By J. Bruce Richardson, Corridor Rail Development Corporation; December 21, 2020
Realizing that Amtrak operations are just a few months short of half a century – Amtrak Day was May 1, 1971 – the company itself has had some notable wins and failures in its own dining cars. It’s all part of history.
Back in 1978, before the first major system cuts of 1979 during the Carter Administration, much of Amtrak management was still populated by employees who migrated from the private railroad passenger departments to stand up Amtrak in its original form. That included managers from dining car departments who understood the necessity of feeding passengers from a good board of fare.
Amtrak’s 1978 Early Dinner Menu was a riff on what Floridians experience daily: the Early Bird Special in restaurants, meant to cater to a senior citizen population, as well as those with small children.
The Early Dinner Menu was delightfully small and efficient, but effective. It was served from 4 P.M. to 5:30 P.M., which means it extended dining car hours, making better use of the most expensive piece of rolling stock on the train.
Each meal was served with Salad, Whipped Potatoes, Choice of Vegetable, Roll and Butter, Dessert and Beverage.
Iceberg Lettuce with Tomato Wedge, Your Choice of Dressing
• Roast Turkey and Dressing, Giblet Gravy and Cranberry Sauce; $3.95
• Oven Baked Salisbury Steak; $4.25
Fruit Pie or Chocolate Sundae
Coffee, Sanka, Tea (Hot or Iced), Milk
That’s it; the total menu. Short, complete, something for anyone, easy, inexpensive ingredients to prepare and serve, and less expensive for passengers than the regular dinner menu. This was a time before Amtrak started including dining car meals in the cost of sleeping car accommodations, and also a time when Amtrak eagerly and properly welcomed coach passengers in the dining car instead of relegating them to the confines and mercies of the cafe/lounge car with a sole employee attempting to serve dozens of passengers at once.
The dining car had greater use – they were “sweating the assets” as some in the corporate world say – and passengers were offered greater choices and lower prices.
There was no downside to this service.
Later, in the 1990s, Amtrak adapted a Service Recovery policy based on food and feeding passengers, designed to cool down passenger passions when excessively late trains occurred.
As an example, at that time, Union Pacific Railroad has just gobbled up a barely-existing/hanging on by a thread Southern Pacific Railroad. UP made the mistake of immediately imposing its own operating practices – that of a well-oiled machine – on a railroad that was held together by bailing wire and duct tape with SP managers who understood their situation and did their best to keep their system as fluid as possible. UP imposed its will on its new acquisition, and chaos ensued. Train and Engine crews sat still for hours in stationary locomotives, then were outlawed in the middle of a run. Yards weren’t just clogged, they were hopelessly entangled in messes which took weeks to untangle.
There had not been such calamity since the creation of PennCentral two decades before. The Coast Starlight and the Sunset Limited were victims of this mess; it wasn’t unusual for any Sunset Limited departure to run up to 15 hours or more late. Onboard Services crews were resigned to their fate (and, huge amounts of overtime pay), but unsuspecting passengers were irate, understandably so. This was an era prior to widespread use of personal cell phones, and passengers felt isolated and started missing family events, weddings, and more because they had no idea their train would run so late.
Service Recovery with food became one of Amtrak’s go-to answers for calming down passengers. Each dining car carried Service Recovery supplies; if a train was late at least a certain amount of hours, then all passengers were invited to the dining car for a complimentary meal. For the coach passengers it may have been canned beef stew, for the sleeping car passengers a more upscale quick-to-heat-pre-prepared Chicken Cordon Bleu.
When passengers are not hungry, they are much more content, even on an extremely late train. Do the math: is it more cost-effective to feed a train full of passengers inexpensive but satisfying food, or have your customer service people deal with a train full of passengers demanding refunds or other more expensive compensation?
Understanding the importance of food on a train, whether it’s on-time or late, should be easy to comprehend as an essential.