U.S., Amtrak: There is a better way to run dining and lounge cars on Stephen Gardner’s Amtrak; look at Brightline’s example

By J. Bruce Richardson, Corridor Rail Development Corporation; May 16, 2022

We keep hearing whispers that full dining car service – at least for sleeping car passengers, but hopefully for all passengers – will be returning in the fall on Stephen Gardner’s Amtrak long distance/inter-regional trains operating south and east of Chicago. One can fervently hope.

Upper left, Flexible Dining on the Lake Shore Limited, upper right, sleeping car cold dinner on the Portland section of the eastbound Empire Builder. Lower left, Egg Souffle on the NEC’s Acela first class service and bottom right, the beef entry on the western transcontinental trains Superliner diners exclusively for sleeping car passengers. Photo credits top two photos, supplied by Amtrak passenger and bottom two photos are Amtrak publicity photos.

Overwhelming reports from the western long distance/inter-regional west-of-Chicago routes have been positive about the return of full dining car service with real, nutritious meals. There are times when some semblance of sanity prevails.

One of the highlights of the service is the arrival of the much-anticipated return of real plates and silverware as opposed to the wasteful plastic used for way too long. After dining car senior managers finally admitted that someone did the math and figured out that one-use plasticware was both wasteful and more expensive than paying an employee to wash real dishes a reasonable question is, what took so long?

Dining car food science has come a long way in the half century since original Amtrak dining cars had meals prepared on stoves heated by burning coke logs. Today, the delights of flash-freezing of food and then a final cooking/heating process for delivery to the passenger would be amazing to a chef of the 1970s. Portion control/waste has improved as well as refrigeration and storage. It’s better food, better handled and well-presented. It is the same as would be found for a special Christmas meal on Santa Fe’s Super Chief in the Turquoise Room? No, but it’s more than serviceable for today and it has healthy choices.

A typical, too lean Superliner dining car crew is often a chef and prep cook/dishwasher on the lower level in the kitchen and a lead service attendant (somehow that designation rings hollow against the more dignified designation of steward) and one or two servers, depending on the season and sleeping car passenger load. Even if two Superliner sleepers were fully sold out at the same moment of a meal period that would still be preparing and serving less than 90 meals.

Keep in mind when Superliner diners were designed, the Pullman-Standard plan was to have 11 total employees in each car, both kitchen below and serving area above. The 11 employees were at a time when there were three strict meal times with wide gaps between. The original Superliner diners were designed to take care of 9-to-12 car consists full of passengers.

Through the years various managers on various levels experimented with how many actual employees were needed in a dining car to provide good meals with an acceptable level of service. Counts bounced up and down, but, then came Stephen Gardner’s stewardship of Amtrak and everything was thrown out the window for the horrors of Flexible Dining.

The pre-1967 Seaboard Air Line Railroad company photo shows a typical dining car crew of 11 for a standard 48 seat diner as operated on the Silver Meteor, Silver Star and Silver Comet. Shown are the steward, four chefs and cooks plus seven waiters for 12 tables. This level of staffing was consistent on most railroads in North America for long distance/inter-regional trains. Internet photo.

The alleged high cost of employees by lazy financial planners seemed to be the overriding force in eliminating dining car employees and cutting employee counts to the bone. Naturally, this had an impact on passengers, but, after all, in the current Amworld, passengers are not nearly as important as meeting false budget targets.

Before we go too far, let’s stop for a moment and look at lounge and cafe/lounge cars.

For those who have not figured out what that interesting cubicle is on the upper level of a Sightseer lounge car next to the staircase is, that was originally designed for a second lounge car attendant to prepare and sell both hard and soft beverages and the occasional package of peanuts.

The Pullman-Standard designers of the Sightseer fleet in the 1970s designed from a traditional standpoint of passenger train quality – an acceptable amount of unionized onboard services staff which would comfortably meet the needs of passengers who were willing to part with monies above and beyond their rail and accommodation fares. When the Superliners were designed Amtrak had not yet started the practice of including the cost of meals in sleeping car accommodations fares. That would come much later.

On today’s Superliner lounge cars a single, usually very overworked lead service attendant opens the car for breakfast before 7 a.m. and staffs the car until he/she take their lunch break and then return for the afternoon until their dinner break, and then keep the car open at least until 9 p.m. before limping back to their sleeping accommodations for a short rest before they do it all again the next day.

Their process includes serving endless lines of coach passengers who have nowhere else to turn for food and drink, keep sales figures straight, keep inventory available and accounted for, and generally clean up the car when they can. It’s a thankless job, and to make matters worse, the company demands they have all of their inventory accounted for and paperwork completed before the train pulls into its terminal. Upon departure the setup is often not completed before departure because Amtrak will not allow enough time for employees on the clock to stock and open their cars. When the train pulls into the terminal the employees are expected to have everything finished and be ready to go off the clock immediately.

Because of these rules, passengers pay the price by not having lounge car service from terminal to terminal, but rather usually about an hour after terminal departure and up to maybe two hours to 90 minutes prior to end-terminal arrival. It’s a bad system.

It takes a lot of stamina to be a good lounge car attendant. Don’t forget all of the extra favors passengers ask for in the process; it can often be never a dull moment.

Lounge cars of both types – Superliner and single level – both make lots of money, but at what price to overworked employees and often bad service for passengers?

Back in the Superliner dining car, Amtrak has created a haves/have not situation with the banning of coach passengers from dining car service. Sleeping car passengers which have paid ridiculously high prices for their trips are regimented to three meal periods with strict service times, and coach passengers are unwelcome to spend their money in the diner.

A French toast breakfast currently served on Superliner diners. Amtrak publicity photo.

The irony of the Superliner diner is how little it would take to return full train service to the dining car. The car day/mechanical costs are already covered, the chef is there, the prep cook/dishwasher is there, the LSA is there and one or two servers are already there. To handle the additional coach passengers most likely three more employees will be necessary, one in the kitchen and two more servers. Those lazy analysts who scream too high costs for more employees overlook that the additional revenue from coach passengers will more than make up for the additional employee costs – they essentially pay for themselves through new monies generated by their labors.

Chicken Caesar Salad as currently served on Superliner diners. Amtrak publicity photo.

As discussed before, new, lower cost menu items would need to be added so a dinner for four coach passengers would not exceed the cost of their train fares. That is an easy problem to solve. Storage space on Superliner diners is more than necessary to meet the new demand of additional items.

This is the moment to become truly radical in our thinking. The hardest working member of a dining car crew is the chef. They must be an expert in preparing three distinctly different types of meals and make sure the presentation is pleasant. They must prep the food preparation area, prep the food and clean up at the end of the meal. The day is long and exhausting, lasting at least as long as the LSA in the lounge car.

The LSA and servers, attempting to meet the seating schedules must constantly be keeping up a rapid routine of serving passengers and gently shooing them out of the way for the next seating coming into the diner. While there are some slack times after breakfast and after lunch, the energy required to provide good service during meal periods can be draining.

We know the ultimate answer: add two additional employees on top of what it will take to serve coach passengers, too, and make the dining car a 24-hour operation. It takes one extra chef and one LSA because money is involved in addition to serving. The overnight LSA is both a server and employee in charge of the upper level.

Beef entree currently served on Superliner dining cars. Amtrak publicity photo.

The current chef works about a 15 hour day; following the formula of the trial runs on the Sunset Limited in the late 1990s, the overnight chef would come on duty about 8 p.m. during the dinner hour and assist the day chef and then take over at the end of the meal. This will reduce time the day chef is on duty because the overnight chef handles the dinner cleanup. For the morning, the overnight chef keeps working until the end of breakfast and then goes off duty. This eliminates the day chef having to come early before breakfast because the overnight chef has completed the breakfast prep work. Ideally, both chefs could work an easier 12 or 13 hour shift and share some of the duties instead of one employee working long and unsafe hours.

On the upper level a similar scenario happens for the LSA. The overnight LSA joins the diner staff during the middle of dinner and works until breakfast is under control. As with the chefs, each LSA would work an average 12 hour day instead of the LSA working from before sunrise to after dinner.

For the servers, the late 90s trials demonstrated they worked less hard and still fed all of the passengers because dining car patrons were allowed – on their vacations – to eat when they chose to eat instead of at regimented, rushed seatings. Passengers automatically paced themselves, had a more leisurely meal and overall spent more money (creating greater revenues) because they had time to enjoy pre- and post-meal alcoholic beverages which tremendously increased dining car revenues.

Other benefits were passengers coming into the diner during overnight hours simply because they craved a bedtime dessert snack or because they entrained or detrained during overnight hours and wanted a meal before leaving the train or seeking relaxation after boarding before sleeping for the night.

The additional revenues to the diner were more than the increased labor costs. The benefits to the diner car employees were numerous as they had a better work day and the passengers liked it because they were not in a regimented world of use it-or-lose it for dining car service.

We have looked mostly at Superliner dining and lounge cars, but the same principles apply to single level Viewliner dining cars.

Acela first class passengers are offered Lobster Crab cakes. Amtrak publicity photo.

Under the “let them eat cake” category, Stephen Gardner’s Amtrak doesn’t hesitate to pamper it’s Northeast Corridor Acela first class passengers with new food options such as Spanish Pork Stew, Lobster Crab Cake, Egg Souffle and Chicken Tandoori. Acela passengers on the 457 mile long NEC are offered tempting meals while coach passengers on routes of over 2,000 miles are offered warmed-over burgers, hot dogs and pizza. This more than emphasizes the wide gulf with which Amtrak holds its bread-and-butter coach passengers with the pampered Acela passengers who are on the train for no more than a very few hours at a time.

Acela first class passengers are offered Spanish Pork Stew. Amtrak publicity photo.

The bottom line is passengers of all types deserve much more than Stephen Gardner’s Amtrak is willing to offer. Their Soviet-style model of service is unnecessary and unwelcome. If the federal and state governments are going to plow literally billions of dollars annually into passenger train service there is no reason why brighter minds can’t run the railroad more like a true service than a railroad bureaucracy that pushes away concepts of good and convenient service.

This is a moment to look at Brightline service in Florida between Miami and West Palm Beach, expanding to Orlando in about another year. Brightline’s original train consists do not include food service cars for the run of 67 miles; those will be added when the route extends to Orlando.

Brightline has two classes of service, Smart and Premium. For Smart/coach service, Brightline offers at-seat food service for purchase from a rolling cart, similar to an airline. For Premium passengers, snacks and both hard and soft beverages are provided in the cost of the ticket. Station waiting areas are referred to as lounges, and Premium passengers enjoy complementary food and beverages before boarding, as well.

Brightline offers food and beverage service both onboard and in its terminals and stations. Brightline publicity photo.

Brightline stations are being developed with something that hasn’t occurred in decades outside of major cities: station restaurants that serve as local destinations beyond providing food to train passengers. Brightline is doing its best to imitate Santa Fe Railway food impresario Fred Harvey in providing exceptional food at stations and onboard, too. Food is available not only from terminal to terminal, but AT the terminal, too.

Brightline in its first months is sending a loud and clear signal how important good food is as part of its passenger experience and, based on ever-growing load factors and ridership the traveling public is embracing the return to a time of passenger train travel where treating the passenger’s needs first is not only mandatory but successful.

Everyone else in the travel industry is either gearing up for a banner year of travel – even with rampant inflation – or has already started offering services at pre-pandemic levels. Only Amtrak is lagging behind, but no one can offer a good reason why. True Believers and Near Believers like to trot out the inferior excuse that Amtrak is having problems attracting new employees to fill out ranks because no one wants to work.

That lame excuse doesn’t work because even though Amtrak is paying less than freight railroads in many areas they are still offering superior pay and benefits beyond many privately held companies. The answer is it’s a result of a bad management decision which results in inferior service and a traveling public going wanting for good passenger train service.

Everyone will closely be watching Brightline and their return to traditional passenger train services in an ultra-modern setting. Amtrak should be careful. Others may be getting bright ideas, too. Amtrak’s steadily developed cult of low expectations in every area is about to be highlighted and exposed.

Please share with others