Sunday, October 2, 2011

A Cash-Free Amtrak Dining Car?

As likely many of my readers here know, Amtrak is mandated under PRIIA '08 to prepare Performance Improvement Plans for each of its Long Distance routes. They have made, in my opinion, a sincere effort to comply with this provision. The Improvement Plan for all-single level trains other than The Cardinal, which was addressed in another report, has now been released.

I think this Plan, mandated under PRIIA 08, shows that reasonableness and practicality rule. There are no proposals to increase frequencies or to reroute away from existing routes. Advocates who seek an expansion of the Long Distance system will be disappointed.

The point I find most interesting is first introduced within the Report's Executive Summary:
Converting the Lake Shore Limited dining car to a “club-diner” is expectedto improve financial performance and customer service. In this pilot initiative, the dining car will operate as a cashless club-diner in which payments will be made by credit/debit cards; the diner will have extended hours for beverage service; and the lounge car menu will be upgraded to provide coach passengers wanting freshly prepared foods with an alternative to purchasing full meals in the diner. These changes will increase food service options and allow diner staff to serve customers during time now spent accounting for cash transactions. Separately, an analysis of meals served in the dining car was conducted and it was determined that one less food service employee would be required during off-peak periods.

I would think that anything, repeat anything, Amtrak could do to minimize, if not totally eliminate, the amount of cash (currency) 'sloshing" about on-board would benefit all, save the few dishonest employees "subjected to undue temptation' (I've seen that phrase within transcripts of hearings I reviewed while in Labor Relations with a Class I railroad).

The largest problem is that while the report notes that airlines have largely gone to a cash-free environment for in-flight purchases, it is a fairly safe assumption that any adult airline passenger has some kind of electronic transaction card (credit or debit); In fact, I think you need have one in order to purchase an airline ticket. The same can hardly be said of an Amtrak (or Greyhound) passenger - and these passengers have just as much "right' to purchase Food & Beverage on-board as do the others. What I fail to see addressed in the report is how to accommodate these passengers.

I would think some kind of prepaid meal arrangement could be offered definitely for the Diner and could even be implemented, even though the Report does not address such, for Snack Bar purchases. Passengers could purchase a 'gift card' prior to boarding, but I believe Amtrak would be obliged to make a ready refund without penalty of any amounts unused. The downside of this proposal is that impulse buying would be curtailed - and this would be of particular "hurt' for high margin alcoholic beverages.

While it can be easy to envision a cash free environment in a Snack Bar as well, let's address the Diner first, as unit accountability is in place for the Snack Bar inventory. The Diner is where Amtrak property can "grow legs' (much of same with railroad operated Diners as well).

All told, interesting idea that I think is long overdue.

The Report is worth a read - at least the Executive Summary.


  1. While it may be true that there are people on the train without credit/debit cards, they are probably not eating in the dinning car.

    The tradeoff here is to keep the dinner open for longer hours. That's a good cause!

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