U.S., Amtrak: Starting From a Clean Plate, New Food Service Opportunity; Maybe 24-Hour Diner?

By J. Bruce Richardson, Corridor Rail Development Corporation; March 12, 2021


The hour is nigh, the time may be upon us.

The rhetoric may have worked, the pressure from advocates may have worked, or even the possibility of Amtrak management coming to the realization of the true potential of passenger trains, after a half century of operations.

No matter what the catalyst, if the carefully worded statement comes to reality, Amtrak’s most horrid of experiments, flexible dining’s days are numbered on ALL of the long distance/inter-regional trains in the national system.

It appears real food, in real portions, with real taste is returning to a dining car near you.

Amtrak says it has some new marketing and revenue enhancement team leadership, and they are serious about bringing back dining cars. In their statement, they made note they will be consulting with their employees about the matter. And it’s going to take some time for all of this to happen.

That’s what happens when you gut a program that has been in place for half a century and then have to nearly start from scratch to put it back together. All of the king’s men and their horses may have had an easier time of it trying to piece Humpty Dumpty back together.

There will be lots of things to consider; the lingering emotional affects of the Coronavirus for many people will keep them skeptical of joining fellow passengers who are strangers at small tables in the dining car. Protocols for employees have to be put in place. New vendors will have to make bids. Recalled employees will have union rules and seniority to follow to find new homes working on trains. Menus will have to be developed and tested. All of this will not happen overnight.

After this process, will things return just as they were? Don’t bet on it. One thing we know from experience is Amtrak is always woefully short on institutional knowledge because so many senior managers come and go in such short periods of time, and, when they leave, whatever knowledge they have gained often goes out the door with them.

It’s probably a fact many railfans most likely have a deeper institutional knowledge of Amtrak than most managers who have been there a few short years. And, that’s a scary thought.

Railfans always seek to “have things as they were before.” But, before is not always best. Does anyone seriously want to ride behind a smoke-belching, steam-hissing locomotive that is powered by someone shoveling coal into a firebox? Does anyone want to ride in a passenger car with open windows and no air conditioning? Does anyone want to go back to the days of segregated, men-only onboard services and train and engine crews?

All of that is nonsense. Nobody does, other than the odd railfan who isn’t plugged into reality.

The reintroduction of real food – very few would ever describe flexible dining as real food – is an opportunity hopefully Amtrak management will seize to create and provide appealing menus that meets the nutritional and taste needs of passengers and can be deployed on trains in a financially responsible way that will enhance the dining car experience as an integral part of the allure, enjoyment and desire to return to passenger train service.

Plus, please Amtrak, don’t continue to doom coach passengers to the cafe/lounge car and exclude them from the dining car. Coach passengers – the majority of your passengers – are people, too.

As many have said in the past, an Amtrak dining car does not need to be reflective of fine dining. The best goal is to serve appetizing meals which could be found in any casual family restaurant. The type of restaurant you look forward to visiting on a Friday or Saturday night that provides a good meal with good service at a reasonable price.

One other note: This is the golden opportunity, since Amtrak is starting with a clean dining car plate, to give serious consideration to a permanent introduction of a 24-hour dining car. It worked on the Sunset Limited for the several trial runs, and it can work on any overnight train. The rationale for this is simply the promotional program used on the Sunset: “When you’re hungry, you’re hungry.”

If Amtrak has no current institutional knowledge of the 24-hour dining car, that’s okay. There are still two of us who put it together and know how to do it. Have your people call our people, and we’ll have lunch.

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