Amtrak Diner and Food Service Discussion

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mtuandrew
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Re: Diner Economics (Split from Viewliner 8400 thread)

Post by mtuandrew » Thu Oct 27, 2011 3:28 pm

ExCon90 wrote: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.

Not a big problem - incorporate a barcode scanner or RFID tag system, and lock the kitchen door after each crew leaves. When the new crew arrives, they do an inventory. If the count doesn't match the total, it's the last crew's fault, or someone snuck into the diner without permission. Scanning systems are surprisingly cheap, in use by all major retailers, give an exact count of what goods are on hand, and even automatically order new supplies. I doubt Amtrak has such a system on board, but it could.

hi55us
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Re: Diner Economics (Split from Viewliner 8400 thread)

Post by hi55us » Thu Oct 27, 2011 7:45 pm

John_Perkowski wrote: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.

I was not suggesting switching out the cars, just switching out the crews, the money for the hotel would be made up by the higher revenue from having the room occupied by a paying passenger (given that it is rare for sleepers to not be sold out) .

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Re: Diner Economics (Split from Viewliner 8400 thread)

Post by hi55us » Thu Oct 27, 2011 7:48 pm

mtuandrew wrote:
ExCon90 wrote: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.

Not a big problem - incorporate a barcode scanner or RFID tag system, and lock the kitchen door after each crew leaves. When the new crew arrives, they do an inventory. If the count doesn't match the total, it's the last crew's fault, or someone snuck into the diner without permission. Scanning systems are surprisingly cheap, in use by all major retailers, give an exact count of what goods are on hand, and even automatically order new supplies. I doubt Amtrak has such a system on board, but it could.

This would really only be a problem for items like Beer, Wine and Soda. Who's going to take the vegetable lasagna with them?

The inventory problem could be solved by having one dining car employee go the whole distance of the trip, no need for barcode scanners.

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Re: Diner Economics (Split from Viewliner 8400 thread)

Post by jstolberg » Thu Oct 27, 2011 8:50 pm

hi55us wrote:This would really only be a problem for items like Beer, Wine and Soda. Who's going to take the vegetable lasagna with them?

And speaking of Beer, Wine and Soda, it wouldn't be a great tragedy for the conductor to take a beverage cart down the aisle and sell some to the passengers where they sit, especially when the train isn't doing anything but sitting on a siding waiting for freight interference to clear.

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Re: Diner Economics (Split from Viewliner 8400 thread)

Post by Greg Moore » Thu Oct 27, 2011 9:27 pm

jstolberg wrote:
hi55us wrote:This would really only be a problem for items like Beer, Wine and Soda. Who's going to take the vegetable lasagna with them?

And speaking of Beer, Wine and Soda, it wouldn't be a great tragedy for the conductor to take a beverage cart down the aisle and sell some to the passengers where they sit, especially when the train isn't doing anything but sitting on a siding waiting for freight interference to clear.


Umm, if the train is sitting on a siding waiting for the freight interference to clear, I sort of want the conductor doing their primary job.

Remember, Conductor != ticket taker (though often they do that). Their "real" job is far more important and critical to the running of the train.

That said, I think one could make an argument for a non-union wage guy making $10/hour selling soda and the like. At Amtrak prices, they'd have to sell 20 sodas an hour to cover their cost. ;-)
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mtuandrew
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Re: Diner Economics (Split from Viewliner 8400 thread)

Post by mtuandrew » Thu Oct 27, 2011 9:37 pm

Greg Moore wrote:That said, I think one could make an argument for a non-union wage guy making $10/hour selling soda and the like. At Amtrak prices, they'd have to sell 20 sodas an hour to cover their cost. ;-)

First off, which Amtrak employee has been selling you soda pop for 50 cents a can?!? :razz:

Secondly, good luck finding an Amtrak employee only making $10/hour, let alone a non-union one serving on a train. Amtrak's unions have pretty clearly stated their opposition to non-union workers, and that probably won't change unless there's a big push by the Feds to bust the OBS union.

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Re: Diner Economics (Split from Viewliner 8400 thread)

Post by David Benton » Thu Oct 27, 2011 9:48 pm

here in nz , The onboard crews swap at the 1/2 way point of the journey , and return to their home base . from what ive seen , they close the cafe 1/2 hour before changeover ,do a quick tally up , grab the cash drawer , and swap over .
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Re: Diner Economics (Split from Viewliner 8400 thread)

Post by Greg Moore » Thu Oct 27, 2011 11:14 pm

mtuandrew wrote:
Greg Moore wrote:That said, I think one could make an argument for a non-union wage guy making $10/hour selling soda and the like. At Amtrak prices, they'd have to sell 20 sodas an hour to cover their cost. ;-)

First off, which Amtrak employee has been selling you soda pop for 50 cents a can?!? :razz:

Umm, none. Reread what I wrote. Remember, you still have to pay for the soda. ;-)

mtuandrew wrote:Secondly, good luck finding an Amtrak employee only making $10/hour, let alone a non-union one serving on a train. Amtrak's unions have pretty clearly stated their opposition to non-union workers, and that probably won't change unless there's a big push by the Feds to bust the OBS union.


Yeah. And I'll be honest. I have mixed feelings about that. On one hand, I think we need unions. On the other, are we better off with NO food service and no potential profit, or a non-union person who can potentially bring in some profit?
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Re: Diner Economics (Split from Viewliner 8400 thread)

Post by jstolberg » Thu Oct 27, 2011 11:18 pm

Greg Moore wrote:Umm, if the train is sitting on a siding waiting for the freight interference to clear, I sort of want the conductor doing their primary job.

Remember, Conductor != ticket taker (though often they do that). Their "real" job is far more important and critical to the running of the train.

I suppose the correct job title I would be thinking of would be "Train Attendant - Coach" for those trains that don't have a "LSA - Cart" already moving a cart. The passenger in the seat doesn't know the difference between a conductor, TAC, SA or LSA.

What I have experienced is that when the train comes to an unscheduled stop, the passengers begin to get anxious and move about more than normally. Many of them go and queue for a drink or snack in the cafe car and the cafe attendant can't keep up. Meanwhile those left in the coaches want to know why the train has stopped and how long the delay will be. The crew doesn't have specific information, and everyone becomes frustrated with the situation.

With a drink cart moving down the aisle, passengers don't feel like they are being ignored. They have something to watch inside the train (since nothing is moving outside). And the crew can make small talk speaking generally. (Yes, this happens a few times a month. We're usually under way again in less than 20 minutes.) Drinks get sold to eager customers. A little beer or wine, or even a soda to sip on helps everyone relax and take it in stride.

Bottom line is that food and beverage sales are boosted and passengers are happier.

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Re: Diner Economics (Split from Viewliner 8400 thread)

Post by ExCon90 » Fri Oct 28, 2011 1:59 pm

hi55us wrote:
mtuandrew wrote:
ExCon90 wrote: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.

Not a big problem - incorporate a barcode scanner or RFID tag system, and lock the kitchen door after each crew leaves. When the new crew arrives, they do an inventory. If the count doesn't match the total, it's the last crew's fault, or someone snuck into the diner without permission. Scanning systems are surprisingly cheap, in use by all major retailers, give an exact count of what goods are on hand, and even automatically order new supplies. I doubt Amtrak has such a system on board, but it could.

This would really only be a problem for items like Beer, Wine and Soda. Who's going to take the vegetable lasagna with them?

The inventory problem could be solved by having one dining car employee go the whole distance of the trip, no need for barcode scanners.

I wasn't thinking so much about vegetable lasagna as about silverware, crockery, or anything that says Amtrak on it. People will steal anything. The last manager of dining-car service on the Union Pacific (I forget his name) said in his memoirs that when the last pre-Amtrak westbound City of Los Angeles arrived in LA a woman took the water carafe off the table in the diner and put it in her handbag -- complete with water. "If the count doesn't match the total, it's the last crew's fault" -- and a golden opportunity for someone on the new crew to abstract something. This is not a blanket indictment of Amtrak OBS crews or individuals, but it only takes a few -- and there have to be a few.

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Re: Diner Economics (Split from Viewliner 8400 thread)

Post by Station Aficionado » Fri Oct 28, 2011 2:31 pm

I think the problem is not so much the wage rate of a particular employee, as the number of employees required. That, plus the specialized equipment required for a "restaurant on wheels" plus the difficulty in achieving economies of scale in purchasing makes the economics of diners quite tough. Even on tourist pikes, where I'm sure pay is not to union scale, dinner trains often can't be sustained as going concerns.

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Re: Diner Economics (Split from Viewliner 8400 thread)

Post by gokeefe » Sun Oct 30, 2011 10:08 pm

While I think much of what has been said above is all quite true.....

I would still maintain that we simply don't truly know the the full financial performance potential of Amtrak's dining service because demand for first class accommodations far outstrips available supply.

Baggage-Dorm cars will help a lot. New sleepers would help more. Extra sleepers to float around the system following the seasonal peaks would be even better.

In all seriousness just imagine how the diner cars would do if there were five sold out sleepers 365 days a year on the Lake Shore instead of just two?

As it stands on average Coach passengers make up almost 50% of diner patrons (per PRIIA mandated Performance Improvement Reports, see thread in Amtrak forum).

Here's another really important question that I think has never been asked or answered. How many sleepers can a diner handle? What's the capacity load (in terms of sleeper passengers)? Assume that 100% of diner seatings will be made up of sleeper passengers and there won't be any room for coach passengers to eat in the diner.

How often do the diners sell out on the Eastern long distance routes?
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Re: Diner Economics (Split from Viewliner 8400 thread)

Post by markhb » Sun Oct 30, 2011 10:18 pm

gokeefe wrote:How often do the diners sell out on the Eastern long distance routes?


In my very limited experience, it's been wall-to-wall both times. It takes more luck than anything else to get a diner spot if you're a coach passenger on the LSL, especially from the Boston section (which doesn't carry the dining car with it, so any lead time the DC staff has to get coach reservations is before Albany).
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Re: Diner Economics (Split from Viewliner 8400 thread)

Post by gokeefe » Sun Oct 30, 2011 10:28 pm

markhb wrote:
gokeefe wrote:How often do the diners sell out on the Eastern long distance routes?


In my very limited experience, it's been wall-to-wall both times. It takes more luck than anything else to get a diner spot if you're a coach passenger on the LSL, especially from the Boston section (which doesn't carry the dining car with it, so any lead time the DC staff has to get coach reservations is before Albany).


Kind of makes me wonder if the real answer here is more sleepers and some table cars. That might a lot of sense due to the simple design increased capacity and the ability to leverage existing personnel and assets in the galley of the diner. It does two things at once to improve economics it spreads diner personnel thinner, increases sales and increases volume through the kitchen thus spreading out that overhead. Volume might also help greatly in lowering food costs while allowing Amtrak to increase their margins (or quite frankly just decrease their losses) by maintaining the same prices. That makes a lot more sense to me than the multilevel proposal.
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Re: Diner Economics (Split from Viewliner 8400 thread)

Post by mtuandrew » Mon Oct 31, 2011 6:26 pm

gokeefe wrote:Kind of makes me wonder if the real answer here is more sleepers and some table cars. That might a lot of sense due to the simple design increased capacity and the ability to leverage existing personnel and assets in the galley of the diner. It does two things at once to improve economics it spreads diner personnel thinner, increases sales and increases volume through the kitchen thus spreading out that overhead. Volume might also help greatly in lowering food costs while allowing Amtrak to increase their margins (or quite frankly just decrease their losses) by maintaining the same prices. That makes a lot more sense to me than the multilevel proposal.

I like the idea of increasing seating with the same cooking facilities. However, in lieu of a table car, how about offering a slight discount (or a free beverage or dessert for sleeping car passengers) for takeout service? You get the same benefits as a table car without having to haul an extra (often empty) car, since everyone already has a seat and a table.

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