Indian Railways plan train catering revolution with barcodes on food

The Man Who Pays His Way: ‘You can scan the barcode using your phone and can see the kitchen,’ said the nation’s rail (and coal) minister

Indian Railways introduce barcodes to allow passengers track origin of food in trains

India has a minister of railways and coal. His name is Piyush Goyal. And he has a dream – about snacks sold onboard Indian Railways.

“My ultimate thought is that each food packet will get a barcode,” he told reporters in Delhi this week.

“You can scan the barcode using your phone and can see the kitchen. You can see and decide whether you want to eat or not.”

Yes, Indian Railways is planning to give passengers an instant glimpse into the place their on-train food was prepared, keeping track of their snack.

When travelling on the world’s biggest transport provider, you will be able to pick up a paratha (stuffed flatbread), scan the barcode on the wrapper and be taken straight to live footage of the kitchen where it was made.

The Indian Railway Catering and Tourism Corporation Ltd (a subsidiary of the transportation giant, and for which Mr Goyal also takes responsibility) aims to reassure travellers that their meals are made with high hygiene standards. And if it isn’t?

“If the food is bad, you can file a complaint quoting the kitchen number and other details,” says the minister. Once you recover. presumably.

After travelling on Indian Railways in the Mumbai region this week, I must say that on the list of health and safety challenges facing the nation’s passengers, deficiencies in the buffet area are fairly low: trains carry warnings against travelling on the roof or hanging out of doors.

I saw no one seeking more personal space on the roof, which given the overhead electrification is a relief. But at rush-hour on the suburban trains into the city centre, all the sliding doors are permanently open and used for a combination of air-conditioning and flexing the maximum number of passengers in each carriage by allowing them to spill out (and hang on).

Nevertheless, the organisation that binds India together is serious about responding to Mahatma Gandhi’s assertion that “Cleanliness is next to Godliness”. The enterprise has launched a nationwide advertising campaign about its hygiene standards, with full-page newspaper advertisements saying: “Indian Railways is setting new benchmarks with impeccable hygiene, cleanliness and maintenance.”

Could it happen here? I asked the leading long-distance train operators in the UK – Virgin Trains, LNER and Great Western Railway – if they planned to follow suit.

LNER and Virgin declined to comment. But a spokesperson for Great Western told me: “I think the Indian issue is a unique one of trust in their supply/ production chain.

“I don’t think we have the same issues, or comparable issues – after much work in the wider food supply industry to raise standards.”

The train operator has done something similar, at least for first-class passengers availing of Britain’s last proper rail restaurant, on its Pullman services. In its “farm-to-fork” videos, you can see where the steak you were about to tuck into was sourced.

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Chris Woodcock, editor of the European Rail Timetable, welcomed the move: “This appears to be a way to reassure customers about food hygiene in a way similar to the star rating here in the UK. I suppose the only difference in this case is the sheer scale of the operation to offer meals to rail passengers in India.”

And Mark Smith, founder of the Seat61.com international rail website, added: “I have to say I’ve never had a problem with Indian train food, and got quite partial to Indian Railways parathas.”

On this trip I did not get to dine on a train, simply because the budget airlines offer such formidably good fares. For the 650-mile flight from Cochin to Mumbai (the same distance as Gatwick to Nice), I booked three weeks ahead and paid 3,750 rupees (£40).

Unlike most European airlines, SpiceJet included baggage, seat allocation and a choice of meals – as well as the 250-rupee “convenience fee”. In India, despite the marvels of the rail network, this is increasingly the age of the plane.

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