Amtrak Diner and Food Service Discussion

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Greg Moore
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Re: Amtrak Diner and Food Service Discussion

Post by Greg Moore » Wed Jan 23, 2019 10:14 pm

ryanov wrote:It's really something how many people are available at any given moment to cheer on the loss of good jobs, union or otherwise. Don't spend that $1.50 in tax savings (that none of us will ever actually see) in one place.
Oh trust me, I'd gladly pay that $1.50 in taxes if it meant I got cafe car service back on Empire Service trains that start/end in Albany...
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eolesen
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Re: Amtrak Diner and Food Service Discussion

Post by eolesen » Wed Jan 23, 2019 10:24 pm

The current regulatory requirement as I'm reading it is for trains to have an engineer and *a* conductor. I can't find a regulatory or statutory requirement which requires a passenger train to have more than that, although I'm sure language probably exists in the union contracts. I know I've been on commuter trains operated by Herzog with only one conductor.

There also there anything that would prevent subcontractors or vendors from being fully trained/qualified to perform the procedures that might be needed in an emergency.

There's already vast precedent for this -- back in the glory days, virtually all of the sleeping car attendants/porters weren't railroad employees -- they worked for Pullman. Likewise for dining car and parlor/lounge attendants.

It wasn't until Amtrak that the subcontracting ended. There's no reason that model couldn't be revisited.

Suburban Station
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Re: Amtrak Diner and Food Service Discussion

Post by Suburban Station » Thu Jan 24, 2019 8:07 am

Greg Moore wrote:
ryanov wrote:It's really something how many people are available at any given moment to cheer on the loss of good jobs, union or otherwise. Don't spend that $1.50 in tax savings (that none of us will ever actually see) in one place.
Oh trust me, I'd gladly pay that $1.50 in taxes if it meant I got cafe car service back on Empire Service trains that start/end in Albany...
most people don't feel that way though and view Amtrak's appropriation as being for transportation not food service. that said, food service on the Empire Service trains is up to NYS not Amtrak. It probably would have food service if OBS employees made less, a window into what happens when price floors (minimum wages) are raised dramatically.

Keep in mind almost all the food service losses are on the long distance.

Dcell
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Re: Amtrak Diner and Food Service Discussion

Post by Dcell » Thu Jan 24, 2019 10:49 am

Good discussion. I don’t pretend to know how much an Amtrak dining car employee makes vs. what an Aramark employee makes and I’m not focused on trying to cut salary expenses. rather, can food options be improved for Amtrak passengers? As I posted, I’m willing to pay $50 for a dinner entree if that allows Amtrak to prove 4 hot entree options. Maybe contracting to AramArk allows this to happen or maybe it doesn’t. I just sense a general unhappiness among dining car patrons when I dine on Amtrak.

eolesen
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Re: Amtrak Diner and Food Service Discussion

Post by eolesen » Thu Jan 24, 2019 11:54 am

You might be able to spend $50, but that's a stretch for many wallets. I can't imagine a family of 4 will be rushing to drop $200 for dinner on the Autotrain.

It's not necessarily the hourly rate where an Aramark or even an airline caterer like LSG Skychefs or Gate Gourmet has an advantage over Amtrak.

It's the supply chain. They run kitchens nationwide, and are likely able to save on their sourcing. It's why the nationwide food retailers can run ridiculous specials like a $1 Whopper and a mom & pop hamburger joint who has to buy from Sysco or even Costco can't.

It's also the planning. You might not think that there's no connection between a corporate cafeteria, stadium club seating, and a to-order boardroom caterer, but they have gobs of data that shows what sells and what costs more to put on the menu than you get in actual revenue.

The short version... let an expert in food service manage that segment of the operation. Government's track record at providing hospitality services isn't exactly enviable.

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Re: Amtrak Diner and Food Service Discussion

Post by mtuandrew » Thu Jan 24, 2019 12:37 pm

Mr. Olesen: it doesn’t hurt that for every $1 burger that costs $1-2, the fast food joints sell a $1 soda pop that costs 5¢ and a $2 carton of fries that costs 10¢.

Amtrak can’t compete with the low costs of preparing fresh food ironically, and it can’t schedule a crew member for just breakfast, lunch, or dinner. I wonder what it cost to prep food from scratch in the old days, and how to control for inflation and for modern cooking techniques as much as possible.

Ultimately I think there will be a shift from a prep-on-board dining car to a glorified table car on LD routes, with commercial kitchens delivering food en route according to customer preorders or projected demand. The cafe would of course be stocked as usual with light fare, and there’d be enough complimentary food aboard for major delays. I’d rather Amtrak went the other way toward preparing food from scratch, but I don’t see that trend reversing.

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Re: Amtrak Diner and Food Service Discussion

Post by Dcell » Thu Jan 24, 2019 1:05 pm

mtuandrew wrote: Ultimately I think there will be a shift from a prep-on-board dining car to a glorified table car on LD routes, with commercial kitchens delivering food en route according to customer preorders or projected demand. The cafe would of course be stocked as usual with light fare, and there’d be enough complimentary food aboard for major delays. I’d rather Amtrak went the other way toward preparing food from scratch, but I don’t see that trend reversing.
I also think a shift is coming sooner than later to Amtrak’s food service operation, since the Amtrak CEO comes from airline management and he knows how food services affect both the corporate bottom line and also passenger satisfaction. Having passengers select their dinner choices in advance and then having the meal prepared offsite and delivered on-board at the appropriate times seems to have some logic.

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Tadman
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Re: Amtrak Diner and Food Service Discussion

Post by Tadman » Thu Jan 24, 2019 1:25 pm

Greg Moore wrote:
mtuandrew wrote:If you outsource food service and have (say) two Aramark employees making $15/hr/person instead of two Amtrak employees at $30/hour/person, does Amtrak then need to add back an Assistant Conductor at $30/hour due to lack of qualified staff? Those Aramark employees won’t be trained on air brakes or electrical controls, and won’t be able to help passengers with anything but electricron’s hot dogs :P They’ll be passengers as far as Amtrak is concerned.
That was an argument for when Subway tried to replace the cafe car on Empire Service trains: "But the cafe attendant is trained and the Subway person is not, this is a safety issue."
That's a good one... If there are 200 revenue passengers on a train, and they are all holding a ticket for passage in a seat, the amount of trained personnel required for safe and efficient operation of the train is determined by the number of revenue cars the train uses. The cafe car is either a full-table car, with no revenue passengers, or a half-cafe, with something like 15 business class passengers, with a collector from an adjacent car assigned to handle passenger needs. The cafe attendant is never figured into the math for how many T&E people are needed for safe and efficient travel. The cafe attendant does not have a radio or a window. Especially important, the cafe attendant is not subject to hours of service. If they were a critical safety factor, they would be subject to HOS. Ergo the argument that cafe attendant employment status "is a safety issue" is a stretch.

And are they trained on air brakes or electrical controls? It might be a violation of work rules for a cafe guy to work on air brakes. Seems like a conductor or brakeman job to me, but I do not know the work rules by any means.

leviramsey
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Re: Amtrak Diner and Food Service Discussion

Post by leviramsey » Thu Jan 24, 2019 2:23 pm

Disclaimer: anecdote, not necessarily representative (though not necessarily any less representative than a NARP member)

My wife and 3 year old son took the LSL from CHI-SYR (after the Empire Builder from MSP) thanks to JetBlue. In July 2017 we had taken a roundtrip on the LSL, so she's experienced both Diner Lite and the new offerings (also had lunch on the Builder for comparison). In her judgment, lunch (thanks to being nearly 3 hours late into SYR) was better on the LSL than the Builder (better in turn than she remembered LSL Diner Lite) and the new breakfast was better than the Diner Lite breakfast before.

eolesen
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Re: Amtrak Diner and Food Service Discussion

Post by eolesen » Thu Jan 24, 2019 2:29 pm

Tadman wrote:
Greg Moore wrote:
mtuandrew wrote:If you outsource food service and have (say) two Aramark employees making $15/hr/person instead of two Amtrak employees at $30/hour/person, does Amtrak then need to add back an Assistant Conductor at $30/hour due to lack of qualified staff? Those Aramark employees won’t be trained on air brakes or electrical controls, and won’t be able to help passengers with anything but electricron’s hot dogs :P They’ll be passengers as far as Amtrak is concerned.
That was an argument for when Subway tried to replace the cafe car on Empire Service trains: "But the cafe attendant is trained and the Subway person is not, this is a safety issue."
That's a good one... If there are 200 revenue passengers on a train, and they are all holding a ticket for passage in a seat, the amount of trained personnel required for safe and efficient operation of the train is determined by the number of revenue cars the train uses. The cafe car is either a full-table car, with no revenue passengers, or a half-cafe, with something like 15 business class passengers, with a collector from an adjacent car assigned to handle passenger needs. The cafe attendant is never figured into the math for how many T&E people are needed for safe and efficient travel. The cafe attendant does not have a radio or a window. Especially important, the cafe attendant is not subject to hours of service. If they were a critical safety factor, they would be subject to HOS. Ergo the argument that cafe attendant employment status "is a safety issue" is a stretch.

And are they trained on air brakes or electrical controls? It might be a violation of work rules for a cafe guy to work on air brakes. Seems like a conductor or brakeman job to me, but I do not know the work rules by any means.
49 CFR 239:101 requires recurring emergency training for on-board personnel. Presumably that extends to include OBS and contractors/vendors...

And as I noted yesterday, I don't see a statutory or regulatory requirement which says "a train requires one conductor or trainman for every X cars or available seats" but would love to see a reference to such a requirement. I know it exists in the airline world (1 FA for every 50 seats), but that's a different regulatory agency.

Suburban Station
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Re: Amtrak Diner and Food Service Discussion

Post by Suburban Station » Thu Jan 24, 2019 2:34 pm

mtuandrew wrote:Mr. Olesen: it doesn’t hurt that for every $1 burger that costs $1-2, the fast food joints sell a $1 soda pop that costs 5¢ and a $2 carton of fries that costs 10¢.

Amtrak can’t compete with the low costs of preparing fresh food ironically, and it can’t schedule a crew member for just breakfast, lunch, or dinner. I wonder what it cost to prep food from scratch in the old days, and how to control for inflation and for modern cooking techniques as much as possible.

Ultimately I think there will be a shift from a prep-on-board dining car to a glorified table car on LD routes, with commercial kitchens delivering food en route according to customer preorders or projected demand. The cafe would of course be stocked as usual with light fare, and there’d be enough complimentary food aboard for major delays. I’d rather Amtrak went the other way toward preparing food from scratch, but I don’t see that trend reversing.
there is nothing fresh about a 1 dollar burger. what Amtrak can't compete on Is volume and labor costs. employees not only get paid more but for far more hours than there is revenue service. second, dining car hours are limited which limits the number of customers that can be served even assuming there are enough customers to keep it busy for more hours of the day

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Re: Amtrak Diner and Food Service Discussion

Post by David Benton » Thu Jan 24, 2019 5:04 pm

Whats to stop a contractor been trained in safety procedures for a passenger train ?
Presumably Amtrak currently does its own safety courses, but nothing stopping a 3rd party doing it .
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Tadman
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Re: Amtrak Diner and Food Service Discussion

Post by Tadman » Thu Jan 24, 2019 8:34 pm

eolesen wrote:
49 CFR 239:101 requires recurring emergency training for on-board personnel. Presumably that extends to include OBS and contractors/vendors...

And as I noted yesterday, I don't see a statutory or regulatory requirement which says "a train requires one conductor or trainman for every X cars or available seats" but would love to see a reference to such a requirement. I know it exists in the airline world (1 FA for every 50 seats), but that's a different regulatory agency.
As far as I am aware, the collector-to-coaches ratio is a union agreement issue, not a regulatory issue. With regard to airlines, although the FA:seat ratio may be a regulation, there are also union constraints on the seat count. If I remember right, there is a certain seat count that determines if a regional jet and contract airline operates or if a mainline aircraft and crew owned by the mainline carrier operate. That's in the agreement, not CFR.

And I'm curious how they define "on-board personnel". It almost certainly includes railroad employees and T&E. Does it include contractors like the Talgo maintenance guys on the Cascades? What about employees of private car owners? The national park service tour guides that used to ride some of the western routes?

I don't know the answer, but I do know it's not a black & white issue. Given that the aborted Subway Sandwiches project was almost a go in New York, I'd like to think Amtrak had an answer to this question that we're not privy to.

Finally, do we have to have a cafe in this day and age? WIth the advent of phone apps, couldn't one order a meal or snack through an app like Grubhub? This wouldn't work on a train like the Builder, often late and in remote areas. But corridor trains with reasonable timekeeping could have a box or cart full of ordered and prepared meals loaded directly onto coaches at a few major stops. No need to cart around a non-revenue car or staff it.

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BandA
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Re: Amtrak Diner and Food Service Discussion

Post by BandA » Fri Jan 25, 2019 3:01 am

I can't imagine a union willingly allowing $30/hr workers to be replaced with $15/hr workers in the same job. Maybe if the skill level is lowered. Are there railroad trainees masquerading as food service workers while waiting for an assistant conductor slot to open? They would be mighty handy in an emergency, otherwise I don't see a union allowing a food service worker to operate or train to operate essential safety equipment.

According to Chef Ramsey on Food Network, a (land-based) restaurant needs to charge at least three or four times the food cost in order to break even. So that $1 burger is not making any money and is probably setting unreasonable expectations when hamburger costs $2.99/lb minimum retail, the bun is costing 15¢, slice of cheese 20¢, etc. That's how you get profitable $8-$10 burgers & $20-$25 entrees in a moderately-priced, well-run restaurant. $50 for an entree or $15 for a breakfast sandwich is unreasonable.

Over time, relative labor costs have gone up a lot. Food prices haven't gone up that much, although quality has generally gone down, and although we now have access to fresh foods year-round and spices & ethnic foods, there is more competition for "quality" foods like seafood, shellfish, ripe fruit etc. Trains have lower costs to store extra food & cooking equipment than airlines.

Are the central commissaries already outsourced? At some point management decides they can't manage such "non-core" functions as foodservice & outsources the whole shebang. They go with a unionized company, the union employees grumble but go along because they get to keep their jobs, salary & benefits for a while longer. Company increases serving hours, increases food prices, makes a profit, Amtrak continues to lose money on food but not quite as much. Food quality stays the same. Vendor changes every 4-5 years with new cuts each time.

Or, they hire some really smart food management and they keep it in house, increase serving hours, improve quality & freshness & value and sales soar until almost every passenger buys food. It gets so busy that they bring in robots that scurry along the ceiling to deliver hot food at your seat & remove trash.

eolesen
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Re: Amtrak Diner and Food Service Discussion

Post by eolesen » Fri Jan 25, 2019 8:23 am

In a real emergency, I doubt any union worker is going to object to a contractor/vendor taking appropriate action simply because they are non-union... it's no different than a passenger being the one to step in.

There is a way that the unions might be able to be cut out of the process: make ownership of the dining car part of the outsourcing deal, i.e. go back to the Pullman model. If it's structured as an operating lease, the cost per month wouldn't be much worse than paying rent for the space. The same type of ownership/leasing model is used with major/regional airlines -- a varying percentage of regional airplanes are owned by the major airline and on operating leases. It helps keeps the operating cost down for the regional, and if the regional isn't performing to standards, the supplier contract can be canceled with the assets reverting back to the major airline.
Last edited by eolesen on Fri Jan 25, 2019 8:31 am, edited 1 time in total.

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