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Not very Premier Classe

They took a superbly built old Blue Train or Drakensberg Express (which was itself a recycled Blue Train trainset), repurposed it into an upmarket alternative to bog-standard mainline train. I would have happily continued paying for such trips, if it were not for what happened to eventually turn me off. And, that was arriving ELEVEN HOURS LATE in Johannesburg! How can anything be that useless? Because it was not the only time. The previous record for lateness was NINE HOURS! You have to work really hard to be that useless. Not that it means much any more, because PRASA, in their infinite wisdom, have managed to destroy most of their services anyway, not just Premier Classe. They destroyed everything they could lay their mits on.

My purpose, though, is to teach. There must surely be people running the trains who aspire to running them well, and to some pride in doing so. This is for those people.

First, we can set down the reasons for my change of heart, which, by the way, can be summarised in two words:

Horrible Management

Here follows the list, all boiling down to the above:

Ease of Use

Have a look at the process of buying a ticket. There are (were?) two types of mainline train: sitters and sleepers. PRASA calls the latter 'Tourist Class'. You can book compartments for those, but you can't reserve a seat on a sitter. You have to pitch at the station, buy a ticket, and hope to find a seat on the train. Either way, you have to go through PRASA's routine of wating to buy/book which is the highest form of South African stupidity available. You arrive in a room with maybe fifty chairs. Naturally, they are uncomfortable. You drag your heavy suitcase to the next available chair. If one is not available, you stand until one is. Then, as each person gets to approach the clerk's window, everyone in the room moves up one chair. This system is the finest example of South African ingenuity, which is no kind of ingenuity at all. Everyone in the room, most of whom are elderly, has to lift luggage, seat by seat, until they arrive at the “best” seat, the one that leads to actually speaking to a clerk, and getting attention. An old aged pensioner, lifting a suitcase twenty, thirty, forty, fifty times. In any other country this would be deemed unsafe. Not in SA. No booking clerk has given it a second thought. This system is designed, not by them, but by the security man, the uniformed private security guard. Because the reservations clerk, along with every other person in our society, is lazy and just wants an easy life. It's not my job to design queues, s/he will whine. That, I am sad to say, sets the tone for the whole PRASA experience, and has done, whether it was called SAR, SATS, Spoornet or PRASA.

Some government and municipal departments have tumbled to issuing a number to each new arrival. The clerk then calls the next number. Brilliant! Nobody has to lift their luggage thirty times! They remain in their seats until called! Wow! What genius! I wonder when - sorry = if … PRASA will ever reach this brilliance.

When you are finally get to a window, you are invariably told that you should have booked three months in advance. I am serious. Even though the system is computerised, this is what you are told. The whole idea is designed to leave you with the worst possible taste in your mouth. Yet, the web-site sings “A Pleasant Experience”. Duh. I don't think so.

Next, what about people who need wheelchairs? Well, you may be able to get your wheel chair onto a train, but even if you find space for it in your cabin, you are not going to be able to get to the shower or toilet and back, because the corridors are too narrow. This is the most missed opportunity for our so-called “service”. Please, railways engineers, get this one right. Design coaches that diffently enabled people can get onto. Have catering on trains taking food to them in the their seats, as in the “old days”. People will pay for their oldies to be looked after on a train. Don't listen to the bean-counters: they are not to be trusted.

First, they cut the stops. Eventually the Trans-Karoo was down to a few stops: Krugersdorp, Potchefstroom, Klerksdorp, Kimberley, de Aar, Beaufort West, Touwsrivier, Belville, Cape Town. They saved hours on all those other stations, and wonder of wonders, the train now took even longer!. You have to work hard at being this stupid. They have cut out everything. Dining cars, water bottles in the coaches, toilets, and now, at last, they have succeeded in the ultimate for a bean-counter! They have even cut the whole train service! No cost! Perfect!


Anybody knows, the number one thing about runnig a train service is SCHEDULE. Sorry, ladies and gents, but whatever you learned (or didn&post) about Hamba Zola Budd kombis does not apply here. Nie van toepassing nie. Write it down, and repeat it to yourself at least six times a day. That way, if you get it right, you have half a chance of getting a decent job in another country, _when you bolt from our ANC/EFF mess here, as I know you surely will do_. Do I blame you? Yes, I do, because the better thing would be to stay here, and make things better, like any normal citizen would want to do. As in, do your bit. Play your part.

A train has to leave on time, AND arrive on time. Both. Not either or. It must, as wew say RUN TO TIME.That way. Mwalume can plan his day. He can arranage to pick you up at a certain time, knowing that you will arive at that time, not spend half his pension on cellphone calls trying to find out whether you have even left yet. Don't tell me “this is Africa, we do things our way” because that is a bullshit excuse, more so coming from someone who will run to any other country s/he can find when the going gets tough. Don't like what I say? So, answer this: what happened to the 30 or 40 thousand ANC people who were supposed to return after democracy? I thought so. You don't know. Well, I will tell you. They had no faith that the ANC was going to succeed in running the country better than the Boers, so they stayed in whatever country, enjoying the health care, the schools, the orderliness, the clean streets. Even Russia turned out a better bet, right?

The old South African Railways was not great at running trains to time, but they got it right a lot of the time. Consider this: when I still lived in PMB, a train passed through every 12 minutes, and that was Duban to Jhb line. There were more trains on the Greytown and Franklin lines. Now, you will be lucky to see two per day, between the port and the Reef. The main cause of delays on any line is other trains. Now that there are no other trains, PRASA stil can't get a passenger train to run on time. I know the system they inherited (actually, this is debatable - they may not yet have let it go. See section SAR below) had glaring faults: it was largely ill-conceived. For one example, you can't share goods and passenger services on the same tracks. It has never, does not, and never will, work. Nor can you share passenger commuter traffic with express trains. You need four tracks, one each for Up commuter and Up express, and one each for Down. However, when there are NO TRAINS, there is no reason why to run a passenger train late. No reason, no excuse.

One of the most useless manifestations of trains running back in SAR days was heating. I have done train trips all my life since a year old, and the steam heaters in my compartments worked possibly three times in my 50 years before SAR (theoretically) ceased to exist. The mechanics were simple enough. In steams days, steam was passed through the entire train via steam pipes. When steam power waned, a steam tender was coupled behind the (diesel-) electric locomotive to supply the steam to heat the coaches. Simple, should work, right? Wrong. Every time the train arrived at destination, the steam in those pipes would condense, leaving pools of water in each coach's steam plumbing. This water blocked the passage of steam throughout the train, so the steam tender, however well it worked, would not get steam to the heaters in the compartments. It would reach no further than the first compartment in the first coach.

The solution was to bleed the system, before the train set out, but this was seldom done. You have to have a desire to serve people to get that right, but old school SAR people had no service ethic. They were masters, not servants. So, no person was going to walk the full length of the train, unplug a steam cock, and watch a stream of water squirt 5 metres, until the steam pipes were clear. They would get cold hands, wouldn't they? Shame. Here, as always, upper management was to blame. Back in the old days, it should have been the job of the guard. After all, his place was in the guard's van, at the end of the train. But there were two problems with this. First, it was never enforced, nor was it incentivised. Drivers got a bonus for getting a train in on time. Guards should have got a bonus for bleeding the steam heating system, but did not. Can wwe agree that is management missing an opportunity to do the right thing? Everyone just assumed the guard will do it, because he also wants to be warm in his van, right?

Wrong. The nature of the system was that not much steam reached the guard, there at the end of the train, so HE wasn't going to bleed the system, was he? More importantly, he was not going to be fired for not doing it. Once again, the blame lies with management. They get paid to get work out of people. If they don't do, they get fired. So, here is one of the secrets of the world: Managers get fired more than guards, and it still happens too little!


Until PRASA totally collapsed its main line passenger services shortly before lockdown, your only option to reserve tickets was via a website called Now you know what I meant earlier that it is debatable that the the SAR ever truly let go of passenger rail. That site is dead now. You won't get far with another attempt: it details two routes only, both from Jhb. One to Musina, the other to Queenstown. I wonder what market research company or department managed to kid itself that Jhb is thronging with people who want to take a train to Queenstown. Musina, yes: thousands of Zimbabweans may be interested in taking a trip home via Musina, but Queenstown? The last part of the joke is that these trains run once monthly. Who thought that up?

Well, I digress. I wonder even more how, half a century after our railways was last called SAR, a website named was taking bookings for PRASA mainline passenger trains. If that doesn't mean the Nats were still large and in charge until two years ago, nothing does. It's like comedian Noel Glover mocking a Bop TV blackout with

“Never maaind, die baas kom nou”.


The lady with whom I spoke when trying to book a trip to de Aar told me the TransKaroo is “no more”. The whole conversation was scarecely believable to a seasoned South African main line rail traveller like me. For example, she said I could get to Cape Town by train, but I would have to take two trains: Jhb to Bloem, then Bloem to Cape Town, via Kimberley, a routing that makes no sense at all. Given that Kimberley is north of west from Bloemfontein. that means you are, for about two hours, going away from Cape Town. The trip time was already 26 hours from Jhb to Cape Town via Kimberley, so now it is more than two hours longer, because you have to change trains in Kimberley. She also told me that services had been suspended because of the COVID lockdown. That was not true. All main line services were suspended by losign their operation licences two moths before lockdown because their entire country-wide stock of brake blocks was stolen. You can't run a train without brakes.

Think about that. Brake blocks are made of solid iron, about the size of a brick. Each passenger carriage uses eight. How do you steal thousands of brake blocks undetected? Sorry, but that is an inside job, and in my opinion, a sabotage job too. The booking clerk also brightly informed me that the Cape Town train, when re-introduced, would no longer be called Trans-Karoo, and that it would be “streamlined”.

I was immediately suspicious. “Streamlined” to me is smoothing curves and making things aerodynamic, unlikely for a service limited to the TransNet and PRASA mainline speed limit of 90 kph.

“Yes, the service has been streamlined” she said. “There is no more a dining car, and you have to bring you own bedding”.

Aah. So THAT is what streamlining is. How could I be so ignorant? What will ad company copy writers come up with next? They keep doing this kind of thing. Years ago when SAR had already morphed into Spoornet and then SATS, some ad agency came up with the name Shoshalosa Meyl. The word “Meyl”, wrote this ignorant moron, gave a “warm colloguial sense”. Rubbish. It came from the fact that all main line trains were, for decades, mail trains, caryying the mail from port to reef and back. 'Meyl' just meant mail', and of course Shoshalosa was a miners song about mineworkers travelling to the mines, never mind that the song is Zimbabwean, not South African. We steal everything.