Monday, April 17, 2006

What's Eating Amtrak?

Dinner in the diner. Drinks and snacks in the lounge. Activities revolving around food are part of the lore of the passenger train and certainly a big part of our everyday lives. When we vacation or travel for business, food becomes one of the perks. Even if we have to attend a stuffy business meeting, we can look forward to dinner in a new, if not fancy place afterwards. No matter how you got to the meeting, having new food experiences on the way and on the way back used to be something to anticipate.

Not if you fly or ride Amtrak these days.

What has happened to airline meals mirrors what happened to the great food service of Pullman Palace and Fred Harvey forty some years ago. In a funhouse sort of way. Because what is happening to airline food is grotesque.

George and Fred understood that eating is something we do naturally, compulsively, and almost always when we don't have anything else to do. These days, we also do it when we have nothing else to do but look at something, as in when we watch a movie or DVD, or when we watch the scenery roll by or pass underneath the aircraft. George Pullman and Fred Harvey built empires on the need of people to eat while traveling. They also saw the need for people to sleep, or to just get off the (fill in mode of transportation here) and stay still for awhile in a strange and exotic place. George wasn't into the food as much as the sleeping, and Fred only for awhile made sleeping accomodations available on trains. But Fred knew where to put a hotel.

But we digress, because my point is that What's Eating Amtrak is the same thing that's eating the rest of America. Politics.

Politics of late revolves around issues that mean nothing but hold the interest of a large group of people long enough that the politicians can slip something really important past that group. Amtrak is one of those "issues" that can be brought up at the drop of a hat when the discussion gets too hot on some other topic. Almost as many people have an opinion on Amtrak as they do on the War on Terror. Addressing Amtrak's "issues" is often done in rhetoric making it difficult to argue that anything is right about Amtrak.

Take the question of on-board food service. The rhetoric goes something like this: "Tax subsidies should not be used to provide services the public doesn't want. Amtrak diners do not cover cost, therefore, the public doesn't want dining car service enough to pay for it. If the public doesn't want it, then we shouldn't subsidize it." Does anyone see the falacy?

Amtrak riders want dining car service, and they are willing to pay for it. There is more than enough reason to believe that increased food prices accompanied by good food and good service would not deter ridership and may go further towards covering costs than cutting food service completely. Removing food service is undoubtedly one of the most idiotic things that the politicians and Amtrak's board ever thought of doing.

Removing diners and other food related services will undoubtedly reduce ridership, which will result in an Amtrak less ables to cover other costs. What will go next will be sleepers. This will reduce ridership further. The next thing they will take away is air conditioning, or seats, or . . . Amtrak.

© 2006 - C. A. Turek - mistertrains@gmail.com
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