Passengers in trains can now enjoy meals prepared by ITC, MTR and Haldirams. Aiming to enhance the dining experience in trains, new railways minister DV Sadananda Gowda has engaged the three established catering firms to conduct trials on supplying “pre-cooked food”, which will be heated up and served to passengers.
“Trials will begin shortly in three trains including the New Delhi-Bangalore Karnataka Express and the Amritsar-Mumbai Paschim Express,” an official said.
The railways takes pride in the fact that they serve approximately 500 meals each day in running trains, but the quality of food served in most of the 318 trains that offer pantry car services has remained a sore point with passengers.
Despite big policy changes, including then railways minister Mamata Banerjee’s decision in 2010 to revert catering services to the railways after divesting the Indian Railways Catering and Tourism Corporation (IRCTC) of responsibilities, several reports of travelers falling ill after consuming railways food have come up.
There have been instances where cockroaches and lizards have been found in meals.
The inability of the railways to improve catering services is largely seen as an outcome of “cartelisation” in the area, with a select group of contractors succeeding in establishing a monopolistic presence.
Official records show that one particular family controls almost 50% of the catering business of the railways through cross holdings in firms that go by different titles.
“The idea of encouraging new players is to break the existing cartel,” said an official. But such tasks face huge challenges, as existing contractors who have paid huge license fee to win contracts are likely to go to court, if existing arrangements are prematurely cancelled.
A five-year catering contract for the New Delhi-Trivandrum Kerala Express, for example, was recently awarded for as big a license fee as Rs. 28 crore.
The catering license fee for most other trains has ranged from Rs. 15 to Rs. 20 crore.