Food & Beverage Service aboard Amtrak

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Food & Beverage Service aboard Amtrak

Postby Richard Y » Mon Sep 06, 2004 11:18 pm

If Amtrak can ever get into optimistic financial straits, better maintain its equipment and get control of the on-time problems (I'm not holding my breath), the question of what services are in most need of upgrading might become appropriate.
Having taken Amtrak since its inception, in the early 1970's, I will have to say its dining car meals have improved. But I feel there needs to be further improvement.
I have never liked Amtrak's "snack car" arrangement. The upper lounge is ok for hard/soft drinks and for card/game playing, etc, but I really don't like the lower snack concession. If you are in a sleeper, and it is during meal service, you have to travel through the dining car gauntlet just to get to the snack car. Then you have to go down those narrow stairs to, sometimes, find that the snack car attendant is on break. Also, those stairs may not be the easiest to negotiate for handicapped or elderly people. Finally, the quality of the snack food is not exactly something to "write home about".
This is where I think Amtrak should "think big". Instead of the snack car, why not add a couple of "cafe lounge" cars to each side of the main dining cars. The upper deck of the car could have tables for 2 or 4 people and be open 24 hours a day. The lower part could be for food preparation.
I believe the cafe cars would be appreciated by anyone wanting a light meal at times other than the usual dining times. People may have boarded too late for dinner but might enjoy a light meal later in the evening. Passengers in coach might really appreciate (since they can't sleep, anyway)..going to a cafe lounge car at 4 am and having a fresh slide of apple pie and a hot mocha.

Rather than being herded, like cattle, into the dining cars at regular dinner call segments, I think it would make for a much more relaxed atmosphere for the passengers with a brand new dining option.

I read, a while back, about the revenue gained by sports arenas (such as the ones in major cities for pro basketball and hockey teams). The per-centage take from food concession stands is much greater than you might normally expect. The price for that chilli-dog may be inflated, but people will pay because it is 1. there and 2. it is darn good (it has to be at what they charge). If the new cafe cars would offer similar food, as well as healthy & nutritious food , I think it would be a big hit.

The food should not be a part of the regular fare (either coach or sleeper passengers)..but should be a seperate cost. I think, if done right, the true benefit would be to Amtrak..if the sports arena analogy is correct, it could be a major source of new revenue]
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Postby updrumcorpsguy » Mon Sep 06, 2004 11:46 pm

Ah! One of my favorite topics!

I broadly agree with your sentiment - I'm not a big dining car patron, even though I usually travel by sleeper. Many times I end up forsaking the whole thing, and just have a lighter meal in the lounge car where I can enjoy the scenery and/or whatever book I am reading. While I fully support dining car service, I think that the whole approach to dining should be reconsidered.

I would like to see the Sightseers reconfigured so the cafe is on the upper level, and the seating is "banquette": shallow, booth-like, interior facing seating with small cocktail tables. Split the lower level into a movie theatre, and four-top table seating. Show movies all day, along with popular TV junk like the airlines do. (You'll need to figure out a way to police the area so people don't camp there, but that can be worked out).

As far as dining car service goes, I've run a few dining rooms in my life. What Amtrak offers is not so much a dining room as it is a series of banquets with limited choice of entrees (I know that sounds like a rather pendantic distinction, but it makes a big difference to the kitchen)

While reserved all-evening seating wouldn't be a big leap for the waitstaff, it would create a huge snafu downstairs. As it stands now, most of the entrees are somewhat pre-cooked, and put on the grill (or oven) for a few minutes to bring them up to snuff (A time-honored and quite respectable way to feed the masses.) This is based on knowing that at a certain time 45 people will be coming in and sitting down, and certain trends are constant (most will want steak, etc). Changing that to impromptu ordering would require cooking things from scratch, which means more cooks - and they are already short on that commodity - as well as more inventory in the kitchen.

What I would do to improve the dining situation is simple, but effective: Provide some background music. "Muzak" makes a huge difference in people's mood (it's scientifically proven) and also provides the solo or last-in-the-dining-room patrons with some company.

Lastly, in terms of "after-hours" or "break-time" service: I totally agree. On long-distance trains with dining cars, a waiter should be assigned to cover breaks. There should also be two lounge car attendants scheduled so that they work 12 hour shifts and provide 24 hour service. But then again, that requires money.

And if they could add esspresso service to both dining and lounge cars, I would be in heaven :-)
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Postby David Benton » Tue Sep 07, 2004 12:54 am

Rather than have extra cafe cars each side of the diner (wheres the $$$ to fund them ) , why not use the diner as a lounge / cafe outside of dining hours ? I believe this is done on the auto train , after dinner the dining car becomes a lounge for sleeping car passengers with free snacks etc . Might be abit tricky during the day clearing the car before lunch / dinner , but it would be an opportunity to generate more revenue , and increase passenger comfort .
Another idea would be to have family sittings outside the normal dining hours ( perferably earlier from my limited knowledge of kids ) , serving kids grub , and with entertainment etc , and no noise limit !
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Postby bratkinson » Tue Sep 07, 2004 1:11 am

Having travelled by rail since I was a kid in the 50s, I remember well the "good old days" when the dining car was truly a "first class restaurant" that just happened to be on wheels. Even back then and beyond, it was well known that the dining car does not pay for itself. Back then, with 4-5 in the kitchen and 3-4 out front, paying the staff as well as providing sleeping space, the cost of haulage for 2 cars, switching, maintenance, etc, makes dining car service a money loser.

So how then, can Amtrak reduce the costs of providing dining service and still make a worthwhile "dining experience". I remember well back in the 80s when Amtrak tried paper plates, plasticware, and pre-packaged everything. Fortunately, that 'experiment' only lasted a year or so...

Unfortunately, upgrading dining car service to more of a 'come when you want' first-class type experience is too costly to provide, especially on the less-than-shoestring budget Amtrak has to live within.

Budget constraints also limit the snack car hours and options. "back when", there was a first-class lounge that had beverages & snacks. Amtrak ran them as well for the first couple of years. But the cost of providing 2 workers when 1 would suffice is prohibitive, so, it was gone. While the likes of AOE could afford 2 snack bars, I don't think Amtrak ever will. Fortunately, for another 6 months, there IS (almost) 24 hour snack bar service on the Three Rivers. The downside is about 5:30AM until 7:00AM or so, the snack bar (aka "tray meals") is closed for inventory as they approach PGH to do a crew change there.

An important point to keep in mind is that Amtrak, like any other business, has to maximize employee productivity. Ie, stretching the employees to the limit to get the work done. As long as Amtrak has no money for 'luxuries' (much less meeting requirements!), the prospects of first class dining or multiple snack services is only a dream and not much more.

But we can still dream...
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Postby railfanofewu » Wed Sep 15, 2004 11:13 pm

Please, at least maintain food service the way it is if they cannot improve it, please do not go back to the Reagan Era.
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Postby John_Perkowski » Thu Sep 16, 2004 7:45 am

All,

Please remember one other basic fact:

Railroad dining cars. while essential, have been, most likely are now, and almost certainly forever will be red ink to the bottom line.

Diners ARE the most expensive single passenger car in a consist. Diners are exceptionally labor intensive.

Fred Harvey made its money from the fixed facilities, not the ATSF dining cars.
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Postby AmtrakFan » Thu Sep 16, 2004 4:08 pm

David Benton wrote:Rather than have extra cafe cars each side of the diner (wheres the $$$ to fund them ) , why not use the diner as a lounge / cafe outside of dining hours ? I believe this is done on the auto train , after dinner the dining car becomes a lounge for sleeping car passengers with free snacks etc . Might be abit tricky during the day clearing the car before lunch / dinner , but it would be an opportunity to generate more revenue , and increase passenger comfort .
Another idea would be to have family sittings outside the normal dining hours ( perferably earlier from my limited knowledge of kids ) , serving kids grub , and with entertainment etc , and no noise limit !

I woukd like that idea with having it as a Lounge during outside hours but it would Generate More $$$$$. Also I like Mr. Benton's Idea of having Family Seatings outside Normal Hours but with a guy who is me that's is Private I would prorably go when it's quieter but I like the idea. Also I agree with Mr. Perkowski that the Diner is the most Expesive to Operate.

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Postby AmtrakFan » Thu Sep 16, 2004 4:10 pm

What was Food Service like in the Reagan days?

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Postby railfanofewu » Thu Sep 16, 2004 4:28 pm

AmtrakFan wrote:What was food Service like in the Regan Days?

AmtrakFan

What I read was that they served airline food on disposable plates, with plastic silverware, and the service was required to be bad. I read in one artilcle, that the server told a customer that he was not allowed to come back and ask if he wanted anything else. That is rude. The whole idea was that Reagan wanted to shut them down, and perhaps that was what they were doing. John Stockman, the Budget Director for the Federal Government, took aim at Amtrak. If it were not for Democrats and W. Graham Claytor, we would probably not even have Amtrak.
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Postby Gilbert B Norman » Thu Sep 16, 2004 6:56 pm

For what it be worth, but nevertheless from one who can say "been there done that", the micro-meals were simply a disgrace.

I further concur, Mr. EWU, that it was clearly the intent of the Reagan Administration to abolish Amtrak as an entity, and likely all non-Corridor service in the process. No Administration since has launched such an initiative, beyond spouting the lip service of "privatize it" and other meaningless utterances.
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Postby AmtrakFan » Thu Sep 16, 2004 7:39 pm

The Service sounded bad During Regan Term also did he want Claytor to kill Amtrak? I think Claytor Saved Amtrak.

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Postby railfanofewu » Thu Sep 16, 2004 10:49 pm

AmtrakFan wrote:The Service sounded bad During Regan Term also did he want Claytor to kill Amtrak? I think Claytor Saved Amtrak.

AmtrakFan

I think he was probably counting on that, because Claytor was the one who helped the Southern kill off so many trains in the '60s. Reagan must have forgot about the little thing where Southern stayed out of Amtrak for 10 years.
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Postby scannergeek » Sat Sep 18, 2004 9:23 pm

updrumcorpsguy wrote:I would like to see the Sightseers reconfigured so the cafe is on the upper level, and the seating is "banquette": shallow, booth-like, interior facing seating with small cocktail tables. Split the lower level into a movie theatre, and four-top table seating. Show movies all day, along with popular TV junk like the airlines do. (You'll need to figure out a way to police the area so people don't camp there, but that can be worked out).


You just about described the Pacific Parlour Car exactly. The car, which runs on the Coast Starlight, has most everything you described.

Many first-time travelers who went on the Coast Starlight are shocked that similar cars are not on all long-distance trains.
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Postby hsr_fan » Sat Sep 18, 2004 9:30 pm

Unfortunately, the Starlight often runs with a regular Sightseer lounge in place of the Parlour car, or no first class lounge at all. That's one reason I'd be hesitant to take the Coast Starlight. I'd be disappointed if my train lacked the Pacific Parlour.
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Postby scannergeek » Sat Sep 18, 2004 10:11 pm

If you think having an extra Sightseer Lounge is bad, try having an extra diner (that doesn't serve meals). :P

I believe there are only 5 Pacific Parlour cars in service.
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