And the Hong Kong Oscar for best train food goes to ... kitchen to station platform delivery

When I found out that I would be boarding the inaugural high-speed sleeper train from Hong Kong to Beijing, I could not contain my excitement.

But, little did I know, the highlight of my three-day trip would be the dining experience on board.

A friend and devoted foodie told me before the trip I would get to see the unique food delivery service to trains.

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Napoleon Bonaparte apparently said: “An army marches on its stomach.”

The French emperor did not have the luxury of rail travel in his day, but the principle remains a sound one.

So when I climbed aboard the D910 sleeper train to Beijing West railway station at 6.24pm last Saturday, my first instinct was to find the dining carriage even before I settled down.

The dining carriage displayed a long list of food and beverages, ranging from 15 yuan (US$2) for a spicy chicken rice dish to a reasonable 68 yuan for a stir-fried beef meal.

I guessed the total of 50 choices would be able to satisfy virtually every taste over the 12½-hour trip.

But it was not until I returned from Beijing to Hong Kong on the G79 high-speed all-seater train on Monday at 10am that I got to experience the unique dining experience, where piping hot dishes are delivered straight to the door.

Passengers can order their preferred dishes through the train’s service platform – the 12306 app – two hours before the train departs from the cities it travels through and makes stops.

The dining cabin on board the sleeper also offered a dazzling array of about 50 different options. Photo: Elson Li

Other food delivery operators also provided mini programmes on WeChat to cater to hungry travellers.

The eight-hour Beijing-to-Hong Kong train stopped at Shijiazhuang, Zhengzhou East, Wuhan, Changsha South, Guangzhou South and Shenzhen North, operating mostly at 348km/h (216mph) during my journey.

With a Post photographer and video producer with me on the trip, we ordered Wuhan’s signature hot dry noodles, or re gan mian in Mandarin.

It is a bowlful of springy spirals coated in a thick brown paste of toasted sesame seeds and sauce with fiery red pepper and pickled vegetables, served with beef or dumplings.

We also ordered cold milk tea from Changsha along with 20 journalists from other media organisations on the same trip.

To my surprise, a delivery worker with a trolley full of takeaways was already waiting on the station platform as the train arrived.

Two crew members from my carriage collected around 50 bags of food at high speed and were back on the train before the doors closed.

The noodles served were still hot, and the milk tea was icy.

I was amazed at the efficiency and how they distributed the food according to seat numbers, which ensured an organised and convenient dining experience for passengers.

Train staff efficiently sort takeaway food for delivery by seat number after the sleeper train stops at Zhengzhou East railway station. Photo: Elson Li

Estimates by Guangzhou-based iiMedia Research suggest China’s food delivery market reached a staggering value of 1.5 trillion yuan in 2023, 2.3 times its size in 2020.

It is a huge market. But, for me, the way food delivery has permeated the lives of people on the go, providing the ultimate convenience for train passengers, is astounding.

The creativity and technology behind it are truly mind-blowing.

Looking back, during my journey to Beijing on the sleeper train, I did notice some passengers eating food that was not from the dining carriage.

I realised they had also ordered takeaways and collected them at Shenzhen North and Dongguan South stations, the first two stops for the Beijing train.

But I have to say I would not choose a long train ride if the flight time was significantly shorter. But the train dining experience was something that an in-flight meal just cannot compete with.

Next time, I will order food deliveries from every train stop before the destination.

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