Amtrak’s Interesting Dining Car Experiment.
We all know that Amtrak has been under intense pressure from Congress to cut costs. In particular, our esteemed lawmakers have targeted the cost of food service in Amtrak dining cars. The vox nauseum when it comes to this issue is Rep. John Mica (R-Florida), who professes outrage that Amtrak loses money on its food service and, giving vent to his outrage, had his photo taken shaking a McDonald’s Big Mac at a passing Amtrak train.
(Mica has for years referred to Amtrak as “America’s Soviet-style railroad”. No one seems to know what that actually means, but Mica keeps saying it because the media keeps mentioning him whenever he does.)
The almost universal belief among passenger rail professionals is that cutbacks in the quality and variety of dining car food will almost certainly result in an erosion of ridership by sleeping car passengers, who are the people paying top dollar for their accommodations and for the dining car experience. Well, Amtrak is going to be conducting an interesting experiment which may prove that to be true. Or not.
Amtrak operates two trains between New York City and Miami—the Silver Meteor and the Silver Star. Beginning on the 1st of July, the dining car will be removed from the Silver Star and replaced with a café/lounge car; the Meteor will continue to operate with a full-service dining car.
Under the normal pricing system, meals are included in the fares paid by sleeping car passengers and that will continue to be the case for passengers traveling on the Silver Meteor. But passengers opting for the Silver Star will have to purchase food and beverages from the café car: microwaved hot dogs, bags of chips, and … well, you get the picture.
However, fares on the Silver Star will be reduced significantly. I checked on one-way fares for both trains from Miami to New York City in mid-August. The cost of a roomette on the Meteor was $436, whereas the same accommodation on the Silver Star was $312, an apparent cost savings of $124.
OK, so what will a passenger on the Meteor get for that $124? Answer: three meals in the Meteor’s dining car: lunch and dinner on the first day and breakfast the following morning. (It’s important to note here that if two people occupy a roomette, each person pays a basic rail fare, but there is only one supplemental charge for the roomette … and that means BOTH passengers will get those three dining car meals.)
So once the results are analyzed, we may actually have an answer to the old question: Will sleeping car passengers stop riding a train that doesn’t offer the dining car experience?
Personally, I’ll wager that ridership will drop on the Silver Star and increase on the Meteor. Either way, it’s really going to be interesting.