|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.
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|
|Scenery in the Western Cape. Mountains and vineyards|
|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|
|...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)|
|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|
|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|
|Each sleeper had a nice shower at the end of the hall|
|Motive power sits at Beaufort West|
|Our sleeper in new Prasa colors|
|Changing crew and power at Beaufort West. Train had HEP diesel engine gen set at each end of train.|
|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.|
|Sunrise in the Transvaal. Closing in on Jo'burg|
|Sunflower farm in the high plains|
|Commuter equipment laying over at the outskirts of the metro Jo'burg|
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.
|Township housing. Good and bad.|
|Roaring by a commuter train|
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.|
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. http://www.atlanticrail.co.za/