EATING OUT / Attracting the carriage trade: British Rail dining car, London to Bristol

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British Rail dining car, London to Bristol

For information on Intercity on-board services, phone 071-922 4267.

Three-course a la carte lunch and dinner available, average pounds 18 excluding wine. All credit cards accepted. Catering may vary after privatisation on 1 April

I WAS very depressed a few months ago by a news item saying that British Rail catering was going over to airline-style food, with everything hammered flat into plastic trays, frozen in stacks, and radiated on demand in a galley microwave.

Anyone with an ounce of romanticism in their veins knows that the whole point of BR catering is that it is real food, served at 70mph by waiters in white jackets three sizes too small for them, doing what used to be called silver service as they brace their legs against the lurching of the train, holding three aluminium dishes of hot vegetables in one hand while dispensing brussels sprouts, carrots and small, round, boiled potatoes with a spoon and a fork held in the other, and still not emptying the whole lot over the old lady in the fur hat opposite.

Even the grisliest young executives, who run a mile every morning and would run ten if they so much as smelt an old-fashioned fry-up at home, are perfectly happy sitting down to a bowl of porridge, a plate of fried eggs, fried potatoes, fried bread, fried tomatoes, bacon, sausages, baked beans and black pudding, four or five rounds of toast and marmalade, and several cups of coffee if it's all roaring and rattling along through the countryside with a man in uniform leaning over them saying 'Tickets, please'. This, a spokesperson for BR with a strong Belgian accent assured me, is still available on all the main Intercity routes, cooked on the train for pounds 12.50.

I'm not saying things weren't better in the old days. I once went by train to Scotland to visit the great Thirties novelist Eric Linklater, his wife Marjorie and their very charming highland cattle, and was so engrossed in a delicious piece of buttery haddock I was given, or rather sold, for breakfast that I failed to get off at the right station.

Nor have I forgotten taking a train along the side of Lake Geneva for a journey of less than 50 minutes, seeing our veal escalopes being cooked over an open flame on a stainless steel cooker, and having all the time in the world to eat them and even to have a cup of coffee afterwards before we got out at Lausanne.

Food, I am glad to say, is still cooked on BR trains at lunchtime. I had lunch in the dining car on the way from London to

Bristol a few weeks back, celebrating my independence with a quarter-bottle of Nottage Hill as the light industry snaked away on either side and gave way to the wide green vistas of Wiltshire. And I really quite enjoyed it.

But I can't recommend the buffet car: the last time I asked for toast, the nearest thing they offered was a croissant in a transparent plastic wrapper. It was indeed microwaved, and tasted like warm dough.

When I came back from Bristol on a Sunday night a fortnight ago, the train was immobilised on the track for two hours while safety inspectors were fetched, we were told at regular intervals, to inspect a bridge near Ealing Broadway that had been hit by a lorry. As we grew hungrier and hungrier, a healthy queue of what British Rail now calls 'customers' formed - and the buffet attendant simply rattled down the steel shutter and hid.

But sitting at a table in the dining car is another kettle of fish. Admittedly the track between London and Bristol is a bit dull and flat for real aficionados of sprout-juggling, but the service is efficient and friendly, the croutons in the soup were straight out of the frying pan, like the little snippets of bacon in the spinach and chicory salad, and there was a jug of warm milk with the coffee.

British Rail, even in its grimmest days, always had some good wine. Apart from my quarter-bottle of Nottage Hill at pounds 2.95, the Bristol Shuttle offers reasonable French and Australian red at up to pounds 12.95 a bottle.

The menu changes, but things have moved away from the old grapefruit segments and slices of boot-leather beef edged with tallowy fat. I would be deceiving you, however, if I said I had eaten everything on the menu: actually I only had the soup - freshly made mushroom with the croutons - a spinach salad and a pudding. But I can report that, glancing around the compartment as discreetly as I could while the other customers were having their first course, I observed nobody spitting out the chicken liver parfait, and the fresh melon to me looked ripe, sweet and juicy.

After that, even with the freshly cooked bacon in my spinach salad, I felt quite envious of the executives across the other side of the carriage, who had put down their portable telephones to eat roast noisettes of lamb and a baked fillet of salmon. Even the vegetarian dish with aubergines being ingested by a frail-looking elderly bluestocking looked quite good. I did not witness anyone eating the cold roast chicken with stuffing, but it was carried through and also appeared reasonably wholesome.

The choice of vegetables, brought round with a little more decorum than I remember in the old days, was 'baby corn', buttered peas and mashed potatoes. Finally there was a rather limited selection of cheese - cheddar or goat - fresh fruit salad, or tarte au citron. I had the lemon tart and there was absolutely nothing wrong with it.

I hope I don't sound too patronising, but there is a sense, at least on the London to Bristol line, that BR is making an effort. Now that passengers - a perfectly decent word still in use in the 18th century to mean passers-by - have become 'customers', perhaps BR executives are making it a priority to lure us back on to the trains with proper food. With coffee and two British Rail chocolates wrapped in silver paper, the average bill per head in the dining car is between pounds 15 and pounds 20.-