Eating on board trains
If you visit the Camden Head pub in Islington (and you should visit it as it is a great pub with a lovely Victorian interior), you will be able to see one of Brunel’s lesser known inventions.
It is not a bridge or a tunnel, a ship or even a train; it is actually the bar itself. The Camden Head has a classic example of an island bar. In other words; the pub has a circular bar that is in the middle of the saloon. The servers are effectively on the island in the middle and the customers completely surround them.
Brunel pioneered this system at his Swindon railway refreshment room on the Great Western Railway in the late 1830’s. Swindon was half way between Paddington and Bristol and the trains stopped there to allow the passengers access to food and drink. The trains couldn’t stop for long, so Brunel invented the island bar in order to serve as many people as possible in as short a time as possible.
The trains that stopped at Swindon in the early days didn’t have corridors. People were trapped in their own compartments for the whole journey. It was the eventual invention of the corridor connection that enabled the refreshment stop to be finally replaced by the restaurant car. In my humble opinion the restaurant car is the single most civilised thing about long distance rail travel.
Restaurant, or dining, cars first appeared in the USA, and it was not until 1879 that the first one was introduced in the UK. Kings Cross to Leeds was the first route, but they soon became popular all over the country. Buffet cars selling sandwiches and other light refreshments also became popular between the wars, and they were provided in addition to or, especially on shorter journeys, instead of the restaurant car.
Restaurant cars survived nationalisation in 1948 and re-privatisation in 1997, and even as late as 2007 there were still more than 100 UK trains with dining cars operating every day. Each one was open to both first class and standard passengers and featured food being cooked on board from fresh.
In the last 10 years however, as franchises have changed hands, the restaurant car has suffered a steep decline. By 2017, there was only one UK franchise left that was operating traditional restaurant cars on its trains, and then only on a handful of its services.
We are told that customer taste has changed now and we all want something more advanced. Apparently what we all want is strict portion-controlled free food in first class and “something to buy from the trolley” in standard.
I first experienced the restaurant car aged 10 in 1974 when my parents took me to Cornwall by train. We had lunch on an express from Paddington to Penzance. I can’t recall what we had to eat but I remember that I just loved it.
Ever since, I have always enjoyed the experience of eating on board a moving train. It seems so civilised and so romantic. It is also a very social thing too; strangers seem to talk to each other more when they are eating on trains. I have had many wonderful conversations with people over lunch in dining cars.
I started to use restaurant cars by myself when I was in my late teens. The great thing about the British dining car was that it was (and still is) essentially a first class saloon with table cloths. All you had to do to travel first class was to buy a second class ticket and make the meal last the whole journey. It sounds luxurious but actually lunch usually wasn’t that expensive and some of the cars served afternoon tea which was even cheaper.
In my university days whenever I had to go to London by train I would always try to have breakfast on the way. Breakfast was by far the most popular meal served on trains in Britain. Back in the 1980s on the Hull Executive it had a special magic; it was all silver service and it tasted just wonderful.
As I have travelled further I have been lucky enough to experience many different forms of eating on trains –
Here are 13 of those experiences, good and bad:
1 – America
The sheer distance that American trains travel means that most of them have to have dining cars. I first had a meal (actually two) on the Coast Starlight Express going from Los Angeles to San Francisco in 1986. American train food is actually pretty good even on the current nationalised Amtrak system. When we crossed the USA by train in 2005 we had several great meals on board.
American Breakfasts are usually good wherever you have them. On the trains they have their own recipe for French toast. It is called “railroad toast” and it is actually quite delicious!
2 – Australia
Back in 1987 crossing the continent on the Indian Pacific in second class wasn’t the most luxurious affair. I used the restaurant car just once and found the fare on offer to be disappointing. I ate meat pies out of the buffet car for most of the trip and I even went to a fried chicken takeaway once during an extended stop. It is probably a lot better now I guess.
3 – Thailand / Myanmar
In 1987 the food on the Thai express trains surprised me. They brought piping hot chicken and rice dishes to your seat even in second class. The meals were cooked on board in a wok on an open flame. That is something that the health and safety people would have a field day with in the UK. Myanmar was using the same system in 2014 too.
4 – Japan
Restaurant Cars were a part of Japanese railway culture for many years. The Kyoto Railway Museum has some interesting displays of early food and menus.
Until the Nozomi 300 series came out in the early 1990’s all long-distance Shinkansen trains had dining cars too. I used to love having my meal upstairs in the dining car on the double-decker Grand Hikari on my trips back and forth between Yamaguchi and Tokyo.
In 2017 there are no dining cars left. However, the Japanese bento lunch box, bought at the station or on the train, provides a reasonable substitute.
5 – Russia
When we travelled on the Trans-Mongolian train from Beijing to Moscow in 1988 we joked a lot about the food system on board. The Soviet dining car had an extensive menu but it seemed they stocked hardly any of the things in it. Worse still, they started to run out over the course of the trip and never seemed to restock the train.
6 – India
During our trip to India in 1994 we encountered no traditional dining cars. The food was brought directly to your seat or sleeper compartment. The food was either cooked on board or the order was telegraphed to the next station and it was loaded there.
The meals we had on board Indian trains were actually excellent. I have particular fond memories of waking up to a cup of sweet hot chai and a vegetable cutlet in the mornings.
7 – South Africa
The Trans-Karoo express we took in 1995 from Cape Town to Johannesburg was the poor relation to the fabulously luxurious “Blue Train” which sadly we could not afford.
The food in the dining car was passable though and the chicken curry was especially tasty. The view over the Karoo during the meal was quite special too.
8 – Germany
I have had several good feeds in the restaurant and bistro cars of the German ICE trains over the years. Germany’s fast trains still retain the traditional system of opening the diner to both 1st and 2nd class as in the UK. The food, normal hearty stuff, is usually quite good. The beer is always fabulous.
I remember one particular journey from Frankfurt to Hamburg where the whole train was crammed full and I got the last seat in the dining car. I knew if I moved away I would be standing, so I sat there and nursed several beers over the whole journey. I got off quite drunk.
9 – Poland
Back in 2004 the PKP in Poland were providing excellent dining cars. We ate a couple of delicious meals on the Warsaw to Berlin Express. They were obviously cooking everything on board too as I peeped into the kitchen.
10 – Seven Valley Railway
It is impossible to eat in a dining car on a regular train in the UK on a Sunday now; the train restaurants that remain are only open Monday to Friday. But many of the heritage steam railways do provide dining car trains and they usually serve a nice 3-course Sunday lunch.
The crews are all volunteers but they do their best to recreate the golden age of dining on trains. The locomotive is likely to be steam too. We have had a few nice experiences dining on heritage railways and the Severn Valley Railway back in 1992 was one of them.
The food on Eurostar in first class is like airline food. It is cook-chilled and reheated on board. It just is one of the many things I dislike about Eurostar. Best avoid. Go for the real thing and fly instead.
12 – GNER
GNER, who ran the east coast main line from 1997 to 2007, were great advocates of the dining car. They actually increased the number of trains with dining cars and improved the food greatly too.
I had a few excellent meals with them on my way back and forth from Kings Cross. One of the most memorable was in 2004 returning on the Flying Scotsman from Edinburgh. The food was always served on their beautiful crockery with its dark blue edging. It was all very classy.
Sadly GNER are no more and the current operator, Virgin, have cheapened the atmosphere. They have adopted the system that is now most prevalent in the UK; portion-controlled free food of variable quality in first and a trip to the shop or a trolley in standard.
13 – Great Western
Thankfully there is one last operator in the UK still providing traditional restaurant services. It is, by coincidence, on the route where I had my first dining car meal back in 1974.
First Great Western (now “Great Western Railway”) offers a limited number of dining cars on its trains to Plymouth and Cardiff from London Paddington. It markets the service using the brand name “Pullman”. The food is all cooked on board from fresh and is lovingly served in comfortable first class saloons by friendly Devonian or Welsh crews.
I have been using them on trips to the West Country for the past 20 years and have had many, many great meals on board. They do breakfast and dinner, but my favourite is lunch.
In my opinion there are few travel experiences more enjoyable. You leave the stress of London behind, head to Paddington and take a seat in the dining car on the 13:05 Royal Duchy express to Penzance.
You just sit there and then watch some of England’s nicest countryside glide past the window as you are served a delicious three course meal with wine. Before you know it the sea wall at Dawlish is in view and you are in a completely different world.
Great Western is introducing brand new trains on the route in the next few years. It has promised to retain the Pullman dining cars. Whether it will still be retaining the service for standard class ticket holders is a different question.
I am skeptical.
The future is probably the trolley.
“Nothing could be finer, luncheon
in the diner from the on-board trolley”
“Can I get a Coffee ?”
“Sorry we have no hot water left, sir”