South Africa’s railway system can be a convenient and relatively inexpensive means of getting around the country – provided you first know what you’re doing.
The general rules to follow when taking South African trains are:
Always travel in a group.
Always travel first class.
Avoid taking city trains (see single exception below); if you must use them, don’t travel before 6 a.m. or after 6 p.m.
Travel with a good store of patience. Trains don’t always run on time, and often make unscheduled stops!
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Now that that’s out of the way, here are a few train facts and specific pieces of advice. There are four railway systems in South Africa for travellers: city trains, long-distance trains, novelty trains and luxury trains.
City trains were developed largely to address the labor needs of cities in apartheid South Africa, and their routes and schedules continue to reflect this history. Many city trains are downright unsafe, and few reach destinations of interest to tourists.
- The only city train SA Blog recommends that visitors take is the Simonstown line, which runs along the False Bay coast between Cape Town central station and Simonstown, stopping at the picturesque fishing village of Kalk Bay. It’s a pleasant trip, and, for those travelling in groups, quite safe. Purchase tickets at Cape Town central station (map) or at any stations on the line (map). Note that the first car on this line is traditionally designated as a smoking car.
- Cape Town Metrorail schedule (for Simonstown line): click here.
- Cape Town Metrorail info: 0800 65 64 63.
Long-distance trains, operating under the name Shosholoza Meyl, take travellers between Cape Town, Johannesburg, Durban, Bloemfontein, the Nelson Mandela Metropole (Port Elizabeth) and East London, and can make for pleasant overnight journeys, especially for those travelling in groups. (Note: as of 1 May 2006, the Shosholoza Meyl no longer runs to Pretoria.)
- Shosholoza Meyl Homepage
- Shosholoze Meyl Routes & Fares
- Central reservations: +28 (0 86 000 8888 or +27 (0) 11 774 4555
- Groups of two or more should book out 4-bunk sleepers. 4-bunk sleepers are “first-class” cabins; two bunks per wall, one above the other. They’re very basic but reasonably comfortable, and warm bedding is provided in the evenings.
- Shosholoze Meyl dining car food is grim; pack a supper!
- Book a special “Premier Classe” trip from Cape Town to Pretoria for travel that’s a cut above normal Shosholoza Meyl service.
A trip on one of South Africa’s luxury trains ranks as a “once in a lifetime” experience – both because of what you’ll see and what you’ll pay!
Fun for the whole family – help SA Blog flesh out this section with your novelty train tips!