Human Interest
Trains used to come fitted with their own dining cars, which boasted of a-la carte menus and set meals, and train stations served some of the best food each town had to offer.
Dining car aboard the Imperial Mail

We would drive our car on to the platform of the Egmore Station in Chennai, as late as the 90s, park it right in front of our coach and then board the train. Even as we crowded around the name chart to see if our names were on it, the first-class attendant would take our luggage from us and stow it in our coupes.

Our name cards were always correctly placed in the doors of our coupe.

The first-class attendant was our butler during the course of the journey. His primary role was ensure we were comfortable through the journey – from making the beds each morning to waking us up if our stop had come.

He organised our food and drinks en route, either through the Railways’ telegraphic system or by coordinating with the dining or pantry car. Yes, many trains, all the way until the 80s, had dining cars. But more on dining cars later.

The first thing we would check as passengers was if our first-class coach was a corridor-type coach or was one of the older, more luxurious, compartment-type coach.  In the latter, you could enter the cabin directly from the platform. Plus, they almost always came attached with a shower. Imagine your own suite with a bath and shower attached!

In the meter-gauge trains, there were always two first-class compartments – with two unreserved second-class compartments (called third-class before the ’70s) on either side of each coach. Why was this so? During the British rule over India, the Englishmen travelled in the first-class coaches and their servants in the coaches on either side.

There also used to be one train in the Southern Railways with ‘sit-outs’ on either side of the first-class coach, where one could stand and enjoy the breeze as the train chugged through cities and villages.

The last train to see this system was the Pandian Express.

What would we do if we reached the station too early? Most stations then had good waiting rooms, with plenty of comfortable furniture for us to relax on as we waited. And no, please don’t compare them to the waiting rooms we see at present.

The first-class waiting rooms then had several easy chairs, padded benches and normal, straight-backed chairs. The restrooms were spacious and pristine. And these waiting rooms came fitted with coat racks and shelves for weary passengers to hang their formal wear as they relaxed in their informal clothes.

Many times, after alighting from trains, we would go straight to the waiting rooms to refresh ourselves and get something to eat. At that time, the refreshment rooms were run by well-known caterers of each locality. In fact, the quality of food was so good in these refreshment rooms that many families from the nearby towns would come to the stations just to sample their foods.

Some of these refreshment rooms were just stalls, while others would have proper seating arrangements. In fact, many of these rooms looked like upmarket restaurants in the big stations.

The idlies at the Vijayawada station were the best. The Mayavaram station boasted of the best medhu vadai in the morning and masala vadai in the evening. The Trichy and Thanjavur stations had the best pongal. And the Jodhpur station had the best Rajasthani thali.

In fact, the Indian Railways itself excelled in the food it served till around 20 years ago.

On board, the first-class attendant took orders from passengers for bed tea, breakfast, lunch, evening tea and dinner. These orders would be then sent via telegraph to the stations which catered to the trains and the food would then be served to your compartment or coupe. Not in casseroles, but in proper cutlery, with the waiter coming back to collect the plates and silverware after an hour or so.

And what kind of food did we generally get? It was usually Indian food, except for the bigger stations, where we could get other cuisines too.

Coffee and tea would come to us in little porcelain pots, with matching cups and saucers. The sugar and spoons would come in a neat little tray, with a tea cosy.

The first time I saw tea being served this way was in the West Coast Express, in the mid-70s.

Breakfast was usually bread with butter and jam. Some trains even served cutlets and baked beans.

There were uber luxurious dining cars aboard some trains – well-appointed cars, with restaurant-quality food and service. The two most famous trains known for their dining cars were the Imperial Mail – or train number 1/2 between Mumbai and Kolkata – and Punjab Mail.

In fact, until as late as the 1970s, the Imperial Mail had a fully functional bar on board. In the Southern Railways, the Grand Trunk Express, between Chennai and New Delhi, and the Hyderabd-New Delhi Express came fitted with dining cars.

The train timetable would dutifully tell us which station we could get down at to walk to the dining car and in which station the train would halt long enough for us to walk back to our coupe. A mark on the name of the station would give us these details. If there were no marks, it meant the train was a vestibule and that the food would come to us.

The dining cars came with elaborate menus with an a-la carte menu or a set plate. Some trains allowed those travelling in second-class compartments to come to the dining cars too. But more often than not, they could only opt for the set meal and not order a-la carte.

If a passenger fell ill during a journey, he simply had to request the attendant to see a doctor en route. And while the railway guides would say passengers were required to pay for such a service, unless it was a complicated illness, I have never seen doctors charging passengers. 

Views expressed are author's own.

Photos in this piece were taken by Ken Staynor and were published in IFRCA.