sunset was run by Amtrak’s Gulf Coast Business Group, based in New Orleans. The general manager of the Gulf Coast Business Group had a broad understanding of long-distance trains from many perspectives, including marketing, operations, maintenance and employee motivation. It was one of the most well-run business groups, and was working miracles. The group’s trains, originally considered “problem children” by many, were the Sunset Limited, Crescent and City of New Orleans.

My company was a contractor to the business group, and we provided services on a number of issues, including onboard services. Along with two of Amtrak’s best onboard services managers, one a long-time chef before rising in the ranks, we were tasked with creating a 24-hour dining car experiment for the Sunset, at the time, operating between Los Angeles and Orlando, Fla. The Los Angeles-based dining car and other onboard services crews worked a long trip—three nights from Los Angeles Union Station to Orlando, one night’s rest, then three nights back to Los Angeles.

About the same time, a professional survey of Sunset Limited passengers had been completed. The Sunset’s passengers consisted of American Express Gold Card members (at the time, the premium AmEx card), a lot of college graduates including some Ph.Ds, and passengers with higher-end household incomes. The survey showed the passengers were there for a number of reasons, from VFRs (visiting friends and relatives), those using it for basic transportation, those on vacations, and the occasional business traveler. The bedrooms in the sleeping cars always sold out first, along with the family bedroom and the accessible bedroom. The roomettes were well-patronized, too, as were the coaches.

In FY 1999, much more of the Superliner fleet was in use than today, and western transcontinental train consists were long. The Sunset always had a baggage car, crew car, at least two sleepers, diner, lounge, four coaches, and between San Antonio and Los Angeles, the through coach and sleeping car from the Texas Eagle. With a good load factor, it wasn’t unusual to have more than 350 passengers on the Sunset at any given time.

Several experimental runs were completed, and were successful. The financial results of the test runs proved several things, among them that labor costs were not too high. It took 11 dining car employees to make the tests work; two more than the normal crew size. Because of convenience, passengers made greater use of the dining car than before; they ate when they were hungry, not when they were directed to be hungry. Longer, more leisurely meals meant the coach passengers who ate in the dining car spent more money. It was also important that the menu prices were considerably lower than those found today. The prices were comparable to a casual restaurant of the time, and a family traveling together could afford to eat in the dining car without expending most of their vacation food budget.

The booming business in the lounge car, which maintained normal hours from early morning to late evening, did not suffer with the 24-hour dining car.

The passengers liked it because no dining car reservations were required and had no set hours. The crews liked it because the dining car “never topped out” with every seat at every table taken, trying to rush patrons through a meal so the next seating could be accommodated. Higher tips were unexpected side benefit for the crew members, reflecting patrons who were happier. It was good for Amtrak because food and beverage revenues were higher, and any incremental costs associated with the two overnight employees were more than compensated for by the increased sales revenues. Another benefit for sleeping car passengers was 24-hour room service if they desired a snack, alcoholic beverage or late meal in their accommodation. Providing this service also increased tip amounts for sleeping car attendants serving passengers in their accommodations.

The lead service attendant, after seating passengers at their choice of tables, offered a pre-dinner cocktail, which substantially increased alcohol revenues. Wine to enjoy with the midday or evening meal was also sold to sleeping car passengers, providing an additional revenue source. At the end of the evening, many passengers came back to the diner for the same reason they go to their kitchen at home before bed, to have a dish of ice cream or piece of pie.

Preparing for the experimental runs was done with a clean slate; we were charged with creating new concepts and the only restriction was the amount of food storage space available in the diner. The unions were consulted in advance, and gave permission for two employees to work overnight and rest during the day. The overnight shift consisted of a lead service attendant handling all functions upstairs, and a chef in the kitchen.

A complete new set of menus was created, all based on existing foods available through regular vendors. The fun part was taking basic ingredients and seeing how many ways the same item could be used in multiple menus during the day. Breakfast bacon also helped sell a bacon cheeseburger for the daytime menu, and the bacon helped create the single most popular item for the overnight menu, a bacon, fried egg and cheese sandwich. This was before Amtrak switched to a heat-and-serve menu, and most items in the dining car were prepared fresh.

The menus were a breakfast menu, a late morning/lunch brunch menu, an afternoon daytime menu, a dinner menu, and a late night menu.

Sleeping car passengers felt more pampered, and received more value for their accommodation fares. Coach passengers also dropped into the diner during the overnight hours and spent money if they were restless in their coach seats. After the lounge car closed at the traditional time, many patrons not yet ready to retire for the evening would come into the 24-hour dining car and continue to purchase an evening drink, often accompanied by a purchased food choice.

Passengers entraining or detraining at major stations overnight, such as San Antonio, and, at the time, Houston, often patronized the diner for something to eat before detraining, or as a place to settle down a bit and enjoy a snack if they had just boarded. Either way, it was a winner for the dining car.

Amtrak often points a finger at dining car labor costs, and wants to find ways to cut labor expenses. After running the numbers on these 24-hour experiments, and then taking annual dining car numbers for the Sunset, Crescent and City of New Orleans and crunching them to see what it would take to make the dining cars at least break even, the end result was, with some tweaking here and there, the dining cars could become a profit center instead of purely a cost center. In short, labor was not the problem. Lack of focus on best use of dining cars and improving them was the problem.

Superliner dining cars were designed to be staffed by 11 employees, but staffs had been trimmed to nine by FY 1999. For the 24-hour dining car, 11 employees were used: two chefs, one night, one day; two LSAs, one night, one day; three food specialists in the kitchen, including the employee washing the dishes (this was before throw-away plates and cutlery); and four servers waiting on tables.

Much is made by today’s Amtrak about “contemporary dining” and eliminating “communal dining” for sleeping car passengers. The menus for the 24-hour dining car were designed to appeal across all segments of passengers, from families traveling with small children, to teenagers and young adults seeking non-complicated meals (burger, chips, and a drink), to retirees looking for a full meal, from a pre-dinner drink to an entree with sides and dessert.

With the 24-hour dining car never being completely full at any one time, patrons could sit together, or singles or couples traveling could choose to sit alone. There was no forced communal seating.

Without getting into specific numbers, the financial results of the experimental runs were good. Revenues were up, more than covering incremental expenses related to the test runs as well as contributing overall to the dining car’s financial well-being. As stated above, the employees acknowledged many benefits, from easier work loads while maintaining the same number of hours being compensated for, less stress because of no peak times, and higher tips.

The day chef liked it because at the end of the day, instead of having to prepare to close the kitchen before heading to the crew car, the kitchen was handed over to the night chef, who kept things going. Toward the early morning hours, the night chef, while meeting the needs of the overnight passengers, also was able to begin the breakfast prep work, allowing the day chef some extra sleep before returning to the kitchen. The night chef continued to work during the early breakfast hours, taking some of the load off the day chef.

The same was true for the night LSA and the day LSA. The day LSA handed off upstairs to the night LSA at the normal time the diner would close under the old rules, and the night LSA, in the early morning hours, would do the upstairs breakfast prep chores. When the day crew arrived, much of their early morning work was already completed. Also, the upstairs routine of closing and opening was eliminated, saving more time. The night LSA helped through the early breakfast service, providing better patron service with the additional LSA, such as offering revenue-generating morning Bloody Mary or Mimosa eye-openers.

The bottom line was, there was no downside to the 24-hour dining car. It was a financial improvement from a revenue standpoint. It made the Sunset a better travel experience for passengers. It was superior utilization of an under-used asset (the dining car itself). Most important, it met a need of passengers. Good transportation is much more than just ferrying passengers from Point A to Point B. Because, as Cunard famously said, “Getting there is half the fun!”

Bruce Richardson is vice president of Corridor Capital LLC, a Chicago-based passenger rail developer and rolling stock leasing and finance company. In the late 1990s, Richardson’s prior company operated the Sunset Limited and City of New Orleans Promotional Office under contract to Amtrak’s Gulf Coast Business Group.

Southern Pacific’s premier passenger train, the Sunset Limited.

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