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Cheap Amtrak food service

What could be done if dining car service must go away


There's something charming about dinner in the diner and eating meals cooked on board the train. However, full-service railroad dining is very expensive to operate.

-Food must be loaded sometimes days in advance (on multi-day runs that are not restocked en route), and it is not known exactly how many people will eat in the diner on a specific trip or what they will order. This can result in waste when perishable products go unused, or requires them to be unloaded from the train at the end of the run and transported back to the commissary and restocked to be later put on another train.

-The employees must be accommodated on board overnight, and they can not go home at the end of a day's shift.

-This, and the fact that they are part of the train crew that handles emergencies, means that they need to be paid much more than at the average restaurant.

-Dining cars require an entire kitchen and all appliances to be hauled around. In addition, the models may need to be specialized to fit and run in the space, and maintenance is a challenge given the little time they are not on the move.

-Due to Congressional micromanaging, Amtrak food service is run inefficiently. Accounting is done via long, hand-marked order slips, and staff are responsible for reconciling each serving of food. The begging that Amtrak must do for their yearly appropriation and the continual threat of elimination can starve time and talent for innovation.


Use airline-like food service.

Form arrangements with caterers located in cities with stops scheduled near meal times. Coach and sleeping car attendants would take orders ahead of time, or direct passengers to a phone app to place orders themselves. The orders would be transmitted to the caterer who would make the meals and put them on trays, which would be put on carts that are brought to the train.

As part of the arrangement, Amtrak could lease space in or next to stations where possible to eliminate the need for trucking. The guaranteed business would make the location desirable, and unlike on a train could be open to others too.

Once on board, the train attendants would take the carts with their car's orders and distribute them to the passengers. Empty trays and carts could be taken off at the next meal point, where they would be loaded and sent back in the other direction.

Unlike past attempts (such as where New York state attempted to contract out food service to a Subway franchise), all on-board work would continue to be handled by railroad employees (see Subway pulls out of Amtrak). Amtrak currently occasionally orders and hands out meals from major restaurants when dining cars become unusable or delays occur and contingency stock is unavailable, and this would be an extension of that.

A downside is that it would require people to decide on meals in advance (though some extras could be loaded onto the train and sold in the cafe), and there presumably would be no table service, instead requiring people to eat at their seats or in the lounge car. Breakfast would be an issue since people would have to be up early to order then wait, or do so the evening before. Delays would also complicate the situation, though if a chain was used it might be possible to have alternate locations near previous stops.

In addition, trains would need have the ability to load and store the carts. Superliner trains would need onboard lifts to bring them to the upper level for efficient distribution, though such lifts could also be potentially used to enhance accessibility (disabled riders are currently restricted to the lower level of their car).

By Jason McHuff,