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John Howell’s column

Ridership up, ‘Cafe’ to stay

Recent Amtrak travels leave me resigned to the “Cross Country Cafe” cars that I lambasted with strong language in a February 22 column.

Not that I like them any better, but Amtrak representative David A. Kaszubski convinced me that they are not going away. Kaszubski was aboard a southbound Amtrak I boarded at Greenwood February 29. He was making his rounds and talking to passengers.

I also made the rounds of that train as it bore south for New Orleans. I told other passengers about the change to the single dining/snack car that had replaced the observation car and the dining car. I told people that if they were not happy with the change, go to Amtrak.com or dial the 800 number and complain.

Kaszubski and I happened to meet in the dining end of that Cross Country Cafe car. When I looked at his business card, he turned out to be “Manager, Customer Service, Product Management Department” — just the guy I needed to see. It turned out that he had helped to develop the “Cross Country Cafe” and was checking out riders’ reactions.

I pulled out a copy of the column which ended, “Amtrak, kill this idea before it spreads.” He took that rather well, considering it had been his idea. Then he convinced me that the idea was certainly going to spread.

First, Amtrak was under orders from the Department of Transportation to reduce its food service losses, Kaszubski told me. Second, the Cross Country Cafe was selling more food than the dining car and snack/observation car had formerly sold together. The Amtrak official said that part of the reason was a revamp of the menu which offered more affordable snacks on the City of New Orleans run.

Kaszubski’s encouraging news is that dining service cars are currently in the shops which will offer more seating and observation-style windows. They’ll need it. I’ve used Amtrak for trips to New Orleans four times in 2008, and the trains have been packed every trip. Some passengers have chosen rail because of the price of gasoline. Others tell me with loud complaint that they will do anything to avoid the indignities visited upon them by air travel.