Diner Discussion

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Diner Discussion

Postby Greg Moore » Tue Oct 25, 2011 8:26 pm

Tadman wrote:Ron, a mom/pop restaurant compared to a railroad diner is a non-starter.

A railroad must have a large (think TGI Fridays+ sized) commissary at each end of a diner car route. They pay to build and maintain this facility. It probably costs a few million to build and probably requires $500k/year to maintain. If 10 people work there at $60k/year (guess) that's $80k/year fully allocated, or $1.3m/year annual costs, times two, for each end of the route. That's before you get to the dining car.

Which is why many airlines tend to outsource this. There are companies that do this sort of thing very cost-effectively.

And in any event that's also spread across multiple trains. In addition, in theory the costs should be fairly sub-linear. If you double the number of patrons, it shouldn't double the cost of your commissary.

Tadman wrote:Each dining car takes 3 ppl ($80k fully allocated lets say). It probably costs $10-20k/year of inspections and repair to keep safe on the road. That's $250k just to turn a wheel. At 500 ton-miles/gallon, you need 300 gallons to move it 1000 miles, that's $1200/trip. Because a dinning car does not turn a profit,the above cost is not recovered by the sale of food.

Contrast that with the mom/pop diner. They have less-than-minimum wage employees working for tips. They have no support facilities. They have no need to be maintained in order to move at 79mph, only enough to not fall apart when a fat man sits down.


I think you underestimate the costs of a mom-pop restaurant.

I'll assume your figures for fuel are accurate.
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Re: Viewliner Diner 8400

Postby ApproachMedium » Tue Oct 25, 2011 9:29 pm

FYI its already outsourced to Armark but handled on site due to the nature of Amtraks business. Next suggestion?
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Re: Viewliner Diner 8400

Postby markhb » Tue Oct 25, 2011 10:51 pm

I think Tadman hit one big nail on the head: Amtrak has to pay union contract wages to the food service staff; private-sector restaurants largely pay sub-minimum wage (assuming the rest will be made up in tips). Any restaurant that pays its employees anything near what Amtrak pays probably charges $80 for the same braised lamb shank the dining car sells for $20, and on top of it they won't let you in without a tie.
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Re: Viewliner Diner 8400

Postby electricron » Wed Oct 26, 2011 1:01 am

Tadman wrote:Contrast that with the mom/pop diner. They have less-than-minimum wage employees working for tips. They have no support facilities.

Waffle House corporation doesn't have support facilities, and don't have delivery trucks delivering "Waffle House livery supplies? Or any other fast food restaurant with just 12 tables?
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Re: Viewliner Diner 8400

Postby electricron » Wed Oct 26, 2011 1:04 am

markhb wrote:I think Tadman hit one big nail on the head: Amtrak has to pay union contract wages to the food service staff; private-sector restaurants largely pay sub-minimum wage (assuming the rest will be made up in tips). Any restaurant that pays its employees anything near what Amtrak pays probably charges $80 for the same braised lamb shank the dining car sells for $20, and on top of it they won't let you in without a tie.

Why isn't Amtrak charging the same $80 for lamb shank your stay at home restaurant charges? Maybe Amtrak should put more affordable items on the menu if they're going to charge so little?
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Re: Viewliner Diner 8400

Postby mtuandrew » Wed Oct 26, 2011 1:23 am

electricron wrote:
Tadman wrote:Contrast that with the mom/pop diner. They have less-than-minimum wage employees working for tips. They have no support facilities.

Waffle House corporation doesn't have support facilities, and don't have delivery trucks delivering "Waffle House livery supplies? Or any other fast food restaurant with just 12 tables?

They do have those things. There are a few issues with the comparison though, besides the fact that Waffle Houses don't bounce up and down all day, or travel at speeds up to 125 mph.
1) Available clientele. An average Waffle House probably sees nearly a thousand people daily, or more for a large one - an average dining car nearer a few hundred. While no one gets on Amtrak just to have dinner, people go to Waffle House all the time for that reason. Besides, Waffle House (or restaurants in general) advertise themselves much more heavily - perhaps that's a knock against Amtrak though.
2) Payroll. Most Waffle House employees make something under minimum wage and, presumably, get minimal health insurance. Amtrak employees are fully insured and have a retirement program, beyond their salaries being 3-4x a restaurant worker or more.
3) Space considerations. Even small restaurants have a larger kitchen than a dining car, and that impacts efficiency and creativity.
4) Energy needs. This is a smaller portion of the cost, but Amtrak has to heat, cool, and wash everything using diesel-generated electric power and on-board water. A restaurant can use gas, electric, or whichever form of electricity is cheapest, and doesn't need a standalone water reservoir most of the time.

Granted, a large problem is that Amtrak doesn't encourage large crowds through the diners, closing its doors between lunch and dinner and again afterwards. The Waffle House would stay open and attempt to gain every last customer. Amtrak also encourages patrons to eat a leisurely meal, which would be fine if every one of them was also drinking heavily and continually ordering more food. That may not be the case.
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Re: Viewliner Diner 8400

Postby Mackensen » Wed Oct 26, 2011 11:18 am

mtuandrew wrote:Granted, a large problem is that Amtrak doesn't encourage large crowds through the diners, closing its doors between lunch and dinner and again afterwards. The Waffle House would stay open and attempt to gain every last customer. Amtrak also encourages patrons to eat a leisurely meal, which would be fine if every one of them was also drinking heavily and continually ordering more food. That may not be the case.


However, Amtrak would then have to carry sufficient food and drink to serve those extra customers. While both Amtrak and Waffle House have a finite amount of space, Amtrak operates under far, far more circumscribed conditions. Also, if Amtrak were to serve all day it would probably need additional OBS staff to cover those shifts. When a Waffle House employee is done for the day s/he goes home. On Amtrak he occupies a valuable sleeper room which can now not be sold to a customer. I suppose Amtrak could bump people on and off at various stops along the way but current long-distance timekeeping isn't reliable enough for that kind of plan, leaving aside questions of crew bases. I believe for the two-day trains in the west Amtrak already does a mid-trip restock of some items (I think I saw this going on with the Southwest Chief at Albuquerque); additional such stops would result in a lengthened timetable and make the train even more dependent on accurate timekeeping.
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Re: Viewliner Diner 8400

Postby mtuandrew » Wed Oct 26, 2011 2:45 pm

Mackensen wrote:However, Amtrak would then have to carry sufficient food and drink to serve those extra customers. While both Amtrak and Waffle House have a finite amount of space, Amtrak operates under far, far more circumscribed conditions. Also, if Amtrak were to serve all day it would probably need additional OBS staff to cover those shifts. When a Waffle House employee is done for the day s/he goes home. On Amtrak he occupies a valuable sleeper room which can now not be sold to a customer. I suppose Amtrak could bump people on and off at various stops along the way but current long-distance timekeeping isn't reliable enough for that kind of plan, leaving aside questions of crew bases. I believe for the two-day trains in the west Amtrak already does a mid-trip restock of some items (I think I saw this going on with the Southwest Chief at Albuquerque); additional such stops would result in a lengthened timetable and make the train even more dependent on accurate timekeeping.

Very good points. I think we've all been there when Amtrak has run out of some sort of food or another, or at least have heard the cautionary tales from others. :-) If Waffle House runs out, it's a quick call to their distribution center and presumably not more than an hour's wait. Unless Amtrak wants to keep a few chest freezers at each station stop, that isn't an option. Regarding the crew problem though, the V-II baggage-dorms should help somewhat with the crew needing to occupy revenue rooms, but more precise timekeeping is the real answer to making sure crewmembers are able to get off at a crew base and sleep in a stationary bed. :grin:

It does make you wonder whether Amtrak could contract with a nationwide casual dining restaurant (e.g. Applebee's or TGI Friday's.) The diners might have fewer supply problems if a runner could bring semi-prepared meals from the nearest supply depot when Amtrak is scheduled to arrive, or even from a nearby restaurant if necessary. It also obviates (to some extent) the need for Amtrak to plan meals, other than a breakfast menu. That's a topic for another thread though, and I think we've talked over it before.
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Re: Viewliner Diner 8400

Postby Tadman » Wed Oct 26, 2011 6:05 pm

Ron, you compared Amtrak diners with a mom/pop diner.

Now, you're using Waffle House as an example of a mom/pop shop? Is mom and pop's last name Waffle? Does Kenny Waffle Jr. have to worry about who will run the place in a few years, Kenny Waffle III or Francine Waffle's husband-to-be?

Waffle house is a corporate restaurant, they do have support facilities, and they spread the cost of each support facility over 50-100 restaurants each. This probably makes it cheaper than the cost structure of a mom/pop restaurant, where pop has to jump in his Chevy Silverado and run to Kroger or the food supply place every few days.
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Re: Viewliner Diner 8400

Postby hi55us » Wed Oct 26, 2011 7:29 pm

Interesting thought, why does amtrak have On Board Service Employees go the whole distance of the route (thus having them occupy a room that could be sold) why not have on a train like the Lake Shore Limited a dining car crew board the train at NYP, detain at Buffalo and have another dining car crew get on at Toledo to Chicago? This is what the conductors and engineers do...
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Re: Diner Economics (Split from Viewliner 8400 thread)

Postby John_Perkowski » Wed Oct 26, 2011 8:52 pm

hi55us,

Read this book: Dining by Rail, the history and recipes of America’s Golden Age of Railroad Cuisine, by James D. Porterfield, 1993, 384 pages, softback

Back in the day (up to 1940 or so) railroads moved diners around as needed to cover meals on various trains throughout the system, obtaining economy by keeping the car producing revenue.

Problem 1: To move a diner from train to train, you need a switching crew. In Amtrak, switching is a lost art.

Problem 2: Think about 3/4, 5/6, 7/8 and 11/14: Maybe the Starlight can do swaps, but the other trains? Gets tougher faster...

As far as having a crew work a meal, then detrain, and a different crew works the next meal, the dorm space represents a sunk cost to Amtrak these days. OTOH, hotel and per diem (and if you think UTU would not insist on appropriate space while the crew was on the ground, you have some good meds!) represents an added cost component.
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Re: Diner Economics (Split from Viewliner 8400 thread)

Postby Greg Moore » Wed Oct 26, 2011 9:47 pm

I think Tadman is the only one who has posted some decent numbers.

I'm a numbers a man. I'd like to see more numbers.

It sounds like two costs that are somewhat controllable are wages (sorry, but it may be time to review wages compared to elsewhere) and number of patrons. I'm often surprised at how lightly patronized the diner on the Crescent. And I've noticed when I've ridden coach that often there are little to no announcements regarding the diner.

I don't think it would hurt for more on-board advertising.

And be open more.
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Re: Diner Economics (Split from Viewliner 8400 thread)

Postby David Benton » Thu Oct 27, 2011 2:54 am

if you want numbers , check out the priia reports . i think we discussed this in the priia reports for the Cardinal etc forum . you will see there that the diner revenue only just covers the comissary costs on some trains , let alone actual cost of dining car and crew . sorry i dont have time to provide a link , but its all there in the priia reports , and the thread on them in this forum .
One interesting thing that came from those reports , that the eastern trains comissary costs were similar to the western ones , suggesting that the amount of food loaded did not effect the overall cost of food delivered . the western trains had more meal services served per rotation , so made more money from similar costs of food loaded onboard .
interestingly the LSL was the only train whose report suggested savings / significant improvements could be made to the dining service .
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Re: Diner Economics (Split from Viewliner 8400 thread)

Postby SouthernRailway » Thu Oct 27, 2011 5:31 am

Re: diners remaining open longer: every time I take any Amtrak train (usually up and down the NEC), it seems as if the cafe car is closed for a significant portion of each trip. I'm sure there are reasons (restocking, inventory, breaks, etc.), but it seems to be not good from a revenue perspective.
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Re: Diner Economics (Split from Viewliner 8400 thread)

Postby ExCon90 » Thu Oct 27, 2011 2:27 pm

Having crews board and leave the trains en route, apart from the timekeeping problems referred to above, could lead to inventory problems -- for both food and equipment. If tonight's dinner crew gets off, and tomorrow's breakfast crew boards hundreds of miles farther on, and some significant things are missing from the car, I can imagine an endless he-said-she-said controversy about who's responsible for what, unless someone in charge remains on board at all times, thus offsetting some of the savings, or a very sophisticated control system, not likely to be cheap, is provided for. Back in the days when an entire diner was set off and picked up by a later train, that problem would not have arisen. An example I particularly like was on the Pere Marquette, where the noon train from Grand Rapids arrived in Chicago less than an hour after the evening Grand Rapids train left. The westbound set off the diner at Porter, not even a passenger stop, to be picked up by the eastbound out of Chicago, but the same crew was involved throughout (and slept at home in Grand Rapids every night).
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