Note: I had written this piece with a motive, at someone's request. This somehow did not see the light of the day, understandably so, given the constraints that we faced. And, I forgot about it too. Just noticed this in an obscure corner of my hard disk, and thought it could trigger off the epicurean in us. Remember, this is a dated piece, about three or four years ago. Posting in 'as is where is' condition - the reality today may have changed. Bouquets and brickbats welcome!

Every now and then, on the IRFCA mailing list on Yahoogroups™, I come across e-mails that talk of food on trains and railway platforms. It would be an understatement to say that I look forward to these mails to add my tuppence worth; not for nothing I weigh a shade above 80 kgs. I love my food on trains—I have been travelling on Indian Railways for about 43 years now.

Food on the Indian Railways (IR) has always been a point of intense discussion and debate. The facilities available to the passenger have been dynamically changing—not always for the better, though. Initially, the provincial railways that were independent companies had wonderful arrangements for their passengers. Exclusive restaurants for First Class passengers, good arrangements with wholesome food through refreshment stalls for all other classes, good potable water on taps and through watermen and waterwomen and personnel of licencees selling lunch and breakfast coupons well in advance and delivering hot food at your seat.

Indian Railways had food going for all types of passengers; of course, for non-travelling visitors too. Almost all major stations had restaurants—run by private players like Spencer’s at some places and at others by the catering department of the zonal railways themselves—that served great food, though food was not the only priority there. They laid as much emphasis on food as they laid on the minimalist décor, clean cutlery and crockery, courteous and polite staff and most importantly, quick service—they had to, but they took that damn seriously—as most patrons had a train to catch.

These restaurants had the widest possible spread for the connoisseur of food. South Indian, North Indian, Chinese, Continental—you name it, you got it. I have savoured many a plate of great omelettes, toasted bread slices with all kinds of fillings, wonderfully fluffy idlis, stuffed parathas and many more at many restaurants. The tea and coffee were both a delight—always the milk and the liquor came separate, as did the sugar, sometimes in cubes too! The milk was thick and the tea and coffee used for the brew was mostly top class, making a cuppa an experience by itself.

A rung below the restaurants were the refreshment rooms. These were, in some cases, run by the catering department of the respective zones; in many cases they were leased out to licencees who were as serious about their task as the restaurants. The furniture was only functional, the food cheap, tasty and most importantly, healthy. No fancy cutlery or crockery—stainless steel thalis, katoris and glass tumblers or cheap china cups and saucers ruled the roost. They were all clean and shiny, though. A spoon or a fork was on the waiter’s tray only if he was serving a foreigner or was asked by a native patron to fetch one!

Most large stations that were not terminals had them by the couple—one for vegetarian stuff and the other for non-vegetarian stuff. They were known for their trademark efficiency of service. The loco pilots and the guards were also patrons; the trains had times to keep; so, the service had to be in a jiffy. Stations were nominated for specific trains as breakfast stations, lunch stations and dinner stations. These were the times the refreshments rooms were at their busiest. Imagine a train of close to 500 travellers with at least half of them descending on the two refreshment rooms, all at the same time, with the same aim of polishing off their food in about ten to twelve minutes! That was the benchmark that these restaurants set for themselves. The manager with his cash box was ready at the door with change and coupons for lunch, the thalis were all pre-served and ready for the patron. All the passenger had to do was to pay up for the coupon and set about the job of eating. Additional servings were not really a problem—staff moved about with additional food for the customers. The hunger of a collective few hundreds sated, the train would then be on its way. The lull before the train arrived was deceptive, the lull after the train left was for real—until the next train came in with its hordes, that is. The food was good, though not the fancy stuff you could get on the restaurants. The servings were filling and, in the context of the journey, you got value for money. The most memorable food that I have had in a refreshment room was at Cuddappah at around 1100 hrs. on a hot summer morning in 1983. The train was yet to stop, but my dad and I were already in the room. We had a great meal—steaming rice, hot chapattis, dal, sambar, rasam, carrot and potatoes, curd, pickles and papad—for just Rs.15/-. As I walked back to the coach along with the guard of the train, I felt so full and satisfied that I felt that I could not eat till the next day!

The bottom most rung comprised of the stalls—licensed to dispense both vegetarian and non-vegetarian food. These were mere stalls; in most cases, a room and an ante-room built on strategic locations on the platforms. They were the most dumbed-down versions of the refreshment rooms. The two ‘rooms’ were separated by a wall, with a door acting as the access to the innards where basic food was cooked and tea/coffee was made. The main room was actually a three-sided counter with the fourth side having a wall with storage space. Some had glass sliding doors and used that as show-cases to showcase whatever little they had—food, snacks, spare new glasses, paper and leaves for packing food and other paraphernalia.

Most food was prepared in the small kitchen-cum-ante room at the rear of the stall and moved to the counters for sale. They usually had ready to eat stuff like idli, vada, upma, samosas, curd rice and the like. It was very rare for a stall to serve a full-fledged thali like the refreshment rooms did. The food was usually very good and did not cause a Delhi belly—even the famed English cricket team could eat there and get away unscathed. It was in these stalls that the local flavours were at full play. Your chutney would be real hot and spicy if you were at any station in Andhra Pradesh or northern Karnataka. In my limited travels on IR, I have eaten at many such stalls. Some highlights have been the idly–vada at Wadi for breakfast in the morning; the vada–pav at Karjat any time of the day or night; the hot upma at Arsikere late in the night, in fact close to 2300 hrs.; the medu vadas at Gadag at around 1730 hrs.; the kanda bhajjis and buttermilk at Hole Alur; the masala dosa and pure filter coffee at Birur, again around 1730 hrs; lastly, even today, the pongal–vada, kichadi, kesari and the crisp dosas at the stall at Chennai Beach.

However, the public face of food on IR remains the on-board catering service. The food that is served, not necessarily prepared, on the train is always the discussion in various forums. The mailing list of IRFCA on Yahoogroups sees often sees mails like this: “I am taking the Raptisagar Express on xx/xx/xxxx. How is the food on the Pantry Car?” It is no surprise that not many people ask how food tastes on the stall at this station or the refreshment room at that. At least, the Pantry Car enquiries on the list outnumber other food-related queries.

Historically, there were some trains that had Dining Cars, where the passengers, at least select upper class passengers could walk in and have their food like at a restaurant. Many trains also had what we call the Pantry Cars—a coach dedicated to preparing food. This all-in-one coach contains a counter for packing and selling food; a kitchen with various paraphernalia to actually cook food on the run; a store room to stock the requirements like vegetables, grocery items and the like; two and a half cabins for the staff to stay and sleep; areas to keep the bottle cooler; wash areas for the huge utensils; besides some other electrical appliances.

The Dining Cars were just like a small restaurant, offering good views of the countryside with tables arranged along the windows where one could sit and eat. There were many trains with Dining Cars; as the authorities realised that they could serve more passengers in their basic job of transporting them, they replaced these with passenger carrying coaches. This was also because every Dining Car also required an additional Pantry Car to prepare food.

In early days, all, yes all, Pantry Cars were operated by the Commercial Departments of the concerned zonal railways. The Commercial Departments had a Catering Department—they were staffed with cooks, cleaning staff and other personnel required to run a Pantry Car. The Pantry Cars were on a small number of trains—the prestige of a train was often determined by the presence or absence of a Pantry Car. How days have changed! Pantry Cars these days are not in any way indicators of the prestige of a train; they are rather seen as a necessity as longer distances are connected with travel spread well over two full days. The operation of these Pantry Cars too has undergone a change, not always for the better, though we will come to that later.

The Pantry Cars, on whatever trains had them, did a very good job of mostly preparing—though some stuff was loaded from base kitchens as well—and serving passengers. The food was, if not too good, not a spoiler of your digestive system. The service was good and the timings were by and large kept up, unless there was a rather drastic delay leading to a late arrival at a base kitchen station. My first memories of travelling on a train with a Pantry Car are my trips by the Brindavan Exp from Madras to Bangalore. The waiters were all neatly dressed in their uniforms; the doors were opened as the train crossed Basin Bridge Junction and hot coffee made its way in cans and disposable cups—yes, disposable paper cups were used as early as the mid-1970s. I still remember a trip when my sister, used to throwing away the cups after drinking the coffee, did the same when Brindavan changed over to hard plastic cups for a brief period, leaving us poorer by a whopping Rs.5/-, which was the cost to be reimbursed to the waiter! The masala dosas were simply crisp with the masala just rightly spiced and the coconut chutney that came with it was simply superb.

This is not to say that all was great on the Pantry Cars, though. There were many constraints—lack of equipment like mixers, grinders, refrigerators and bottle coolers. The staff just found a way around by carrying dry stuff and just mixing them with water to make the dough for dal vada, or spicy chutney. This was the reason why, on long distance trains you seldom saw idlis—upma or pongal was the usual breakfast item, apart from omelettes and cutlets. The inter-city day trains did not have this constraint in the sense they loaded all the wet stuff like idli/dosa batter, vada batter, chutney and the like at the terminals in the mornings and afternoons.

Most Pantry Cars were serving passengers well—at least there were not many complaints beyond the odd instance of excess salt in food or rather insipid food. The staff were mostly hired on contract and worked directly under the Catering Department of the respective railway zones—many of them were regularised as railway staff over periods of time. There was some indifference, though, to complaints. They were generally not accountable and inventory control was sometimes an issue, what with their own colleagues as supervisors in the Pantry Cars. There were also instances of Pantry Car staff making money on the side by indulging in trade. For example, furniture like aluminium chairs, modas and the like were very cheap in Delhi. Pantry Car staff, having a full day off at Delhi, would scour the markets and purchase a chair or two and sell them off at Madras for a profit.

The advent of globalization and free market economy changed things heralded a lot of changes in Eating on the Indian Railways. The need to have a separate set-up for catering culminated in the formation of the Indian Railways Catering and Tourism Corporation Limited (IRCTC). The value addition that IRCTC has made to the food scene is debatable. Set up as an independent company under the Ministry of Railways, IRCTC was mandated to improve catering on trains and railway stations and promote tourism.

So far, so good. The ministry did not go all out for a radical staffing pattern. Bureaucrats from IR were deputed to IRCTC; stalls and Pantry Cars were handed over lock, stock and barrel to IRCTC; no attempt was made to change the bureaucratic mind-set; all these were not just impediments, but huge barriers to the idealist zeal with which IRCTC was formed.

It also did not help that IRCTC tried to bite far more than it could chew—it dabbled in constructing budget hotels; it was entrusted with producing for railways its own brand of mineral water called Rail Neer; most importantly, IRCTC also handled, hold your breath, the issue of bed rolls to AC passengers! Though most of this were entrusted to contractors, via the bidding route, the sheer burden of monitoring far too many things meant the lofty ideals were being shed like the emperor’s clothes, one by one.

The Pantry Cars went from bad to worse on most trains—most passengers, including me, have the opinion that at least on the Tamil Nadu and the Grand Trunk Expresses, the departmental catering staff did a far better job than the contractors. The same opinion is shared by many regular travellers. This is not to run down IRCTC and its efforts—this only puts in perspective the better planning and strict monitoring that were the prerequisites for a business of this magnitude. There have also been many cases where the Pantry Car has improved, and let us also credit IRCTC for that. IRCTC now seems to have woken up and the emphasis is clearly on the quality of food that is served on trains and stations. Quality control inspection is being done regularly on trains and outlets on stations.

Another move of IRCTC that really did not take off was the grandiose plan to take off the Pantry Cars from many trains and establish what they called ‘cell kitchens’ to cater to the needs of the passengers. Just like the old days, a contractor would collect the orders, telephonically convey the same to the ‘cell kitchen’ and food would be delivered at the seat. Unfortunately, though we have seen a few ‘cell kitchens’ operated by private contractors, the proof of the pudding is yet to be seen.

All said and done, IRCTC deserves unstinted praise for what it calls ‘Food Courts’ at major stations. Most food courts have a good spread of food items and beverages from multiple cuisines; they are open for long hours; and because the price is left to market forces, quality is also not a major issue at most of these food courts. There are some, however, where food is overpriced in relation of the serving, but that is the market—we seriously need some competition in the form of multiple operators.
There is also a lingering feeling that instead of just one Pantry Car, major long-distance trains can have two—the competition ushered in will ensure that it will be a win–win situation for all. The operators will have to ensure quality; else they know their goose is cooked!

Both IR and IRCTC, or for that matter, the private contractors of Pantry Cars need look no further than two shining examples of excellent on-board catering. The Deccan Queen (DQ) between Mumbai and Pune has a tradition of excellent food; not a bit has diminished over the decades. In fact, it is probably the only train that still has a dining car that offers great views of the Bhor Ghats—of course, great food too. Another great experience eating on IR has to be the Pantry Car on the Mandovi Express on Konkan Railway. Nothing beats them for the sheer variety; close to 70 items are served at different times of the day. Nothing beats them for cleanliness; the Pantry Car is squeaky clean any time of the day. Nothing beats them for the method of service; they frown at aluminium casseroles and use quality branded casseroles like Milton, Cello etc. and good quality cutlery. Both DQ and the Mandovi are close, but Mandovi will any day have my casting vote—if ever there was one!

Eating on IR has come a long way since the days of yore, but there is one dream that I look forward to becoming reality. I dream of the day when I just log on to a website, enter my PNR number and book my meal, making an e-payment. The food is delivered to my seat at my chosen station, hot and tasty—never mind the booking charges and other sundries. For that to happen, it is not just my dream that counts—there have to be a million dreams. A day will come when I will live my dream…