Tibby and I travelled on the Blue Train from Pretoria to Cape Town departing on Monday 8th November 2021. The trip was a disaster.
Let’s first recognise the positive elements:
- If the train had arrived in Cape Town at the scheduled time the trip would have been good but not great.
- The veneer of the Blue Train is still in place with good finishes and comfortable cabins with the reservations mentioned below.
- The food was generally good but not special.
- The drinks selection was good and the ability of the bartenders to make cocktails was great.
- The staff were keen to serve and were very positive.
- The saxophonist in the lounge in the evening was very talented and entertaining.
The downsides were:
- Some weeks before the trip we were told that essential maintenance work on the line between Kimberley and De Aar meant that the train would instead travel via Bloemfontein and that the excursion to the Kimberley Big Hole was cancelled. No alternative excursion was provided.
- The day before we were due to travel our nineteen carriage train was parked at Germiston station. We were told that all safety protocols were followed, yet in the middle of the night, with no one on board, the train ran backwards at such a speed as to derail all nineteen carriages. We therefore travelled on the alternative shorter fourteen carriage train.
- Because of COVID protocols we were told to check in three hours before the scheduled departure time of 14h00, at the waiting room at Pretoria Station. We were all tested for COVID and were ready to depart 2.5 hours before departure, except for one couple, who had not arrived.
- An hour before scheduled departure I was told by an attendant, that the departure of the train will be delayed by up to an hour, to accommodate the missing couple! Fortunately, they arrived twenty minutes later and so they were not the reason for our late departure.
- The waiting room is the bare minimum for a luxury train. Champagne was flowing but when we asked for coffee we were told that only instant coffee was available.
- A senior member of the Blue Train team welcomed us and told us that we were embarking on a journey of a lifetime. Little did we know that this would be a journey that we would remember for the rest of our life, but for the wrong reasons. The website tells us that the Blue Train is a window to the soul of Africa. Unfortunately, the soul that we saw is rotten.
- We were told that the rails in Pretoria Station were unsafe and maintenance work was being done (although no workers were present) and that we would be transported to the nearby depot, where we would board. That happened and we departed an hour late.
- I was surprised to see two uniformed police board the train and was told that they were there for our protection. Were we really at risk?
- The journey started as it would continue – starting, crawling and stopping. It took us five hours to do the 80kms to Brakpan.
- Our sleep was disturbed on all the nights by the uneven nature of the train activity – starting, crawling, stopping, rushing, braking hard.
- In the morning we became aware that the train was being shadowed by security vehicles. I was told that the asset of the Blue Train was being protected. Is it really at threat? It was only threatened to Bloemfontein, because the security vehicles disappeared after that.
- We now became aware of the poor state of the overhead power cables as the track next to us was unusable with cables hanging down over the track. It was clear from the rusted rails that that track had not been used for a long time.
- Progress continued to be slow. We were told that power suspensions meant that signals were not working, and progress had to be agreed with a controller, and points at rail junctions had to be manually switched by the driver’s assistant. Now I started to feel unsafe.
- At lunch we sent our steaks back because they were as tough as the soles of my shoe. The chef agreed with us that the quality of the meat was sub-standard but said that she had to work with what she was sent.
- In theory we could control the temperature in our cabin, but the only option seemed to be extremely cold. I asked for it to be turned off for a few hours and watched as the technician flipped a switch on an electrical board. With this knowledge I then controlled the temperature in the cabin by flipping this switch on the control board.
- A technician also had to be called to repair one of the lights above our bed, which was hanging from the ceiling.
- Another of the lights could not be turned off for the full duration of the journey.
- The cheapest bathroom amenities were left in a cheaper tray that was too big and dominated the basin area.
- Water had been topped up at Bloemfontein. It seemed to have come straight from the river because it was so brown one could not see the bottom of the basin.
- The train manager kept giving us estimated arrival times at major stations which all proved to be wrong by many hours. The poor man tried very hard to keep us informed but he was clearly being fed unreliable information. Eventually he became reluctant to communicate wrong information to us.
- After forty hours on the train, six hours before our scheduled arrival in Cape Town, we arrived in De Aar, halfway to Cape Town. We were seriously delayed.
- De Aar used to be the second busiest station in the country. It may still be, but except for our platform, all the other platforms were in serious decay with most visible things broken.
- We waited and waited at De Aar as the locomotives filled up with diesel at tanks a few hundred metres from us. There was clearly a problem because it should not take two hours to fill two locomotives.
- I was stopped by our resident police officer from walking to the end of the platform, for fear that people on the overhead pedestrian bridge might stone me.
- I was shown many small dents on the body of the train where stones had apparently been thrown at the train, on this and previous journeys.
- At De Aar the train manager told us that the train was now so delayed that he was offering anyone who wanted the opportunity to disembark at Matjiesfontein, which he hoped to reach by 16h00, and be transported the four hours by road, to Cape Town.
- At 15h00, when we had not yet reached Beaufort West, the train manager ignored the ‘Do Not Disturb’ sign on our cabin door, to seek our confirmation that we would disembark at Matjiesfontein. When I said that I did not want to disembark at a time when we would arrive in Cape Town after midnight, he threatened me that whatever happened, we would not be permitted to sleep a third night in our cabin and would be disembarked during the night.
- The train manager told us that that we would stop in Beaufort West for twenty minutes principally to change drivers. We were actually in Beaufort West for three hours. We learnt later that the replacement driver, who had expected to come on duty during the previous night, had not arrived and could not be contacted. He was eventually found and pressed into service to drive us through the night, presumably not having slept all day.
- As we left Beaufort West the train manger advised that the revised arrival time at Matjiesfontein was 23h30. He had the grace to recognise that it was not wise to travel during curfew and not wise to deliver passengers to Cape Town addresses at 04h00 in the morning. We were all invited to stay onboard for a third night and given a one course ‘light supper’. I have no idea what time we actually passed through Matjiesfontein.
- Many of our fellow passengers were in despair. A family reunion planned for that evening was cancelled. Several passengers were celebrating important life events and had booked expensive nights in the best Cape Town hotels which were now wasted. People with limited time in Cape Town were now concerned that we would arrive too late for planned outings. Others were worried about flight bookings planned for the next day.
- In the early hours of the morning, we passed through the Hex River Valley which provides the best scenery of the whole trip. Nobody could appreciate the beauty in the dark.
- Just before dawn we passed through Worcester Station. Ten minutes later passengers in the sixth carriage of the train were woken by an overhead cable slapping against their window. Cable theft had resulted in several loose cables hanging in the way of the train. These cables, possibly live, were now lying on the roof of the train. At about 08h00 the train manager told us that the cables would be cleared in two hours. It actually took until 13h30 for the cables to be removed. It took eight hours in total for the cables to be made safe and removed from the train!
- Breakfast was provided but the cupboard was bare for lunch.
- Just after 14h00 we returned to Worcester Station to be disembarked. The sign at the station said it was 105 miles to Cape Town.
- We were each given a box of chocolates and a bottle of sparkling wine as an apology. No wonder we had been told twenty four hours earlier that all the sparkling wine on board had been consumed.
- Our hard working crew immediately set to preparing the train for the incoming passengers travelling on the return trip to Pretoria. Those passengers had presumably been waiting for three hours since 11h00 in the Cape Town Station waiting room and were very excited about this trip that had been on their bucket list for many years. I assume reality started to hit when they had to be transported to Worcester to board the train trip of their life.
- We were transported in comfortable vehicles to Cape Town where we arrived more than 27 hours after the scheduled time.
- The Blue Train is owned by the state railway operator. It is being starved of funds which is affecting the outward condition of the train and its facilities. One wonders what is happening to the maintenance of the working parts. The real problem is that the train is using the decaying, neglected and damaged rail infrastructure of South Africa. Every Blue Train journey is now in real danger of being an ordeal. It is difficult to see how the Blue Train can exist for much longer.
- I accept that being locked up in a luxury train for an extra 27 hours cannot considered to be a huge hardship. However, when people pay a lot of money for a luxury product it is not unreasonable for them to expect it to be delivered within the agreed time frames. The Blue Train has been a premier destination in South Africa for foreign visitors. Word will soon spread that it should be avoided.
Postscript: On 15th February 2022 it was announced that the Blue Train had been suspended and would no longer run.Back to the Travels in Africa index
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