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By Sally Sculthorpe on

How British Rail limited the butter on its sandwiches, and other Station Stories

Love it or loathe it, the provision of food by railway companies has always been an important part of the rail passenger experience.

The fare on offer on the railways has varied from the luxurious hampers available to first class passengers in the early days of rail travel, to the pre-packaged meals that we’re more familiar with today.

I’ve been told a host of foodie stories throughout my time running the Station Stories project. These range from the excitement of eating in a dining car, to recollections of the less exotic fodder offered by the on-board trolley service.

I’ve collected a varied menu of stories for you to savour:

Waiter service in a first class Great Western Railway dining car, 1938.

When my mother and I travelled we would have afternoon tea on the train. I remember the lovely waiters dressed up very smartly. The toast was dripping with butter and jam in small china pots. The tea was poured out from big shiny silver teapots. I always had several helpings of toast, as somehow it tasted much better than ours at home.

Pullman stewardness serving a breakfast platter, 1980s.

That early morning breakfast, with egg, bacon, sausage and bags of toast on the Manchester or Liverpool train out of Euston in the 70s and 80s was a joy! For years it was only £13 and was cooked fresh in the train’s kitchen.

BR poster showing the refreshments offered by Travellers fare on Inter-City trains, 1977.

I never once experienced anything that looked like the adverts. There were always those curly and yet at the same time soggy sandwiches, or miniature pork pies that were fashioned from concrete and gristle. You only once ever ordered tea or coffee because the two were indistinguishable. You were much better off with a can of beer or shandy bass.

Vending machines in a British Railways Eastern Region station, 1956.

The station master at Compton was Mr Webb. He stocked the chocolate machines on the platform. There were two of these machines, one for Fry’s chocolate and one for Cadbury’s. A bar of Fry’s cream filled chocolate was my favourite. The cost was one penny.

Aside from vending machine snacks, all these eating experiences would not have been possible without the staff provide the service.

Here’s a few titbits to give you a taster of their side of the story:

Serving counter at the railway buffet in Waverley station,Edinburgh, 1947.

When I worked as a buffet girl there was a little Cockney lady called Dolly, who used to stand at the back of the kitchen. When the big hams came in she cut it on a machine. The bread came in big sliced loaves. She buttered the slices and slapped the ham in them. She was so fast and so quick, this little woman. If she liked you, she would hand you a sandwich. We were always hungry.

Young boys manning a refreshment trolley in Paddington station, 1910.

The summer I was fourteen, I sold ice-cream from a mobile cart. In my mind it was a job of real skill and agility. I knew that the long distance trains from London, heading for Newcastle and on to Edinburgh, were where the best sales were to be achieved. I worked as quickly as I could, providing thirsty passengers with ice creams and lollies. They would take their time, much to the frustration of customers at the back of the queue. I put the money into a brown leather satchel, draped around my neck, and carefully counted out their change.

BR advert for Journey fillers from the train buffet, 1981.

When I was at sixth form college I had a weekend job with British Transport Hotels and Catering on the old Birmingham New Street Station.  I worked as a kitchen porter in the ‘Roll Room’ on Platform 11. It was our job to butter and fill up to 3000 rolls each day, putting them into cellophane bags and taking them to the various refreshment rooms on the station.  British Railways rolls were easy targets for comedians, but I can vouch for the fact that, while many of the fillings came from tins (eg ham, tongue and salmon), the rolls were certainly fresh. It is true that we were instructed in the art of spreading the butter on the roll and then scraping it off again, so that only the thinnest residue would remain.

Do you find railway food refreshing or depressing? If these stories have whet your appetite to tell us about your experiences you can do so by filling in our online story form, or emailing your story to

14 comments on “How British Rail limited the butter on its sandwiches, and other Station Stories

  1. I remember the trolley on the Waterloo to Exeter trains in the early 80s the choice for sandwiches was Cheese and tomatoe or Ham and Tomatoe, both on white bread. They were nice though and fresh.

    1. I worked on British rail in the 70 s from paddington great western it was great food on the restaurant buffet cars and no shortage of butter in the sandwiches and the best breakfast you can eat all for £2.00

  2. Only the British would Nationalize a sandwich. Institutional food is always sub standard fare.

  3. British Rail breakfasts as well as lunches and dinners served silver service in the restaurant car were high quality. Having a meal and watch the world go by at 100mph+ was truly as pleasurable experience especially on a longer journey.

  4. I can proudly say , I was a stewardess on the Euston to Glasgow and how much i loved that job. I met so many people, good, nasty and famous. I have to say no matter what people think about our restaurant and buffet cars, they were fresh every day and served with staff that loved the job ( mainly ). I remember training for a new menu in Crew sidings called The Gold Star Menu and my picture was in the Daily Express serving drinks, along side the Chef, Charlie Everington who was the Chef on the Royal train. Oh the memories. Best job i ever had

    1. My dad was Chief Steward back in the 1970’s and dad also worked The Flyer as did I as a lad with my dad. Later on I did 1st class service which was truly 1st class, how many diners are offered 3 different cooked boiled eggs? I did the Kings Cross to Edinburgh. Great memories of The Flyer being turned around at The Cross, hissing, puffing and panting like some giant beast.

  5. Hi – I try and discover quirky/hidden aspects of the railway. There were small cafes at stations pre-nationalisation. In 1948/49, the Hotels Executive (to do with the newly-nationalised railway) had 400 station refreshment rooms. I tried to find the listing of these at Kew (National Archives) yesterday, but the document wasn’t available. (AN 109/1063). The list of hotels is online. Does anyone have a list of the refreshment rooms that’d be easy to scan? I’m writing about the Ingleton branch line. There was a refreshment room at Tebay (closed 1948/49). There were probably, pre-nationalisation, small cafes at stations along that route. I was surprised to discover there was one at Seascale (my book about west Cumbria). Local businessmen sold refreshments at small stations such as Hycemoor/ Bootle station to cater for people travelling to events such as walking trips. (St Bees Hotel seems to have had a leading role in doing this). All a long time before Costa, etc.

  6. Apologies for what was a scribble. I didn’t want to put too much effort into it in case it did not go live.

    A newspaper refers to first, second and third-class refreshment rooms on the Manchester and Liverpool railway in 1830.

    There were refreshment rooms pre-1860 erected at Carlisle. They were let by Lancaster & Carlisle Railway Company to a hotel keeper. There were lots of railway/station refreshment rooms. They almost seemed like a chain (ie one company running them).

    I think the boozers ruined refreshment rooms (a general statement), ie the owners/leaseholders sold alcohol and the premises were used late at night by people not using the trains. That wouldn’t have been the case everywhere, I know.

    The list I tried to find was to do with the Hotels Executive and what they took on in 1948. It wasn’t long after that the Tebay refreshment room closed.

    There were probably many small cafes at stations in the 19th century that only opened in the summer (cafes for tourists) and didn’t last long.


  7. Does anyone remember The Medway Restaurant and Bar in the early 1970s, opposite Platform 6 at Victoria Station (with an entrance also vis the station forecourt)? It was part of British Rail catering and I think it may have been on the site of the present Burger King.

    I would be interested to know how long it lasted. There is a menu online with a ‘Now Open’ sign (and with Waitress Service) and has the prices in new money – which suggests it opened after February 1971.

    1. I think The Medway Restaurant and Bar (also known as The Medway Rooms) at Victoria, opposite Platform 6, was there from 1971 to 1974. Would be delighted to hear from anyone who remembers the venue and recalls what it was like.

  8. I would love to hear from anyone who remembers The Medway Restaurant and Bar at Victoria Station (opposite Platform 6) in the early 1970s. I suspect it closed around 1975.

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