Cape Town – Mention luxury rail travel in South Africa and ultimately the Blue Train springs to mind.
As the only passenger rail service run by Transnet, with all other rail services operated by Prasa, the iconic 'five-star hotel on wheels' is an exclusive, world-renown offering that sees passengers fork out an estimate R20 000 for a single 27hr trip from Gauteng’s Pretoria station to Cape Town in the Western Cape.
For over 65 years the legendary train has been carving its niche in the world’s luxury rail experiences and in a new partnership announced by Transnet and Sun International, the Blue Train is set to undergo a momentous recapitalisation initiative.
Over the next 18 months the agreement, signed at a media briefing at the Blue Train's arrival lounge at Pretoria station, is expected to take Africa’s leading luxury train for the past seven years, to the next level.
While sparse on the finer details, Transnet CEO Siyabonga Gama described the event as an engagement ceremony, with the more intricate planning of the actual “Wedding Ceremony” still to be decided.
It was at this point that Sun International CE Graeme Stephens said, “Let’s just say, we’re deciding to live together before there will be any commitment of marriage.”
A rather telling analogy especially when you consider the issues currently being investigated around Prasa’s management of passenger rail services in South Africa.
But as Gama explained, the goal of the partnership is to “exploit the global appeal of the Blue Train to enhance Sun International and brand South Africa as a whole”.
And the Blue Train is legendary when it comes to experiencing South Africa from a different vantage point. Here's what they have in the pipeline for the 'Blue Jewel of Africa'...
1. Fresh destinations: A Garden Route experience amongst others on the cards
The Blue Train mainly operates a weekly service between Pretoria and Cape Town – departing on selected Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays at 08:30. There are also seasonal packages to Durban and Kruger National Park. With an estimated 70% demand on its trains at the moment, Transnet is hoping to increase this to 95% capacity by the time the partnership does take place.
When you consider how SA Express and Sun International are working together to open up tourism to the North West and specifically Sun City, it would be interesting to see how the business mode is applied to this heritage luxury experience. Gama specifically mentioned Garden Route – which might hold better appeal than its seasonal Durban route and charted trips to Hoedspruit as a Kruger Park option. It was a particular sore point when the Outeniqua Choo tjoe stopped operating due to an unsuccessful tender process, so developments here will be interesting to watch.
Gama said the partnership would certainly be looking at the possibility of opening up old routes such as Victoria Falls. Trips to Mozambique would also be a welcome development.
2. New trains sets
The Blue Train operates two train sets and received two brand new locomotives from Transnet this year.
The first is able to accommodate 52 guests in its 14 coaches and is just on 300m long. The second train is longer, measuring 399m, with 19 coaches and is able to accommodate a maximum of 80 guests.
“The vision is to include state of the art trains to extend the reach and foot print of the Blue Train. We will be looking at whether we have the optimal number of trains in order to do so,” said Gama.
3. Dynamic package and pricing
Sun International certainly holds the expertise, products and services to ensure that the Blue Train extends its reach. It would be exciting if its off-train excursions could be expanded to include more of SA's heritage attractions.
Currently between Cape Town and Pretoria passengers are introduced to the historic diamond mining town of Kimberley with its largest man-made hole and Maatjiesfontein an official Heritage Town in the little Karoo, with a stop in at the Lord Milner Hotel.
“The Blue Train is an icon of SA, a symbol we want to preserve through this ground-breaking agreement,” said Thulani Nzima, Head of South African Tourism.
“We have over three decades of international marketing expertise in the luxury tourism market and a very strong international brand, both of which will be brought to bear in this exciting partnership,” said Graeme.
4. Increase opportunity for aspirational domestic travel
Gama said that since tourism is seasonal it would be ideal if the packing of the product could be done in order to accommodate aspirational or bucket list travellers who wanted to experience this local legend “sooner rather than later”.
- The route between Pretoria and Cape Town is a 27-hour journey of 1 600 kilometres (994 miles), through some of the most diverse and spectacular scenery offered by the African sub-continent.
- On the Southbound trip, the train departs from Pretoria main train station at 8:30 and arrives in Cape Town train station at 12:00 the following day. Check-in is an hour before departure.
- Rates include all meals, all drinks (except imported French Champagne) and there are single or double suite arrangements on offer.
- En route to Cape Town there is a stopover and excursion in Kimberley, where you will take a step back in time to the days of the diamond rush.
- On the Northbound journey, the train leaves Cape Town at 08:30 and arrives in Pretoria at 12:30, in time for high tea the following day. It stops at Matjiesfontein for an off-the-train excursion allows guest to check out this 19th century heritage town that has an the uncanny sense of being suspended in a different age.
- Guests are reminded that they must be at the station an hour before the departure time.
- Children younger than five travel for free and share a suite with their parents, with a maximum of two children per double suite.Children between 6 and 11 can be booked into an additional suite at 50% of the adult rate. Adult supervision is required at all times.
- Space is limited and it is advisable to only bring an overnight bag on board. Larger bags are stored in the baggage hold of train.
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