Most commuters who travel by trains do not have a pleasant experience with the quality of food served by the catering services. The food is often not tasty and doesn’t compensate the money spent on its purchase.
The Asansol division of the West Bengal Railways has transformed two abandoned train coaches into spacious restaurants with both vegetarian and non-vegetarian dining facilities.
Christened Restaurant on Wheels, the two coaches that operate as two different restaurants have a steam engine at the front reminding one of the glorious era of the Indian Railways. The Railways officers claim that this Restaurant on Wheels is among the first-of-its-kind in India where old coaches have been refurbished into food joints.
Located outside the Asansol railway station, around 210km from Kolkata, the facility was inaugurated by the then local BJP MP Babul Supriyo in February 2020.
The originality of the coaches was retained while changing their decor. The Railways aims to generate ₹50 lakhs of non-fare revenue from these restaurants in the next five years.
Veg and non-veg dishes
The two restaurants — Chai Chun and Wow! Bhojan — in the two coaches serve vegetarian and non-vegetarian dishes. Chai Chun offers various snacks and a variety of teas including the high premium Darjeeling tea, while Wow! Bhojan serves non-veg cuisines for lunch and dinner.
“We have a seating capacity of 55–60 people and the coach has been further bifurcated into air-conditioned and non-AC areas. We have a kitchen attached where we cook over 300 food items, mostly non-vegetarian. Apart from travellers, families from the neighbouring areas visit here regularly to enjoy the experience of dining in a railway coach. The restaurants are great photo-op venues too,” said Farhan Ansari, an employee.
Customers too offer good reviews about the eateries. “I came here after watching a YouTube video on it. The interiors have been beautifully done and the food is tasty and affordable,” said Ajay Mitra, 34, a software engineer who had come from Kolkata, adding that more such joints outside big railway stations should be opened as they would give a unique dining experience to people travelling from distant areas. Customers also suggested that the food can be supplied to passing trains because of the strategic location. “The Railways have developed the eateries in their own land which is just outside the railway station. It should encourage online booking for the food so that it can be delivered once the train reaches the station. It will not only add revenue for the government but also create more livelihood opportunities for locals.”
The restaurants, however, faced constant shutdowns since inauguration due to the Covid pandemic restrictions and that has badly affected their business. The services were resumed by mid-2021 when the situation improved after the second wave.
The employees of both the restaurants conceded that the eateries were a massive hit prior to the pandemic. “We had long queues of people waiting to get a table. We had to ask them to make prior bookings to avoid the rush. We even placed chairs outside the food joints to help people sit while waiting in the queue,” said Kumar Thapa, the chef of Wow! Bhojan.
“When the train services were reduced and reorganised during the pandemic to avoid crowds people have also stopped dining out frequently due to financial constraints and fear of contracting the virus.”
Farhan said that they needed more promotion and visibility to scale up their business. “Sustained social media campaign will go a long way in making the eateries popular. The biggest advantage for us is the strategic location right outside the railway station but we mostly get local customers as outsiders aren’t aware about its existence.”