July 12, 2007

Rail travel notes

Do you know of anyone who might know of someone who has said he/she liked rail food? I have yet to come across one who relished – I mean, yummy-yummied – a meal in the train. That the train food is no good isn’t worth writing about. What intrigues me is capability of caterers to serve meals in trains that are so uniformly tasteless.

I had occasion to try out rail meal during my recent travel to Vizag from Bangalore and back by Prashanti Express. The menu varied, from brijal in the day to beatroot at night for curry. There was variety, such as sambar, morkozahbu, bhaji, puri and rice. But they all tasted the same, every time.

Sambar, rasam are the kind of items amenable to fluctuating taste, even if cooked by the same hands. It has to do with the masala mix; making it a bit too hot one day, a little less salted on the next, and, occasionally, even tasty, through sheer human error. But railway cooks, it appears, are trained never to err on the side of taste. And this is an aspect of catering management, I thought, the country’s best known rail management guru ought to highlight in his talks at IIM-A and management lectures to visiting students from Harvard, Stanford or wherever.

Prof. Lalu P Yadav can tell his Ivy League undergrad disciples how caterers in India’s vast rail network manage to maintain standards of tastelessness and still sustain the demand for their meals. The server in my compartment (AS1, July 6, Bubaneswar-bound Prasanthi) turned up with dinner at 10 p m because there were 500 meals to be served that night and there was no one other than him to serve them.

Another distinct feature of our rail system that might interest students of communication management is the working of public address system at Bangalore railway station. Our railways have public announcers who tend to betray supreme indifference to aspects of oral communication such as diction, phonetics and pronunciation. And then, from where I found myself on Platform-6, one heard a clash of voices emanating from two different P A systems.

As one announcer belted out scripted messages about delayed arrival of the Brindavan Express, there was a counter voice, from another system informing us about the status of the Mysore-bound train from Jaipur. The blare of announcements, delivered in Kannada, Hindi and English, not always in a conducive tone and accent, made less sense than noise.

Yet another feature of customer service communication pertains to availability of wheel-chairs at the Bangalore railway station. My source of information on it was through word-of-mouth. And licensed porters were willing to produce a wheel-chair for you, at a price that is directly proportionate to the level of your helplessness. I paid Rs.60, beating down the initial asking price of Rs.150, to move my handicapped mother from platform 7 to 5.

Later I learnt you could get a wheel-chair from the station manager’s office by producing an ID card. There is also provision for requisition of wheel-chair by incoming passengers who can ring up a designated number. One would have thought information on customer services such as availability of wheel-chairs and the contact phone number ought to be displayed on closed-circuit TV or electronic message boards and also announced through the public address system.

Cross-filed in Desicritics


Guru said...

In business schools in the West, Indian Railway is often cited as an example of a state-run organisation with poor productivity and very poor brand image. Even as far back as 1960s rail meals were singularly unpalatable. Those days, meals were telegraphed ahead by the ticket collector and were delivered in a station where the trained stopped for a few minutes. These meals were spicy and salty to the extreme, rasam looking very red with lashing of very hot curry powder, and rice mixed with small stones tested the strength of the teeth. It appears that things have not changed much at the catering front in Indian Railway. A caterer who had sold breakfast and packed meals in a station stall and had a successful business told me once that he would serve a very hot coffee to the travellers getting off the train to buy breakfast or lunch. The poor travellers having parted with plenty of rupees would eat the breakfast quickly and would struggle to drink the hot coffee. As the stoppage time was short, they would invariably leave tumblers full of piping hot coffee and hurry to board the train, thus enabling the crafty caterer to recycle the remnant coffee for another set of travellers from an another incoming train! He explained how iddlis were recycled and what contained as ingredients in the chutney.

The Indian Railways have been mired in corruption and nepotism for very long. My relatives working in Indian Railways tell me how managers are selected for tendering departments of the Railways. These are the 'blue eyed boys' of the senior managers of the regional railways who can be trusted for quiet channelling of the 'large cuts of the successful tendering process' to their bosses. Any failure on the part of the managers in the catering departments soon saw them out of these departments, and into departments overseeing movement of smelly and perishable seafood packages. This deterrent I was told works well (similar situation in respect of customs officials in International Airports in India. Bribes are shared, the large chunk going to the line manager, and again failures are punished in moving the ‘miscreant officials’ to less attractive cargo inspection work).

Maddy said...

I agree that catered food can be bad...but I also read that the improvement in Indian railways & management changes are being talked about in B schools like Harvard & Wharton out here.


On the other hand, I have eaten some of the nicest food (attested by many who have spent bachelor days in Trivandrum) at the VRR on the TVM station!!!

talking of trains I did a blog some months ago..part 2 yet to follow.


Guru said...

The favourite examples still cited in business schools in USA and Europe where factors like overmanning and less effective managerial framework are contributory factors in poor perofrmance are the Chinese Red Army and Indian Railways.

harimohan said...

true catered food in indian railways is a sad reflection of a great organisation .
i remember my childhood when we used to travel by mangalore mail from chennai to tirur and parappanangadi my native place ,food used to be served by IRR and in big carriers with palntain leaf ,fairly delicious ,the vessel was given back in the nxt station to the chap who traveled along.
but nowadays specially north indian caterers serve horrible food and since beggars are no choosers one has to depend on it ,kerala express to delhi has horible food as it is gove contract but nethravathi has a kannur contractor hwo serves gourmet delights .
as maddy says some kerala stations serve very tasty food ,nowadays we have food courts in ekm and goa etc where there is good choice .
rajdhanis too serve good food
good topic for a blog indeed