If the walls of The Blue Train could talk, they would better than many, tell of a history of one of the most beautiful countries in the world, whose beauty preserved in the face of adversity. The story of this beautiful country is parallel to that of The Blue Train, and such, as is with South Africa, sustaining and preserving the charm therein is a balancing act. For any discerning traveler, walking through the compact corridors of this 73-year old national treasure, peeking out into the splendor of our countryside, understanding the complex history through which this beauty has lived is a deeply contemplative act.
That The Blue Train is a time capsule is putting it mildly. And it’s not about the décor that harks to a certain era, but rather that The Blue Train has been a constant presence in the annals of our history. In 1946, the name mark, ‘The Blue Train,’ came to life. This was after World War II, when many western countries were rebuilding and trying to move forward. For us in South Africa, our heartbeat was different. Jan Smuts was Prime Minister and we were heading for the pits of the anti-apartheid struggle. The mineworkers strike of 1946 that shifted the struggle progression from a policy discussion to militant engagement happened. Then ANC President Dr. A. B. Xuma attended the first session of the UN General Assembly. Oliver Tambo was elected into the Transvaal Executive of the ANC. Rev. John Dube, founder of the ANC, died. Steve Bantu Biko was born. And I was not even born yet. This nation treasure was there and has meandered through time, seen the progression of our country into democracy.
Even with all this history, The Blue Train still echoes a sector that has long been shrouded in delicious mysteries, thanks to English literature and Hollywood. The most well-known mystery is best captured in Agatha Christie’s Orient Express, a luxury train which would travel from Paris to Istanbul. Antebellum America gave us the luxury train as a heightened tour bus experience – a boudoir on the rails, as blues matriarch Bessie Smith and her mentor before her, Ma Rainey, went from city to city performing at blues revivals. In South Africa, trains for us are about going home. Whether its commuting or long distance. They reacquaint us with the beautiful expanse of land around us, while always taking us home – either the home where we were born and bred, or the home where we live and work as adults. Perhaps even the ‘home’ in our minds – the safe space we retreat to when we enjoy solitude. Where one is, trains connect us to places, to other travelers and to ourselves, and aboard The Blue Train, we have centred on that human truth.
Late last year, we repositioned The Blue Train, reimagining it for an evolved, discerning traveler and business leader. At the centre of this repositioning is a meditation on time, and what that means to people today. Whether it’s the individual leisure traveler escaping to afford themselves time to contemplate and recuperate, or it’s a business escaping the freneticism of everyday life. It’s all about connecting with oneself, with travel companions, with new friends, or with colleagues. With that meditation came the opportunity to elevate The Blue Train’s offering. On top of the luxury sound-proofed, individually airconditioned suites, dedicated 24h service butlers, silver service gourmet meals, unlimited range of fine wines and spirits, Cuban cigars, more was done. The main route, which is Pretoria – Cape Town was slowed down so that the journey would take longer – from one night with an intended off-train excursion in Kimberley to two nights with a guaranteed excursion in Kimberley. And then to season the elevated experience, entertainment on board such as live music, poker table, black jack and roulette were added. What had long been known as a five-star hotel on wheels evolved to becoming a five-star resort on wheels – the journey continued to be the destination, except better.
The response to date has been phenomenal. Award-wining even. At the 2019 Public Relations Institute of South Africa PRISM Awards, The Blue Train’s repositioning was awarded a bronze award in the Travel and Tourism practice. At the 2019 World Travel Awards, The Blue Train was awarded – for the fourth consecutive time and the 11th time, the award for Africa’s most luxurious train. At the 2019 Diners Club Winelist Award, The Blue Train was awarded diamond status for its phenomenal winelist. These accolades echo the exponential increase in business received to date, from individual and business travelers alike.
The interest from business has been phenomenal too, with leading brands such as L’Oreal, Rolls Royce, Boschendal partnering and hosting events on board the train. Along with that development, it has been incredible to see a more diverse demographic emerging, increasing from 10% local tourists to 40%. This exciting evolution has been brought to life by a team of energetic South Africans from all walks of life. In 2018, The Blue Train took on its first group of interns from tertiary institutions in South Africa. These young future hoteliers are connecting daily, and learning from seasoned hospitality experts who have been at the helm of The Blue Train for decades. That is a jump-start to their careers, and why not at one of the most awarded luxury trains in the world.
Through this evolution, the most amazing revelation is that to contemporize The Blue Train is to open access for people to experience the best of South African hospitality. If not on the main trip between Pretoria and Cape Town, then to the Kruger National Park, to Hoedspruit, or around Pretoria or Cape Town for a private dinner charter for that special corporate gala dinner. Or that special strategy session or board meeting on any route along South Africa’s railway network. What we have done and continue to do is to invite the world on board, to afford them time to connect and surrender to the luxury of slow.
So, trains continue to mean more to us than just moving from A to B. They are home. And a way to home. And The Blue Train is indeed a destination, and a way to a destination. Much like South Africa – a beautiful country, always on its way to being better, for all South Africans.
By Vincent Monyake, Executive Manager at The Blue Train