In the 1960s when nearly all the railroads were private sector, exactly one made profit on its food and beverage service --- the serially bankrupt New York, New Haven and Hartford Railroad, which made money selling gallons of alcohol to Connecticut-bound commuters headed toward their Fairfield County homes – a service continued today by MNCR/C-DOT. Neither Santa Fe’s outsourced “Meals by Fred Harvey” nor Southern Pacific’s “Automat” cars made money for those railroads.A bar car is somewhat cheaper to operate than a grill car or a full diner, even if a trainman (to use the proper steam-era job title) isn't assisting with the dishwashing.
On the other hand, Amtrak could easily add espresso and better grade pastries on Acela, where the market is less price sensitive, and more willing to buy quality food.
Southern Pacific's Automat cars were an attempt to reduce costs in the dining department. They also had the effect of discouraging passengers by degrading the service. The Interstate Commerce Commission and the railroad locked horns over whether the regulator had the authority to impose service standards. That wrangle was mooted by the passage of legislation creating Amtrak, which included requirements for food service on overnight and longer-haul trains. Food service, however, is satisfied by the provision of a single cafe car providing microwaved food with Gate Gourmet's indirect cost return included. Substituting better pastries, or adding espresso, might heighten the appeal of Acela first class service.
The Pacific Parlour Car on the Coast Starlight.
The provision of a full lounge car on more trains, so as to provide those libations to stressed Masters of the Universe, might do more for ridership and revenues. And Amtrak could take another page from the New Haven commissary manual, and sell advertising space on the menus.