Should railways offer opt-in or opt-out for meals in privileged trains?

As a railways and beh econ buff it is exciting to read this bit. It is even more exciting to see something come into action which this blog argued nearly three years ago.

One always wonders the logic behind food being compulsory in India’s privileged trains like Rajdhani and Shatabdi. Most of the time food is bland and hopeless. If one takes a Rajdhani on a longer route rest be assured food is going to be the same across meals. As one has paid for it either one takes it or just wastes it. There are quite a few cases who carry their own food despite paying for it in tickets.

In 2013, this blog argued to change this default choice:

The problem with Rajdhani is the choice architecture or nudge as behavioralists call it:
If that’s not possible for some reason which is beyond my simple understanding, then at least the services must be unbundled, like in low-cost airlines. Passengers must be given an option while buying their tickets and differential rates charged for those who want meals and those who opt out.
Given that due to logistical reasons several hours elapse between preparation and consumption and the quality of the food induces travel fatigue, a significant portion of passengers are likely to prefer bringing their own home cooked food. They can still do that, but once the ticket money includes meals, most passengers feel that they might as well eat the food they have paid for.
So there you go. As of now there is no real choice. Once you buy a Rajdhani a ticket, it is assumed you will get food on the train itself. And you will be charged for it. The only choice  a passenger has while buying the ticket is of meal type: Vegetarian or Non-Vegetarian. Even this choice can be changed on the journey.
This auto enrollment into a meal should be changed. People should be free to choose whether they want a meal or not. The charge should be just for the travel and not of the food as well.
Even better is to let Rajdhani run with a normal pantry-car like in other trains. This removes the selection business and gives the pantry-cook the freedom to design his own menu..Though, this would mean too many hawkers disturbing you all night and day. In Rajdhani this disturbance is relatively less as food is mainly sourced from other places and there is no in-house cooking..
So after 40 years of pain, the govt has finally figured this choice bit. Instead of making food compulsory, now passengers would get a choice to take or not to take the food:

Four decades after the first Rajdhani Express made food a compulsory facility of premium train travel in India, passengers are finally going to get the choice to not eat railway food — and not pay for it either — served on such trains. June 15 onwards, Railways will start the much-awaited trial in which passengers can opt out of meals while booking tickets of Rajdhanis and Shatabdis. If the passenger chooses not to eat, he/she will not have to pay either. This means paying around Rs 300 less — the catering charges levied by Railways for serving food. For trains running longer distances, catering charges are higher. The rates are different for different classes as well.

To begin with, the 45-day trial will be carried out on the Patna Rajdhani, the Delhi-Mumbai August Kranti Rajdhani, the Pune-Secunderabad Shatabdi and the Howrah-Puri Shatabdi. But officials are certain that the trial is a mere formality. The element of “freedom”, they said, will be received positively by passengers. Complaints over food constitute majority of the negative feedback from Railway passengers. Earlier, food served on Rajdhani used to be its USP. But over the years, there has been a rise in customer complaints over quality and quantity.

Finally! Hope it moves from being an experiment to being a regular thing.

One is also interested in the defaults being offered:

The Railway Ministry has issued the policy directive and the software enabling this choice into the ticketing system has also been tested. This is how it works: while booking tickets on the IRCTC portal, the website shows a popup that asks whether the passenger would like to opt out of the meals. Selecting ‘yes’ means the payable ticket price gets reduced after the catering charges are excluded.

So the default sill is that food is compulsory. One has to opt out of this choice if not interested to take food . It still means govt wishes people to opt for the food. If people forget to tick the choices, they have no choice but to get the food.

I guess a better thing would be to  keep default as food is not compulsory. Let people tick the box if they want the food. This way those who forget to tick the boxes live with their choices.

But I could just be wrong here. Most people who travel by these trains there is an inbuilt thinking that food will be provided. They might just like the default to be that food is going to be added to the ticket.

It will be really interesting if railways releases data on what happened post these change in choices.



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