Riding South Africa’s Premier Classe Train, Part 2

In my previous post, I gave a little bit of preliminary information about the Premier Classe train journey that I took in South Africa. Before I continue, perhaps I should share with you a few facts about the infrastructure of the rails in South Africa – things I wasn’t aware of when I made my journey.

• The Passenger Rail Association of South Africa (PRASA) operates both the Metrorail (commuter rail in urban areas) and Shosholoza Meyl (regional and long distance trains). The Premier Classe falls under the Shosholoza Meyl.

• 40% of PRASA’s fleet of trains are more than 37 years old. One third of the fleet is “constantly out of service, leading to poor performance, safety and reliability.”

• 86% of PRASA’s signaling installations have exceeded their design life.

• For freight service, “derailments have led to costly delays… The average cancellation of trains amounts to 10 trains per day due to accidents and other security incidents such as theft of copper cables.”

To make a long story short, the infrastructure and equipment being used by the railroads in South Africa is not that great. Much of the equipment is outdated, and additional difficulties are caused by theft, or as I was told, even by people leaving junk on the tracks. The eight hour delay my journey suffered is probably closer to the norm than a random fluke. So, provided you are prepared for some obnoxious delays (don’t plan anything for the day you are supposed to arrive – I missed my tour of Johannesburg!), I probably would recommend the Premier Classe train to any railfans that may be pondering a visit to South Africa. There is absolutely no way a plane ride can compete with the amazing views you will see from the train. And you will see it all – the gorgeous mountains surrounding Cape Town, farms as far as the eye can see, wineries, and even more less savory things.

Cape Town has the dubious honor of having quite a financial disparity between its citizens – from the sprawling mansions along the beach to the shack settlements on the outskirts of the city. And from the train, you will see various shack settlements – homes constructed from whatever scraps of corrugated metal could be found, with the roof scraps held in place by an array of heavy rocks or bricks. Perhaps you’ll even see some of the settlement’s younger denizens pelting the train with rocks. In fact, some of the things I saw are even difficult to put into words – folks using the tracks as a toilet, billowing black smoke from burning tires, and even the aforementioned children running around with flaming bits of wood in hand, with various patches of grass aflame (in case you think I was exaggerating, I do have one photo of the burning grass). Even the destroyed remnants of a freight train derailment littered the sides of the tracks at one point.

If my goal was to sell you on the Premier Classe, I think thus far I’ve failed… in fact, you probably are scared for your life. Did I mention gorgeous mountains? Beautiful sunsets? And hell, if your train is as late as mine was, you might even see TWO sunsets! Your train, zooming through the late afternoon sun, may race with the wild ostriches right outside your window. And of course you can glimpse all of this while stuffing your face in the dining car. Four-course lunches and five-course dinners are the standard on the Premier Classe. And if there is one thing that South Africans know how to do well, it is to feed the tourists. If the food on the train sucked, I’d probably be pretty pissed off. Need I say again, eight hours late? I was less than thrilled. But how can one stay mad when being fed tasty chocolate cake – with ice cream to boot?


A shitty photo of what tasty cake may look like

 
  
 
 
   
 
   
  
 
  
 
  
 
  

Well, that pretty much concludes my set of photos from the Premier Classe. Perhaps next week I’ll post some photos of the train that I didn’t ride in Zimbabwe. And if you don’t mind the off-topic, some lions and elephants and such.