The Blue Train

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Britain’s newest train, can be said to be ‘blue in the face’ because its had so many mishaps, its had a considerably poor showing ever since its launch in April 2019. Its ultra-modern coaches and ultra modern interiors with all its mod cons including shoe cleaners, sofas and so on were launched to great fanfare. One question I have wondered is, are they trying to be the Blue Train? Who knows. It does seem the similarity is there, the sleek new blue coaches, the ultra luxury that’s being offered and so on.

This train – as some will realise, happens to be the Caledonian Sleeper – but its not really the ‘Blue Train’ is it? There are other more genuine claims to that name and several countries have their own Blue Trains. The one real Blue Train however has to be this sumptuous hotel on wheels found in South Africa.

The reason for this post really comes about because I received a Blue Train book from the company itself. Not that I’m thinking of going on it! It was received in regards to a request I had made about the Johannesburg to Cape Town line because there is an anniversary on the 3′ 6 inch gauge network I am writing about – possibly some of the pictures in this book might be of use.

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The cover of the book, featuring the train at Cape Town.

The cover of the book is interesting, its a nice picture however there’s no such scene like this. Its a composite image. There is a railway right by the sea leading out of Cape Town however that’s the freight line to the harbour and not only that its double track!

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The view of Table Mountain from the railway alignment. Source: Google Streets

One does get really impressive views of Table Mountain from the train itself but this is from inland rather than along the coast itself. Coming from Johannesburg and the north Table Mountain does become prominent quite a way back up the line and in the last few miles this grand prospect of Table Mountain, Lion’s Head and Signal Hill unfolds.

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The Blue Train 20E locomotive at Worcester in the Cape. Source: Twitter

As the above picture shows the Blue Train has its own locomotives, these are dedicated Class 20Es. Sometimes ordinary 20Es in red livery are however substituted and even the older 18E locomotives get used on it from time to time.

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The Blue Train at Johannesburg station in the colonial days of 1960. The locomotive is a class 6E1. Source: Twitter

The above picture is of interest as it is one published by The Blue Train itself. Its historically significant as the brand new 6E1 locomotives had come into use and the line had been electrified out of Johannesburg. The wires eventually reached De Aar, a distance of approximately 454 miles (757km approx.)

Even though electric trains had been used on the Blue train from as early as 1954 in the Cape, steam has always been the other motive power until the 1990s (especially in the days of pre-electrification across the Karoo.) In fact the former South African Railways (now Transnet) made sure they could place a steam locomotive at the head of their famous long distance express trains whenever possible, the last such regular workings being from Johannesburg to Klerksdorp because it was well known their steam locomotives attracted good publicity.

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The book has a whole page on the train’s history along with a picture of one of the six class 16E 406-2 locomotives specially built for express work on the Johannesburg-Cape Town line. These were quite large locomotives but not the largest which have been seen on the country’s vast 3 foot 6 inch network.

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One of the 16E locomotives on the Blue train leaving Johannesburg, 1969. By J. Stuart Grossert, CC BY-SA 3.0, Wikipedia Link

The Blue Train originally began life as the Union Express and Union Limited however the newer name came in to use in 1946 along with new steel coaches painted in blue.

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One of the train’s smart staff. Source: Twitter

Despite the earlier colonial roots of the line itself and the country’s former divisive masters, the train happens to be one of South Africa’s major icons, and important people such as the country’s first Black president, Nelson Mandela have used the Blue train and this has helped to generate interest.

One of the biggest changes this year has been the re-scheduling of the services so they are no longer five times a week but once weekly due to an apparent decline in long distance train travel. It used to be an overnight journey however its been made into a two nighter (three day journey) and there’s a more tourist aspect to the journey with options to visit for example the Kimberley mine en route.

There are other daily express still on the route however and these are the country’s iconic Shosholoza Meyl trains which run the different routes between the different cities across South Africa.

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Table showing distances between Pretoria and Cape Town. The times are for the Trans Karoo Express however.

The above table is of interest because it shows the distances and heights at the different stations, however this is an old table and it doesn’t reflect sections of line which have been totally rebuilt and shortened. The total distance is now 1590 km – although many sources say ‘1600km’ – which is actually a rounded off number!

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A view from the rear of the Blue train as the sun sets over the line near Beaufort West. Source: Twitter

Blue Train website.

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