Giving Amtrak Food For Thought
August 30, 2019
Rail Passengers Continues To Fight Food-Service Downgrades
We first told you in July about Amtrak's plans to expand its Contemporary Dining food-service model to all National Network trains east of the Mississippi, and shared with you then that we had been pushing Amtrak to improve the model ever since they introduced it last year on the Lake Shore and Capitol. Of all the suggestions and issues our staff and our members raised with them, Amtrak only addressed one -- the need for a hot dining option.
Since last year, we've been meeting informally with Amtrak leaders and executives to try to work out something better. It appears Amtrak is simply barreling ahead with an offering that remains flawed and potentially threatens the attractiveness of the trains without substantively addressing the shortcomings we identified.
It's fair to say that despite the handcuffs on Amtrak (such as the "Mica" provision that Food & Beverage at Amtrak must break even, or the even-sillier notion that Amtrak must turn a profit), our Members believe they can do better when it comes to feeding passengers.
Here's what we have asked for from day one:
- More hot choices
- Consideration for dietary needs such as kosher requirements, vegetarian, low-sodium/healthy, and common allergies
- Better presentation (no more dinner-in-a-box!)
- Better provisioning (diners should not run out of food in the first few hours of an overnight journey)
- Continue to allow Coach passengers to buy meals in the diner if they choose
There have been suggestions made by Amtrak that new equipment was coming that would make it easier to address these concerns. Likewise, a new food-service vendor competition was supposed to improve the food choices while helping Amtrak meet its legal mandate to break-even on food and beverage. New convection ovens were supposed to replace microwaves so that more food could be cooked simultaneously and it would taste better.
Amtrak says it's making food-service changes to respond to customer demand. To an extent that IS true: there are many riders, especially newer and younger riders, who want lighter fare and the ability to eat without worrying about fixed mealtimes. We have heard from many passengers -- Members and non-members alike -- who believe the food itself in the Contemporary offering is better-tasting than the food it replaced. Wide agreement on individual food items really won't happen. Food is just too personal.
But we can agree that tossing largely cold, processed food wrapped in plastic into a box and handing it over in a plastic bag is not exactly a welcoming message to passengers. Nor is the lack of place settings at dining-car tables, which is designed -- subtly, of course -- to discourage passengers from staying in the dining car with their boxed lunch. As for coach passengers, well the message seems to be "hope you stopped at McDonald's before you got on board."
We expect better from a taxpayer-supported enterprise that supposedly serves the entire population.
After weeks of requests and back-and-forth with Amtrak and our Members, we've delivered a formal letter to a senior Amtrak executive with responsibility for the customer experience. We've asked him for written on-the-record answers to specific questions, especially in light of the July announcement that the new service will hit the rails on October 1st. Our questions to Amtrak:
1) Are any elements of the Eastern trains dining plans open to refinement before launch in October?
2) How will the new dining cars – purchased and approved with taxpayer dollars to serve as dining cars – be utilized in this new service model?
3) What plans exist to address shortfalls in items aboard the trains and options for those with special needs (kosher, vegetarian, allergies, etc.)?
4) What is the status of food-service equipment upgrades that were contemplated to improve the taste and appearance of dining-car food?
5) What are Amtrak’s plans for dining changes on the Western trains, i.e., National Network trains such as the Empire Builder, California Zephyr, Southwest Chief, Coast Starlight and Sunset Limited?
House Appropriators made it clear early this summer that they heard us, and our Members, as we raised our concerns to Congress about the wholesale changes taking place with very little input from those affected. House lawmakers wrote in June ""Amtrak has made changes to policies and procedures relating to charter trains, private cars, station agents, call centers, food and beverage service, and law enforcement, all of which have impacts on its ridership, employees, and communities. Therefore, the Committee directs Amtrak to increase engagement with customers, employees, stakeholders, and the public on proposals to change operations and services, including providing an opportunity to comment on policies prior to finalizing decisions.”
And one final comment? For those who say what we want is just not possible, here's an image from Rail Passengers Board Member Dave Randall. The food on the left is Amtrak's Contemporary Dining; on the right is VIA Rail's business-class meal. Stay tuned as we update you on this issue. And if you want another way to make your voice heard, you can help our Summer By Rail Chef Intern Madi Butler compile your opinions for Amtrak by taking her dining survey here!
"The National Association of Railroad Passengers has done yeoman work over the years and in fact if it weren’t for NARP, I'd be surprised if Amtrak were still in possession of as a large a network as they have. So they've done good work, they're very good on the factual case."
Robert Gallamore, Director of Transportation Center at Northwestern University and former Federal Railroad Administration official, Director of Transportation Center at Northwestern University
November 17, 2005, on The Leonard Lopate Show (with guest host Chris Bannon), WNYC New York.