Food service is an important component of any travel program and better the quality more enjoyable is the journey. The old saying that the route to man's heart is through the stomach is highly relevant to IR. People use trains for traveling for a variety of purposes like visiting home, pilgrimages, conducting business, attending to official work, pleasure especially during vacation times and visiting relatives during ceremonies like marriages and other family functions. The travel time can be as brief as less than an hour to more than 48 hours. While short trips of an hour or two duration may not call for elaborate food service, longer duration trips exceeding 5 hours will obviously require some provisions for food most preferably within the train without alighting at intermediate stations.
It was in 1999 IR floated the Indian Railways Catering and Tourism Corporation (IRCTC) with a stated vision of quality, service, cleanliness and value. The service during the last 5 years has shown some distinctive improvement compared to the earlier 35 years since independence. As with any government agency, IRCTC also has a plan on paper which envisages setting up of 3 sets of catering establishments which include static units at stations, mobile units like pantry cars and base kitchens to supply foods to trains in different regions. Besides it is also setting up food plazas in many major stations. With a staff strength of 7000 IRCTC has a turn over of about Rs 500 crores or just Re 1 per passenger per year which shows the immense potential for growth. It is claimed that IRCTC serves 230 trains through 12000 units across 1350 stations. The proposal to offer specialty foods to those looking for low calories, low carbohydrates, low fats, low sugar and low salt may not be workable as this can lead to unnecessary controversies and may need costly infrastructure to implement.
One of the imponderable issues is whether as a public undertaking IRCTC can shoulder this enormous responsibility or it is better to involve private sector in this area of service for better efficiency and accountability. Recent policy decision to at least source good branded packed water and processed foods from reputed Indian companies is a welcome move. But IR has to go much beyond that if railway passengers are to benefit from the new developments in food technology offering far superior foods and make the ravel a memorable experience. One of the possibilities is to involve large reputed food companies like ITC, Britannia, MTR Foods, Haldirams, Priya Foods and many others in a totally new concept of serving branded foods hot to the passengers in specially designed pantry cars leased to them. Such units should have facilities like frozen storage, heating modules, refrigerated storage etc. For the lessees it will provide vast opportunities for promoting their products with exposure to millions of captive audience travelling in the train, saving large sums in advertisement expenditure.
One of the most critical pre-requisites will be quality and safety protocols that will have to be laid for regular implementation and monitoring. This cannot be done by the current crop of personnel most of whom have only administrative or catering background. What is needed is a core group of food technologists who can design foods with optimum quality and nutrition, get them prepared and packaged in easily deliverable and usable units for supply to the trains and manage quality monitoring tasks based on modern systems. While private players will supply food, the quality and safety responsibility will lie with IRCTC to generate the much needed confidence amongst the traveling public. The shining example provided by the aviation sector is worth simulating in the railway sector also. Many people are known to prefer to travel by Air India because of the good food offered by the national carrier in contrast to its sloppy ground
service. Interaction and cooperation by IRCTC with Air India in the catering area may be desirable for the benefit of millions of passengers using the railway system.