The great InterCity breakfast is just about to depart for Europe

RIDING THE IRON ROAD: Nicholas Faith tells how a revolution in rail catering at home has derailed the once legendary French fare
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There can be few more splendid places to start the day than the dining car of the early morning Edinburgh-to-London train. As it roars down the coast of Northumberland, waves crashing on the shore below, the full and elaborate works of a British breakfast are delivered, fresh from the kitchen. It is a magnificent feast.

This may soon be available more widely. OBS Services, the company which runs the catering for InterCity trains, is seeking to take its wares to Europe. A few years ago, the idea of British railway food being exported would have seemed lunacy. But quite unnoticed, there has been something of a revolution. In Britain railway food is vastly improved, while in France, traditional home of la grande gastronomie ferroviaire, it has gone totally downhill.

It has taken nearly 150 years for British railway caterers to live down their reputation. Charles Dickens wrote a short story which centres on the buffet at the mythical Mugby Junction and his description would be instantly recognisable to anyone who travelled by rail in Britain until the Eighties. The narrator tells a benighted traveller "there is a refreshment room" at Mugby Junction, "but it's a blessed circumstance for you that it's not open". Later, the "Boy at Mugby" describes with great glee the "stale pastry", the "sawdust sandwiches" the "ha, ha, ha, - the sherry", the appalling off-handedness of the barmaids, and the magnificent, deliberate incompetence of Mrs Sniff who "did hold the public in check most beautiful. In all my time, I never see half so many cups of tea given without milk to people as wanted it with".

In another story, A Flight - describing a trip from London to Paris in a mere 11 hours via the newly opened railway from London to Folkestone - Dickens had already expressed his approval of the arrangements in a French refreshment room: "Large hall, long counter, long strips of dining- table, bottles of wine, plate of meat, roast chickens, little loaves of bread, basins of soup, little carafes of brandy, cakes and fruit."

In most countries "railway food" has generally been a term of approval. Switzerland's first railway was known as the "brotli-bahn" because it brought fresh brotli - rolls - from Baden to Zurich in time for breakfast.

In the United States the railways played a positive role in spreading civilised dining, most famously through the efforts of a former freight agent called Fred Harvey. In 1875 he persuaded the Santa Fe railroad to let him manage a small restaurant in Topeka. He called it Harvey House, a name famed throughout the whole sprawling Santa Fe system west from Topeka in Kansas to Los Angeles. Harvey was determined to maintain the highest standards of food, drink and delicacy of presentation - his first step was to hire a chef from the Palmer House in Chicago, supposedly the US's finest hotel.

Today he is best remembered for the Harvey Girls, his highly respectable and presentable waitresses, most of whom stayed only a few months before marrying, generally very well. In the Thirties they and Harvey were accorded the greatest of accolades, a musical named The Harvey Girls, starring Judy Garland, with a show-stopper song, "The Atchison Topeka and the Santa Fe".

Food invariably loomed large in any railway journey, especially those in undeveloped countries, and many otherwise obscure stops became famous (or infamous) for their dining facilities. At Voi weary travellers from Mombasa to Nairobi dined in a bungalow which Charles Miller in the book Lunatic Express said "looked every bit the oasis with its wine stewards, white-jacketed waiters and barmen". The main course "almost invariably consisted of iron boiled beef, rubber mashed potatoes and something that the menu called cabbage", the whole "garnished with insects".

But primitive lines did not necessarily involve poor eating. On the Trans- Caspian line that most pernickety of travellers, George Curzon, approved of "first-rate tea at 1d a glass" and equally cheap fresh grapes and melons. In Japan, each station prided itself on its special lunch-boxes. A lady living at the otherwise obscure station of Yokokawa invented "kamameshi", a combination of rice packed with boiled prawns, mushrooms and sauces which tasted just as good hot, tepid or cold. People still make special trips to buy it.

The home of fine rail catering remained France, however, from the dining cars with their fresh napery and fine wines to the station buffets with their welcoming aromas of coffee and fresh croissants and their posher brethren, restaurants such as the Train Bleu at the Gare de Lyon in Paris. Yet today most of these have been closed, or are merely relics of their former selves. The French have sacrificed this noble tradition in their quest for speed. In creating the world's finest high-speed rail network they have abandoned the notion of eating at all adequately, and they have proved totally unable to provide edible examples of "le fast food", so that virtually all French sandwiches, especially those served on TGVs, are vile.

Indeed, throughout Europe, train food is not what it was. The Brussels- to-Milan service - beloved of European functionaries, as it stops in both Luxembourg and Strasbourg - once boasted a fine Pullman dining car, with starched linen, fine wines and a steak grilled to perfection. That came to a stop three years ago; now, there are little plastic trays of inedible pasta, microwaved to death. Besides this, the InterCity sizzler is the food of the gods.