On the Rails

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African rail travel still has some way to go, but slow changes are being made to the rail systems across the African continent, and with business travellers increasingly looking for more cost-effective ways of getting from point A to point B, it can only be a matter of time before rail travel becomes a viable business travel option. For now, though, those changes are relatively small, and it’s going to take a big change in travel culture, before African rail makes that next big leap. Richard Holmes investigates.

It’s up there with the old ‘chicken and egg’ dilemma. Until there are safe and reliable train services, commuters will use buses, taxis and private cars to travel on business, choosing congested tarmac over free-flowing rails. And yet, until travellers are convinced to abandon their spacious cars for the communal commuting of the train carriage, rail operators are hard-pressed to offer a service business travellers actually want to use.

It’s a problem that’s not unique to Africa though. In London, local authorities are penalising commuters for using private transport, in a bid to generate funds for upgrading of the 150-year-old underground system. The problem is that the improvements those funds will pay for will only be realised in a few years’ time, pushing more people back onto the roads. Once again, ‘chicken and egg’. And in the face of under-resourced networks, it’s tempting to disregard travelling by train as a feasible option for business travellers, but the reality couldn’t be further from the truth. Across Europe, and increasingly in Africa, commuting by rail is becoming a timesaving and cost-effective choice for corporate travellers.

A case in point is South Africa’s Gautrain. Connecting Pretoria, Midrand, Sandton and downtown Johannesburg with the city’s O.R. Tambo International Airport – Africa’s largest airline hub – the Gautrain is the first rapid-rail service on the continent, and has become a vital mode of transport for business travellers in the City of Gold.

“We have two challenges with Gautrain,” explains Dr. Barbara Jensen, spokesperson for the Gautrain. “Firstly, the people who can afford to use Gautrain have their own cars and, like the Americans, we have a love affair with our cars. Secondly, in South Africa, public transport is a mode of force – people use it because they have to use it.” “That is the mindset that we have to battle to get people on the train. But we’re definitely getting there – we just need to make it a mode of choice, not a mode of force.”

It’s a battle that is slowly but surely being won, with passenger numbers continually climbing since the first trains rolled onto the tracks just days before the country hosted the 2010 FIFA World Cup. “We keep adding capacity, and the moment we add capacity it’s filled up,” says Jensen. “Our route between Centurion and Sandton is by far the busiest, and also the airport link obviously. Park Station in the centre of Johannesburg is also a major destination, as on our commuter routes the passengers are almost entirely business travellers.”

“The airport link has been a major service for business tourists – at any time of the day, the trains are full,” says Jensen. “We’ve also added extra capacity on the weekends to cater for the crowds using the airport link. We also work closely with the Sandton Convention Centre and Gallagher Estate, to incorporate the use of the Gautrain into events.”

As corporate commuters happily swap congested highways for air-conditioned carriages whipping along at over 100km/h, it’s no surprise that there are already plans for expanding the service in the city that is the economic engine of Africa. New stations are slated to serve the Heartlands development east of the city, as well as the South African Mint between Midrand and Centurion, and further extensions are planned to the east of Pretoria. But an issue for business travellers connecting to O.R. Tambo International Airport has been the Gautrain’s restricted hours of operation. The first trains only depart the Johannesburg stations at 05h30 and the last leaves the airport at 20h30, excluding business travellers opting for red-eye or late-night flights.

“We are looking at changing that, but at the moment the demand is simply not there,” says Jensen. “It costs an enormous amount of money to extend those operating hours, because you can’t only have the airport station open, you have to open all stations on the route. But we will certainly look at running earlier and later trains, and we’re also looking at running buses between O.R. Tambo International and Sandton station.”

While Johannesburg may lay claim to the only rapid-rail service in Africa, it’s certainly not the only inner-city rail network making life easier for business travellers. Cairo has enjoyed an efficient – albeit crowded – underground metro system for 25 years, and is often a calm respite from the chaotic streets above. And despite a tumultuous few months on the squares of Cairo, only one thing has changed in the orderly Metro system – a single downtown station, renamed from ‘Mubarak’ to ‘Martyrs’. Rail systems are ideal for beating road congestion, and when it comes to traffic jams there are few cities in Africa that can top Nairobi.

In 2012, a global ‘commuter pain’ study by IBM ranked Nairobi the world’s fourth-worst city for traffic, a shade behind Beijing and beating out the likes of New Delhi, New York, London and Los Angeles. So it’s perhaps fitting that the city has finally joined the rail travel bandwagon, inaugurating a major commuter line ­in November 2012 – from a state-of-the-art station in Syokimau into central Nairobi, with one-way fares around US$2.50 – just days after a similar system launched in Dar es Salaam in neighbouring Tanzania.

Of more interest to jet-set corporate travellers, perhaps, are the plans in Kenya’s ambitious Vision 2030 that forecasts a growing network of stations, and a rail link to the Jomo Kenyatta International Airport. Connecting corporate travellers to cities makes sound economic sense, and while inter-city travel by rail may be a distant dream for most African countries, rail travel is often the best choice for corporate travellers heading further afield.

While Britain, the United States and parts of Asia have well-established commuter rail networks between and within major cities, it is mainland Europe where rail dominates. “For getting around the continent, Europeans travel by rail – they don’t fly any more,” says Giovanna Green, Product Manager of South Africa-based rail specialist Europe By Train. “We’re trying to do a lot of education with corporate travellers around the benefits of rail travel. In Europe, if you have an intense schedule of cities to move between, rail travel becomes an extremely feasible option in terms of timesaving and efficiency.”

“Rail travel is fast, reliable and punctual,” agrees Terri-Ann Wright of World Travel in Johannesburg. “With more than 240,000km of track passing through all the European major business districts, rail remains the corporate traveller’s most comprehensive choice of public transportation.”

And although travelling by rail isn’t always the cheapest option, thanks to the explosion in low-cost airlines, “it is much more efficient for business travellers,” says Green. “Even for international trains, there is no hassle of checking in hours before, no passport control, no x-ray security checks. Also, you leave from the centre of the city and you arrive in the centre. It cuts down on wasted time.”

And “time is the most valuable asset to all business travellers,” adds Wright. “Train journeys are getting faster every year, through the construction of new high-speed lines allowing travel up to 320km/h, linking main cities in only a few hours. Rail is also less affected by adverse weather conditions and other environmental factors.”

Remember the volcanic ash cloud that closed European airspace for weeks in April 2010? Travellers who had booked their train tickets across the continent left right on time. But as with airlines, when it comes to booking your business travel, a little advance planning is recommended if you want to get the most out of your travel budget. “Most of the trains open for bookings 90 days in advance, and in most cases – especially Eurostar and TGV – the further in advance we can book, the better the rates. Trains use yield management, just like airlines,” says Green.

European rail companies also offer a range of products to suit almost every budget, with a selection of classes catering for everyone from cash-strapped start-ups through to high-flying travellers happy to fork out for a few home comforts. Travellers in First Class have access to check-in lounges at the station, and most high-speed trains offer complimentary Wi-Fi Internet in premium carriages. Some trains also offer conference and quiet rooms on-board, allowing you to catch up on work in peace.

Overnight trains offer a range of sleeper accommodation, which further increases efficiency. If you’re short on time, you can use an eight-hour overnight journey to reach your next destination, while travellers watching their bottom-line can roll the day’s transport and accommodation costs into one. And while longer train journeys can see you crossing a handful of national borders, agreements between the continent’s various train companies allow seamless travel from one network to the next, thanks to a system of rail passes.

Passes are issued according to duration – up to three months – as well as the number of countries you plan to visit – there are 23 on the current network. But as is so often the case, it pays to ask the experts. Europe by Train also specialises in ensuring the most suitable ticket or pass is purchased. For some itineraries, a rail pass is best, while on others, a handful of point-to-point tickets may be most efficient and affordable.

“When it comes to purchasing passes, they are cheaper if bought before departure, than in the country of travel,” says Green. “We’re also trying to get systems in place to track corporate spend, to allow companies to monitor their expenditure. And from a corporate traveller point of view, we ensure the client receives all their documents upfront before departure.”

“The point-to-point fare product with a seat reservation would be the most logical option for the business traveller. However, depending on the extent of the journey, our well-priced range of rail passes may prove a more economical option,” adds Wright. “South African-based travellers have the option, through World Travel, for ‘Print At Home’ tickets or ‘Ticket On Departure’ for selected European railway routes, which makes obtaining tickets easier and ensures the security of the paperless ticket.”

Booking with a specialist before departure is also recommended, as seats on high-speed intercity services must be reserved in advance. If you arrive at the station hoping to hop on the next train, you could find all the seats sold out, or only the most expensive fare classes available. The options are there, but the choice is yours: a crowded airport or a quiet platform, a busy highway or the soothing clickety-clack of the rails. For, while there are outstanding products available both abroad and on the continent, often it’s a matter of changing hearts and minds, rather than rails and wheels.

What’s the Incentive?

Railways in both Europe and Africa are proving a popular option for conferencing and incentive groups, with South Africa’s Rovos Rail and Blue Train becoming sought-after choices for MICE travel.

“When a company launches a product and charters the Blue Train, everybody will RSVP!” laughs Herbert Themba Masheula, Brand Marketing and Communications Manager for Spoornet, South Africa’s national railway operator. “The Blue Train is very popular for corporate charters and incentives, and we’ve also had companies chartering the train for strategic meetings.”

While the capacity of the train is capped at 80 passengers, a minimum of 40 travellers is required for exclusive-use charters. “When you charter the train, we can take you anywhere there are rails that the train can run on,” explains Masheula. “The Garden Route, Port Elizabeth, Limpopo, the Kruger National Park and Durban are all very popular.”

And while it’s yet to become widely popular, the Blue Train also offers an innovative conferencing facility. “We have a separate carriage that is hooked to the back of the train,” says Masheula. “It’s usually an observation car, but it can be converted into a conference room for up to 22 delegates, or 40 people seated classroom-style.”

Rovos Rail has a similar offering, with up to 72 passengers accommodated on overnight itineraries. The privately owned railway has also launched an ‘events train’, which can carry up to 250 guests on day excursions.