Sounds of different frequencies, each of them loud, sound of a train running at around 100 Kmph, sound of pantry-car waiters and the train staff making in and out of the coaches, and sound of the passengers making informed queries and expressing strong displeasure!

It was not routine as usual for any train in India, a Rajdhani Express train in this case, after a recent price hike.

This time, it was in the name of improving catering standards. The Indian Railways had just revised the catering charges in premium trains (Rajdhani, Shatabdi, Duranto) and the TTEs (ticket checkers) were a harassed lot. They had to issue receipt of the difference of the amount (after the fare revision) to every passenger who had got the ticket booked before October 16.

Given the rush for the Indian trains where every ticket of almost trains is booked within two days of the opening of the reservation window of two months for a train, almost every passenger in the train had his ticket booked before October 16.

Stung by the sudden pressure of increased work, of writing and issuing almost a thousand receipts, TTEs were not even asking for the mandatory IDs for the electronically booked tickets.

This increased fare was reason for the high-pitched sound coming from the heterogenous lot of passengers in every coach – varying frequencies, modulated tones, but each voicing out displeasure as loud as possible and this displeasure was forcing the catering staff of the train to make rounds to the pantry car, keeping them on toes.

And it was for a reason.

Apart from timeliness, a factor that is certainly uncertain with the Indian trains, one can also say so about the quality of the catering, that the food being served in Indian trains, even in premium trains like Rajdhani, is simply substandard.

It was the second day of the quality mission of the Indian Railways but the ‘quality’ was conspicuous by its absence. Those regularly travelling by such (premium) trains were flatly saying that whatever that was there in the name of ‘quality’ had certainly come down, in quantity, in quality. And to add to the misery, these passengers were made to shell out extra bucks to improve the quality.

Given the quality of food being served and the menu items in the platter, the fare revision, in fact, deserved a reduction in the ticket prices.

Passengers were feeling cheated.

That was hitting them more, being the immediate instigating factor raising the protesting voices.

And on that day, in the Rajdhani Express, by certain turn of events, I had the chance to sit for a while in the pantry-car of the train.

It was more maddening there than the situation in the coaches, something that is always the case. This time, it was heightened up. The increased tension in the atmosphere there had its origin in two reasons.

Incidentally, the food packets delivered by the base kitchen of the government run catering outfit were less than the passenger count and the pantry-car staff was in overdrive to meet the requirement. Okay, it was normal to happen so. But it was on a day when there was additional mounting pressure on the pantry-car staff.

It was happening along side the chaos of the anger of the passengers spilling over in the aisles of the coaches. On target were the pantry-car employees who were still supplying the substandard food products, even if the passengers were now paying a revised, increased fare in the name of an upgraded menu.

After putting curries in packets, weights of two packets were taken to confirm if they were according to the Indian Railways norms. The ‘observation’ based random sampling was applied for over 100 packets cooked on-board. And the sample size was just 2!

There was no dearth of raw material (of reputed brands). In fact, it was enough to be wasted and was being wasted. A clear factor that puts the quality of food in trains under scanner is hygiene and certainly, the way food was being cooked and packed there, it wasn’t hygienic.

The staff there, though extra cautious, was in avoidable rush to get things done to get free soon. Putting on gloves while using hands – I could not see it being practiced. The floor of the pantry-car was littered with spill-over from the cooking platform. Utensils and grills were kept below the platform, that was, again, unclean.

And above it, the supervisors, panicked, by the increasing count of complaints in the complaint book, were making regular visits to the pantry-car, shouting at waiters and cooks, making them even more irregular and harsh on the ‘quality’ of the job.

Wastage – good quality raw material for a food cooked and served with unhygienic practices – and don’t ask about taste. Food in trains – it is simply never expected to be tasty.

Then there was another serious issue, based on something that happened there, in fact a breach of trust, an illegal act, for which, even lawsuits are filed – maintaining sanctity of vegetarian and non-vegetarian food, in cooking, in packaging, and in distribution.

Though, one can never say it is followed honestly at a place serving both vegetarian and non-vegetarian, it is expected from the outlets charging you premium to maintain this sanctity, and catering services in Rajdhani Express trains should, certainly, come under this category.

But, alas!

Vegetarian and non-vegetarian, the cooking was on. There I saw this silly act. One of the cooks preparing the non-vegetarian curry approached the cook preparing ‘chapatis’ (unleavened circular bread made from wheat flour) to use his cooking stove top to roast chicken. And on the same grill, being used to inflate chapatis, soon, the other cook was roasting chickens. Once he was finished with his roasting stuff, the ‘chapati’ cook was back to his work of inflating chapatis on the same grill.

For those who are strictly vegetarian, such practices are a massive breach of trust. Even for those, who are not strictly vegetarian (egg-eating people come in this category), they too, will not accept chapatis cooked like this if they come to know this. I come in this category.

I protested on this act. I said it was a serious issue. I told them to exclude ‘chapatis’ from my plate. I requested them to replace all the ‘chapatis’ cooked after the chicken was roasted on the grill in the vegetarians platters. Although they said they would do so, I knew they wouldn’t do so.

After it, I had to leave the pantry-car for my berth.

On a day, high on complaints, when passengers were dumping and deriding the food for its quality, they could not have afforded another setback point – delayed delivery, and cooking chapatis for almost 100 passengers would have taken enough time to delay it significantly.

Food quality in trains and planes, I have had bad experiences about it. Okay, trains certainly outdo the planes, even if you travel by a Rajdhani or a Shatabdi Express. I make it a point to ignore pantry-car or railway station food except in emergency situations. In flights, it is still manageable. Your options – it depends much on the carrier and the duration of your flight.

The Rajdhani Express journey on that day only reaffirmed my aversion to the food served in the Indian trains.

Go for it only when you are not left with any other option (including fasting on that overnight journey)!

©/IPR: Santosh Chaubey –