When Indian Railway Catering and Tourism Corporation (IRCTC) used ready-to-eat meals as a substitute for its service of cooked food following the Covid-19 outbreak, little did the company know it had hit upon a source of revenue that would outlive the pandemic. Quick meals in trains were an instant hit, not only providing passengers hygienic food during travel, but also an opportunity for IRCTC to replace pantry cars and recover losses incurred during the pandemic.
With a range of dishes like upma, poha, daal chawal, rajma chawal, instant noodles, choley chawal and biryani, RTE meals were accepted well, Despite resuming its usual service of cooked food, IRCTC plans to continue RTE meals as well. “The introduction of instant food was a mixed bag of learning in our passenger-friendly initiatives during the pandemic,” said Debashis Chandra, director (catering services), IRCTC.
“Passengers prefer cooked meals. RTE meals have variety and are successful as snacks or breakfast items as these are hygienically served and passengers prefer this over eating food from platforms. RTE was the need of the hour during the pandemic. It is a structured offering, with a longer shelf life, and works well in short distances like Delhi-Agra,” Chandra said.
The Catering Policy 2017 mandates the service of meals in trains from base kitchens owned, operated and managed by IRCTC. However, after the Covid-19 outbreak, the railways ministry decided to introduce pre-cooked RTE meals to ensure quality and hygiene of on-board catering services. This food is either branded or procured from vendors. Catering services were suspended as safety measures in March 2020 and RTE meals were started in trains in August 2020. Cooked food has now been restored in all trains: 30% by December 2021, 80% by January 2022 and the remaining 20% in February.
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As per the Indian Railways Annual Report and Accounts 2020-21, passengers can also order food of their choice through e-catering services, which are available at 224 stations, and an average of 9,697 meals are being served per day. E-catering services are now available at 358 stations. On an average 21,571 meals per day were booked through e-catering in 2019-20. IRCTC generated revenue of Rs 223.41 crore from catering in 2020-21.
Brands including KFC, Haldiram’s, McDonald’s, Bikanervala, Pizza Hut and Subway are empanelled with IRCTC in e-catering services to book meals online, on phone, or by SMS. The services can also be availed at ‘Pop n Hop’ food plazas with multiple brands like KFC, Domino’s, Haldiram’s and Wow Momos. The company has started accepting QR code payments on trains, besides offering passengers ‘saatvik’ food from ISKCON temple restaurant Govinda’s.
Furthermore, with cooking prohibited on trains, futuristic kitchens are being built to revolutionize food and catering services.
“If we have control over cooking and the base kitchen, then quality is bound to improve. The plan is to have a basic kitchen on every platform. Food will be cooked and sampling will be done under CCTV supervision so that quality assurance and hygiene of food go hand in hand with advanced AI systems to detect anomalies of headgear, uniforms, rodents and mopping across kitchens,” Chandra said.
IRCTC plans to upgrade and start 98 kitchens by the end of 2022. Of the 48 kitchens running, it has upgraded 33, which are now operational, and the rest will be done by the end of the year.