The gentle charm of a train journey

2012-11-26 00:00

IF you’re part of the growing crowd of people concerned about trying to reduce their carbon footprint, you might want to consider travelling by train.

The Shosholoza Meyl travels to Johannesburg and back six nights a week. The train just rolls along, but there’s lots to learn.

On this train we are protected by the National Environmental Management Act (107), so if you flush the toilet while stopped at a station, you contravene the act.

The journey is pleasant and the staff are friendly and helpful.

The train is clean and a one-way ticket to Johannesburg costs R250 in tourist class. For this you get a sleeper cabin which you may have to share with one other person if the train is full.

I’m told it never is. If you buy a return ticket you can get a 30% reduction on the R500. Not bad. You have to pay R50 if you would like crisp, clean, white bedding. Booking is not difficult by phone, but you need to buy a ticket at the station or pay on the train.

I arrived at Pietermaritzburg Station, where Gandhi was thrown off the train many years ago, and waited for the 9.30 pm train. And waited.

Cargo trains trundled and clanked through the station in the darkness, like ghostly monstrosities, raising hopes, but no Shosholoza Meyl.

It finally arrived at 12.06 am — just past midnight.

We made steady progress out of Pietermaritzburg and headed north for Johannesburg. When we were crossing the uKhahlamba Mountains, the train stopped in a cloud of smoke and much hissing. I wondered if I should be worried?

It turned out to be steam, and for a while we made our own little sauna in the mountains.

I was a bit surprised since this is an electric train. It turned out that a pipe in the steam carriage had burst.

And all central heating on the train comes from steam, as does the hot water.

As we set off again, the train started to get colder and colder. Someone who knows a lot said a burst steam carriage can de-rail a modern electric train.

The dining car provides good meals, but no matter how you try to order “no meat” — in English or fluent Zulu — you get meat.

It appears that no reasonable train traveller would turn down the chance to eat flesh.

A critical-realist approach is necessary to master train travel in South Africa.

One learns to ask questions from the most unlikely sources. And probe beneath the skin with friendly, carefully phrased questions and a winning smile.

An open-ended question, to mingling crowds outside the station, such as: “Who knows the most about the Shosholoza Meyl train?” led me to a security guard, Bheki, who knew more about the train than the Spoornet website, resident staff and the public relations and marketing department.

Like all wise people, he was humble. When asked, he said no, he didn’t know everything there was to know about the train, but he didn’t know anyone who knew more than he did.

He became my trusted and reliable guide.

Listening skills are important in this form of research, don’t impose your own assumptions and listen carefully to the tone of the voice — therein lies the truth. The rehearsed party-line is seldom accurate.

The train runs between Pietermaritzburg and Johannesburg every night except Saturday. I was told that it is reliable in that it usually arrives late but is seldom cancelled. There is now a Gautrain link from Park Station, where the train stops in Johannesburg.

So there you are.

The “shavers only” plug in my sleeper cabin didn’t work, even though I had the right adapter plug. But there are two 15 amp, 220 volt plugs in the dining car —it is an electric train after all. Take an extra bottle of water and change for coffee, which costs R10 a cup.

You won’t need extra meat, coffee or salt — the train is full of those. Cool drinks, beer and spirits can be purchased at any time. You just stand and look at the right door and a staff member magically appears.

Coffee is served in bed at 6 am — I think I ordered it the night before when I said “yes, I would like coffee tomorrow”.

Two things stand out from my recent Shosholoza Meyl journeys.

The first is the efficiency and friendliness of the staff, and the second is that most journeys ran on time.

Train travel is great, and it enables us to live more gently on the planet.



• Jim Taylor is the director of Environmental Education for WESSA (The Wildlife and Environment Society of South Africa), a membership-based non-governmental organisation.

Join the conversation! encourages commentary submitted via MyNews24. Contributions of 200 words or more will be considered for publication.

We reserve editorial discretion to decide what will be published.
Read our comments policy for guidelines on contributions. publishes all comments posted on articles provided that they adhere to our Comments Policy. Should you wish to report a comment for editorial review, please do so by clicking the 'Report Comment' button to the right of each comment.

Comment on this story
Comments have been closed for this article.

Inside News24

Traffic Alerts
There are new stories on the homepage. Click here to see them.


Create Profile

Creating your profile will enable you to submit photos and stories to get published on News24.

Please provide a username for your profile page:

This username must be unique, cannot be edited and will be used in the URL to your profile page across the entire network.


Location Settings

News24 allows you to edit the display of certain components based on a location. If you wish to personalise the page based on your preferences, please select a location for each component and click "Submit" in order for the changes to take affect.

Facebook Sign-In

Hi News addict,

Join the News24 Community to be involved in breaking the news.

Log in with Facebook to comment and personalise news, weather and listings.