Samuel Muston: Albert Roux to the rescue - last call for bad-quality train fare
Samuel Muston is deputy editor & food editor of The Independent Magazine. He writes a weekly food column – On the Menu – which appears in The Independent on Friday and i on Monday. And also travel and general features. Follow him on Instagram at @smuston
Thursday 05 June 2014
They call it the "train of doom" and it's a pretty accurate summation of the 19:00 Virgin Pendilino service from Euston to Manchester Piccadilly.
First of all, there is the running: when the train's platform flashes up on the board, it's like a starting gun has gone off and you are an unwilling conscript into the 100-metre dash; then, the squashing, as all the passengers try to fold themselves in such a way that they can fit into that spare square foot outside the toilet. But the worst thing comes at about 7.30pm when everyone starts to get peckish and migrates – punctuated with a dozen "I'm so sorry(s)" as boots meet hands – to the shop.
Now, unless you want a Mars bar or a "snack box" with nuts, crackers and cheese that surpasseth all understanding, you are stuck with the sandwiches. I have tried these drunk and I have tried these sober, and I tell you they are inedible. Irrespective of filling, they taste uniformly the same: of sponge. Not quite Cary Grant and Eva Marie Saint in the dining car in North By Northwest, is it?
While all hope is extinguished on my train, elsewhere new flames are being lit. It was announced this week that the Scottish Government and Serco are to jointly fund a new four-class sleeper service from London to Scotland which will have, wait for it, food by the Michelin-starred chef Albert Roux. It remains to be seen how much involvement Roux will actually have – I can't see him packing his pans and making the on-board suppers – but it is still better than the sponge-based alternative.
What makes this all the more annoying is that not long ago, you could have had a five-course meal on a British train, whatever class of ticket you had.
After complaints about the standard of food on early Victorian trains (not least by Anthony Trollope, who described railway sandwiches as "a whited sepulchre, fair enough outside, but so meagre, poor, and spiritless within"), dining cars were introduced on East Coast routes in 1879. No mean feat given that the food had to be cooked on an open fire.
By 1898, you could order roast beef, halibut and a bread pudding for your lunch should you fancy it. The cost? Half a crown (around £10). By the 1940s, you could even partake of grilled kippers for breakfast, as, indeed, Lord Olivier often did, later campaigning to have them kept on the menu when they were threatened with the axe by the operators of the Brighton line.
In France, as indeed in Thailand where I once had a whacking great pile of squid and a beer for £2 while travelling from Bangkok to Surat Thani, they understand that dining cars are the social fulcrum of the train, a place for people to meet, chat and drink in: in short, the place that makes a journey more bearable. Here, however, we get the microwave and a man behind the till grunting that, "you can't use a credit card – the machine's broke."
It is a bizarre oversight on the part of the train companies since we now have gourmet aeroplane food, organic food service stations and Heston Blumenthal in Heathrow Terminal 2.
Let's hope Roux does his work well, or else we may just be condemned to the "whited sepulchres" forever.
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