Catering for travellers

The Guardian features an excellent article on the seemingly declining state of railway catering, and the passing of the traditional buffet car.

It poses the interesting question as to whether the often poor quality or indeed total absence of catering on-board trains actually puts travellers off travelling by railway. The same could I’m sure be applied to the aviation industry which, unlike the railway’s golden age of waitered on catering cast so seductively by the likes Agatha Christie, has always rather been a byword for substandard food. Of course one generally has more choice in the type of transport taken when considering to travel by train, whereas by plane you typically have to fly; it’s more a question of the carrier. I may also being entirely unfair on the aviation industry’s catering, given that I’ve never flown in the silver service first class standard.

On the occasions when I have been fortunate enough to enjoy full catering on my travels I have really rather relished it. There’s an element of novelty perhaps, but being someone who proudly marches on their stomach I find being able to undertake a journey without knowing you’ll be falling over from hunger before you reach your destination is well prized. There is of course the important factor of the cost. On British trains and indeed planes quality food is only available to those who pay twice the price of a standard ticket. There’s never the option of travelling in standard class but to decamp to the buffet car when one pleases and indulge in as fine a piece of food as their budget dictates. Indeed the trend, as explored in the Guardian’s article, is to pull out the buffet altogether and eat at your seat. This restricts food to that which can be plonked in a paper bag for carrying through the train, making a sandwich or a microwaved burger the most substantial item available. Anyone hoping for something of a fine or vaguely gourmet quality will be entirely out of luck.

In contrast, on the super-long distance trains of Russia and China a buffet car with seating is still very much a standard feature; perhaps in keeping with their rather traditional services overall, but I certainly welcomed it and spend some happy hours in the buffet car on the Trans-Siberian Express. On another Russian train between St Petersburg and Moscow I was offered a choice of full cooked meals with proper cutlery and crockery. Although an express service I was travelling in standard class. The Germans also seem to have it right, offering a range of seating in their stylish buffet cars of their high-speed ICE trains.

For those travelling for several hours and spending at least one meal-time on board, should some proper food not be expected? Are we to content ourselves with either homemade sandwiches and snacks or the rather paltry offerings available from a trolley or small on-board shop? It seems to be yet another aspect how the romance and enjoyment of travel seems to be ebbing relentlessly away.

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