Travelling by Train in the Days of the Raj: Restaurant Cars and Refreshment Rooms

by Ken Staynor, 2015

Arriving from the United Kingdom at Bombay in August 1931 and embarking on a journey of almost 1,300 miles from The Great Indian Peninsula Railway's Victoria Terminus to a place called Dhanbad on the East Indian Railway, where my step-grandfather was the Yard Master I experienced for the first time the excitement and joy of leaving my compartment to walk along the platform to the restaurant car for a meal.

My memories of that journey began in the confusion and bustle of Victoria Terminus with hundreds of people around me speaking a strange language and a train made up of huge wide carriages with no corridors and heavy doors that opened inwards; everything was so different and massive compared to the outward opening slam to shut doors and cramped compartments of the Southern Railway in England I had got used to travelling in.

Except for the occasional visit to corner house cafes and the vast dining room on the ocean going liner that brought us to Bombay, I had never been in a restaurant before and had never seen or heard of a restaurant car. After the train left Bombay on that August morning, our lunch and afternoon tea was brought to our compartment by prior arrangement with the dining car manager, a very convenient system which worked efficiently in those days and a convenience we often used when travelling as a family. But I was excited when my father said at about seven in the evening with the train speeding along at over a mile a minute, that we would go to the restaurant car for dinner at the next station. Little did I know at the time, that this would be the first of a countless number of times I would make the trip from compartment to restaurant car and back in the years to come, and as I was just going five years of age at the time this first trip to the restaurant car was the most impressionable of all those trips.

The restaurant car was well attended, clean and inviting and we were greeted by the dining car manager who escorted us to two vacant tables, one for my mother, my sister, brother and me while my father was ushered to a table across the central aisle along side our table to dine with another fellow traveller, he then immediately instructed a bearer to attend to us. The manager was very smartly dressed in black trousers and a spotless white shirt with a black bow tie, while the attentive bearers were smartly kitted out in spotless well starched white chapkans and turbans with black and green headbands which matched the belts with polished brass buckles they wore around their waists. There were rows of tables on either side of a central aisle each laid with four placements which included cutlery, side plates and white napkins folded in a decorative castle-like shape. The drinking tumblers and water jugs on each table were sparkling clean and reflected the bright lights set in the anaglyptic ceiling which were supplemented by a 'wall light' at each table. There were also several ceiling fans positioned so as to give every diner the benefit of their cooling breeze. This was silver service at its best, while the cuisine was excellent. This certainly was an exciting experience with which to start my several journeys on the railways of the Raj.

It was the norm for most of the long distance mail and express trains on all the railways of the Raj to have a restaurant car. Generally the restaurant cars and station refreshment rooms were managed by the catering departments of each railway except those on the East Indian and Bengal Assam Railways. The restaurant cars and refreshment rooms at important stations on the EIR were the franchise of Kelners who were a subsidiary of Spencer & Company, old established wine merchants, caterers and hoteliers in Calcutta, while on the BAR the franchise belonged to Sorabji & Company. Sorabji were also the caterers on the Bengal Duars Railway and after the Assam Bengal Railway, which had their own catering department, was amalgamated with the Eastern Bengal Railway on the first of January 1942 which gave birth to the then Bengal & Assam Railway later changed to just Bengal Assam Railway, Sorabji took over the catering on that section of the BAR also. Sorabji also held the franchise for the catering on the Darjeeling Himalayan Railway for the refreshment room at Kurseong.

Trains which had restaurant cars usually had the letters 'RC' at the heading in the column that showed their name and number in the railway's time table, with the exception, once again, in the time table of the EIR which showed a small picture of a crossed knife and fork. The EIR ran more restaurant cars than the other railways with five trains having one; these were the Delhi Kalka Mail, Bombay Mail, Punjab Mail, Toofan Express and the Upper India Express via Banares Cantonment. These all ran on a daily basis which meant trains like the Bombay mail had six separate rakes (The Calcutta- Bombay Mail via Allahabad was in fact an EIR train which ran through to Bombay in conjunction with the GIP and always made up of EIR rolling stock) while the Punjab mail carried a restaurant car between Howrah and Saharanpur; the Delhi Kalka Mail, Toofan Express and Upper India Express had restaurant cars between Howrah and Delhi. All these trains had four separate rakes so they could run on a daily basis.

On the Bengal Assam Railway, the broad gauge had three trains that included a restaurant car; the Assam Mail between Sealdah and Parbatipur, the Surma Mail between Sealdah and Sirajganj Ghat and the Chittagong Mail between Sealdah and Goalundo. On the metre gauge sections, the Assam Mail had a restaurant car between Lalmanirhat and Amingong and after the Brahmaputra ferry crossing, between Pandu and Lumding. The Surma Mail had one between Agartalla and Silchar.

The Bengal Nagpur Railway had only two trains that had a restaurant car the Bombay Mail (which ran through between Howrah and Victoria Terminus and once again the train was a BNR train made up of BNR stock) and the Madras Mail between Howrah and Madras Central through Waltair with the Madras & Southern Maharatta Railway.

On the Great Indian Peninsula Railway only the Punjab Mail and Madras Express included a restaurant car on their long distance trains, while on the North Western Railway restaurant cars were in the make up of the Frontier Mail (Although this like the rest of the make up of the train was a BB&CIR car) and the Punjab Mail which once again was the GIP one. This train ran between VT and Lahore which after Madras was the fourth largest city in undivided India and the hub and headquarters of the NWR. Other trains with restaurant cars were the Karachi Mail between Lahore and Karachi and the Sind Express which ran between Peshawar Cantonment and Karachi leaving the main line at Campbellpore running through Mainwali and following the River Indus joining the Lahore to Karachi main line just south of Multan.

South India was mainly metre gauge but the Indo Ceylon Express of the South Indian Railway, when it ran, had a restaurant car while on its broad gauge there was a restaurant car on the Mangalore Mail, Tuticorin Express and Blue Mountain Express. The MSM had one on the Bangalore Express. The restaurant car on the express to Bombay was a GIP car like the rest of the train make up while the one on the Calcutta Mail was like the rest of the train BNR stock.

The Grand Trunk Express which had the longest through running route during for any train in the Raj operating between Peshawar Cantonment and Madras Central over the NWR, GIP, Nizams State Railway (NSR) and the MSM was made up of carriages of all those railways and of course restaurant cars which worked over the whole route. This train must have had at least eight separate rakes which were made up of rolling stock of all four railways. I used to see this train travelling south passing through Delhi every evening, and was always amazed at the mixture of train's components. In spite of its grand sounding name I believe it was actually neither grand nor express as it took something like seventy-two running hours to cover the 1,800 route miles.

The BB&CIR had three trains with restaurant cars on the broad gauge. These were on the Frontier Mail which, as already mentioned, travelled over the whole route between Bombay Central (Sometimes Ballard Pier) and Peshawar over the NWR from Delhi, and their two day time expresses the Kathiawar Express between Bombay and Viramgam (The name of this train was later changed to the Saurashtra Express) and the Gujrat Express (The name of this train was later changed to the Rajputana Express) between Bombay and Ahmedabad. Both these trains connected with the metre gauge Delhi Express which departed from Ahmedabad at about eleven in the night. The rail route between Bombay and Delhi via Ahmedabad and the metre gauge line from Ahmedabad to Delhi was the first rail connection between Bombay and Delhi. On their metre gauge a restaurant car was attached to the Delhi and Sind Mail between Ahmedabad and Ajmer and the same restaurant car was then attached to the Delhi Express the next morning between Ajmer and Delhi; in the opposite direction the car worked the other way in the morning

Nearly all the important junction stations and other important stations had refreshment rooms. These however were of the English or what might be called of Western style establishments, because like everything else with the Indian railways in those days, things were so planned to cater for the British first and foremost. These stations showed the letter 'R' against the station name in the time tables, and if the time table showed 'RHM,' this meant there was a refreshment and catering facility for Hindus (H) usually vegetarian and Mohammedans (M) usually halal. The H and M facilities did not cater for seating in a dining room but merely meant that food for these travellers was available. I can only speak for the English style refreshment rooms which were always excellent establishments. I always enjoyed a silver service dinner at Siliguri when travelling from the Himalayan Hill Stations of Darjeeling or Kurseong to Calcutta and an excellent breakfast of fruit juice followed by bacon and eggs with toast and coffee and even if I requested, corn flakes also in the morning when travelling the other way. The dining facilities were also excellent at both Kalka and Barog on the NWR when travelling to and from Simla. To give an idea how good the service and cuisine at these refreshment rooms were, I had a friend who was in a boarding school at Lucknow, and whose parents lived in Allahabad. Whenever they visited him, he would settle for a lunch at the station refreshment room in preference to any place else, when asked what and where he would like to have lunch for a change from boarding school cuisine! I cannot comment on the quality of the cuisine for the 'H' and 'M' outlets as I never had occasion to try them but knowing that Indian cuisine as a rule was very tasty, I am sure tasty food was served at these outlets. These observations, however, apply only for refreshment rooms on the lines within what would be referred to as British India; because once you entered the Princely States of Rajputana and Malwa things were very different as in most cases the stations did not have mains electricity and refreshment rooms tended to be small and Spartan while the menus very limited. I had experience of this when making a journey from the military cantonment town of Mhow in the Holker State through Malwa and Rajputana to Mount Abu and had my first experience of dinner by oil lamp and cooled by a Punka at a place called Neemuch. The large cities in these states, like Ajmer and Baroda, did have splendid refreshment room services and they certainly had an excellent refreshment room at Ahmedabad where I enjoyed both an excellent breakfast and dinner during my journeys between Mhow and Mount Abu when I travelled by the broad gauge route on the Frontier and Gujrat Mail trains.

Some long distance trains which did not have a restaurant car had food preparation facilities for typical Indian cuisine; I travelled on such a train in April 1943 when travelling from Delhi to Mhow on the Bombay Baroda & Central India Railway's stopping at all stations passenger train to Bombay Central as far as Ratlam. In war time 1943, the BB&CIR had only two trains operating between Bombay and Delhi, the Frontier Mail and the stopping at all stations passenger. At Shamgarh a young lad entered the compartment and enquired whether I would like something to eat. He told me he prepared food in a special compartment where he cooked food (Or as he said 'khana') for the Indian travellers and for the driver, fireman and most times the guard also. He offered me a choice of lamb, chicken or vegetable curry with boiled rice and assured me he was an excellent cook and I did not have to give him a tip if I did not like what he had cooked! I was so taken by this cheeky fellow I ordered a lamb curry. With that he said he would bring the food after two stations (about forty minutes by this train) but suddenly the train with severe jolt from the massive XC locomotive up front, started off. The cheeky chappie after regaining his balance just sat on the floor by the still open door dangling his feet outside. Although this train stopped at every station, the distance between minor stations on this section of the railway, unlike those in most of India, were far enough for the train to speed into the sixties and I got alarmed and told him to take care as he might fall out and neither I nor the driver and other passengers would get their curry and rice and told him to sit in the arm-chair which was always part of the fittings in a first class compartment. "No" he said "that chair is for sahibs to sit on," but I insisted saying, "This sahib is telling you to sit in it," so he reluctantly sat in it. "How did you learn to speak English?" I asked him. "Oh I been in church orphanage in Byculla, but these nuns they be very strict people so I run away and get job in Bombay restaurant," was his reply. "Where are your mother and father," I asked; "I have no mamma or papa I am what nuns call me, orphan." The train eventually came to a stop at a deserted station after about twenty minutes and with that he scampered towards the front of the train to catch up with his preparation compartment as the train had just started pulling out of the station after a very brief stop. I was the sole occupant of a two berth coupe compartment which, like all first class compartments was very comfortable with one upper and one lower berth and an armchair while the lavatory was large with a tip-up to empty stainless steel wash basin with a large mirror and shaving light above it, toilet pan and shower unit; there was a warning notice above the wash basin that read that the water was for washing purposes only and unsuitable for drinking. Two stations and about forty minutes later he arrived with the lamb curry and rice a small receptacle of mango chutney and a spoon and fork which although slightly tarnished were nevertheless clean and all carried on a large brass tray; "You eat first, sahib, and you pay me at Nagda," he said, and then added, "If khana is good maybe sahib give me good tip on top of the three rupees for khana." Three rupees in 1943 was a good amount but certainly much cheaper than what would be charged in a restaurant car. The lamb curry was both tender and very tasty and I thoroughly enjoyed it, and when we arrived at Nagda about forty-five minutes later he returned to collect everything. I told him his curry was excellent and gave him a Ten Rupee note. He left with the broadest smile in the world on his face while I was in a much better mood for my change of trains at Ratlam which was in just under an hour later on a train that had stopped at every station for almost four-hundred miles since stopping at Muttra. It is memories of journeys like this one and the one from Mhow to Mount Abu that always added a bit of adventure to them and a made change from travelling in the glamour of 'Top Link' trains with their air-condition coaches and restaurant cars.

I believe the first train in India to have a restaurant car was the Darjeeling Mail, or as it was originally called the Darjeeling and Assam Mail. This train departed from Sealdah at about six-thirty in the evening and served dinner in a dining car on its way to Demukhdia Ghat on the south bank of the River Ganges where it arrived at about 10.00 pm. Here travellers had to leave the train and board a ferry for the crossing of the very wide river to Sara on the north bank, for the completion of their journey to Siliguri by a metre gauge train. The train between Sealdah and Demukhdia Ghat I understand was also a corridor train until I believe, the wife of a member of the hierarchy complained about "Natives hanging around in the corridors!" so the corridor stock was done away with for sake of the privacy of the ladies of the sahibs! This was the mode of travel on the Eastern Bengal Railway to the north of Bengal, the Himalayan hill stations and Assam till the Hardinge Bridge was opened to traffic in 1915. The gauge changes then shifted to Ishurdi, then to Santahar and finally to Parbatipur all made in the middle of the night affording very little if any sleep over the journey. The through broad gauge journey from Sealdah to Siliguri which was perhaps, one of the most restful and comfortable journeys I made in India, did not come about until the broad gauge reached Siliguri in 1925 and the original journey before the construction of railways, by horse drawn carriage and bullock cart between Darjeeling and Calcutta was reduced from six days to sixteen hours.

A typical restaurant car on an Indian long distance train. This photograph was taken after Indian Independence which shows that standards, sadly, were beginning to slip but still pleasant and comfortable enough for a meal. Compare this photograph with the photograph of the one attached to the Imperial Mail. This photograph shows the restaurant car on the Bombay Mail of the South Eastern Railway, successor to the old Bengal Nagpur Railway.
(Click for a larger view.)

The restaurant car attached to the EIR Imperial Mail. Although this was the Imperial Mail, there was very little difference in the comfort and d�cor between this and the restaurant cars attached to the other long distance trains on the East Indian Railway, except there were no lamps on each table while this restaurant car had corridor access to the rest of the train as the Imperial Mail was the only corridor train to run in India during the Raj.
(Click for a larger view.)

Dining Car on the Great Indian Peninsula Railway. The GIP and the NWR favoured 'Bench style' seating while the EIR, BB&CIR and other railways preferred individual seats which gave a much more comfortable look.
(Click for a larger view.)

The Emperor's Dining car; this was the dining car on the Royal Train for the visit of King George V and Queen Mary during their state visit to India at the time of the great Durbar.
(Click for a larger view.)