Guest Post: Let Them Eat Cake.


By Jim Mathews
President & CEO
National Association of Railroad Passengers
 
Let’s begin by saying up-front that I have tremendous sympathy for Amtrak’s management, especially those who wear the Food & Beverage Bullseye on their backs. Unfortunately, what’s happening on the Silver Service is likely to disappoint everyone.
 
The premise is that because the two Silver Service trains – the Meteor and the Star – run roughly similar routes, dropping the diner from the Star and lowering the corresponding Sleeper charge is a good way to prove or disprove what most of us have been saying for years: that without a reasonable food option, long-distance revenue crumbles.
 
Further, it turns out that nearly 31,000 sleeper passengers last year on that route were worth roughly twice as much to Amtrak on a per-mile basis – that’s yield, not gross. Targeting the highest-value passengers for a downgrade seems likely to produce fewer high-value passengers, and that’s going to hurt the financial performance of the train.
 
Instead of just drastically cutting food service, let’s have Amtrak try a different experiment: on the City of New Orleans, see if we can source high quality locally procured food with contractors or caterers, and figure out how to get it to the traveling public in a way that makes better financial sense to Amtrak’s bottom line.
 
If we want Amtrak to behave more like a business, it has to have the freedom and flexibility to try new and different things; the experiment described above protects many good-paying existing jobs at Amtrak, while opening up some opportunities for enterprising local businesses. Of course there are regulatory and logistical problems to solve, but that’s not a reason to ignore the opportunity and it’s certainly better than making half a train’s riders live off microwaved hot dogs for more than 500 miles.
 
Meanwhile, drop us an email at NARP (narp@narprail.org) to let us know what you think. We’re gathering your reactions to pass along not only to Amtrak, but to Congress—especially to those more obsessed with the price of a hamburger than with building the 21st Century transportation network that A Connected America deserves.
 
(NOTE: A longer version of this post was featured recently in Passenger Train Journal.)