Southwest Chief food service to remain intact

Chad Frey Newton Kansan @ChadFrey

In one of the social media groups that Evan Stair, president of Passenger Rail Oklahoma and Passenger Rail Kansas, helps maintain a rumor popped up this week that made him concerned.

Passengers claimed that Amtrak staff were preparing for the dining car to be removed from the Southwest Chief.

“The dining car is a loss leader for the passenger train.  It always has been,” Stair wrote in an email to The Newton Kansan.

It was a rumor that grabbed the attention of members of the “Friends of the Southwest Chief” Facebook group — namely because there have been changes to food offerings on other trains this year, and this year Amtrak announced intentions to make changes to the Southwest Chief that included putting in a bus bridge between Garden City, Kansas, and Albuquerque, New Mexico as early as Jan. 1.

Amtrak backed away from the bus bridge after proposed funding changes by Sen. Jerry Moran (R-Kan.) and the Senate as a whole.

But then this rumor surfaced — and it is, apparently, only a rumor.

Marc Magliari, Public Relations Manager for Amtrak, told the Newton Kansan that not only is Amtrak not planning to pull the dining car, but that the idea has not even been discussed by Amtrak.

John Feltz, a vice president for the Transporation Workers Union, told the Kansan the union has not received any notification that changes are being considered — but did discuss where the rumor may have started.

“What they did do this year was send out a request for information on different catering services on how they would change the service that Amtrak has now,” Feltz said. “That was on the complete system. It is an obstacle we are fighting now. … at the end of this RFI they asked their vendors to give them ideas and costs with, and without, Amtrak employees. That gives me a hint that they are looking at getting rid of the on-board service people.”

It is unclear what that would actually mean for food service on long-distance trains like the Southwest Chief.

There is a federal code that requires Amtrak to at least break even with food service by 2020 — 49 USC 24321 which states "Not later than 90 days after the date of enactment of the Passenger Rail Reform and Investment  Act of 2015, Amtrak shall develop and begin implementing a plan to eliminate, within five years of such date of enactment, the operating loss associated with providing food and beverage service onboard Amtrak trains."

“We are striving to meet a national requirement, which is a mandate across our services,” Magliari said.

Amtrak did make food service changes on two different trains this year — replacing traditional dining car service on the Lake Shore Limited and Capitol Limited — trains serving the eastern half of the nation — with pre-boxed lunches marketed as “contemporary and fresh dining choices.”

Those lunches contain cold sandwiches. Amtrak later added one hot meal to those trains' menus.

When asked, Magliari said those kinds of changes are not being considered for the Southwest Chief.

“Menus are updated regularly across the system,” Magliari said. “If … you mean Contemporary Dining such as on the Lake Shore Limited and Capitol Limited? No. Note those eastern trains cover a shorter distance in than those in the west and do not have a full cycle of meals due to their travel times.”

“They have limited that right now,” Feltz added. “We have not heard about anything like that with any other trains.”