PETE THE PUNDIT on Fashion in Passenger Rail

13:18 in Magazine - article by stationmaster

Fashion in Passenger Rail

Across the world, though sadly not in Southern Africa, passenger rail is fashionable again. Many countries, even the car-crazed United States, are energetically encouraging motorists to reduce pollution and the risk of accidents, save on fuel and relax during their journeys by taking the train. For instance, Amtrak, Union Pacific and the Illinois Department of Transportation have announced agreement on speeding up passenger trains between Chicago and St Louis. After spending $1.1 billion on mainly federally funded improvements, the fastest passenger train between the two cities will take about 30% less than the current fastest time and “faster than an automobile travelling non-stop at the legal speed limit.”

South Africa’s showing in the passenger rail stakes picked up momentarily ahead of the Soccer World Cup, but nose-dived again afterwards. Following several months with (first) no intercity trains at all and (then) only a miserable handful, the “Tourist-class” sleeper trains have been suspended.

Cuts of 30-40% in subsidies to commuter rail reportedly saw as many as 70 daily Metrorail trains biting the dust in Durban. We do not have figures for Gauteng but hear that services appear to be trimmed week by week, this despite official statements saying that passenger numbers across the country are growing. A Cape Town southern suburbs commuter wrote in a letter published on 25 January: “Most sets that should be eight coaches are operating with seven … my record was two weeks ago when I witnessed a train which is normally an eight-coach set operating as five coaches. What happened to the other three?”


A dismayed would-be traveller complained in late January: “Both Premiere Class and Shosholoza websites are currently down. The only place where information is available is at the station(s) and call centre, but I have never been able to speak to a consultant in less than eight minutes of holding and listening to the same old advertisements over and over!

“A very innovative company named African Sun Travel (AST) created websites called and, both of which link to a site that provides info about the Shosholoza and Premier services in easy-to-understand format. They accept no telephonic queries, but there is a form where you can send an electronic request. According to the Shosholoza call centre this is not a scam and you will receive a ticket, but AST charges a commission.”

“Shosholoza Meyl has made a court case against them to stop taking bookings. My word! If they had a proper system in the first place, AST would never have been able to get a foot in the market!”

Prasa locomotives are now liveried purple, distinguishing them from Transnet units which operate as a completely separate fleet. Photo: Eugene Armer.


The same correspondent employs a domestic who visited family in Beaufort-West early in January. “On the way back they had pre-booked places and tickets for the Sunday night Cape Town-bound train. Because of over-booking earlier on, the train was already overfull when it arrived at Beaufort. They rightly refused to stay behind as they had valid tickets for that train and some had to start work on the Monday. Result: about 200 extra passengers boarding an already packed-out train. Some people had to stand all the way (542km) as there was no room on the floor! Obstacles like people in wheelchairs and baggage prevented them from accessing the dining car”.

The old order: footplate staff swap between the southbound Trans-Karoo passenger express (right) and a northbound freight at Matjesfontein in the Karoo. Today’s Prasa and Transnet crews work for different employers, meaning separate fetching and carrying by road at the end of their shifts.


Late in 2010, a Railways Africa correspondent used the intercity “economy” service from Durban to Johannesburg, but: “They only discovered after both the Johannesburg and Cape Town-bound trains had been docked alongside platforms at Durban station (and all shunting personnel and the shunt loco had already left) that there was a sleeping coach short on the CT train – and a one too many on the Johannesburg express. There were some very glum-looking Cape Town-bound passengers standing aimlessly on the platform, as their allocated coach was nowhere to be found!”

“It should have been a simple matter of having the main-line loco crews shunt the coach from the one train to the other. But the Shosholoza Meyl train crews refused to assist with shunting, saying it was not their job to shunt trains. They had to call back shunting personnel and a diesel driver from home and the shunting only began after 19:00 – half an hour after the Cape Town train should have left. During all this, the two sets of train locomotives had to go and stand aside on other lines. Needless to say, the CT train departed almost 90 minutes late and our one to Jbg left almost 60 minutes after its scheduled departure time of 19:15.”

Apparently nobody could do anything about this dismal sequence of events – such as suspending the drivers who refused to shunt the solitary misplaced coach. Had they been suspended, it seems, the trains would not have run at all, as there aren’t any spare Shosholoza Meyl drivers in Durban.

This is the legacy (now where have we heard that word before?) of splitting passenger business away from Transnet’s freight. There are other bizarre consequences of this bright idea but we won’t go into them here. (But do look at the picture).


David Green, writing on sar-L:
“On 26 January, my wife and I were booked on the 18:30 from Durban to Cape Town. We arrived at the station about two hours early to be advised that the train was cancelled due to a washout between Harrismith and Bethlehem but that they had organised a bus: ‘Be at the car park at 18:00’. The bus was a Translux coach which was not fully loaded. It appears that other passengers had been pre-notified of the cancellation and decided not to travel. The bus set off around 19:00 and cruised along the N3 at high speed until it stopped at the station in Pietermaritzburg for a while after seemingly touring the city searching for it. We then regained the N3 and cruised along the N3 and N5 to Bethlehem where the coach refuelled. We then proceeded across country to Kroonstad where the coach entered the station yard, stood for a minute and drove out.”

In 1947, the Durban-Cape Town train was officially named the “Orange Express”. This was changed later to “Trans-Oranje” but when this photo was taken at Kimberley in 1993, the station loudspeaker still called it the Orange Express.

“Next stop Hennenman (or is that Henneman, both spellings used on the station platform) where we arrived at 03:30. Four ladies decamped from the bus to the station waiting room. It appeared that we were waiting for one passenger for onward travel but she was not there. The bus was under the charge of the Shosholoza Meyl representative who decided that we must wait for up to six hours to the due departure time of the train. There then erupted a heated debate led by the bus driver who urged the SM rep to consider the other passengers, however the decision of the SM rep prevailed. The driver switched of the engine, which closed down the aircon, and we sat in the dusty station yard in the dark. After a couple of hours of uncomfortable sleep we woke up and became aware of a terrible stench in the coach. The driver suggested that this had resulted from everybody farting while sleeping! He, meanwhile, had sat at the front end with the door open.”

“After another short while the SM rep was urged to call up his control to try and telephone the passenger to come to the station early. He disappeared off to the station building where a station staff member had now arrived. Fifteen minutes later he returned and advised that the passenger had been rebooked onto this train as the previous week’s train was ten hours late, however, in the event the passenger had caught the previous week’s late train but his booking had not been removed from the list of passengers for our train!”

“The SM rep was then urged to check the status of the other passengers who were due to be picked up en route. This resulted in a deviation to the route as we could now avoid De-Aar. The engine was restarted and the aircon burst into life and after a short time comfort was re-established, most passengers having previously removed themselves to beneath the trees.”

“We then set off for Bloem where we picked up an elderly lady who was quite frail and did not appear to remove herself from her seat until she arrived at her destination at Bellville in the Cape Town suburbs. She was assisted by a couple of other passengers and the SM rep who bought her food and drink at the various comfort stops en-route but I did wonder about her other needs during the 14 hours she was on the coach.”

“From Bloem we proceeded to Kimberley where we stopped at the station and I got a ticking off for spending too much time examining the class 25 on the platform and the 10 class 6E electrics parked in the middle road. We then moved to a mall for exactly 30 minutes for lunch.”

“After lunch we set off down the N12 at a steady cruising rate noting only one freight train hauled by a pair of 34s. After Three Sisters onto the N1 we passed two SM trains hauled by pairs of 6E’s heading north and three southbound freights stopped in sidings. The journey was long but the weather was glorious, and although there were many signs of heavy rain we saw nothing of the flooding that had apparently occurred. As is normal on long coach trips the mood among the passengers and the three crew (SM rep and two drivers) was generally jovial. We ourselves were taken directly to the entrance to the Train Lodge at Cape Town station which was just as well as we had arrived nearly nine hours early which resulted in our having to pay for an extra night’s lodging.”


Unconfirmed reports in late January suggest that all Premier Classe trainsets have been withdrawn from service so that the cooling system can be upgraded. Apparently this is being converted from a water-cooled arrangement to standard air-conditioning. It is hoped to have the trains running again during February.