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Amtrak's Simplified Dining Service (SDS)

Steve Grande, Producer - Carl Morrison, Editor


This work-in-porgress report is a compilation of e-mails, starting in the Spring of 2006, obtained by TrainWeb.com about Amtrak's Simplified Dining Service (SDS). (Note to those that have composed the e-mails republished here: If we have published your e-mail without having received prior permission and you wish it removed, please notify us by sending e-mail to steve@trainweb.com and we will remove it immediately. We do believe that we have contacted each person and received their permission to republish their e-mails in this compilation.) The e-mails fall into the following categories :
  • commentaries
  • photos
  • links
  • history
  • reaction
  • current status
  • future plans
  • reconfigured Diner-Lite cars
  • extended hours on those cars
Disclaimer:  Editorial changes may have been made to the feedback, which sometimes inappropriately used the term "Diner Lite".  When changed, the Editor will follow the inappropriate words with the correct words in [brackets]. It is TrainWeb's position to remain neutral on this change at Amtrak, and provide you with the information that we have received.  Our lead article by Matthew Melzer follows.

The Implications of Recent and Ongoing Changes
in Amtrak's Food Service

Introduction and Report
By Matthew Melzer,  Sun, 09 Apr 2006

Unlike other intercity and interstate transportation providers, Amtrak must each year request an appropriated subsidy from Congress to support the inherently unprofitable business of moving passengers. The funding battle for Fiscal Year 2006 (which began on October 1, 2005) was a particularly tumultuous one for rail advocates, who faced not only record federal budget deficits and competing priorities, but also the specter of a zero-budget request from a White House that wantonly engaged in a vocal smear campaign against Amtrak. Congress came through with just under $1.3 billion for Amtrak for FY2006, a record amount.

But these monies came with strings attached (since dubbed acts of “micromismanagement”), such as fare discount restrictions and a mandate to alter the finances of Amtrak's relationships with commuter railroads hosted on the Northeast Corridor. All eyes, however,have been on Amtrak's procurement of on-board food services. The appropriations bill stipulates that, by July 1, 2006, the US Department of Transportation Inspector General must certify that “operational savings” have been achieved, or federal funding for both sleeping cars and food service will end. Amtrak's supporters have maintained that this proviso is a back-door attack on long-distance trains, which would not be viable without sleeping car service, and especially without decent food service. Amtrak states that food service is a “loss leader,” a venture that does not turn a profit but is essential to treating passengers well and retaining them as future customers. But in July 2005, DOT IG Kenneth Mead (who has since resigned) issued an inflammatory report that used dubious figures and sophistry to assert that Amtrak could slash its way to profitability by cutting sleeping and dining services, an argument that gained credence among certain Congressional leadership and led to the mandate for “operational savings.”

Amtrak did concede that it could achieve efficiencies in its food service operations. For example, the terms of Amtrak's provisioning contract with the institutional food provider GateGourmet became much more favorable when a renewed contract became effective New Year's Day, 2006. Amtrak is also exploring bringing in private companies to operate the on-board food service itself. These attempts have been met with stiff opposition from organized labor; Amtrak's union employees have been working for several years without a contract and see most attempts at “efficiencies” as an affront to their livelihood. For example, in July, Amtrak eliminated cafe cars from New York-Albany Empire Service trains. In late November, Amtrak announced that a Subway Restaurant franchise would sell their goods aboard Empire Service trains. Union workers were outraged, especially since Subway employees received no railroad operational safety training and were to act like passengers and take no corrective actions in case of emergencies or other safety hazards. The Subway program quietly died after just a few days. But Amtrak vowed to explore other such relationships with the private sector. One strong rumor was that Amtrak was in talks with Marriott regarding the operation of sleeping cars.

The most noticeable change in light of the food service proviso has been the deployment of “Simplified Dining Service” in the dining cars of long-distance trains. Simplified dining involves keeping both the dining and lounge cars, but altering the formal dining cars with reduced staffing. There are three servers (including help from train attendants) and one chef. This means no use of the griddle, and limited dishwashing due to new china and glassware that's disposable but sturdy. Individual entree servings are prepared off-train, reheated aboard in convection (not microwave) ovens, and served with freshly cooked starch and vegetables. Reservations are required for all meal periods, breakfast, lunch, and dinner.  Staggered seating (with reservations every 15 minutes), along with longer meal periods and no dedicated crew dining table in diner, will allow more passengers to be served and hopefully lead to revenue enhancement from paying coach passengers. Amtrak estimates that SDS will save $10 million annually, mostly due to the 100 or so positions that have been eliminated under reduced staffing. However, extra staff will be deployed to diners when demand necessitates it.

Simplified dining began on Texas Eagle and City of New Orleans on an experimental basis in December. Extensive feedback from employees and customers has already led to improvements in menu offerings, food quality, prices, and service delivery. By May 24, nearly all long-distance trains will operate with SDS. The Auto Train and recently-upgraded Empire Builder, however, will retain full traditional dining. The Coast Starlight will continue to retain its first-class lounge Pacific Parlour Cars, which are currently being cycled through the Beech Grove shops for overhaul.

Amtrak hopes that the quality of SDS will continue to improve to the point where passengers will not know the difference at all between SDS and the traditional arrangement. However, much work remains to be done. Passenger reviews of SDS have been mixed, with some items have been received atrociously. The SDS project is dynamic, and Amtrak is updating the menus periodically. For example, Amtrak learned that pre-plated omelettes are unfailingly tasteless, and will soon make fresh eggs available once again. Brian Rosenwald, who oversaw Coast Starlight Product Line improvements last decade and last year's Empire Builder relaunch, is working on this project. He and his colleagues have stated that they're committed to making SDS a success. Managers have been riding the system to test the menu and gather feedback from passengers and crew. Most crucially, Amtrak needs to hear from as many passengers as possible regarding their dining experiences. Amtrak won't be able to make every passenger happy, but they may be able to mostly satiate the masses if they can identify and rectify common issues that arise. The National Association of Railroad Passengers is also working closely with Amtrak on food service changes, and NARP urges its members to also send NARP their SDS experiences.

One moniker that has become inappropriately attached to the SDS project is the “Diner Lite” concept. While diners serving SDS may be “lite”-er in some aspects, Diner Lite pertains to a very specific proposal to consolidate all food service functions (formal dining and informal lounge service) into one car. Amtrak is building Diner Lite prototypes with Amfleet II and Superliner cars, and hopes to test the concept in service in 2007. Amtrak has recognized that some routes have such volume as to warrant two food service cars. So, many routes that currently have a diner and a lounge may continue to have two such cars, they will just both be the same identical, all-purpose food service cars.

But for the time being, there remains no such thing as Diner Lite. All that has changed is the structure of continued service in the traditional dining cars. If SDS turns out to be a failure, it would not be difficult for Amtrak to revert to its previous practices. Food service had also deteriorated under previous “micromismanagement” during the 1980s, but subsequently improved after passengers made their voices heard. This is why it's crucial for Amtrak's passengers to be as vocal as possible regarding food service. We must make clear that we will vote with our dollars and not give business to a company that fails to properly nourish its passengers traveling long distances. At the same time, rail passengers should vehemently oppose sinister market distortions imposed by Congress that might be designed precisely to cause Amtrak to hemorrhage riders. The traveling public deserves transportation choices, as much as they deserve access to healthy food served with a smile. We must press Amtrak and its funders to deliver both, in a safe and effective manner.

Simplified Dining Service (SDS)
Table of Contents

1.  Comments by John Bredin 
Tue, 07 Feb 2006

2.  Andrew Smith's The Capitol Limited Menu and Comments 
Wed, 15 Mar 2006

3.  Comments by Tom Hoffman
30 Mar 2006

4.  Amtrak Sunset Limited
A Brief Travelogue for A Brief Trip by Bob Manning
31 Mar 2006 - (including comments on SDS)

5.  Matthew Melzer's Comments
Fri, 07 Apr 2006

6.  Ed Von Nordeck Comments 
Fri, 07 Apr 2006 16:40:51

7. PD's Comments in reference to #5 above.  
Fri, 07 Apr 2006 16:43:29 -0700 (PDT)

8.  Russ Jackson's Reply to #5 above. 
Fri, 07 Apr 2006 01:42:05 PM Pacific Daylight Time

9.  Matthew Melzer's Reference to an article 
Fri, 07 Apr 2006 17:18:30

10. James Smith's Trip Report including SDS
Mon, 10 Apr 2006 22:18:01 EDT

11. Chris Guenzler's Trip Report including SDS 
April 13, 2006 - (Many Photos of SDS Meals)

12. Matthew Mezler's Updated Report on SDS 
April 29, 2006

      Steve Grande's Personal Perspective

Some closing notes:

On April 28, 2006, Acting Amtrak President/CEO David Hughes Addressed the NARP Board. Regarding Simplified Dining Service, Hughes said failure is not an option. If it isn't good, we'll fix it. Regarding the next step, the physical modification of dining and lounge cars, Hughes said we're building a prototype at Wilmington now.

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