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Western Dining Changes: Temporary But Needed

April 14, 2020

Amtrak Will Re-assess Dining By The End of May

By Jim Mathews / President & CEO

When Amtrak reached out last week to let us know they would be temporarily implementing Flexible Dining systemwide, I knew our members would have questions. Today, I was able to speak with the VP of long distance, Larry Chestler, to get the details so I can share the answers with you.

This coming Friday Flexible Dining will roll out across Amtrak’s Network. It’s just one of several steps the railroad has had to take to cope with the coronavirus outbreak.

No, it’s not permanent. No, it’s not a “stealth” move to adopt a cheaper dining model to the whole system, nor is it a way to undermine service quality so as to guarantee the National Network’s demise.

Let’s face it, Amtrak turned off the Acela service a couple of weeks ago, but nobody has flooded my voicemail or email to claim that this is Amtrak’s way of killing off the Northeast Corridor.

In fact, it’s about safety...yours and that of employees. Which is what it ought to be. We shouldn’t forget that hundreds of thousands of American transit workers are showing great bravery each and every day to keep essential lines of transportation open—for healthcare workers, for grocery store employees and other essential businesses. At times, this has come with at a great cost—New York City’s MTA has lost more than 50 of its employees to coronavirus, with over 1,900 more testing positive.

We all have a role to play in keeping each other safe. And that's one reason we're encouraging members of Congress to get behind a sign-on effort to support transit worker safety being led by a bi-partisan group of Representatives including Representatives Seth Moulton of Massachusetts, Tom Malinowski of New Jersey, Brian Fitzpatrick of Pennsylvania, and Don Bacon of Nebraska. Find out how to take part here.

I spoke with Larry this afternoon about the policies Amtrak is implementing to keep its customers and employees safe. As most of you know, we fought alongside many others to get a little more than $1 billion included in the CARES Act coronavirus rescue bill for Amtrak, whose ridership has collapsed in the crisis. The idea behind that money is to keep employees on the payroll, but not necessarily to keep them out on the road.

Enter the Flexible Dining model. Instead of a chef, a food-service specialist and an attendant to run the dining car on each of 30 trains operating each day across the Network (one in each direction for each route), Flexible dining can be delivered by a single employee. This lets Amtrak move those other employees on to the Extra Board and off the train, where they can keep getting paid but not worry about getting sick or getting others sick.

Let’s do a little back-of-the-Amtrak-napkin math: on a typical day on the National Network, some 90,000 passengers are riding the trains. Today, that number is hovering around 4,000. Systemwide. Preserving a full dining-car experience in that environment is simply untenable, as well as potentially unsafe.

How long will it last? Chestler emphasized to me that it is intended to be temporary, and in fact management plans to re-examine the need for this move periodically to see when traditional dining can be restored. He told me that, for now at least, they’re looking at doing this through the end of May.

I ventured that this might be an optimistic estimate given that coronavirus infection rates are only beginning to climb now in many Midwestern states and rural communities. Moreover, there’s the risk of bringing “normal” service back too quickly – we’ve already seen in South Korea and China infection spikes after authorities felt they were out of the woods.

He acknowledged that there’s no way for anyone to know what is really possible and what might even happen tomorrow, let alone by the end of May. But management is really focused right now on simultaneously providing “essential service” and protecting passengers and crew, and is committed to looking at the situation again every few weeks to decide how best to restore regular service.

The dining change is only one of many coronavirus-related adjustments Amtrak has had to make. I mentioned the Acela suspension earlier. Many frequencies have been cut. The Downeaster will suspend service. Most shorter state-supported trains have stopped operating Café Car service.

Amtrak coach and business cabin ticket sales are being capped at 50% of seating capacity in a quest to ensure social-distancing. Chestler noted that with ridership down 90% to 95%, that hasn’t been a big issue anyway. But for some trains it was a concern, and that’s why Amtrak took steps to limit those bookings.

One outlier, apparently, is the Auto Train. Amtrak has had very strong demand for trips northbound out of Florida...strong enough that they have had to add coaches and Sleepers to handle the demand. The extra coaches are used to ensure that passengers are able to sit far apart from one another, while at one point recently Amtrak had to operate the Auto Train with nine Sleepers. The railroad expects to add a seventh Sleeper later this month to accommodate additional bookings northbound.

The Auto Train dining service will remain as it is with the Traditional dining model; however, meals will be served in passengers’ rooms.

I’d also like to tackle head-on the hypothesis that Amtrak is secretly working to kill the Network. If that’s what they’re doing, they’re doing a lousy job of it. Ridership continues to set records, and Amtrak continues to ask Congress for additional investment in long-distance assets. In its Fiscal 2021 budget request, Amtrak unveiled a bold plan that included a combination of refreshes and new procurement to replace Superliners, as well as plans for new long-distance locomotives.

Furthermore, Congress has demonstrated that it very much wants to see Amtrak continue to operate a National Network and to grow service in communities around the country where today service is either light or nonexistent.

Rail Passengers and its allies in Washington have also continued to work on shaping an infrastructure package that may be in the works to stimulate our now-reeling economy. Amtrak’s own proposals, which we’re helping to advance among congressional offices, include $30 billion for the National Network and $25 billion for the Northeast Corridor. New rolling stock is at the top of the National Network list.

All of this points to an Amtrak that is facing the same crisis that you and I are facing. And, like you and I, they’re doing their best with the resources they’ve been given to hold on tight and get through the worst of it while planning for a bigger and brighter future. That’s not a crazy aspiration – through February, when coronavirus began to hit hard, Amtrak was heading for record-breaking ridership and enjoyed nearly unprecedented congressional support. Whether traditional dining-car service returns to the Western trains by Memorial Day, Labor Day or Halloween, everyone from management to legislators and your Association leadership is working towards a system that will be better and stronger than ever.