When it comes to rail travel, key factors such as punctuality of service, cleanliness, seat availability and cost-efficiency often make or break the overall passenger experience. But while commuters focus on these aspects, when it comes to long-distance journeys, the quality and range of on-board food catering options quickly shoots up the list of priorities.
As national surveys measuring passenger satisfaction don’t usually record data on on-board catering services, the evidence is mostly anecdotal. However ahead of this year’s InnoTrans trade fair, where nearly 3,000 exhibitors from 60 countries present the latest rail industry innovations, train catering is expected to score high on the agenda.
“Each year catering and customer services on trains and in lounges are already helping railway operators to attract millions of new passengers who would otherwise be using road or air travel,” International Rail Catering Group (IRCG) chairman Roger Williams said in a press release.
As it stands, the availability and quality of food served on board trains varies wildly between operators across the world.
Travellers on Deutsche Bahn’s ICE trains currently enjoy one of the most varied on-board menus in Europe.
In 2014, operator Deutsche Bahn partnered with celebrity chef, cookbook author and presenter Horst Lichter, who introduced 12 new recipe ideas across more than 250 catering services as part of a year-long campaign called ‘Taste and discover Germany’. The partnership was also used to fundraise money for the protection and preservation of German forest regions, with ten cents from every meal served going into national ecological programmes.
Last year, the operator launched a new campaign which saw seven food bloggers bring their signature dish to the on-board menu, with the choice updating every two months between April 2017 and March 2018, including seasonal, vegan and vegetarian dishes.
The cross-border service takes great care in creating seasonal menus for its Business Premier passengers as part of a long-standing collaboration with culinary director Raymond Blanc, OBE, chef patron of two Michelin-starred restaurants and founder of Brasserie Blanc.
Blanc works with each of Eurostar’s three kitchens to design seasonal menus combining British and French cuisines with fairtrade or organic ingredients, free from genetically modified products and sourced from farmers committed to high environmental standards.
The meals are also meant to cater to an array of dietary requirements, including gluten and dairy-free, as well as vegan and vegetarian.
Eurostar is the first transport provider to receive a Sustainable Restaurant Association (SRA) accreditation as a Two-Star Sustainability Champion for its commitment to sourcing local and sustainably produced ingredients and for pursuing a socially and environmentally responsible approach.
In 2011, Eurostar also set up the first bee hives in its Mersham depot in Kent, in recognition to the role bees play in the wider ecosystem, with more installed over the course of last year.
Great Western Railway
Great Western Railway (GWR) has also scaled up its fine dining services over the past few years.
The operator first enjoyed a partnership with chef and restaurateur Mitch Tonks, who helped devise new menus for its London – Penzance route using locally-sourced produce cooked on board by professional chefs.
And last year, GWR unveiled a brand new menu on offer to customers using its Pullman dining car, a service that the company calls “one of Britain’s best kept secrets” akin to a 125mph fine dining restaurant. An experience on board the Pullman car promises to “take you back to the days of luxurious train travel; with plush seats, crisp white tablecloths and silver service from our friendly team”.
The new menu offers local ingredients from farms and fisheries on the GWR routes, allowing guests to see where their meal was sourced from.
Last year, an annual audit report by India’s Comptroller and Auditor General (CAG) found damning evidence that basic cleanliness and hygiene levels were being breached on 80 trains and at 74 stations managed by Indian Railways, branding its food “unsuitable for human consumption”.
The report, which found toilet water used for beverages, ingredients unprotected from flies, insects and dust, as well as rats and cockroaches present in train carriages, led to the railway ministry announcing a new catering policy to improve the quality of food for rail passengers.
As of July this year, anyone interested can tune into a series of live streams from Indian Railways’ kitchens, an initiative introduced by Railway Board Chairman Ashwani Lohani to rebuild trust in the industry’s catering services.
The live streams, broadcast on the official website of the Indian Railway Catering and Tourism Corporation (IRCTC), are also accompanied by artificial intelligence software that can detect and alert about the presence of rodents, or chefs violating the rules.