Congressional hearing. Image courtesy The Heritage Foundation.
Representative Mica might not be the most dependable critic of Amtrak, as he'd apparently like Passenger Rail to go away. Bloomberg's Josh Barro comments.
Selling edible food at a profit is not rocket science. Even the airlines have increasingly figured out how to do so. If Amtrak can't do it itself, it could outsource its food service operations to a company like Gate Gourmet that has expertise in travel catering.In order of rising complexity, three observations. First, putting "edible food" within sixty words of "airline" strains credulity. Second, there might be a job description constraint that's raising reported food service costs. The superintendent of dining services for the North Shore Line reported that his department operated at a modest profit, right to the end. Perhaps the assistance of the collector in drying glassware and putting it away at the end of the run helped, as the transportation department paid the collector's wages for the trip. It might do something for Amtrak's goodwill, though, if housekeeping help from the assistant conductor would allow the snack-car attendant to remain open until the end of the run. The practice of keeping the snack-car closed until the train is well out of its originating station and closing it an hour out of the terminating station doesn't make the carrier many friends, no matter how helpful that clean-up time is to the attendant. And Rep. Rahall has a point. Food service attendants have to understand train safety in a way that the minimum wage kid at a bun-'n-run doesn't. Third, Amtrak's outsourcing might be the root of the problem. The Governmental Accountability Office report that has provided the material for Rep. Mica's recent hearing, and the accompanying grandstanding, identifies problems with internal controls and audits of Amtrak's contract for catering from ... Gate Gourmet. See page 82. Never mind all the verbiage about lack of a strategic plan or shortcomings in internal controls. The simplest explanation might be ... government contracting. Gate probably get indirect cost returns on each case of pop or cooler-pack of microwaveable hamburgers, and that has to contribute to the $3.40 Pepsi, the same way that a fighter-plane toilet seat becomes a $800 purchase. Amtrak could get its pop and chips more cheaply by issuing cash to snack-car attendants who would purchase cases of pop and chips from the grocer, an emergency measure that snack-car attendants sometimes use when supplies run out, and the method the North Shore Line used for some Electroliner provisions. Might even work as a small-business stimulus, a little bit of indirect cost return borne by the dining department, and a little bit borne by local householders, all over this land. The difficulty there, though, is that the same government report suggests there is some nest-feathering by some food service employees.
Why doesn't Amtrak do this? Nick Rahall, the ranking Democrat on the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, has one answer. He says Amtrak food service jobs are well-paying, and we shouldn't eliminate them, even if the food service is expensive and terrible. “It’s a whopper of an idea, trading good-paying jobs for cheaper hamburgers,” said Rahall.