Indian restaurant owner Mohammed Khaled has a passion for railways. So much so that on his last visit to his family’s home in Bangladesh he travelled from Dhaka to Chittagong by train. This wasn’t a conventional train journey though, he decided to do it Indian style sitting on the top of the carriage. “It was something I always wanted to do,” he explains. How on earth did he get up there? “It was easy – everyone reaches over and pulls you up,” he says. “The worst part was branches from the tree that kept hitting the carriage as we travelled along. Luckily, everyone up there realised I was from the UK and protected me!”
Having ridden the Indian railway (albeit inside the carriage), I can identify with Khaled’s desire to travel on the roof, experiencing the sense of freedom and romance afforded to those of us who don’t need to do so from necessity.
The mighty Indian railway is held close to the hearts of Indians and British alike. In India where more than three million people travel thousands of miles every day, the railway network is vital to connect such a vast country. Back in the UK however where trains are less important, Khaled has found another outlet to feed his love of railways: The Maharaja Express.
Named after the famous Maharajas’ Express, the world’s leading luxury and most expensive train that travels through India on tours of splendour and opulence, the new version chugs from Loughborough (no less worthy a location) to Leicester. During the course of the journey it takes in the splendours of Quorn and Woodhouse and the Edwardian Rothley Station, also passing beautiful countryside, picturesque reservoirs, quarries, bemused sheep, and the imposing premises of Joseph Ellis and Sons, Coke, Corn and Cake Merchants.
Khaled, who runs Salim’s Indian restaurant in Loughborough has been bringing Eastern Flavour to the Great Central Railway since 2009. The concept was created when the director of Great Central Railway visited Khaled’s restaurant and showed him some pictures of the train. At that time the service had on-board dining but served only traditional British food. “I thought, wouldn’t it be nice if people could have a curry on the train,” said Khaled. “I knew there was the train called the Maharjas’ Express in India with five-star dining so I thought, why not do a Maharaja Express in Loughborough?” He advertised online and in the railway office, and had a special sign board made to put on the front of the train, and, hey presto … the Maharaja Express on the Great Central Railway was born.
Now, a trip on the train, complete with a five-course dining experience, runs twice a year and Khaled tells me that tickets sell at least six months in advance.
Fortunately, he had two tickets left for us. Our arrival at the ticket office at Loughborough Central Station had connotations of platform 9 and ¾ where Harry Potter and his friends departed on the Hogwarts Express. However, rather than being transported to a school for wizards, we entered a time capsule which transported us back to a bygone age.
The Great Central Railway – a name that conjures up dreams of travel, new places and far destinations - is Britain’s only double track mainline heritage railway with eight miles of working track. It was once part of the line from north to south, ending up at London’s Marylebone Station. Now, run entirely by volunteers, four stations have so far been restored to their former splendour: Loughborough Central, Quorn and Woodhouse, Rothley, and Leicester North.
The departure point at Loughborough is a fine example of a 1950s station complete with wooden panelled booking office, a glass, metal and wood canopy, shop, buffet, coal fires in the waiting room. There’s even an emporium selling bric-a-brac.
In the bar which could have doubled as the set for Brief Encounter, we were served drinks feeling as if we had stepped back in time to the glory days of the railway.
The star of the show, the engine puffed into sight, hissing steam, with all the movement, bustle and flurry that accompany the arrival of a royal guest. Railway buffs and travellers rushed to the front to inspect the mighty locomotive, resplendent with its Maharaja Express livery. Gaping into the hallowed cab we were invited up to meet the men of the moment, the driver and fireman. As we braved the tremendous heat from the fire which extended far into the footplate they told us a bit more about the train. It travels every weekend, day and night and selected dates during the week and is manned by volunteers numbering 40 firemen and 40 engineers, plus many support workers.
Back to the train we boarded the opulent Pullman style dining carriages with the smell of steam mingling with aromas of spices and freshly cooked curries accompanied by Indian music. The royal blue, padded seats were far more luxurious than those found on any modern express train. Tables were laid with immaculate white table cloths with Villeroy and Bosch cutlery, illuminated by the soft glow of Edwardian table lamps. Rosewood surrounds were complete with service buttons. Curtained windows with sliding tops brought back childhood memories of how you had to slam the windows shut whenever a train entered a tunnel to avoid a sudden onslaught of soot. Happy days!
Smartly turned out staff brought us out poppadoms with an assortment of chutneys, lime pickles and fresh tasting raitas. Then, with a blast of the whistle we were off, chugging past suburbs of Loughborough, past factories, and into the countryside with distant views of Charnwood Forest.
Starters arrived: a trio of crispy onion bhaji, vegetable samosa and aloo pakora and were soon despatched. Khaled arrived on the scene, chatting to diners, many of whom had been on the trip several times. Khaled told us about his very first experience of catering on the Maharaja Express in 2009. “It was a crazy night!” he remembered. “We had booked three coaches of 42 people which meant that we had to serve 126 customers. The kitchen was different then with hardly any space and not designed for producing Indian food which created some problems. Unfortunately, by the time we got to serve the last coach we had to skimp on the portions as we had underestimated the amount of ingredients required. Needless to say, there was no way we could nip out to the supermarket to get more. Still, everyone had a great time but ever since then we make sure we only do two coaches!”
With five back-of-house staff working away in the kitchen carriage, there were seven at front-of-house, some of whom were employed by the railway itself. Service was remarkably efficient. Khaled told us that his restaurant in Loughborough was also busy so with some of the staff on the train, it’s a logistical nightmare, but well worth the effort. “People love the experience. In fact, our fame has spread and we now have visitors coming from Germany, France, Italy, Switzerland and all over the world.”
On this night, there were no worries about skimping on portions. Our main courses arrived. From a choice of four menu options, the Lamb Rogan Josh was very tasty and tender topped with chilli, lemon and coriander, and the Butter Chicken had just the right level of sweetness, all served with a perfect mound of pilau rice and vegetables. Outside the night darkened. Past Quorn and Woodhouse station we crossed Swithland Reservoir. Some of the best views on the journey were sadly lost at night, but during the day, the train pauses on the viaduct for passengers to take in the spectacular scenery across the reservoir towards Brazil Island, a popular location for birdwatching.
rattling along through embankment and cuttings, before stopping at Rothley where passengers were able to stretch their legs on the gas-lit platform. Indian desserts were served on the way back, with authentic Chocolate barfi flavoured with coconut and cardamom, and deliciously sweet, freshly fried, bright orange Jalebis. Coffee and tea with mints provided a night cap with a good selection of wines and spirits along the way. And just in case you were wondering … “These are the nicest train toilets I have ever seen,” reported my companion, who having recently returned from Cambodia was perhaps a little starry eyed. And indeed, they were.
The Maharaja Express at The Great Central Railway in association with Salim’s Restaurant in Loughborough runs on selected dates throughout the year. To book your tickets call 01509 632323
|Mohammed Khaled in his restaurant Salim's in Loughborough|