October 23 2012
Could more reliance on the free market rectify my pet peeve about my otherwise enjoyed trips on Amtrak?
I’m already looking forward to taking the train to Richmond weekend after next. But I know there will be some anxious time early on when I will have to suppress anger. I will want a cuppa.
But the café staff will regard this as an unseemly intrusion on their preparation time. The cafe car will not be open until we are in Virginia. In my experience, the Washington, D.C.-New York run is the worst. I’ve had to wait for Baltimore for coffee.
Chuck Whelton, a former speech writer for both Ed Koch and Rudy Giuliani, recently took a trip on a train. It was the high prices—not the abysmal service—that attracted his attention. But I think his solution would work for both:
It came out in [a congressional hearing on Amtrak] that Amtrak loses more than $80 million a year on food services. That comes to about $68,000 for each of the 1,200 people who work for Amtrak’s food and beverage division. A cheeseburger that sells for $9.50 in an Amtrak café car costs the railroad $16.15.
So an average hot-dog vendor from the street outside Penn Station could lease an Amtrak café car, turn a profit for himself and the railroad, and reduce food prices for passengers.
Since the private vendor would want to turn a profit, he’d probably open on time and be glad to see customers.
Is there even a slight chance that such a thing could happen? Not according to what one heard at the hearing. “Why are some members of Congress promoting the elimination of good middle-class jobs with decent pay and benefits?” demanded Dwayne Bateman, vice general chairman of the union that represents train service workers. Nick Rahall, the ranking Democrat on the House’s Committee on Transportation and Infrastructure, agreed. “It’s a whopper of an idea, trading good-paying jobs for cheaper hamburgers,” Rahall said.
Is Mr. Rahall assuming that a private vendor would not employ people? There would jobs, and the people who got them would have to be pleasant to customers to keep them. The vendor would set pay according to market forces. We the taxpayers wouldn’t be paying people to be rude to us.
Whelton, by the way, found the conductors courteous and that has been my experience. It’s only the café workers who are almost always surly, as far as I know. Maybe their jobs are harder than those of the genial conductors. If this is the case, they would probably be able to pull down a decent salary.
The excuse given for opening the cafe late inevitably is that supplies arrived late. This is less likely to happen if the boss stands to lose money over late supplies.
Whelton details the chronic lateness of Amtrak in general. So why stop at free-market cafes? Business-oriented decisions might improve the railroad's ability to stay on schedule. The railroad would also only be able to provide service to places that make offering it profitable.