Meals served on premier trains like Rajdhani and Shatabdi could soon become optional as sources say the railway minister may announce a decision to uncouple passenger fares from catering costs in his budget speech this month.
This means travel could get cheaper for those opting out. They’d have a choice between bringing food from home and ordering from eateries at stations.
For instance, after deducting the catering cost of Rs 340, the price of a New Delhi-Mumbai Rajdhani ticket for AC 1st class travel will drop from Rs4,750 to Rs4,410.
The menus on express trains like the Rajdhani, Shatabdi and Duronto are fixed and mostly include tea, soup, breadsticks, snacks, as well as vegetarian and non-vegetarian meals with chapattis, rice, pulses, chicken and vegetables.
However, the state-run railway has a reputation for serving bad food, often prepared by caterers in filthy conditions with little regard for hygiene or health.
“Why must the railway ‘force-feed’ the passengers and draw flak as well. Instead of remaining in catch-22 situation all the time, the railway has decided to change the rules of the game,” a senior ministry official said. “The e-catering business is being pushed in a big way.”
The new catering policy, which may be unveiled by minister Suresh Prabhu in his budget speech, entails proposals to dismantle the existing system of awarding on-board catering contracts, while handing over such responsibilities to the Indian Railways Catering and Tourism Corporation (IRCTC).
Media reports in recent years have pointed towards a nexus between catering suppliers and railway officials, with a set of contractors succeeding in retaining their licences repeatedly.
“The minister has now decided to take this ‘catering mafia’ head on,” an official said.
As part of the new plan, the e-catering business will be promoted in a big way to serve upper-class travellers, while the IRCTC will be responsible for providing “Jan Aahar”, or low-cost meals.
Plans are also afoot to link food costs with inflation as indicated by the wholesale price index (WPI). “Once this happens, the cost of on-board meals will be calculated based on market economy,” an official said.