Expanding Capacity and Dining Car Service Moving at Slow Pace, Amtrak Officials Say

Top Amtrak executives gave a glimpse of Amtrak’s near-term future this week during a meeting of the Rail Passengers Association and many rail advocates are likely to frustrated and encouraged at the same time by what they heard.

On the positive side, Amtrak is moving to make dining car meals available to passengers other than just those holding sleeper class tickets. It is even working toward upgrading dining car meals on eastern long distance trains.

Yet it will take some time before coach passengers anywhere will be able to buy dining car meals.

Also expected to take time will be increasing capacity on long-distance trains because the cars needed to do that are in storage and Amtrak needs to bolster its mechanical work force before those cars can be put back into revenue service.

Amtrak’s chief marketing and revenue officer, Roger Harris, said the passenger carrier is still seeking “to get the service right” before opening dining car meals to coach passengers.

A first step in that direction will be taken in October when business passengers aboard the Seattle-Los Angeles Coast Starlight will be able to buy dining car meals.

Harris cited a litany of factors for moving slowly to open up dining car meals to more passengers.

He said many on-board crew members have returned from furloughs imposed during the COVID-19 pandemic and Amtrak doesn’t want to overwhelm them with such tasks as collecting cash and overseeing COVID restrictions.

“Our intention all along was to get to a point where we could offer it to coach customers,” Harris said.

He described the Coast Starlight move as a trial run to see how it plays out.

“The idea is to start small and work through the issues that we inevitably will encounter by opening up the dining car to more customers,” Harris said. “Then if the test is successful, we will roll it out to additional markets.”

As for the eastern trains, Harris said Amtrak is consulting with a food vendor who has worked with the passenger carrier to enhance meals served on Acela trains in the Northeast Corridor.

The vender is working with Amtrak “with a lot of menu items to find out what will work well within the constraints of single-level dining cars.” Harris said.

Harris acknowledged that many passengers riding eastern long-distance trains have complained about repetitive food offerings.

Starting in June 2018 Amtrak began moving away from full-service dining cars on eastern long-distance trains in favor of food prepared off the trains and reheated onboard.

That service eventually evolved to one bowl entrees with a few side items.

“By trying to offer different types of foods that are more appealing we think we can substantially upgrade the food offerings on the East Coast,” Harris said.

“We’re also looking at putting on new types of ovens and other kitchen equipment to be more creative in the types of food offerings we have.”

Amtrak initially chose its western long-distance trains for upgraded dining car service because it had the ability to restore employees on those trains and dining is such a critical part of the experience,” Harris said. “We wanted to live up to the expectations of our customers there.”

However, the return of full-service dining has yet to come to the Texas Eagle, in part because of equipment shortages that also have limited capacity of long distance trains.

Harris acknowledged that equipment shortages stem from decisions made last year about how much equipment to put in storage and how many mechanical jobs to cut.

At present, the Coast Starlight is the only Superliner-equipped long-distance trains with a coach devoted to business class.

Those passengers receive a free bottle of water and an “onboard credit for food and beverage purchases.”

Both the Eagle and the Capitol Limited have been operating for the past several months without a Sightseer Lounge car.

“Eighteen months ago we had to decide how much fleet we were going to be able to run and how much money we were going to spend on overhauls and how many employees we thought would be able to work on the equipment because we didn’t have enough demand to justify keeping the system running at historical levels and we didn’t think we would have enough money from Congress at that point,” Harris said.

“So what you see running on the system is all the equipment we have available,” he said.

He said some employees took early retirement, resulting in a reduced mechanical staff.

“We have to re-recruit for some of those [positions]; there is this unintended effect, but at this point unavoidable where we have to work through this backlog to get back to what was once our historic fleet availability, and that will take some time.”

He indicated that Amtrak is likely to be working through the winter to get transition sleepers back in service so that rooms now being taken by crew members can be sold to the public.

Also speaking to the RPA conference was Executive Vice President-Major Program Delivery Laura Mason.

She said the Amtrak would be able to step up replacement of aging equipment now used in the national network if Congress approves an infrastructure bill now pending in the House.

The bill has also received Senate approval. Of late, the infrastructure bill has been hindered by political wrangling in the House.

Even without the infusion of capital funding Amtrak hopes to get from the infrastructure bill, Harris said the carrier has been slowly replacing its fleet over the past five years with new Acela trainsets, new Viewliner cars and Venture cars being built by Siemens for use in state-funded corridor services.

Amtrak also has chosen Siemens to build replacement cars for Amfleet equipment used in the Northeast Corridor.

“This is not something Amtrak really has a deep bench on, in terms of doing procurements, so we really need to tackle these sequentially. So, there’s some elements of the Amfleet replacements that we need to wrap up still from that procurement, and then we will begin to have the capacity to work on the long-distance procurement,” Harris said.

Mason said Amtrak is “laying the groundwork to receive the substantial infusion of federal funding” contained in the infrastructure bill.

 “With the state of our infrastructure today and the funding that we have hopefully coming towards us with the infrastructure bill, we need to be able to build up the capacity to do multiple billion dollar programs, to have just not one focus but many,” she said.

 “We have $40 billion of planned critical infrastructure, facility and fleet investments that we need to turn into a reality.”

Mason also said Amtrak faces the challenge of recruiting future workers.

 “One of the big challenges to the industry is how do we get people excited and involved?” she said. “We need to recruit at all levels; I think entry-level is very important, but also mid-level.

“We need to bring in people from different industries and help them see the rewards that come from working in rail. That you can do well by doing good, and also that you can have a tremendous positive impact.

“I talk about this when I go out recruiting, about the impact. Do you want to affect tens of thousands of people a day? Hundreds of thousands? Millions of people a year? You can do that in transportation.”

She said Amtrak might need to appeal to younger would-be employees by tying the transportation industry to climate change.

“I say: Make it your day job; come work in rail. If you want to combat climate change, help be part of the solution of making rail and carbon neutral transportation an option for everybody,” Mason said.

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