Din­ing car gets axed on tax-eat­ing Am­trak

The Washington Times Weekly - - Commentary -

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 govern­men­towned 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 prepack­aged 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 con­tent­free 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.

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.

Ethan Ep­stein is deputy opin­ion edi­tor of The Wash­ing­ton Times. Con­tact him at eep­[email protected]­ing­ton­times.com or on Twit­ter @ethanep­sti­i­i­ine.

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