05: Snacks Back on Track: Train Dining Over Time
The glamour of the Victorian age of railways is hard to beat, so for future railway dining options should we consult the past?
The railways, a bit like airlines, can (in the modern day) feel like a forgotten wasteland where food and catering is concerned. You might not have always considered such, but if recent events are anything to go by - like Iarnród Éireann/Irish Rail, the Irish railway operator, announcing that due to the after-effects of the pandemic, there will not be any on-board catering on services until at least 2023 - perhaps you’re being more-and-more convinced. The one-time glamour, pomp and circumstance of rail travel now reduced to point-to-point banal, basic boredom. Not even lukewarm cups of tea, Kit-Kat’s that aren’t just for display, overpriced, measly-stuffed sandwiches or warm cans of beer. They say that recession breeds creativity and ingenuity, and it feels like rail travel - at least in our part of the world - is in a bit of a recessionary vacuum. However, where issues present so too do opportunities to problem-solve. Following our previous piece about plane food, we’re delving a bit further into the grand tradition of dining on the railways.
It’s hard to define the inner thrill you get when snacking at speed, watching the landscape whizz by punctuated by crossings, tunnels and stations. We’ve had train travel long before airplanes. And it’s managed to last for the most part, where flying may have once upon a time threatened to killed it off. With slow travel on the agenda and the climate emergency being fast-tracked by air travel emissions, train travel in many ways is becoming fashionable once again –– and with that, the opportunity to stand out with an on-board offering is real. Train travel, for all its flaws, still offers so much promise.
Meals on Wheels: Sleeper Services
Take sleeper services, as a niche, and a particular railway relationship we’ve been entertaining with gusto for years. Lonely Planet decreed sleeper train travel a huge trend in early 2021, which was proceeded by countless articles, opinion pieces and features in the 18 months that followed remarking that sleeper train travel is having a revival. Forbes’ Alex Ledsom noted sleepers are spurring a “train revolution”, both Chris Moss in the Guardian and Catherine Mack in the Irish Times rave about their love affairs with sleeper services while Pól O’Conghaile in the Irish Independent positioned sleepers as the future Ryanair of rail.
It’s true, the amount of sleeper train services are now increasing, rather than decreasing, across Europe. RapidTransition documents this upsurge in a neat way, detailing how various services - many originating in Austria and Germany in particular - have not only survived but begun to thrive again, as well as routes connecting Switzerland, Czechia and Poland to other key cities in Europe like Barcelona, Amsterdam and, becoming a mini night train hub, Brussels. You can get from London to Venice via Paris, Hamburg to Stockholm via Copenhagen, Milan to Sicily and Helsinki to Finnish Lapland, all via overnight train. Though technically not sleepers, rather couchettes, even France is doing a U-turn on overnight journeys, having binned many Intercités de Nuit routes in the last decade and now reinstating them one-by-one.
Speaking of sleeper services, and staying in the present/recent past before delving backwards in time, the UK boasts two of note. The Caledonian Sleeper, which traces a route from London Euston to the Scottish Highlands and offers a dining car for both late night dinner and breakfast. Sip a dram of Scotch Whisky and savour a plate of haggis, neeps and tatties before bed, then arise for breakfast in the same space as the sun pierces through the scenery. In recent years the rolling stock has undergone a multi-million pound refurb, with the dining car pulling particular focus, and demonstrating a distinct investment in on-board catering. The other UK option is the impossibly glam-sounding Great Western Railway ‘Night Riviera’ from London to Penzance in Cornwall, though with a ‘lounge’ car for drinks and snacks rather than a dining car. Mainland UK overnight journeys like these typically last between nine and 12 hours, and even though the intention is to get some shut eye as the train makes tracks and delivers you to your destination before work the next day, it is vital to offer at least something edible and substantial on-board.
Ireland did indeed have a brief dalliance with a luxury sleeper service, the Grand Hibernian - a sister to the Orient Express. Run by luxury hospitality operator Belmond, the seasonal service traversed Ireland almost coast-to-coast and ran for five years at eye-wateringly high prices, so mostly unattainable for the masses. The going rate was around €3,000 per person per trip and by all accounts mostly wealthy Americans availed of the premium excursion, or print journalists on comped freebies. But blaming the pandemic, in 2021 the service was announced as immediately ceasing to exist and the train is now in the process of being moved to another route in mainland Europe, where the excuse is ‘demand for these kind of services is increasing’, putting the brakes on this option occurring in Ireland for the foreseeable.
Think, regal and rich fabrics, artwork throughout the Georgian-inspired interior and accompanying five star service, whilst the food offering was certainly fine dining with crystal stemware alongside. Chef Mark Bodie most recently leading as head chef, even celebrity chef Clodagh McKenna worked with the service curating specific food-focused excursions in 2019, from foraging hedgerows for gin-distilling to oyster shucking, with ample entertainment along the way. The service’s menu was classic Irish with a contemporary twist, serving the “finest”, “world class” local produce, plucked from many of the areas the train passed by or pulled into including Drummond House Garlic in Louth, Boyne Valley Cheese in Meath, scallops from the Beara Peninsula and turf-smoked Donegal smoked salmon to Dublin Bay Prawns and Limerick’s Killenure Dexter Beef, to name a few. Marie-Claire Digby of the Irish Times documented the operation in a 2019 article detailing the space and particularly the challenges of fine dining service on a moving train.
Looking beyond overnights but sticking in this general part of the world, LNER, which operates the UK’s east coast mainline between London, York and Edinburgh, offers a decent looking cooked breakfast on first class whilst also special afternoon tea services (£155 for two). The train that connects the Republic to Northern Ireland we also believe still serves an Ulster Fry on the Dublin-Belfast ‘Enterprise’ service to first class, complete with proper cutlery, plates and cups and saucers. The likes we could only dream about being offered across the Republic on intercity morning services, but alas. If you knew this was available on various routes, you’d surely skip breakfast at home and dine en-route, no? On that same service some more portable options such as bacon baps are also available to purchase for standard classes.
We longingly pour over the continental European bistro car menus on carriages that chug across countries and border lines, from the Dutch lowlands beyond the Alps, tracing rivers towards the Mediterranean Sea. Dining cars on the likes of the TGV in France and Deutsche Bahn’s ICE trains are a cross between an on-the-tracks canteen and a local bistro-cafe. Small scale moving kitchens serving up comforting currywurst, beef burgers, confit duck pies, and the usual suspects: sandwiches, sweet cakes like madeleines and hot drinks, beers and wines. Prices are reasonable enough and, in the most part, you’re encouraged to sit within the dining lounge or car itself to enjoy the full experience.
Pack it Up: Self-Styled Train Picnics
A train picnic can feel serenely ceremonial. On recent long train adventures, we’ve put as much effort into the planning of our pre-made train picnic as the route itself. And why wouldn’t we? It’s a mode of transport especially conducive to picnicking — unlike airplanes. Whilst ‘en train de’ this thought, train stations are very different beasts from airports. You’ll find no real liquid limits, stowed in tiny plastic bags, plus no major security screening (which is open to opinion and interpretation on whether that’s a bonus, of course). The time between leaving the house and boarding, on average, is far quicker than the laborious check-in/bag-drop situation and certainly the time between boarding and departure feels faster and more seamless, not to mention rarely lengthy, if any, queues to-board. Trains offer more space to walk about and seats punctuated with tables more conducive to working or picnicking than airplanes. Passengers can get up, walk around, stretch their legs and peep out of more expansive and expressive windows (bearing in mind we’re at pains not to unfairly compare bird’s eye views from planes to sweeping countryside vistas on trains) plus, where space is concerned, trains are far more flexible and spacious as opposed to squeezing bulky bags below seats or beating into overhead bins.
A recent table-top train picnic on a trip to Cork featured our own freshly-baked focaccia, crisp on the top and bottom with a spongy centre and that flaky salt pucker punctuating each mouthful with a back note of grassy, spicy olive oil in each bite. Sliced through the middle to sandwich lavish layers of Mortadella, pickled fennel, tomato slices with a handful of peppery rocket plus a generous slick of smoked onion mayo. Wrapped neatly in greaseproof paper, then dutifully repeated with tinfoil. Olives in another little tub for snacking. Likewise a handful of smoked, spice-dusted almonds. A packet of Swedish cake bites a friend brought back from a trip to Stockholm because they reminded her of us –– the perfect partner for train fika, suitably prepped via a pair of packed flasks: one full of hot water, another smaller one of fresh milk. The hot one keeping itself hot, the cold one still-cold hours later. Of course we brought tea bags, travel coffee filters, and Keep Cups to drink from. Who needs a less-than trolley when you can pack everything in a cooler bag or appoint rucksacks in all manner of edible and drinkable bits and bobs, rich to feast on more than your fair share? Though, should you *have* to do this? We’d argue, no. And would having catering options offered as standard be a better, more necessary touch? Of course.
Should Stations Serve Every Need?
Looking further afield, Taiwan and South Korea are two places we’ve visited in recent years and taken trains in both. An entirely different approach to train dining is taken. In fact, you may argue that little approach is taken at all. The high speed rails in each country are beautiful, sleek, modern, clean and reliable for the most part. But in order to maximise space for seats, trains don’t feature dining cars. Some services in Taiwan do have a trolley service, but both countries have pivoted to technology providing the goods with vending machines on board in the vestibule. If passengers are hungry, they’re conditioned to seek out options at the stations, of which in the larger ones there’s usually endless cafes, restaurants, kiosks and food halls to grab a bite or take-away on-board. Lunch boxes are often even available in the train station, offering a variety of flavours at a value price, but these are, naturally, eaten cold on-board.
Whether that’s Dosirak in Korea, Ekiben (railway bento) in Japan, or bian dang/bento in Taiwan, these lunch bentos are usually a square meal with plain white rice, pickles, cold cooked meats, tofu and sometimes fruit, a sweet treat or a small drink to wash down. These are designed specifically with the train passenger in mind, rather than just a byproduct of being based near a train station. In Taiwan, these train lunch boxes are so popular and so affordable (around €3), they even celebrate them annually in a festival featuring rail companies from across the world bringing their unique flavours and ingredients to special festival-only bento boxes. In Japan, these bento boxes for train journeys have a heritage dating back to the late 19th century, with local, regional options often reflected in the country’s different areas. Eater has a much more informed take on the history and offering.
Imagine we didn’t have to pack a picnic, or pick up something just to fill the void from a station outlet? Imagine the near-three hour service Dublin to Cork came with an inbuilt restaurant car, serving some dishes and drinks, or even just snacks and tea and coffee to sate passengers. Something simple, filling and hopefully delicious. Part of the experience; a meander along the carriages to a dining destination where guests take up a booth or prop up a bar stool, a place to convene and also a place to break up the journey. To answer that, we also have to ask: Do the stations do enough of their job? Has the dining car had its death knell from what the station is appointed with, instead? A tabac in the corner, a coffee hatch, a bar to sink a drink in whilst you wait for the platform to be announced, an express supermarket to gather essentials, maybe even a restaurant or bistro serving full meals for those arriving in plenty of time? It’s similar to the piece we wrote recently about plane food, which we love, but the airside offerings in airports are not a substitute for the on-board experience. It’s fuelled by convenience, more often than not sub-par ingredients and a desire for profit, rather than considering the travelling experience of the passenger.
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