Savvy Travellers Hit the Rails


It may not be big in Africa, but the majority of the rest of the world has already seen the benefits of rail travel and how it can change a country’s travel landscape. As a result, it’s a popular mode of transport just about everywhere else on the planet, although slowly but surely some African countries are waking up to the possibilities and options that rail travel offers, and that can only be a good thing for the continent’s travellers. Richard Holmes delves a little deeper and comes up with some interesting findings on the issue.

It’s a rare traveller who enjoys airport security queues. Not to mention the hours wasted ‘airside’ browsing endless duty-free shopping. Or what about the baggage carousel where you hope and pray your bag turns up unscathed? Queuing for your hire car, or negotiating multi-lane freeways on the fringes of an unfamiliar city? Nope, I didn’t think those were high on your bucket-list either.

They’re all part of the tedious business of air travel, and yet for most corporate travellers in Europe there is another far more pleasurable way to get from a conference in Copenhagen to a meeting in Zermatt. The train.

While some urban metro services may be in need of a good scrub and an air-conditioner in summer – we’re looking at you here, London Underground – Europe is justifiably famous for the quality of its inter-city and international railway systems.

And for travellers on a tight schedule, travelling by train makes perfect sense.

“Time is the most valuable asset to all business travellers,” says Terri Wright, manager of rail travel specialist World Travel in Johannesburg. “Most of the major train stations are located in the heart of the cities and travellers benefit from excellent connections with other public transportation, such as the underground trains, taxis and buses.”

Depart from one city centre, arrive in another city centre – it makes perfect sense. And as Europe wallows in another cold and stormy winter, it’s also useful to remember that rail travel is less affected by adverse weather.

And unlike airlines, where electronic devices have, up until fairly recently, been persona non grata for much of the flight, “rail travel allows business travellers the opportunity to still make calls, work on their laptops and even go as far as having meetings on the train whilst going from one city to the next,” notes Giovanna Green, Product Manager of Europe By Train. “On shorter routings, the travelling time is more efficient and seamless. With corporates being very aware of carbon emissions, rail travel is the most efficient.”

Convenience aside, it’s the services available onboard that should convince corporate travellers to consider train over plane.

Many high-speed intercity services include “features like complimentary Wi-Fi on-board, meal service on-board, dedicated meeting rooms on-board, the option to sit in a quiet coach, power point sockets at your seat and a full catering bar-buffet car to optimise the travel experience,” adds Wright. “Many trains offer an option to reserve a taxi service on-board, for arrival at your destination.”

But does all that convenience come at a greater cost?

For journeys up to four hours, “rail is a price-competitive mode of transportation,” says Wright. “For longer journeys, air transportation may be a more competitive option.”

“Rail is not the cheapest form of travel, especially with all the low-cost airlines, however if you consider the value of ‘travel time’ when travelling, it does become a very cost-effective option,” says Green.

Another option for longer journeys is to consider overnight sleeper services. Travelling overnight on trains equipped with comfortable berths and onboard restaurants allows travellers to save both time and money, as a night in an expensive European hotel is scratched off the travel budget.

And if saving on fares is paramount, be sure to reserve your ticket well in advance.

“Pre-booking your rail ticket prior to departing South Africa secures the most favourable departure time, avoids the tedious queuing at the station, and, in some cases, the language barrier,” says Wright.

Reservations are compulsory for many high-speed intercity services, and buying in advance also allows travellers to access discounted tickets as well as consider rail passes for multiple journeys.

“Like airlines, trains manage the yield on each departure, so by just arriving at the station passengers would be charged higher rates,” adds Green. “Some trains also offer international travellers discounted fares, but these need to be purchased in their country of origin.”

Africa slowly gathers steam

Fares are less of an issue for rail travel in Africa, where the most pressing concern is the paucity of services. Africa’s railway systems lag far behind developed economies north of the Equator, and while some countries retain a creaking echo of colonial railway systems, new investments in rolling stock and track are few and far between.

While Tanzania’s Tazara railway linking Dar es Salaam with Zambia is popular with local travellers and adventurous tourists, you’d need to have a flexible diary to consider planning corporate travel on a service notorious for delays.

Neighbouring Kenya is one of the countries shining its public transport spotlight firmly on the rails though. In December 2013, former president Daniel arap Moi opened the third in a series of new railway stations serving urban commuters in Nairobi.

Imara Daima station now offers commuters an automated ticketing system, enhanced security and additional parking for commuters keen to avoid the capital’s notorious traffic.

Notorious is a word long associated with the railway line to Mombasa – Kenya’s second city and its most important port – as the line dubbed the ‘Lunatic Express’ from Kampala (Uganda) to the coast has long been plagued by poor service and delays.

That could soon all change though, as Kenya – courtesy of a Chinese investment in the region of $4-billion – looks to transform railway services in East Africa. The first section of new line, from Mombasa to Nairobi, is scheduled for completion in 2017. Additional plans are afoot to extend the network to Uganda, with branch lines to Kisangani (Democratic Republic of Congo), south to Rwanda and Burundi, and north to South Sudan.

“The project will define my legacy as president of Kenya,” said Kenyan president Uhuru Kenyatta when laying the foundation stone for the new line. “What we are doing here today will most definitely transform… not only Kenya, but the whole eastern African region.”

While the focus, not least for the Chinese investors, is no doubt firmly on freight and cargo, the new service should turn rail travel between Nairobi and Mombasa into a viable alternative for travellers. With passenger trains set to travel up to 120 kilometres an hour, journey times are expected to fall from around 12 hours to just four, and the project plans for the construction of 33 new passenger stations en route.

The other major railway project in East Africa is north of Kenya’s border, as Ethiopia revives the 756-kilometre railway link between Addis Ababa and Djibouti.

As with the Kenyan project, the Export-Import Bank of China is footing most of the $3-billion cost.

Long distance railways are vital for unlocking transport of goods and raw materials from the centre of the continent to coastal ports – a fact the Chinese investors are no doubt acutely aware of. But for business travellers looking to railways for daily commuting, the options remain limited. Several North African capitals, most notably Cairo, offer metro systems, but the most advanced urban railways on the continent are to be found in South Africa’s major cities.

The leading light is certainly Johannesburg’s Gautrain, a service inaugurated for the hosting of the 2010 World Cup that has become a vital commuting option for both locals and visitors.

Close on 50,000 travellers use the Gautrain on any given weekday, and booming demand has seen the rapid-rail service focus its efforts on expansion.

“The increase in the usage and the success of the Gautrain show that there is a mindset shift about adopting public transport. The Gautrain is an affordable, safe, convenient and viable mode of transport that integrates with other public transport modes,” says Dr Barbara Jensen, Gautrain Management Agency Senior Executive Manager, Communication and Marketing, adding that “trains run at full capacity during peak times and the challenge is to accommodate the growing demand.”

Servicing that demand has included running trains with eight cars, instead of the usual four during peak periods, as well as looking to reconfigure seating and standing space in each carriage. New bus routes and additional park-and-ride facilities are also being considered.

Crucially, the Gautrain Management Agency is looking to extend the operational hours for the link to O.R. Tambo International Airport, adding additional services in the morning and evening. Restricted operating hours have long been a bugbear for corporate travellers departing on ‘red-eye’ flights or arriving late in the evening. Larger platforms, allowing for longer trains with additional cars, are also being considered.

Railway networks will form “the backbone” of public transport in Gauteng’s 25-year Integrated Transport Master Plan, says Jensen, with a number of extensions to the rapid-rail network in the pipeline.

Those will include links between the existing Gautrain Park Station to Westgate in the Johannesburg CDB, from the existing Rhodesfield Station to Boksburg, from Naledi in Soweto to Mamelodi, and a link from the existing Gautrain Sandton Station to Randburg.

While African railways certainly have a long way to go if they wish to catch up to their European counterparts, the groundwork is slowly being laid. Even if only for freight and very specific journeys, rail travel in many corners of the continent is receiving long overdue investment. We may never see high-speed trains whizzing across the East African savannah, or turning Durban into a day-trip by train from Johannesburg, but it’s heartening to see that in certain parts of Africa the railways are steaming ahead.

All aboard for MICE travel

Southern Africa’s railways offer unique opportunities for meetings and incentive travel. Private operators – including the likes of the iconic Blue Train and the Shongololo Express – offer a range of itineraries and offerings in South Africa and Namibia.

Luxurious accommodation and a unique location are the major drawcards for clients looking to give their product launch, meeting or incentive gathering an added dollop of travel glamour and exclusivity.

Exclusivity is certainly the buzzword when it comes to MICE travel on trains, says Carole O’Connor from Rovos Rail, arguably the market leader in high-end private rail travel. Rovos destinations range from Cape Town to the Victoria Falls to the Kruger National Park, offering a host of flexible options for high-end exclusive journeys aboard their restored Edwardian carriages.

“MICE groups generally go for an exclusive charter option providing the numbers are in accordance with our train configuration – up to 42 pax sharing, on one small train, or up to 72 pax on one larger train,” says O’Connor. “For smaller groups under 42 people, sharing the scheduled journeys are usually the most popular option, as it does work out to be more cost effective.”

Exclusive charter is ideal though, in that it allows the client to utilise the train’s space for meetings and presentations, without having to consider other passengers aboard.