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AMTRAK on the Fast (Food) Track?
AMTRAK’s Congressional foes are at it again, plotting the demise of America’s passenger rail service by a thousand cuts; the newest ploy, convert the dining car into some sort of rolling McDonald’s.
Some Republican Members of Congress are demanding AMTRAK contract out its food and beverage services to the lowest bidder. Their argument goes something like this:
AMTRAK’S food and beverage service, as a separate budgetary item, loses money every year. Congress needs to stop these losses, so let’s, by full force of the law, mandate that AMTRAK contract out its dining service to the lowest bidder in the private sector. Surely, they further argue, the private sector can make a buck selling burgers.
Well, hope springs eternal that my Republican friends heard enough evidence to dissuade them from what I consider to be a penny-wise and pound-foolish proposal. I believe such a move would hurt AMTRAK’s long range economic bottom line, by inflaming passenger dissatisfaction causing many to seek alternative travel. In fact, eliminating dining car service on long distance trains will cost Amtrak a staggering $93 million in lost revenues. Eliminating all food service: $184 million in lost revenues. Even worse, the proposal, according to Amtrak’s President and CEO Joseph Boardman, would result in the immediate elimination of 1,243 well paying Amtrak jobs. Lowest bidder, after all, is code for lowest wages, lowest benefits. Frankly, these young people attracted to such lower wage positions in the food and beverage industry to help them pay for college or start out with a young family would find the work schedule of the average AMTRAK employee simply unworkable. Little thought has been given to the increased cost of training that would be necessary by the higher turnover of contract employees. Finally, and worst of all, passenger safety would ultimately be compromised by less trained, less experienced contract employees.
Most of us who ride AMTRAK don’t get to witness all the important functions the friendly faces who take our food orders are capable of performing when an emergency need arises. Let me share with you some insight from, Mr. Dwayne Bateman, a thirty-five year AMTRAK food and beverage service employee who testified at the recent hearing. He spelled out the extensive training and knowledge that a current employee must be able to fully command.
Mr. Bateman began his testimony with this declaration, “the first job of every AMTRAK worker is safety.” He then presented an entire roster of training requirements including:
- Emergency Preparedness Training: to respond to any emergency situation, such as a derailment, service interruption or fire, injuries and illnesses, including emergency care training required every two years that covers CPR and the use of automatic defibrillators.
- On-Board Passenger Safety Training: to assist passengers with basic but important requirements while on board, such as wearing shoes at all times, not standing in vestibules, no running, using seatbacks and luggage racks for stability, and safe boarding and exiting.
- Training to Assist Passengers with Disabilities: both non-wheelchair and wheel-chair assistance, and service animals.
- Emergency Evacuation Training: to evacuate passengers from trains in the event of an emergency, to use emergency on-board equipment and to respond to particular types of accidents, such as train emergencies in tunnels.
- Training on Responding Bomb threats/Unattended Items: to be prepared to respond in the event of a bomb threat or other terrorist activity, and training to be vigilant for unattended items and how to respond.
- Training on FDA Rules and Inspections: employees are governed U.S. Food and Drug Administration policies and procedures for the safe handling of food, the inspection and monitoring of food service equipment, including refrigerators and freezers, and safe procedures for supplying coaches with water and refilling storage tanks.
Mr. Bateman joins the other 1,242 dedicated AMTRAK food and beverage employees who would be given their walking papers if this ill-conceived plan is made law. For the Congress to disavow the institutional experience this corps of loyal workers possesses and who, day and night, put it to work for the American taxpaying family would be a disservice to both taxpayers and families.
AMTRAK has made some needed improvements to its food and beverage service and can and should improve its operation in the future. But those in Congress, who are so quick to judge, need to recall Congress’s own track record in micromanaging AMTRAK’s menu. When Congress fiddled by law with the food and beverage service in 1981, the railroad responded by cutting services.
It switched from metal and ceramic dinnerware to plastic (only to later learn that it was cheaper to use the metal and ceramic dinnerware), from cloth table cloths to vinyl, and from linen napkins to paper. The railroad also tried using nothing but pre-plated microwaveable meals, leading former Amtrak CEO W. Graham Claytor to lament to Congress: “In trying to make food service cheap, we made some of it inedible.”
Now the Republicans want to sacrifice workers for even cheaper cheeseburgers. That’s a Whopper of a bad idea if I ever heard one.
U.S. Rep. Nick Rahall (D-WV) represents West Virginia’s 3rd District
For more information contact: Diane Luensmann (202) 225-3452