SOLUTIONS FOR RAIL OPERATORS
The stark realities of train travel in South Africa
From the evergreen Drakensberg to the rolling hills of the Eastern Cape and the sparse hinterland of the Karoo, the beauty of SA captures tourists like a piece of Thabo Mbeki prose.
There is one thing that can’t be escaped in travels around the nation: the gut-wrenching, uncomfortable poverty. If you travel by air, looking at the poverty from the small window of a plane might almost be an academic exercise.
But apartheid’s spatial planning cannot be disguised. The size and scale of townships and informal settlements are a stark reminder of how divided we are.
When taking to the road, poverty is never more than a few metres away, whether it is the face peering at you from the back of a bakkie or the lonely souls walking from one part of nowhere to any part of anywhere. There is a constant appeal to us passing in air-conditioned comfort to take them with, to take them to a better place.
A train journey across SA is a brutal assault on a padkos-fattened consciousness. Taking the Prasa-run Shosholoza Meyl from Johannesburg to Cape Town is comfortable, safe and relaxing, if you do not expect the trains to run on schedule. They are often hours late.
The food and the booze are cheap and it is an ideal way of travelling for people who are not in a rush. The landscapes it offers are breathtaking and nothing compares to waking up in the Karoo to the gentle rocking motion of a chook-chook. The journey also gives an unobstructed view of a good portion of the country’s 30-million poor people.
It is hard to arrest the image of children begging at the side of the train in the middle of desolation. It happens stop after stop and when you close in on cities, you see populations of homeless people residing under bridges. This site of dereliction is unchanged since I first took the Trans-Karoo, the Shosholoza Meyl’s predecessor, as a student more than 20 years ago.
These images of deprivation are not just for the benefit of local travellers, but also for every foreign tourist who travels by rail in SA on the Blue Train, Rovos Rail and Premier Classe lines. These train lines are not just a means of transport but give visitors an experience of SA. When poverty is part of the experience, they will not take good messages home.
This is an industry problem that will not go away on its own. In other industries, companies use their corporate social investment programmes to improve their surrounding communities. Train operators in SA have done next to nothing to alleviate the poverty along the lines they serve.
Adopting Harvard-based business academic Michael Porter’s shared value business model could go a long way to changing the nature of poverty and the experience of foreign visitors who travel by train.
Instead of trying to race past the stops with the highest level of discomfort, the rail industry could establish local markets at each station. Poor and marginalised communities could be brought into the mainstream of the economy and the experience of passengers would be enhanced.
Passengers would believe that they were playing a part in building SA. Residents of the towns through which the trains pass would feel they had a future if their products were marketed to the world.
Too often when companies are faced with socioeconomic challenges they point to the pressure they are under from shareholders and say this kind of investment is a distraction from their core focus.
But failure to focus on broader concerns ignores opportunities to enhance product offerings and provide a better experience to customers.
This may mean that all the rail operators have to work together. They may have to put their competitive differences aside and focus on issues that they all face.
There has to be close engagement with the communities they will serve. This is not easy, communities and corporations have their own politics, which may stand in the way of development. Someone in the rail industry has to take the lead if this is to happen. If not, there will be decades of prosperity rolling past the poor and marginalised.