Shosholoza Meyl train journey an uncomfortable affair for 84-year-old passenger

03 July 2019 - 08:00 By Thando Mpembe
Prasa says there has been a decline in the operational and financial performance of the mainline passenger train service since 2009.
Prasa says there has been a decline in the operational and financial performance of the mainline passenger train service since 2009.
Image: Andre Jurgens

An octogenarian's trip on the Shosholoza Meyl to attend his brother's 98th birthday celebration has raised questions about the reliability of the country's passenger train service. 

After a joyful train journey a few years ago, Sampo van Antwepen did not hesitate to book the Shosholoza Meyl from Johannesburg to Port Elizabeth.

However, this time around, the 84-year-old was left bitterly disappointed.

The Shosholoza Meyl is advertised as a safe, affordable long distance passenger train that offers "A Pleasant Experience" for travellers from the moment they book their ticket until they disembark at their end destination.

The service runs between Johannesburg, Cape Town, Durban, Port Elizabeth and East London on a weekly timetable.

But in the particular case of Van Antwepen, it proved to be an unpleasant experience.

"We booked the train six weeks before the time but the day before departure on Friday the 14th of June, we were told the train was cancelled," he said.

"We were told we could use the bus or get our money back." Hoping to attend the birthday party, the man and his family opted to travel by bus as they were assured the vehicles would be Translux or Greyhound buses.

“We just got regular buses with inconvenient seats and very little space. There were no toilets on the bus and it departed four hours late. The bus driver took the wrong route and realised way later. The bus ride was also hot and uncomfortable," he said.

Van Antwepen, who lives in a retirement home in Pretoria, decided to speak about his experience to serve as a warning that the service could be "unreliable".

The Passenger Rail Agency of South Africa (Prasa) echoed his concerns in its 2017/2018 annual report, which warned that the country's long distance passenger train service was "declining to below acceptable levels".

"Passengers have dropped from 2.8 million in 2009/10 to 465, 647 in 2017/18, whilst trains run have dropped from 6,604 in 2009/10 to 1,777 in 2017/18," according to the report.

"Both trains run and passenger patronage have dropped drastically at a rate indicative of a service that has totally collapsed," it warned.

The journey home proved to be equally troublesome for Van Antwepen and his family.

He said the train was four hours late and 150 kilometres into the trip the locomotive  broke down in Colesberg.

In a separate incident, on June 20, passengers were woken on the train travelling from Cape Town to Johannesburg and told the overhead power cables had been stolen.

The train – which stopped at Oranjerivier in the Northern Cape - could not proceed and passengers had to undertake the remainder of the trip on buses without access to the food and beverage service available on the train.

TimesLIVE reached out to Prasa for comment on Friday, Monday and Tuesday. This story will be updated with their comment once it is received.