I was so sad to read articles in the Scotsman and Observer this weekend noting that the restaurant cars on East Coast trains have been sent to the great railway heaven in the sky.
I can’t claim to have been a regular of the silver service dining cars – it has been at least three years since I made the journey from Waverley to Kings Cross at all – but I have some wonderful memories of them from the early days of my and DorkyDad’s relationship.
Back in those pre DorkySon days, we sometimes used to trundle down to London for the weekend, and usually tried to time it so that we had lunch on the train. It wasn’t exactly Michelin standard, but there was something very romantic about sitting at a proper table with a white linen tablecloth and silver cutlery, while we sped past fields full of cows and horses.
I was always filled with huge admiration for the staff members, who, despite the shoogling and shaking, managed to delicately transfer bread rolls from basket to plate without dropping them, and pour generous glasses of wine without spilling them. Oh how they must have laughed at this fine dining novice, the time she knocked a large tumbler of water into DorkyDad’s lap…
It is disappointing news for reasons far beyond my own personal nostalgia though. The traditional dining car was open to all passengers. Although space was limited, anyone with £35 to spare could sit down and enjoy the range of soups, roasts and puddings. Unlike the strict separation of airline passengers, who sit in different sections of the plane, hidden from each other’s view, the democracy of the dining car meant that a businessman from first class could well end up sitting with a student from standard class.
Under the new arrangements, those who travel first class will be served where they sit, and the meal (which will now be pre-prepared, rather than made by the chef on board) will be included in the increased cost of their ticket price. Those of us who can’t afford the luxuries of first class will be restricted to the soggy sandwiches and chocolate bars of the trolley and buffet bar.
Not only is it sad to see a change that reinforces those old divisions and puts an end to the mixing and socialising that often took place in the dining car, it is unfortunate that the move will further encourage unhealthy eating habits. Part of the appeal of rail travel was the ability to get up and move around, and to break up a journey with a proper sit-down meal. Without that option, people will now sit glued to their laptop screens while unthinkingly shovelling snacks into their mouth.
The move is undoubtedly financially motivated. In order to attract many of the businessmen and women who currently take advantage of cheap air travel between Edinburgh and London, the rail industry need to prove that the productivity benefits on board a train outweigh the cost implications. That means allowing them the chance to work for the full four hours down the East Coast, without even having to leave their table for lunch.
I understand this, but that’s not to say that it doesn’t depress me. I have always loved the romance of railways. The dining car service on the East Coast has been in place for 130 years, and I’m sure that over the years I’m not the only nervous newbie who spilled something in her partner’s lap. It is a shame, I think, to see such a fundamental part of railway history and identity sacrificed on purely financial grounds. I share Stephen McGinty’s hope that the next company to take on the franchise will reconsider.
(Actually that’s not quite accurate… what I really hope is that the railways are re-nationalised and the restaurant cars reintroduced… but that’s a whole other post!)