Amtrak Dining Needs Fixing.

Breakfast in an Amtrak dining car en route to Seattle.

The discussion about Amtrak dining cars continues unabated. A recent opinion piece in Railway Age magazine implied that poor managing was the fundamental reason Amtrak’s food service loses money. The article concluded by saying that someone with experience running a “real” restaurant would have Amtrak’s dining cars whipped into shape in no time.

Sorry, but I don’t buy that. An early source for many of these problems was former Republican Congressman, John Mica, who managed to get a resolution passed by Congress that says Amtrak’s food service must break even. It’s stupid, but it is the law.

To comply, and to get John Mica off their backs, Amtrak chose the easy way: they started cutting costs. And so, four years later, there are no more dining cars on overnight trains operating east of the Mississippi River.

Then Amtrak compounded the felony by introducing what their marketing people chose to call “contemporary dining”. The meal comes in a cardboard box, most with a main dish that must be heated in a microwave. The meal can be consumed at a table in the Cafe-Lounge car or your sleeping car attendant will deliver it to your roomette.        

The unhappy fact us, over the past 8 or 10 years, the traditional dining car experience has gradually declined and the quality and variety of the food is no better than adequate. The fact is, Amtrak has failed to protect its most popular amenity: the traditional dining car experience. 

But what if it’s not too late? Could a gutsy Amtrak simply restore the full-service dining cars, with the quality and variety of menu offerings that sleeping car passengers have traditionally enjoyed. Yes, Amtrak’s food service would become a money loser again, but only until Amtrak management found ways to generate additional revenue. What about having set menus and charging extra for any item not included? “A salad on the side? Certainly, sir. That’ll be an additional $3.50.”

And when a roomette is booked for two people, a supplemental charge for the second passenger’s dining car meals would mean additional revenue for Amtrak. That two people should each consume a full dining car meal for the price of one has always struck me as overly generous. 

I know, I know. That means sleeping car passengers will end up paying a bit more for their transportation, for their comfortable accommodations, and for a few of the optional extras in the dining car. If, after that, Amtrak is still short of break even on food service, let Congress make up the damn difference! It’ll still be less than the cost of resurfacing a few miles of interstate highway.