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Food Service Losses Could Derail Support for Amtrak Subsidies

Douglas Graham/CQ Roll Call File Photo
Mica, the former House Transportation and Infrastructure chairman, wants taxpayers to be aware of the waste behind Amtrak’s food services and its plans for gourmet chef-designed meals, which he said should “be considered for the chopping block.”

Florida Republican John L. Mica bristles at the idea of Amtrak partnering with master chefs to upgrade meals on its long-haul trains at a time when the passenger railroad continues to lose tens of millions of dollars a year on its food services.

“Taxpayers would choke if they knew the costs of these gourmet meals,” the chairman of a House Oversight and Government Reform subcommittee said earlier this year. He said “extravagant chef-designed dishes” should “be considered for the chopping block.”

Mica, the former Transportation and Infrastructure chairman, has never been a fan of Amtrak — or its money-losing food services. But the food fight underscores the bigger questions facing Congress over taxpayer subsidies for Amtrak’s national passenger rail system.

Congress is expected to reauthorize rail programs next year. Supporters say the operation needs an infusion of taxpayer investment to upgrade the profitable Northeast Corridor operations and make improvements across the network.

Critics, such as Mica, would prefer to see the railroad scale back money-losing operations, reduce taxpayer subsidies and move toward more privatization. The critics point to the food service operations as an example of how not to run a railroad.

“If you buy a hamburger on Amtrak, it costs the taxpayers $6.65,” Mica said in 2012, pointing to a committee report that found a $9.50 burger actually cost the railroad $16.15. He contrasted the hefty price tag with a deal on the McDonald’s value menu that offered a burger and a soda for a buck.

Amtrak President and CEO Joseph H. Boardman noted that the $9.50 price also included fries and a drink, and he said a $6 hamburger-only option was available on Amtrak’s flagship service between Washington, D.C., and Boston.

Still, Boardman doesn’t dispute the larger point that Amtrak needs to stop losing so much on its food operations — especially as it appeals to a budget-cutting Congress for more public investment.

Amtrak has already made significant strides, cutting losses on food operations to $74 million in fiscal 2013 from $1.05 million in fiscal 2006. But Boardman told lawmakers in October that he was committing “to end food and beverage losses once and for all” on the railroad.

“Our plan will expand initiatives that have worked, add new elements and evolve as updated information and opportunities lead us to better solutions,” he said.

The challenge is finding a way to cut losses on the long-haul trains, which include traditional dining cards outfitted with linen tablecloths and contributed 99 percent of the annual food-related losses. Cafe cars operating along the Northeast Corridor and on some other short-haul routes either break even or make small profits.

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