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In transportation bill, a call for finer dining on Amtrak

Halt of restaurant-style dining, critics say, is part of an effort to make long-distance routes less appealing

A waitress takes an order on an Amtrak dining car.
A waitress takes an order on an Amtrak dining car. (Jeffrey Greenberg/Universal Images Group via Getty Images)

When the head of Amtrak faced the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee in November, Rep. Steve Cohen unloaded his frustration with the railway — specifically, the food service.

Remembering a trip from Memphis to Chicago as a child when he sampled “outstanding French toast” and the “thickest, finest filet mignon,” Cohen lamented Amtrak’s decision in September to replace that with what it calls “flexible dining” — a service of prepackaged, reheatable meals. 

“You really should consider the humanity, romance and the appeal of the train travel with food, which is important and good,” said the Tennessee Democrat, who in March munched from a bucket of Kentucky Fried Chicken at a Judiciary Committee impeachment hearing to underscore his suggestion that Attorney General William Barr was afraid to attend.

Cohen’s frustration with the state of dining on Amtrak isn’t just one lawmaker’s whim. Amtrak’s decision to forgo its traditional white-tablecloth dining experience on most long-distance routes east of the Mississippi River — and, at least temporarily during the pandemic, on all long-distance routes — has sparked outrage among labor unions and rail passenger groups.

It also inspired six pages about Amtrak food service in the 2,309-page House Democratic infrastructure bill that will be debated on the floor this week.

And it’s sparked a more fundamental criticism about Amtrak itself: The company’s decision to cut a popular service, critics say, is part of an effort to make long-distance routes, which have long been a target of proposed Trump administration budget cuts, as unattractive as possible. 

“The ideological benefits of phasing out long-distance trains appear to be a worthwhile price for them to pay, even if they lose some revenue on the deal,” said David Peter Alan, chairman of the Lackawanna Coalition, an independent, nonprofit organization that advocates for better passenger rail service. He said cutting the dining service is “a very effective way of discouraging riders.”

The Democrats’ bill would require the railway to create a food and beverage working group staffed by representatives of Amtrak, labor and nonprofits representing passengers that would provide input on the menu, codifying the notion that passengers should get a say in what they eat on Amtrak.

Amtrak isn’t weighing in on the working group proposal, saying simply that it “supports the proposed historic investment in rail, and we look forward to continuing to work with Congress as they consider surface transportation reauthorization.” The overall bill includes $29 billion for Amtrak over five years.

Not for profit

Jim Mathews, president and CEO of the Rail Passengers Association in Washington, said when Amtrak was created in 1971, it was done to provide services to places private industry was unwilling to serve. The government subsidies provided by the taxpayers would benefit the communities served by Amtrak, bringing in visitors, jobs and possibly tourist dollars. 

“Amtrak is not supposed to make a profit,” said Mathews. “They make money for the communities they serve.”

But the focus, he said, has shifted. When Congress passed the last surface transportation law in 2015, it included language pushed by then-Rep. John Mica, R-Fla., requiring Amtrak to develop and implement a plan to eliminate the losses from its food and beverage service in five years. 

That wasn’t the first time Congress took aim at Amtrak’s food services: Amtrak was required by Congress to turn a profit from its food and beverage service in 1981, but the railroad did not comply. 

$16 hamburger

Mica blasted the rail service at a 2012 hearing for losing $833 million on food over the previous decade.

“It costs passengers $9.50 to buy a cheeseburger on Amtrak, but the cost to taxpayers is $16.15,” Mica said then. “Riders pay $2 for a Pepsi, but each of these sodas costs the U.S. Treasury $3.40.”

Eight years and a Democratic majority later, that sentiment has shifted. Democrats now say passengers have paid a price for the cost cutting, leading Marc Scribner, a senior transportation policy analyst with the libertarian Reason Foundation, to say it’s a case of “the pendulum swinging back in the other direction.”

“Making customer interactions, food and beverage service, and police protection worse decreases Amtrak’s attractiveness to potential riders,” Rep. Daniel Lipinski, D-Ill., chairman of the Subcommittee on Railroads, Pipelines, and Hazardous Materials, said in November. “You do not get more riders or more revenue with a worse product.”

Mathews said the debate has been mischaracterized as one in which hoity-toity dining service has been replaced by more accessible options. 

“There’s this idea of rich old people having government-subsidized first-class meals crossing the country on land cruises,” he said. “But let’s look at the actual reality … even if you’re on a train for eight hours or nine or 10, you’ve still got to eat.”

Amtrak’s key ridership includes the disabled and the elderly. “These are people with health concerns,” he said. “These are people who can’t tolerate piles of sodium and hot dogs and pizza.” 

Freshly prepared

Jack Dinsdale, national vice president of the Transportation Communication Union, said the language in the infrastructure bill “is Congress stating the obvious: no one wants to eat multiple boxed meals on long train trips, when part of the onboard experience is enjoying the freshly prepared food service.”

Scribner said by focusing on food, Congress is successfully avoiding larger questions about the future of Amtrak. 

“I think Congress has to get serious about major structural reforms to Amtrak,” he said, saying they should remove language requiring that Amtrak break even on food and beverages but consider contracting out service instead, finding lower costs but better solutions from the private sector.

Beyond the six pages on dining, the bill makes small but fundamental tweaks to the goals of the service, a nod to the larger concerns expressed by Lipinski. Current law says Amtrak should “achieve a performance level sufficient to justify expending public money.” The Democrats’ bill removes that language, instead saying the goal is to “meet the passenger rail needs of the United States.”

The bill also removes existing language requiring Amtrak to “use its best business judgment in acting to minimize United States Government subsidies,” instead saying the railway should “use its best business judgment in acting to maximize the benefits of public funding.”

It’s a semantic but seismic change, said Mathews.

“The law that set up Amtrak doesn’t say it needs to make a profit. It says it ought to run a tight ship, it ought not waste money,” he said. “One of the best things HR 2 does is take that message delivered years ago and really, really hammers it home by making changes up and down about the mission, about the profitability, about removing any ambiguity about it.” 

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