The Extra Mile
Is it safe to travel SA by train?
Sunday Times Travel editor Paul Ash on how to take the train without putting strain on your wallet
Q. I would like to travel by train around SA, something my family used to do when I was small. It's been a long time since I travelled by train - or railway bus - and I was wondering if it is still possible to travel safely and how much it costs. And, also, can I get a train from here to Namibia? I am a pensioner so I don't have much money to spend. - William Boon
A. The short answer is yes, it is possible to travel by long-distance passenger train in SA, though you will likely discover that the network is not as widespread as it was. The service has shrunk dramatically since its peak in the mid-1980s when there were roughly 400 long-distance trains on the timetable.
Long-distance trains are no longer operated by Transnet but by a separate entity named Shosholoza Meyl, which means "a pleasant experience".
There are just eight trains on the Shosholoza Meyl timetable so it is worth listing them:
Cape Town-Johannesburg (three times weekly in each direction on Wednesday, Friday and Sunday);
Johannesburg-Durban (Friday and Sunday in each direction);
Johannesburg-Port Elizabeth (Wednesday, Friday and Sunday in each direction);
Johannesburg-East London (Wednesday, Friday and Sunday in each direction); and
Johannesburg-Komatipoort (once a week eastbound on Friday, westbound on Sunday).
There is also the semi-luxury Premier Classe train between Johannesburg and Cape Town which runs to Cape Town on Tuesdays and returns to Johannesburg on Thursdays. This train costs quite a bit more than the standard passenger train - a one-way fare is more than a return airfare.
The train coaches have been refurbished by Shosholoza Meyl in recent years and given a fresh lick of paint. There are sleeping cars - which you want - and sitter cars with hard bench seats. The sleeping cars have compartments for two or four people. The bunks are folded away into the seats for daytime travel.
Bedding - sheets and blankets - are also provided, for an additional fee. The coach attendant will make your bed for you.
Most of the trains have a dining car serving basic and adequate meals - expect fish and chips and burgers, and eggs, bacon, sausage and grilled tomato for breakfast. There is also a roving trolley from which you can buy soft drinks and snacks.
Having just bought tickets for the Cape Town train - R690 one way in what the operator calls "Tourist Class" - I can confirm that it is very good value compared to flying, even on one of the low-cost airlines.
If you are travelling alone and you want to ensure you have a compartment to yourself, you will have to buy a second ticket. I found it best to buy my tickets in person, in this case at Park Station in Jo'burg. E-mail email@example.com or see shosholozameyl.co.za for details.
TIPS FOR TRAIN TRAVELLERS
After covering many miles in SA by train, I have some useful tips to offer would-be train travellers.
Firstly, take a sleeping bag. While the bedding is fine for nights in the middle of the summer, most other nights out on the rails can be icily cold. If the train heaters - which run off a diesel generator in the power car - stop working, you will be in for a freezing night.
Secondly, take a picnic. Sometimes you won't feel like trekking to the dining car and, anyway, eating your own home-made hotdogs in the comfort of your own compartment as the landscape speeds past is hard to beat.
Thirdly, be Zen about the whole experience. The trains usually depart on time but arriving late is common. The problem is that passenger trains do not have priority on busy freight lines and this knocks the timetable about. Sit back, chill, read a book and stare at the view and enjoy the sensation of being suspended out of time where no one can find you.
NAMIBIA IS A NO-GO
As for the railway buses and trains to Namibia, both are long gone. The last railway buses - which once offered rail passengers connecting transport to and from places where the rails had not reached - were axed years ago. Their traffic - like much of the passenger rail network - was lost to minibus taxis and buses.
Cross-border trains have also been stopped for reasons ranging from illegal passengers to smuggling. Other than special tourist trains, there are no longer any passenger trains at all between Namibia and SA...