It Starts in the Diner. Or Ends There.
After five or six years with this blog, it’s abundantly clear that, when it comes to train travel, food service is of the most interest to the most readers. I’m really not surprised. The dining car experience is what passengers remember most about their train trips. That’s been true since Day One.
Back in the Golden Age of train travel, the railroads found that promoting really excellent food service was the best way to compete for business. The Great Northern bragged that the Empire Builder dining cars served rainbow trout that were caught just hours before and handed aboard the train in Montana. Who knows? Maybe the hand-off was at Essex by the Izaak Walton Inn.
Yes, of course extra touches like that were expensive, but the railroads were more than willing to lose money on food service because passengers told all their friends and family about a really good dining car experience. All that positive talk attracted more passengers, and more passengers meant more revenue. Everyone understands the value of really good word-of-mouth advertising. Well, except members of Congress.
Unfortunately, bending under constant criticism from The Hill, outgoing CEO Joe Boardman promised that Amtrak will break even on its food service within five years. The trouble is, they’re trying to do that by cutting costs and, as an inevitable result, the dining car experience on Amtrak just ain’t what it used to be.
Not so long ago, Amtrak chefs were sent to culinary school and then had the latitude to add some of their own specialties to the menu. No more. The regional dishes are gone and today every dining car on every long-distance train offers exactly the same menu. Worse, there are fewer items from which to choose.
A year ago, if you wanted a dessert, you could get a generous wedge-shaped piece of cheesecake that was served on a plate with some strawberry sauce on top; today the cheesecake comes in a round plastic bowl and it’s pink. You can still get Häagan-Dazs ice cream, but only vanilla, and it’s about half the size of last year’s serving.
Republicans in Congress either don’t understand or won’t admit that you can’t achieve break-even by cutting costs if the cost-cutting results in a decrease in revenue. And so far there is ample albeit anecdotal evidence that the deterioration of the dining car experience isn’t making new friends for Amtrak.
It is, in sum, exactly the wrong approach to the problem. By trying to satisfy the anti-subsidy ideologues in Congress—and good luck with that!— Amtrak has noticeably diminished the dining experience, thus disappointing passengers who may now be less inclined to take other long-distance trains in the future.