It is one of the last civilised experiences left in the modern world of travel. The soothing clink of cutlery on china, the starched tablecloths, a smartly uniformed steward at your elbow serving dinner in the restaurant car as the scenery of our green and pleasant land flashes by through the window.
For more than a century, the time-honoured words “Last call for the dining car” have summoned hungry passengers for sittings at lunch or dinner on trains across the land. Sadly, next Friday evening (May 20) they will be uttered literally for the very last time, as Britain’s final full-scale restaurant car service is consigned to the scrapheap.
There will be lavish helpings of nostalgia aboard the 19.33 from London’s King’s Cross to Leeds as mourning passengers are served a valedictory meal of “Smoked Haddock Arnold Bennett crepe”, rib-eye steak, leg of lamb or fillets of trout, followed by blue cheese, apple and walnut strudel and ginger and rhubarb pavlova. The tablecloths, as usual, will be immaculate and the service silver. Glasses will be raised for the last time from a wine list including a fine Chateau Blomac 2008.
This final journey will be especially poignant, since the East Coast route was where British railway dining began back in 1879, when a Pullman car with a fully equipped kitchen called Prince of Wales was attached to the Leeds expresses of the Great Northern Railway. Meals were cooked over an open fire at the end of the coach, and despite teething problems, such as soot blowing onto the food whenever the train went through a tunnel, the idea quickly became popular.
And although it was possible to encounter some grim culinary experiences (remember Brown Windsor soup?) passengers have come to savour the dining car as the high point of any train journey. But sadly the privatised train companies see dining cars as an anachronism in the modern corporate world and have been busy sweeping them away.
At the end of the British Rail era just 17 years ago there were 249 restaurant car services across Britain. After next weekend there will be just four – on slow services into Devon and Cornwall – and who knows how long they will last.
It is especially ironic that the deathblow for the dining cars has not been delivered by some profit-hungry franchise, but by the nationalised train company, formed to operate the main line to Edinburgh after its previous operator collapsed. On privatisation in 1994 the government decreed that more than eighty restaurant cars should run on this line. Now the mandarins at the Department for Transport are in charge, they have decided there should be none.
Instead of restaurants, open to anyone on the train, the East Coast company that operates services out of Kings Cross now plans airline-style meals to be served at the seats of first class passengers only, while standard class travellers will be condemned to microwaved burgers from the buffet car.
For many of us this is a tragedy. As the railway historian Bryan Morgan wrote: “Diners are much-loved things, for we never quite outgrow our childhood amazement at the idea of refreshment on wheels. The moving sunlit countryside; the strange cries from the hell-hole of the galley; the stewards trying to steer a steady course – all these impart a glow…”
This is not surprising – since eating on trains at its best was a grand affair indeed. Soon after the first dining cars were introduced, contemporary writers enthused about “gliding through the suburbs of the metropolis, the crockery enticingly a-jingle” as waiters appeared with coffee, toast, eggs, bacon, fish and cutlets.
Lunch aboard the train in Victorian times would have been a five-course affair, with staples such as grilled turbot, roast sirloin, salmon with sauce hollandaise, bread-and-butter pudding, apple tart and crème caramel. The cost in 1898 was half a crown – about £10 in today’s money and considerably cheaper than the £35 price of dinner on next weekend’s final service.
The early waiters learned their trade in special sealed-off dining cars where they were trained to walk along a white line wearing a blindfold while the train moved at speed.
Each route around the country had its own culinary specialities. On the Metropolitan Railway (now the Metropolitan Line of the Tube), commuting stockbrokers could have both breakfast and dinner aboard a special Pullman car to and from the London suburbs. The old Great Eastern Railway, which was the first to provide restaurant cars for third class passengers, ran evening restaurant cars to almost every minor town in East Anglia, including midnight “supper trains” to Essex seaside resorts.
In the 1940s the Southern Railway designed unique “tavern cars” complete with fake brickwork and mock Tudor beams to create an olde-worlde atmosphere – although they were unpopular with passengers because they had no windows.
Most famous of all was the Brighton line, renowned for its grilled kippers – much loved by the actor Lord Olivier, who campaigned to save them when British Rail tried to drop them from the menu. In the last days of the Brighton Belle at the end of the 1960s a kipper for breakfast cost the equivalent of just 11p and grilled steak, chips and peas for lunch a mere 95p. All served amid the magnificent art-deco marquetry of 1920s carriages with lovely names such as Audrey and Vera.
And there was the romance, too. Who could forget Cary Grant and Eva Marie Saint in the dining car seduction scene in Alfred Hitchcock’s North by Northwest – surely one of the most sensual encounters in cinema history? No sooner has she ordered the brook trout from the menu than Hollywood’s most famous schmoozer is suggesting he might make love to her.
Nor can you enter a restaurant car without thinking of M. Hercule Poirot having breakfast on the Orient Express, where in Agatha Christie’s famous novel the little detective sits in the “favoured position of the table” and is “served first and with the choicest morsels”.
Hard to imagine any such glamour aboard East Coast’s soulless “airline-style” services, though the company says scrapping the dining cars is part of a £12m programme featuring 19 extra services a week, including new return trains to Lincoln and Harrogate and a four-hour “Flying Scotsman” service from Edinburgh to London. Most of all, though, East Coast wants to get more people to pay a premium fare by offering free meals at every first-class seat. “It’s about providing better value with the first-class ticket,” says a spokesman.
The problem for today’s train travellers is that “better value” is often corporate railwayspeak for “worse service”. I frequently wonder if deep in railway operations HQ there is a department whose sole job it is to think up ideas to diminish the experience of passengers – seats that don’t line up with the window, an incomprehensible fares system, ticket collectors who assume everyone is a criminal – and of course, the abolition of restaurant cars.
My experience as a regular traveller on the rival Virgin West Coast Main Line, which has long abandoned restaurant cars for airline-style food, does not hold out much hope for East Coast travellers pining for the loss of their dining cars. Last week my “first class” lunch on a Glasgow-London train consisted of an egg and cress sandwich and a banana. No fine china or glassware – just a mug of the sort you might find in a transport caff and a plastic place mat. No wonder they offer as much free booze as you can drink. This is presumably to get you to forget the awfulness of the food.
But even this is better than some train operators, where a first class ticket entitles you to not much more than a cup of tea and a packet of biscuits if you are lucky
It’s a far cry from even quite recent times when entire trains, such as the Yorkshire Pullman and the Cambridge Buffet Express had names dedicated to the idea of eating and drinking on board. And there was a reasonable expectation that one might find a restaurant on even modest services. I have delicious memories of a supper of smoked haddock and poached egg aboard a Mallaig to Glasgow train, watching the sun set over the Isle of Skye.
The decline should not have to be inevitable. The transport analyst Barry Doe, who has long campaigned against the closure of the restaurant cars, says: “The trouble is that the accountants who run the railways see trains merely as aeroplanes without wings. What they fail to spot is the marketing opportunity of a dining experience that we British regard as very special. On long train journeys operators have a captive audience and much as they seem not to believe it, passengers do eat. Shame on them for not understanding this!”
Back in 1869, just before Britain’s first dining car took to the rails, the novelist Anthony Trollope wrote that the “real disgrace of England is the railway sandwich”. He described it as a “whited sepulchre, fair enough outside, but so meagre, poor, and spiritless within, such a thing of shreds and parings, such a dab of food, telling us that the poor bone whence it was scraped had been made utterly bare before it was sent into the kitchen for the soup pot.”
It seems, in these straitened and prosaic times, that we may have to steel our stomachs for Trollope’s railway sandwich once more.
‘On The Slow Train Again: Twelve great British train journeys’ by Michael Williams has just been published by Preface, price £14.99