Transnet has finally pulled the plug on the struggling Outeniqua Choo-Tjoe tourist train, bringing the curtain down on the country’s last scheduled – when it ran – steam-hauled passenger train.
The national rail operator makes no bones about the fact that it wants only to run freight trains and the cash-strapped, money-losing steam-hauled tourist train was put out to tender last year.
Transnet said the tender process failed to turn up a new operator and that train would stop running immediately.
Western Cape tourism minister Alan Winde has promised concerned citizens, local tourism operators and railfans that he would not let the Outneiqua Choo-Tjoe die.
“Despite Transnet’s announcement that they will terminate the Outeniqua Choo-Tjoe train service, I remain resolute in my commitment to reviving it and ensuring that it remains a vital part of the South Cape’s heritage and tourism offering,” he said in a statement.
The trouble is that operating the train seems to have been caught-up in Transnet’s sweeping plan to concession all the non-core branch lines. The line that the train used to run on – from George to Knysa – was battered by floods and landslides in 2006. The R130m repair bill is more than any potential operator could bear.
Meanwhile, the train has been running on an alternative route down the hill from George to Mossel Bay. That line is, I understand, not up for concessioning which means that any operator who wants to run, say, a steam-hauled tourist train on that line will have to pay Transnet a hefty access fee. That’s the nature of the rail business. Thing is, the Outeniqua Choo-Tjoe has bled money for years, partly due to poor marketing and inefficient management – such as refusing to run trains on Sundays – and any operator will have to be pretty nimble to turn its revenues around. Add the access charges and it’s no wonder Transnet can’t find a private operator.
Something needs to happen, and fast. There are a half-dozen steam workable steam locomotives and a rake of passenger coaches that will deteriorate pretty quickly if they are left out in the cold.