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Does Amtrak Know
Why We Ride The Trains?

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Diner Lite

My comments on this topic are a result of the uproar over "Diner Lite" replacing full Dining Car service on the Amtrak long-distance trains. Many Amtrak riders are upset, complaining that full Dining Car service is an integral part of their train ride and that they will not ride without this service. Since the cost of meals in the Dining Car are included in the Sleeping Car Accommodation Price, I would assume that those who usually travel in the Sleeping Cars are more upset over this reduction in dining service than coach class riders. But, I could be wrong.

Some passengers are predicting a tremendous drop-off of ridership on the long distance Amtrak trains as "Diner Lite" is phased in. There is already some data to back up this prediction. Following the reduction of dining service on Amtrak's Acela trains on the east coast, ridership and revenue decreased. As a result, Amtrak improved the Acela dining service and saw some of the lost ridership and revenues return to previous levels.

There is no question that it costs Amtrak more to operate its food service than the revenue that it generates. However, it is not an easy task to get a solid handle on these numbers. Some of the costs are probably not too hard to calculate. The cost to purchase the food would not be a difficult number to calculate. Probably the greatest cost factor in the operation of the onboard food service is the salaries of all the staff devoted to providing the food service, both on and off the train. Another cost factor that is a bit more difficult to accurately calculate is the cost of having the Dining and Cafe Cars in the train set. Every train car in an Amtrak train set has operational costs, depreciation costs, and a host of other overhead costs allocated to it using formulas that will always be of questionable accuracy and fairness.

Thus, the "cost" side of providing food service on Amtrak long distance trains is a very hazy figure. Unfortunatly, the degree of profit or loss of providing food service on the train is going to be measured against this figure.

The income side of things is an even more complex matter. It is not too difficult to calculate the total amount of money spent by Coach Passengers in the Dining Car, by Sleeping Car Passengers on alcoholic beverages in the Dining Car (not included in their accommodation price) and by all passengers in the Cafe Car. A portion of the Sleeping Car Accommodation Price is allocated to cover food service in the Dining Car. I'm sure Amtrak has an exact formula for calculating the amount out of each Sleeping Car ticket, but calculating what would be a fair amount to allocate to Dining Car food service is another matter all together.

For a simple example, let's talk about passengers in what Amtrak calls a "Room" in a Sleeping Car. Amtrak used to call this a "Deluxe Room", but now just calls it a "Room" or a "Bedroom". Amtrak promotes a Room as accommodating 2 passengers. They used to promote it as accommodating 3 passengers and will still let you book 3 passengers into a "Room." But, they just don't promote it this way anymore.

The question is: how much of the accommodation price for the room goes to cover the food costs in the Dining Car for the passengers in the Room? You will find that the cost of the Room does not vary regardless of whether you book the Room for 1, 2 or 3 passengers. The base cost of travel will vary with the number of passengers, but not the amount that you pay to upgrade from Coach Fare to a Room in the Sleeping Car. That amount is the same regardless of whehter there will be 1, 2 or 3 passengers in your Room. Does the amount of the ticket price that goes to cover food service in the Dining Car vary with the number of passengers in the Room? I don't think so. If it did, then why doesn't Amtrak charge more based on the number of passengers in your Room?

So, who is getting the raw end of the deal? If you travel alone in a Room, are you paying for Dining Car food service for two people and thus being ripped off? Or, is the Dining Car being shorted when there is more than one person in your Room? Does the Dining Car not enough allocated to it out of the cost of your accommodation to cover the extra 1 or 2 people in your room? That would certainly generate unfair loses for the Dining Car profit/loss calculations.

Since sometimes there are 3 people in a Room and sometimes just 1 person, maybe it all averages out. But what about the Roomettes (that used to be called Economy Rooms)? There are 10 of those in every Sleeping Car, and often 20 to 30 of them in every Amtrak long distance train set. Quite often one person will travel alone in a Roomette, but there is just as frequently 2 people in a Roomette. Does the ticket price of each Roomette cover the cost of food service in the Dining Car for 1 person or for 2 people? When you pay for a Roomette, are you paying for 1 person or 2 people to eat in the Dining Car? Then there is the issue of how many meals you get on the train depending on where you get on and off the train.

Actually, I think it all comes down to a matter of "funny money". There is no real correlation between how many people are in your Sleeping Car Accommodation or how many meals you will receive based on where you board and depart. I think there is just a certain percentage of overall Sleeping Car revenue that is allocated to cover the cost of operation of the Dining Car.

That makes the entire concept of the financial viability of the Dining Car a whole different matter. The real question is, will the reduction of Dining Car service reduce the ridership in the Sleeping Cars such that there is a negative impact on the overall Sleeping Car revenues. Thus, one has to examine the total revenue of both the Sleeping Cars and Dining Car, and the total cost to operate the Sleeping Cars and Dining Car. One has to examine the effect of reduced Dining Car service on the combined Sleeping Car / Dining Car revnue and combined Sleeping Car / Dininig Car costs.

Would reducing Dining Car service really reduce Sleeping Car ridership? And if so, would it reduce Sleeping Car revenues by more than the costs saved by providing reduced Dining Car services?

Bus Substitution

Coach vs. Sleeper

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