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Train travel’s growing conferencing and incentive market underlines a continent-wide resurgence in the benefits of rail.

As incentives go it’s quite a carrot – hit your targets and you’ll be romancing your way to the Big Five in the South African Lowveld, cosseted in the nostalgic warmth of wood panelling, excellent dining cars and constant attention. Train travel, once a staple of mass travel across continents, is rolling forward again, taking with it a corporate clientele of executives keen to blow away the stress and routine of hotels, boardrooms and PowerPoint presentations.

The trend marks a general shift in the fortunes of rail, as fuel prices and toll roads force both commercial and personal traffic off roads and back onto the tracks. Across Africa major projects are set to return a degree of efficiency to a long-suffering network damaged by a lack of capital investment and maintenance.

The evidence is widespread. Barbara Sheat, Publisher of Railways Africa suggests South Africa’s investment in rail structures and refurbishments is prompting an African resurgence. “On the continent, currently the biggest expenditure is in South Africa, notably the extensive Metrorail upgrade and the Sishen manganese line that will take ore to Coega (South African Eastern Cape),” she says.

Metrorail will replace 800 coaches in the push to reintroduce a viable national network. But, that’s not all. “There are massive projects in West, East and North Africa that, when completed, will vastly improve infrastructures, and open the way for a variety of train options, including executive routes and tourist trains, which, traditionally, piggyback off each other,” says Sheat.

Nigeria

Sheat notes key developments in Morocco, Nigeria and Mozambique, with smaller initiatives in Egypt, Uganda, Kenya, Angola and Rwanda. Nigeria’s push is notable – the multi-billion rand Blue Line project, to be operated by Ekorail with rolling stock from both Canada and China, will run from Okokomaiko in the west to central Lagos, with various lines intersecting. The idea is for commuters to drive to stations and take the train, instead of facing the current nightmare of driving into the city. The massive rehabilitation of the western mainline from Lagos via Jebba to Kano, is also nearly finished.

Morocco

Morocco’s plans are equally impressive. The backbone is a sophisticated, high-speed executive network linking all the kingdom’s major cities. Primary among these is a new R18bn high-speed rail link between Tangier and Casablanca set for 2013, and the country’s first executive tramway, which links the capital Rabat with its twin-city Salé. The Tangier link will carry an estimated eight million passengers annually and reduce the journey time for the 400 kilometre journey from nearly six hours to two. The Rabat tram system, featuring air-conditioning, will cost over R3bn and carry an estimated 60 million passengers every year.

Mozambique

In Mozambique, all the talk is of the Nacala port and railway upgrade. The port is potentially one of the best in East Africa and a viable rail link to it would benefit Malawi, Congo and Zambia. Brazilian mining giant Vale is getting in on the project, which it suggests will cost R25bn. Vale’s chairman Roger Agnelli said recently that the Nacala port and rail system in northern Mozambique would be a major factor in the development of sub-Saharan Africa.

In South Africa, as Sheat suggests, the transport pendulum is swinging slowly back to rail, where, despite a tough economic climate, development is continuing apace. For corporate travel that’s good news. “The Gautrain (Johannesburg) experience has been generally a good one, with roll-out continuing,” says Sheat. “As South Africans get more used to the idea that train travel can be as efficient as a bus or a car – and up-market – more will come on board.” Ally that to the never-ending fuel price hike, and things start to look very rosy for rail.

Yet, for all the rail development – most of it being commercial or infrastructural – the real growth area in rail has been the high end. That sentiment is echoed by the Blue Train’s Herbert Masheula, who believes that at this end of the market, the brand is important. “If one of the companies using us for an incentive trip or team building exercise sends out an RSVP, guaranteed they will get back a 100% ‘yes’. Everyone wants to be able to say they’ve been on the Blue Train – no one is going to pass up that opportunity,” he says. “Our brand is one of the strongest in the world, and it makes total sense for corporates with a strong identity to choose us. It makes a statement to staff that says, ‘we mean business.’”

The Blue Train offers various options for corporate clients, including the use of a conference car that is added to the train. It can accommodate 22 or 40 people, cinema style. “The beauty with rail is that, as we say, it’s ‘business unusual’. For creatives, it’s special. Stuck in a hotel conference room, what’s the motivation? But on a train the landscape is constantly changing. It’s inspiring,” says Masheula.

Rovos Rail, traditionally a tourist train that operates to Namibia, Victoria Falls, Dar es Salaam and Durban among other routes, has also felt the shift to corporate. Its rolling stock is its biggest draw card, an unashamedly nostalgic train recalling an Edwardian idyll of dark wood and crystal chandeliers. Notable, too, is its observation car at the back of the train, which allows travellers to get away from the air-conditioning, step outside and smell the bushveld.

“I think everyone has had a tough time lately, but if you have a strong product and are flexible, you’ll do fine,” says Rovos’s Joy Strydom. “One of our trains is dedicated entirely to charters, and our corporate clientele appreciate that. We know their wishes and will make anything happen. We can go anywhere, anytime, as long as there’s a railway line and can get permission.” The Rovos business model is aimed at the incentive market rather than on-board conferencing. “Traditionally, a company will fly employees to a venue, have their conference and then take the train back as a special treat. We find that conferencing on board is not a great idea, what with the movement and the noise,” she says.

Both Rovos and the Blue Train are top-end options, and to capture the next tier, in 2007 Metrorail introduced its Premier Classe service. Somewhere between the Blue Train and the Shosholoza Meyl Express, Premier Classe sets out to offer a luxury train that is affordable and fun. In effect, it uses standard PRASA coaches refitted with mid-level fixtures, lounge, bar, and dining cars and the (very bright) purple livery. It has been a success, despite the discontinuation of the Port Elizabeth and Lowveld routes, and, according to brand expert Herman Manson, corporate trade is an increasingly important part of the business.

“As economic belt-tightening continues, corporate clients are choosing Premier Classe over other competitors for team building and incentive travel, because they offer much the same for a fraction of the price. And the brand is seen as more fun, not quite as formal – it’s perceived as an easier place to let your hair down. There isn’t the assumption of being too snooty, even though their facilities are very good,” says Manson.

Many large corporate businesses use agents or internal departments to plan and coordinate an incentive or conference trip, but some prefer the option of a complete package. JB Tours is an example of a one-stop train shop. The company, operational since the World Cup, has seen explosive growth in the market. 

“Business is very, very good, despite the downturn,” says the company’s Jolene Mattysson. Essentially, we take all the pain away from a client. We arrange to pick them up, put them on the train, organise accommodation and activities at the other end and see to transport.” Mattysson highlights a popular trend, namely combining leisure and business. For example, a Blue Train trip to Cape Town to see a big rugby match. “The combination often means that team building is all the better, and the work done achieves a great deal more,” she says. “The train is a great idea because, ultimately, it’s a space in which people have the time and the freedom to really talk. There’s private and well as public space, all of it is comfortable and intimate.”

Rail in Africa will, most future analysts suggest, grow in importance, both commercially and for leisure, as the commodities boom continues. But underneath the good business sense and the obvious logic supporting the industry of rail, is the less defined truism that rail is somehow better, more human, far superior to other forms of impersonal travel. As Oscar Wilde said, “if God had meant for us to fly, he wouldn’t have given us the railways.” Amen to that.

 Peter Frost

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