Back On The Rails


The idea of rail travel might be infused with a sense of old-school romance, but taking a train to get from A to B is often the greenest, quickest and most cost-effective transport option, as Jacqueline Cochrane discovers.

Even jaded travellers will admit that there is something about a train journey that thrills, enchants and fills one with a sense of contentment that’s unmatched by any other mode of transport.

For many fans of passenger rail travel, it holds a certain allure – the speed, comfort, and efficiency of the experience combine to form a “just-right” logistics solution. Indeed the benefits of choosing rail over air or road transport, especially for business travellers, are quite considerable.

Why Rail Works

It’s green. Train travel – high-speed rail in particular – is far friendlier to the environment than cars and aeroplanes. “According to studies, a trip from London to Paris on the Eurostar emits 91% less carbon dioxide than travelling by air,” says Giovanna Green, Product Manager at Sandown Tours and Europe by Train, an operator specialising in international rail.

Gautrain spokesperson Kelebogile Machaka says environmental consideration was key in both the planning and engineering of the Johannesburg rapid rail system. She adds, though, that “travel on public transport modes such as the Gautrain is not only a key solution in reducing carbon emissions, but also in easing traffic congestion.” Rail travel, she explains, is by far the most carbon-friendly mass transit system available – carbon emissions are about half of those produced by equivalent private car usage. “By switching to rail and other public transport modes, commuters will join the fight against climate change. Gautrain rail cars are also electrically powered with no reliance on liquid fuels at all.”

It’s flexible, punctual and reliable. Train schedules offer far more time options than airlines. “Rail tickets are normally flexible, and should there be a need to catch a later train, this can be done with no penalties,” says Green. “Statistically, rail travel has a higher on-time arrival rate than flights. Trains are not as affected by weather conditions and are thus a reliable form of transport.”

It saves you time, nerves and money. Unlike airports, railway stations are normally situated in the heart of an urban centre – usually taking most business travellers far closer to their destinations. Time is saved during other parts of the journey, too. “On a train, passengers can embark minutes before departure. They can work onboard as most high-speed trains offer plug connectivity and Wi-Fi, and at the destination they can disembark with no issues of lost baggage, delays for baggage, customs and queues,” comments Green.  

“For journeys of four hours or shorter, it’s definitely more time-efficient and convenient,” concurs Ben Langner, MD of World Travel South Africa – a company with close to 50 years of international rail experience.  He agrees that it can also be a more cost-effective option.  “Many railway companies nowadays apply yield management principles similar to airlines. Therefore, to obtain the best prices on point-to-point tickets, one must book as far in advance as possible. However, it must be emphasised that factors other than costs are important, such as the greater degree of comfort and the more carefree, faster travel that highly developed rail services can offer.”

Langner and Green both recommend rail journeys for travellers visiting Europe, Japan and other Asian countries, as well as certain parts of the USA.  

Executive Rail in Africa

In South Africa, some operators say that commuters often have misconceptions concerning executive rail travel, mostly due to ignorance. But general consensus is that this is changing, with the Gautrain in Johannesburg cited as one of the biggest reasons for this new awareness.  

Herbert Masheula, Brand Marketing and Communications Manager of The Blue Train says the South African luxury rail industry has also benefited from this. “The perception has dramatically changed. This is the reason why the local market has increased by 12% from 21% in 2009, to 33% in 2011.” Masheula expects this number to reach about 40% by the end of the year.

While both passenger and freight-rail infrastructure in South Africa fails to compare to match-up to the standards in Europe, South America and India, it is better developed than elsewhere on the continent. At the pinnacle of this (and in stark contrast to South Africa’s unsafe and unreliable Metrorail commuter system) is the Gautrain, which, despite its own set of controversies, has been hailed as a massive passenger-rail success story.

The Rosebank-to-Tshwane link was opened in August 2011, bringing a much-needed alternative to commuters between Johannesburg and the capital. The final leg and opening of Park station in the Johannesburg CBD has been scheduled for the first half of 2012. “Gautrain’s daily patronage has exceeded forecasts and continues to grow”, says Machaka. “Since August, the system has been transporting close to a million passengers on a monthly basis, of which approximately 20% are airport service users.”

“Gautrain is the first rapid rail – and only airport-rail – system in Africa, and offers international standards of public transport with high levels of safety, reliability, predictability and comfort.” At the time of writing, punctuality statistics had been released for August (97.17%), September (99.02%) and October (98.41%) 2011.

Apart from certain luxury operators, passenger rail travel in Africa, where it exists, is often best assigned to the category of ‘adventure travel’. But it does look like things are changing, albeit quite slowly. In August 2011 it was reported that Rift Valley Railway (RVR) was to launch commuter train services linking the Ugandan capital of Kampala with satellite towns. Further to that, Kenya Railways recently announced plans to develop commuter rail systems in Nairobi, Mombasa and Kisumu, with Managing Director Nduva Muli saying they aim to complete the project by the end of 2014.

Western African countries such as Benin and Cameroon are set to better their freight-rail infrastructure, notably with help from China. In Nigeria, the new Lagos Rail Mass Transit project is expected to relieve congestion and revolutionise public transport within the city. The Abuja Light Rail project hopes to achieve the same aims, and is also to be constructed in conjunction with the China Civil Engineering and Construction Company (CCECC).

It is perhaps the northern African nations of Egypt, Algeria and Morocco that, after South Africa, can claim to offer the continent’s most sophisticated railway systems. In May 2011 a light rail service opened in the Moroccan city of Rabat, while in September, work began on a planned high-speed train link in Morocco – the first of its kind in Africa. Set to be completed in 2015, the Moroccan TGV will reduce the 350 kilometre train journey from Casablanca to Tangier from the current four hours and 45 minutes to just over two hours.

Egypt was the first country in Africa, and the second in the world, to have its own a railway system. But renovations and improvements are much called for here, and plans to upgrade the Cairo station were announced last year. Cairo Metro provides an underground rail commuter service, and discussions on a New Cairo Monorail have been initiated, with the airport identified as a possible station.

Similarly, in October 2011, Algerian President Abdelaziz Bouteflika inaugurated the first metro line in the capital, Algiers.

Rail incentives

“Trains are always a popular option for South African incentives, purely since we don’t get to experience it often,” says Huw Tuckett, Managing Director at incentives specialists Uwin Iwin.

There are plenty of rail-incentive options abroad, focusing on luxury rail travel. “Overseas, we have used the Orient Express from Bangkok to Singapore before, which was very popular. There are many remarkable train journeys around the world – India has a number of luxury options, there are the American trips across the Rockies, and so forth,” explains Tuckett. He adds that the length of the trip could pose a challenge. “I wouldn’t put a group onboard for more than three or four nights, which sometimes can be the challenge, as most trips are longer than that. Trains are a bit like ships for incentives, in that the group has to compromise on exclusivity.”

According to World Travel MD Ben Langner, rail-incentive volumes from the South African market are still fairly modest. “There are great opportunities, though, for creative incentive tour planners,” he stresses. “For example, building a ride on the Glacier Express between Zermatt and St Moritz into an incentive programme, treating incentive travellers to a glamorous overnight journey between Paris and Madrid on the Elipsos hotel train, or whisking incentive guests from Paris to Brussels on the ‘Red Train’ for a luncheon and sampling of unusual Belgian beers at Grand Place.”

Kathy Nel, National Manager of Incentive and Event Management at Rennies Travel agrees that incorporating a luxury rail journey into the logistics of a programme is certain to add bang to an incentive. “For example, Shanghai has a particularly fast train to get you from the airport into the city centre – it travels at about 400km per hour, which adds a nice ‘wow’ factor for the group,” she says.

But there are also other, more creative ways of including a rail element. “We have used subways in Europe and the States for things like treasure hunts,” Tuckett tells us. “Also, when a group is based in a city and has the day at leisure, a city map and subway pass can be a great way for participants to explore a new city.”

Locally, The Blue Train and Rovos Rail present popular incentives options via special charters. Europe by Train and Sandown Tours’ Giovanna Green says this option is particularly feasible with larger groups. “You are then able to charter a train, which allows you to propose stops, activities and interests and tailor it to your incentive group. You really have the opportunity to make the experience as unique or exceptional as the client’s budget allows.”

“Our charter train can pretty much go anywhere there is a railway line and, like our regular services, the rate is fully inclusive. We also have a separate events train, which plays host to a four-hour dinner run around Pretoria,” says Brenda Vos, Media Manager at Rovos Rail. Charters can last anything from five hours to 14 days.
The Blue Train’s Herbert Masheula says they’re looking to grow this side of the business in 2012. “We will be focusing aggressively on corporate charters as we aim to increase the local corporate market to 40% next year. This will also lead to an increase in the local individual travel.” A minimum of 40 guests is required for such a charter. The Blue Train also offers a conference facility for up to 22 delegates, while the conference car can accommodate up to 40 guests.

Sigmund Freud, the pioneer of psychoanalysis, was famously overwhelmed by the prospect of rail travel, something for which he held a deep and irrational fear, described as Reisefieber (travel nerves) or, more specifically, Eisenbahnangst (siderodromophobia, or the fear of trains). But today’s savvy travellers – whether for business or leisure – will know that petrol-guzzling cars and the endless hassle of air travel are actually far more intimidating than the experience offered by rail.