South Africa


The last train to Cape Town?

Image by Bertconcepts via Flckr

A train trip to Cape Town that takes nearly two days, and the unexpected cancellation of a return leg to Johannesburg, forces a broader contemplation of the continuing decline of public services in South Africa.

About a year-and-a-half ago, I wrote enthusiastically about taking the Shosholoza Meyl Premier Classe (they use that final “e”) through-train from Johannesburg to Cape Town.

As a long-time enthusiast, I had ridden on trains whenever I could, wherever I found myself, whether it was on state-of-the-art Shinkansen “bullet trains” in Japan or express trains across the island of Java or down the Malay Peninsula where the railroads used coaches probably first placed into use just after World War II. Those trips could have the feel of something out of a Somerset Maugham, Evelyn Waugh or even a late Joseph Conrad story.

Here in South Africa, many years before, I had taken the old Trans Karoo express train from Johannesburg to Cape Town. While the personal treasury could not stretch to cover the fare for the Blue Train for a family of four, the Trans Karoo seemed like a plausible and much more affordable alternative. And so it was.

They actually were still using their reliable old nickel-silver flatware and starched table linen, their famous oxtail soup and roast lamb, that famous “Railroad Red” wine and the rest of their dining traditions. Their compartments were the ones with the benches that converted into comfortable sleeping berths — or, rather, the porters came in during dinner, swiftly taking care of the conversions for the passengers so that a good night’s sleep was possible. The magic of the rocking of the cars as we travelled was better than any sedative.

Over the past several years on trips between Cape Town and Johannesburg, much to the bemusement or bewilderment of my friends and family, I had taken that Premier Classe train on that route several times. Well, okay, it wasn’t quite that older Trans Karoo train, but it still was a comfortable journey. The food was pretty good (although the old cutlery was gone and the serviettes were now disposable paper); the scenic vistas were still the same as before (with interesting additions like wind and solar farms); and one could meet and swop travellers’ tales with other train enthusiasts and wide-eyed, credulous foreign tourists on board.

But the rot afflicting the nation’s railroads is clearly having a deleterious effect on this train, too. Slowly but surely, together with rest of South Africa’s rail transportation, Prasa’s (the country’s passenger rail service) long-distance passenger lines’ fortunes are going sour. In the past few years, South Africans have been horrified by contracts for some very expensive locomotives in which the units were the wrong size for the system, and the people responsible for those immensely costly mistakes have been shown to be thoroughly unqualified for such decisions.

Meanwhile, there have been repeated reports of Shosholoza Meyl trains breaking down and being stranded en route, with passengers having to cope without food or water. And the appalling conditions of trains on the various local metropolitan networks continue to degrade further.

A few months ago, even the president was stuck for hours on a stalled metro train outside Pretoria, during what was supposed to have been one of those “leader at one with his people” demonstrations of citizen solidarity. Meanwhile, the repeated acts of arson of train carriages, and signal and power cable theft further hobbles operations, and Prasa has even closed some vulnerable stations recently, in response to this creeping anarchy.

Despite these worrying signs, I continued to ride the rails. I had the time and inclination, and I enjoyed the trip. In more recent trips, the trains began to be regularly behind schedule — later and later — with such routineness that one simply had to factor such delays into one’s life. On one recent trip, the engines broke down repeatedly and the only alternative was to board some packed buses hired as an emergency measure by the railroad in order to finish the trip.

On a previous return to Johannesburg, in fact, while the train actually completed the trip, it was 11 hours late, arriving in Park Station, Johannesburg at about midnight. Stuck for a ride home, my wife finally called out the cavalry for me, relying upon the neighbourhood security company’s roving supervisor to rescue me. (While the station itself is basically safe, Uber drivers are afraid to enter Park Station because of a continuing history of violent confrontations with metered taxi drivers.)

Well, okay, let’s give it one more try, I said to myself. This time around, on the trip to Cape Town, I met a French writer based in Germany who has lived and worked for years in South-east Asia, who now writes for an Australian technical publishing company and who now routinely migrates to Cape Town to escape the northern hemisphere’s winter while he works. We found we had numerous interests in common, ranging from favourite travel writers such as Stephan Zweig, to best-loved operas and on to the contemplation of the ongoing collision between East and West in fast-modernising South-east Asian nations. This is the kind of dialogue you simply cannot have on an airplane. Or driving alone.

But this train became further and further behind schedule as the hours passed. The engines broke down and new ones had to be summoned from afar and driven out to our train, now that we were stuck in the middle of nearly nowhere. Eventually, the air conditioning began to falter as well. Once new engines were coupled to the passenger cars, time after time, we were forced to stop in order to allow sluggish freight trains to pass us. Freight (even empty wagons, apparently) cars clearly have priority over hapless passengers.

By the time we reached Kimberley, a whole group of passengers rebelled and disembarked to take their chances with buses, or even the possibility of catching a flight to Cape Town. One foreign traveller actually had a near-nervous breakdown, sobbing uncontrollably as she sat on the floor in the space between two carriages, clearly unaccustomed to the uncertainties and indignities of this kind of travel, lamenting the ruination of the timetable of her carefully structured holiday in South Africa.

By the time the train finally limped into Cape Town station, we were an astonishing 22 hours late for what was supposed to be a 25-hour trip. The train had just enough food on board to give the remaining passengers a second supper, but not enough, apparently, for the next day’s breakfast. (I’ve learnt to carry emergency iron rations and some coffee and a two-cup coffee press, just in case.)

But the astonishments still have not ended. The Friday before our scheduled return to Johannesburg, while I was relaxing at the serene Langebaan lagoon shore for a seafood braai, I received a muffled, barely comprehensible cellphone call in which the caller told me that Tuesday’s train to Johannesburg (my planned return) had been summarily cancelled because there were insufficient paying passengers registered. I could apply for a refund if I wanted one, and I should make other onward travel arrangements. Bye. No apology, just this cursory heads up. Will there ever even be another train? No answer.

This is all taking place with a Prasa where its employees tell you privately they are increasingly worried about impending budget cuts, the further scaling back of services and the inevitable retrenchments of long-serving employees that will follow. As that happens, for both the local Metrorail networks and the Shosholoza Meyl, there will be the further inconveniencing of those who cannot afford more expensive private travel or airfares.

All of this contrasts deeply with President Ramaphosa’s vision, the one he had eloquently expressed in 2019’s State of the Nation speech. There he had unveiled a vision of sleek, bullet trains, operated with punctilious Japanese or Chinese precision, roaring between the country’s major centres at astounding speed, thereby helping give rise to the gleaming towers of new, revived city cores — and even to entirely new urban centres.

Instead, the existing Prasa networks continue to be allowed to degrade and decline, perhaps only stopping the decay when they have finally collapsed entirely. It shouldn’t be this way, but running effective, well-managed, on-time networks and services — whether for daily commuters or long-distance travel for South Africans and visiting foreigners alike — just seems to be something not interesting enough for any real, sustained attention and repair.

It is too bad, but this decline seems a metaphor for so many other crucial, but quotidian government services that people depend on for their lives and livelihoods. Meanwhile, I am still trying to reorganise my own schedule, but not, this time, by rail. DM


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