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 Much of the equipment is outdated, and additional difficulties are caused by theft, or as I was told, even by people leaving junk on the tracks.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.

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Riding South Africa’s Premier Classe Train, Part 1

Back in the days of Imperialism, where Africa was carved up and occupied by various European nations, there was a man by the name of Cecil Rhodes that had a dream. And it wasn’t exactly tricking the world into thinking diamonds are incredibly rare (though as the founder of the diamond company DeBeers – he had a significant role in that), it was the dream of a railway stretching across Africa. Rhodes’ dream – the Cape to Cairo Railway – was never realized. Though portions of it were built, the British colonies never achieved a direct line from Egypt down to South Africa. Today, some tourist agencies offer Cape to Cairo rail tours, taking the train on the pieces of rail that do exist, and either flying or busing over the parts that don’t. I think this is what first captured my interest about Africa, and I decided I would love to go ride the trains there. The only difficulty was that these train tours (specifically Cape to Cairo) were extravagantly expensive – some of them costing more than my yearly salary. Sticking to one country, South Africa, was probably my best bet. Enter the Premier Classe train.

The rail route between Cape Town and Johannesburg for tourists is serviced by a few different companies. Both the Blue Train and Rovos Rail are quite fancy – and with their one way ticket price of around two to three-thousand dollars, well out of my price range. The Premier Classe, however, is still a bit fancy with with five-course dinners and such, but has a ticket price of around three-hundred dollars. I pretty much booked my trip entirely around the Premier Classe train, which has two departures weekly, and it was supposed to be the highlight of my trip. Instead, it was a massive frustration.

I have a bit of difficulty in retelling my experiences on the Premier Classe. Did I enjoy it? Was the food good? How were the accomodations? Well yes, the train was enjoyable, the food was amazing, and the accommodations were pretty good. If the train wasn’t about eight hours late, it probably would have been a spectacular journey! I never got to see anything in Johannesburg (beyond the airport) – as the train was so late we missed our tour. I thought I’d at least be able to walk around the train station and take photos while waiting for the train, but I was told that first of all, it probably wasn’t safe, and secondly, my camera would be quickly confiscated by the rifle-carrying police officers roaming around the station.

In Cape Town began the game of people attempting to determine how my friend and I were related. Though friends and coworkers were never suggested, there were a few people that thought we were either sisters, lesbians, or even mother and daughter. In the case of the Premier Classe, they just thought my friend was actually a guy.

Cape Town station wasn’t exceptionally beautiful – probably a bit too sterile white for my taste – but there were some gorgeous tile mosaics on the floor and walls. The outside had a few mosaics of early trains, horsecars and omnibuses, one of which I did manage to get a photo of. Since I have so many photos of the journey, I’ll be doing two parts. This first part appropriately shows the first part of the journey from Cape Town.


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