Complete 1,300 word article, more pictures available


By Michael Algar

Pretoria, R.S.A. Acclaimed by some as the world's leading luxury train, the Blue Train lives up to its reputation in every way, despite being only three-quarters the size of such rivals as the Orient Expresses and India's Palaces on Wheels. Not an inch of space is wasted. Everything has been designed for maximum efficiency and comfort for the no more than 76 or 84 passengers, depending on the train. There are in fact two Blue Trains, each one carrying a hospitality crew of 29 butlers, waiters, barmen, chefs and managers. As well, there are two technicians who keep watch on the train's many internal systems, and two locomotive drivers who are relieved along with locomotive changes at various points along the way.

Room service is immaculate with all the touches expected of a first class hotel or cruise ship, including laundry and valet services, even shoe shining. In their room, passengers can to take charge of their own comfort with a remote control that operates everything from television and radio to temperature and window blinds' angle.

The dining room serves superb meals, including such South African specialities as crayfish tails and springbok steaks, all freshly prepared with crisp salads, vegetables and local fruit. South African wines, selected by an acknowledged expert from hundreds of local vintages accompany the meals and your waiter is only too pleased to help with your selection. For example, when I asked for a South African port to accompany the cheese selection, Jeremia, our butler gently insisted I try something different: a Constantia dessert wine. Coffee and liqueurs are served in the two lounges, one of which is a smoking car and provides excellent complementary Cuban cigars, while our butlers assemble beds concealed during the day in the cabin walls. Those same beds were returned to their daytime position while we breakfasted the following morning.

Our adventure started at 10 am on a Monday morning in Cape Town's central station. Luggage was whisked away and we were ushered into the spacious Blue Train departure lounge, where our butlers for the trip were circulating with champagne and canapés. As the train glided out of the station we took up our seats in the observation car for views of the port city, with Table Mountain as a breathtaking back-drop. Soon, with the mountain view receding, we entered the Paarl valley with its vineyards and orchards and pretty villages of white-clad houses, and flowers growing everywhere.

Lunch time brought us to the farms of the beautiful Hex River Valley, surrounded by the blue Drakenstein Mountains. When the landscape was interrupted by a series of tunnels we emerged to find ourselves in an entirely different landscape. Now, 3,000 feet above sea level we had arrived on the edge of the Karoo, that vast plateau of semi-desert which covers two-thirds of South Africa.

A vista of sand, rocks and low shrubs, the Karoo seemed almost devoid of life. We saw only a couple of zebras but none of the Merino sheep which graze here and which provide the famed Karoo lamb which graced the lunch menu.

Late afternoon brought us to Matjiesfontein and an hour-long visit to this living museum, a Victorian town which had been developed as a health resort for those in need of the warm, dry air. While others explored the town, I made a quick tour of the railway museum then met with one of the train's technicians, who was only too happy to tell me some its inner secrets. I was surprised when Henk told me that three different sets of electric locomotives, which receive current from overhead cable are employed on various divisions along the way, while one stretch uses diesel power. While capable of higher speeds, all maintain a standard speed of 60 miles per hour.

Our train was completely rebuilt in 1995, while her sister went into service three years later. As well as a completely renovated interior, mechanical improvements included a suspension and coupling system similar to that used on Japan's high speed trains to provide a vibration-free ride. Train sets comprise 11 guest cars, staff and baggage cars as well as lounges, the dining car and kitchen and a power car with two diesel generators, of which one is always on standby, to provide lighting, heat and cooling, while the kitchen uses propane stoves and microwaves. Each compartment has its own air circulating system and temperatures are maintained at around 70degF, but floor heating units can deal with any cold spell.

South Africa's train services started in the 1860's when the overland journey by ox-cart from Cape Town across the uninviting Karoo to what was soon the become the gold and diamond rich Reef took as long as the sailing ship voyage from England to the Cape. Soon, railway developers adopted a 3 ft 6 in gauge as being more economical and suitable for the mountainous terrain than the world standard of 4 ft 8in thus posing some challenges for future passenger train designers.

Those first steam trains would run the thousand mile journey from Cape Town to Johannesburg and Pretoria in two days, but they were dirty and uncomfortable, alternatively too hot or too cold. Since the increasingly wealthy class was prepared to pay for the kind of service they had experienced as first class passengers on mail ships to the Cape, the railways responded with one-class Limited Expresses and, in 1928, articulated trains with dining cars and other facilities were introduced. With a blue and cream livery in place of the lines' drab brown, they became known as "those blue trains."

After World War 11, the now formally named Blue Trains evolved into what we experienced today, but the advent of air transportation very much changed their purpose. Today's service is a tourist attraction, limited to a three trips each week between Cape Town and Pretoria, as well as the weekly "Garden Route" train to Port Elizabeth. Sadly, the political climate has led to suspension of the international service from Pretoria, through Botswana and Zimbabwe to Victoria Falls, but there is an occasional charter service between to Pretoria and Hoedsprit close to the game reserves bordering the Kruger Park.

Breakfast found us a mile above sea level when we passed through many communities, some prosperous, some with abandoned railway stations. Approaching Pretoria, shanty towns show an entirely different side of South Africa from the luxurious Blue Train.

Rates start at $1,300 for two persons occupying one room, or $1.,000 for one person, but an overnight hotel stay at the destination is included and discounts on other bookings in South Africa are available. Expensive, yes, but there is no better all-inclusive way to travel from the Cape to Pretoria and the nearby game reserves and parks. Doing it again, though, I would probably substitute the return journey from Pretoria because it provides a brief excursion to Kimberley and the huge mine that played such an enormous role in South Africa's prosperity. A small thing, perhaps, but I would be sure to take an overnight bag for use on board, stowing the rest of our gear in the baggage car. (Really those are 3/4 size cabins.)

IF YOU GO: For more information on the Blue Trains, visit and for information on South Africa visit or or contact South African Tourism, 500 Fifth Avenue; Suite 2040 New York NY 10110, tel 212-730-2929