There are many reasons to opt for taking Amtrak over flying or driving to your destination: the high costs, the surly service, and, above all, the frisson of excitement that comes from not knowing when — heck, even what day — you may arrive. Still others have an even more novel rationale for preferring America’s government-owned rail monopoly over other, more reliable conveyances: the food.
It turns out, you see, that Amtrak doesn’t only dish up the microwaved Hebrew National hot dogs and burnt coffee familiar to those of us who frequent the Northeast Corridor service that traverses the Boston to Washington megalopolis.
On longer routes — the Chicago to New Orleans line, for instance, and the New York to Miami node — Amtrak still offers a proper dining car, replete with white tablecloths, family-style dining, and steak cooked to order. But not for long. As of this week, Amtrak will end proper dining car service on several long-distance routes and instead offer pre-packaged meals. Passengers on higher fare tickets will still have access to a separate dining car, but gone will be the white linen tablecloths and general air of decadence.
On Twitter, Amtrak’s few fans bemoaned the decision. Author Neil Gaiman said the dining car is “part of what [makes Amtrak] magical.” Journalist Megan Messerly reported that the dining car was her “favorite part” of a recent rail journey. (Though come to think of it, Ms. Messerly’s comment could be interpreted in multiple ways: The Hebrew National hot dog was actually my favorite part of the 14-hour journey from Washington to New York!)
Amtrak blames changing consumer tastes — and particularly those millennials — for the shift.
The rail service wants to “lure a younger generation of new riders — chiefly, millennials known to be always on the run,” Washington’s other newspaper reported.
But that’s ludicrous: Nobody “on the run” takes a multiday Amtrak journey.
In reality, Amtrak’s decision is based on costs; kiboshing the dining car will save some $2 million a year, the rail service reckons. So what others see as a tragedy is in fact something altogether different: a good start.
Richard Anderson took over as Amtrak’s CEO in 2017. This was a very good sign for the ill-managed, money losing rail network. Mr. Anderson had just come off a remarkably successful tenure at Delta Air Lines. In Atlanta, he turned Delta from a perennial money loser into a highly profitable, operational dynamo. By the time he left, Delta was by far the country’s most reliable airline, lapping the field with far fewer cancellations and delays than the competition. It also offers far better service than other U.S. carriers. Oh, and Mr. Anderson made a bunch of money for shareholders too, no easy feat in the famously cutthroat aviation industry.
Now ensconced at Amtrak, Mr. Anderson is right to focus on paring back losses.
“Amtrak says it is profitable on the Northeast Corridor between Washington and Boston, where adjusted earnings were $524.1 million in fiscal 2018, including $318.8 million from the Acela express train. But the company lost more than $540 million on its 15 long-distance trains, which cover routes of 750 miles or more,” The Wall Street Journal reported this year. In fact, in its near 50-year history, Amtrak has not once turned a profit.
Given Amtrak’s high ticket prices, that means U.S. taxpayers have for decades subsidized what amounts to a luxury good accessible only to a small sliver of the U.S. population. Indeed, Mr. Anderson should consider going further than merely eliminating perks on money-losing long-distance routes, and considering ending some of them altogether.
Sure, Amtrak partisans will carp about such reforms; union leaders have already been vocal in their complaints that Mr. Anderson wants to “run Amtrak like an airline.” (Um, yes, that’s the point.) But oddly enough, the Democratic Party’s presidential front-runner, Joseph R. Biden, who famously loves Amtrak and used to commute on it daily between Washington and Wilmington, has been silent on the subject. Mr. Biden, of course, is running a largely content-free campaign, and his campaign ignored questions as to whether the former vice president will ever release a rail policy.
That’s doubly odd considering rail policy is urgent at the moment. “Overall Amtrak ridership has stagnated. At the same time, infrastructure challenges loom large, especially the stalemate around rebuilding Amtrak’s North Hudson River tunnels into and out of New York City … In addition, a large portion of Amtrak’s assets,” says Robert Puentes, president and CEO of the Eno Center for Transportation, a think tank.
In other words, Richard Anderson is right to cut back unnecessary spending — especially with big challenges looming. Sorry, Neil Gaiman, but I’m afraid you’re going to have to eat hot dogs along with the rest of us.
• Ethan Epstein is deputy opinion editor of The Washington Times. Contact him at [email protected] or on Twitter @ethanepstiiiine.