Sunday, June 26, 2016

"Second World Amtrak" - or "Not-quite-the-Blue Train"

My daughter took a year long job in Cape Town South Africa.  We went to visit her last March and April - a four week long trip.  One of the nice things about being retired is not having to worry about "saving vacation days"!

Cape Town with Table Mountain as back drop

During the visit, we rode a passenger train cross-country from Cape Town to Johannesburg.  First, some background, then a travelogue, and finally a "compare and contrast" with Amtrak.

South Africa has an extensive rail network that was built out in the late 19th Century.  It links all the major ports and cities as well as supports major commuter services in Cape Town and Johannesburg.  It's all built to "Cape Gauge", 42 inches, which is unique to South Africa and a many other African countries on the Indian Ocean coast.  Cecil John Rhodes (he of "Rhodes Scholar") original goal was to built a railroad from South Africa to Egypt use Cape Gauge.  Pieces of the effort are still in place.  In fact, there is a renewed effort to get some of these pieces linked up and operating again.

At the end of steam, the lines were nearly all electrified and remain so.  It's a mixture of DC and AC with DC dominating the local commuter lines.

Because of apartheid, the commuter train network is extensive and heavily used.  The partitioning of land by race created a need to bring service workers into the cites from the newly created townships out in the countryside.  That flow of commuting remains and commuter trains are heavily used.

Between the major cities, there is still a skeleton long distance train service - much like Amtrak in the US.  The Shosholoza-Meyl service runs coach and sleeper service with full dining cars on most routes several days a week.  It it is safe and very cheap, but pretty bare bones.

One the other end of the spectrum is the Blue Train.  It is world renown for it's high class - and high price.  It runs once a week between Jo'burg and Cape Town.

In the middle is the Premiere Classe train.  It also runs once a week between Jo'burg and Cape Town.  It was an attempt by the passenger train operating authority to try to make some money from the tourist trade by appealing to western sensibilities and middle class budgets.

More about the these trains here:

(Also read on about the state of commuter services further down on the page)

Another thing to know is South Africa recently consolidated all passenger operations under a single operating agency, Prasa, which not only has the long distance trains, but the commuter trains as well.

They have a huge task of modernizing pretty much everything related to rail passenger travel.  Equipment, stations, fare collection...everything.

Now, on with the trip.

We booked the Premiere Classe train from Cape Town to Jo'burg.  It's an all sleeper train with lounge car and full diner. The train also takes automobiles, too.  It's a 28 hour, nearly 900 mile trip.  Fare was about $200 a person for two people sharing a bedroom.

We arrived at the train station in Cape Town via Uber.  The station was built during apartheid to support the flow of commuters from the townships to the city.  It's utilitarian-modern.

Mosaic saved from some previous station in floor of station
Modern commuter equipment in Cape Town
Auto carrier being switched after loading.  GE switcher doing the honors.
Patti and Anna in Premier Train lounge before departure
The train backed into the stub end track after being put together in the yard.  It was a long train - some of it deadhead equipment, but some of it just unsold. We boarded the train, were directed to our car and room.  There were about four sleepers in service plus a lounge car and a diner.  As soon as everyone boarded, we mustered in the lounge car for snacks and champagne.  There were about 35 passengers.  They introduced the staff.  There were a lot of them about 20.  No uniforms.

Lounge car
The train rolled out of Cape Town through several large rail junctions and finally into the wine country to the east. They grow A LOT of grapes in South Africa.  (and make A LOT of good wine with it)

Scenery in the Western Cape.  Mountains and vineyards
The cars were air conditioned but retained windows that you could open.  This was apparently a vestige from the recent past when the train was not air conditioned.  I quickly figured out that I could open them and stick my head and camera out.  Maybe not the wisest thing, but if you're careful...

The train was air conditioned, but you could open the windows! (and stick you head out and nobody said "boo!")

More scenery in the Western Cape

Climbing through a small canyon
The train rolled through valleys of grapes then through some canyons that would open up to another farm valley.  As we rolled east, the terrain got more and more arid.

...looks a bit like western Colorado on the D&RGW

The fabled Blue Train.  In the hole.  For us!

We roll past the Blue Train

Rolling along at 90 kph (about 55 mph)
In some respects it was a bit like rolling through the canyons on Amtrak's California Zephyr.  Finally the we started up a fairly decent mainline grade - the electric locomotives hardly breaking a sweat - and then entered a mile long tunnel.
Through a cut and then rolling into another agricultural valley.

Into the long tunnel that separates the Western Cape from the Great Karoo
The cars in the train were in good shape mechanically.  The cars were 9 feet wide.  Only a foot less than standard gauge equipment even though the gauge was 14.5 inches less.  They rode very nicely at 90 kph mile after mile on the concrete tie and weld rail that was ubiquitous in South Africa.  However, the interior was starting to show some wear and tear.  These cars appeared to be about 5 years out of overhaul and needed a bit of TLC.  For example, the seat back in our compartment that became the bed was cracked, making the bed un-level.  The dining car seat cushions were very nice, but could use a good upholstery cleaning.  

Each compartment came with a full set of supplies, including some disposable slippers, but only one bath towel.  There were no more to be had.

Dinner in the diner.  Very fine
The food on the train was pretty good.  Meals were included in the price, including a five course dinner with a choice of entrees.  The quality of the food ranged from fair to excellent.  After eating at places with first rate food for a few weeks in South Africa, we judged the train a notch below the city restaurants.

Rebuild shop for commuter equipment far, far from the big cities.

Scenery in the Great Karoo.  Arid.  Hundreds of miles of it.

Passageway in our sleeper
The quality of the interior build of the cars was really pretty good.  Not quite up the standards North America or Europe, but generally solid.
Each sleeper had a nice shower at the end of the hall
The train made three stops along the way.  At each, they changed crews and power.  Why did they change the power?  I have no idea.  I thought it might be accommodation of terrain, but I really don't think that's the reason.
Motive power sits at Beaufort West

Our sleeper in new Prasa colors

Vacuum brakes!

Changing crew and power at Beaufort West.  Train had HEP diesel engine gen set at each end of train.

Outbound power

Beaufort West.  Almost ready to depart.  Fences everywhere.  The norm in South Africa due to the huge gap in wealth between the "haves" and "have nots"

Ag is big industry in South Africa.
The arid Great Karoo gave way to the high plains and ranches of the Transvaal.  As we rolled east, the towns got closer and closer together and soon we were in Johannesburg.

Sunrise in the Transvaal.  Closing in on Jo'burg

Our train

Sunflower farm in the high plains

Commuter equipment laying over at the outskirts of the metro Jo'burg

Freight power
Along the way, through the great Karoo, we passed no trains at all.  Hours and hours of travel and nothing.  In fact, the only train we passed once we left the Cape Town commuter district until dusk other than the Blue Train was a short intermodal train with marine boxes.

However, at our middle-of-the-night stop in Kimberly, I spied a freight yard.  And from there to Jo'burg there was quite a few grain silos and some heavy industry with evidence of significant freight activity.

Crossing over
One of the distinctive aspects of South African life is the existence of townships.  The ruling party moved all of the non-white people out into the country side with minimal housing at best.  These townships grew and often have areas of sheet metal shacks for the poorest of poor.  Seeing these areas was mind numbing.  Many were visible from the train.

Township housing.  Good and bad.
The closer we got to Jo'burg, the more frequently we passed commuter stations and trains.  There was visible evidence of Prasa doing work to modernize the stations including more security and automated fare collection.

Roaring by a commuter train
We arrived at Park Station in Jo'burg about 2:30 late, but that was fine.  The train manager had arranged for our taxi from there to Sandton, where we were staying.  The taxi was waiting at the end of the platform.  Simple and easy.

Overall, it was a great trip and I'd do it again if I had it to do over,  but I'd give the overall experience a "B".  Just a few too many things not quite up to par and a few too many thing suffering from lack maintenance budget.

So, now for "compare and contrast."

Labor is VERY cheap in South Africa, so having a large service staff really wasn't all that surprising.  They all were friendly and did a first rate job - also typical of South Africa.  I don't if it's because it's expected or because it's the way the people are, although I'm hopeful it's the latter.  Either way, Amtrak would do well to emulate the friendly, efficient service on the train.  Heck, Amtrak would do well to emulate Chic-fil-A.  I'd estimate that labor rate on the train was probably 1/20th what Amtrak pays, so obviously Amtrak can't staff a train of 35 passengers with a staff of 20 and break even.  But, still, Amtrak's on board service is rather uneven compared to the Premier Train.

Uniforms.  The Premier train needs them!  Badly.  It was hard to know who was who.  Never a problem on Amtrak.  Amtrak employee uniforms look sharp!

Division of labor.  All the staff pitched in for all events.  There weren't car attendants vs. dining car staff.  There also wasn't any sign of any conductor or trainmen on the train.  Just the train manager and his staff.  It was run more like a cruise ship than an Amtrak LD train.  I would be difficult for Amtrak to change their current arrangement which focuses more on "who is going to do what, when" rather than "what really needs doing".  Short of a wholesale contracting out of on board operations, I think Amtrak is stuck with their status quo.

Track speed and ride quality.  The South African track was smooth, and all the cars road well.  But, since the top speed was 90 kph (about 55 mph), that really doesn't ask much of the track or equipment suspension.  Running 9' wide equipment on 3' 6" gauge track may limit what the maximum speed could be.  Having vacuum brakes might also be a limiting factor on speed.  Not having a lot of heavy freight traffic apparently keeps the track geometry in good shape.  Amtrak's issues with ride quality seem to stem mostly from the freight railroad's trend toward more and more 286,000# cars knocking the track geometry out of whack plus Amtrak's ability to keep up with wheel profiles/wheel truing.

Hope for the future?

Hard to tell for South African trains.  The country has such dire needs in so many places such as getting electric power and water and sanitation to their citizens that it's hard for them to devote too much money to rail infrastructure.  Still, they have organized a passenger rail authority around doing just that.  Will it work or will Prasa devolve into Amtrak solving political problems ahead of real world problems?  Hard to tell, but one incident may be telling.  Prasa recently purchased a bunch of new electric locomotives from Spain.  Great!  Maybe not.  Two problems.  They don't fit South African clearances and they were equipped with regular air brakes, not vacuum brakes.

Here's a snippet...

New electric locomotives sitting in the yard in Johannesburg

On the other hand, the province of Gautang, which includes Johannesburg, Sandton and Pretoria, did a design, build, operated deal that resulted in a 100 mph rapid transit line, the Gautrain (pronounced "how train")  It is one of the nicest transit lines I've ridden anywhere.

Gautrain interior is geared to seating, not standing.

Stations are modern and safe.
South Africa is not the United States.  Things are still quite messy as the country recovers from a long history of apartheid.  Still, it's a fantastic place to go visit and there are plenty of opportunities for railfans to enjoy railroading.

I do have one regret. There is an active group running steam excursions out of Cape Town every other weekend.  Mainline steam with wooden, open air coaches.

We had tickets, but I wound up under the weather for a couple days.  My wife and daughter did get manage to get some pictures without me, but chose not to ride.  
My daughter on the pilot of "Katie".  (Yes, they allow this.  They even encourage it!)
Maybe next time?