Saturday, October 16, 2021

Journey in comfort with BR Express, I say

‘‘The train is very addictive. Ride once and you will forever want to ride”, Botswana Railways Chief Executive Officer Dominic Ntwaagae had warned me. When the government of Botswana instructed Botswana Railways to bring back the passenger train, Ntwaagae and his team decided to not just bring back the train but to evolve the rail travel. 

‘‘We wanted a whole new experience for our passengers”, the BR boss said.  In one of the previous interviews that I had with him, Ntwaagae had pointed out that there was no how he could spend so many years studying trains in Canada and not come back home to give Batswana a taste of first-world rail transport. 

‘‘I want our passengers to travel in comfort and dignity’, he had said. Amidst negative publicity, Botswana Railways re-launched the passenger train, now christened BR Express, on March 22, 2016. 

I was booked for the night train that leaves Gaborone at 9.25pm, on a Tuesday. On the day of my scheduled journey, I received a text message from BwRail portal that read: ‘‘Thank you for booking with BR Express. Ref No 1074232. For more info call 3951401/2413444”. All passengers that book with BR Express get confirmation text message prior to departure. This initiative is standard practice with BR Express and is one of the many services that distinguish the new train from the previous one, which was commonly known as the “Blue Train”. 

I am bad with time and as always, I was running late for the 9:25 pm departure. By the time I got to the Gaborone station, the train was already sounding the horn to warn of its imminent departure. I first had to find parking space for my car before I could board the train. 

This endeavour turned out to provide my first experience of the BR Express customer service and hospitality. Khumo Dikgang, Managing Director of Wess Security Services, a company contracted by Botswana Railways to provide security services to BR Express, directed me to a parking space and ordered his security guards to keep an eye on my car until my return. I later learned he is at the station every day when the train departs, to ensure all security measures are adhered to. 

Even as I was booked at First Class (sleeper coach), I harboured no intentions of sleeping during the journey. I was there to experience the train; from the head to the tail. I was there to observe and experience the different classes offered by the BR Express train.  Exactly 9.25pm and the train takes off from the Gaborone station. Our expected time of arrival in Mahalapye is 12.41am. Yep, 12:41am.

 My hosts, the bubbly hostesses Lorato Samuel and the energetic security officer, Orapeleng Gaenewe, escort me to my designated ‘room’ at the First Class coaches. 

Their warm reception is humbling. First Class is ideal for travellers who want some peaceful sleep during the journey. It has sleeper couches and bunk beds, nicely made up with white linen. Each apartment is fitted with individual washing basin/sink that runs both hot and cold water. 

There are power sockets for charging electronic gadgets such as cell phones, iPads and laptops. There is Wi-Fi (internet) on board. The entire train is fully air-conditioned and as such there is no provision for opening the windows. 

I leave my phone charging and move on to the next class, the Business Class. Gaenewe assures me that the phone is very safe even as I leave it unattended in my apartment.  Security is one of the measures that have been seriously enhanced with the new train. Unlike in the past where people could just hop onto the train without prior booking, with BR Express you need to buy your ticket in advance and provide your personal details. 

The BR CEO says they do this so as to account for all their passengers in cases of emergency. You provide personal details the same way you do when you purchase tickets with airliners.

 The Business Class offers an atmosphere that is very conducive for people who want to relax or work on the go. The seats are plush and well padded. In fact, they are more comfortable than those of some of the aircrafts I have flown in before. I am told just one seat costs a whopping P120 000. I was saddened therefore to see one of the seats damaged in what appears like it was slashed by a sharp instrument. 

It is such a pity that while Botswana Railways went all out to procure these expensive and comfortable seats, some irresponsible passengers find no shame in damaging these state-of-the-art amenities.  

The coaches are fitted with flat-screen television sets with very good surround-sound system. The train looks very neat and well kept, thanks to a cleaning company that has been engaged by Botswana Railways to maintain the cleanliness of the train. There are Board Rooms in the train that can accommodate up to six people. Yes, business meetings can be held while travelling. The train is also equipped with a Public Address System for any announcements that may be made by BR personnel. 

 There is also a cafeteria where passengers can purchase various foods and drinks. Currently, the cafeteria only sells non-alcoholic beverages but BR officials have hinted at the possibility of selling alcohol once all proper arrangements are in place to accommodate alcohol consumption on board. 

I also had the opportunity to tour the economy class, or standard sitter as they are now referred. The sitting arrangement is very much different from that of the old train where people shared just one wide seat. With BR Express, each passenger has their individually detached seat. 

The economy coaches too, are fitted with television sets and no passengers are allowed to travel standing. Once all seats are sold out, no passengers are allowed to board the train. This arrangement provides more ventilation and ensures there is no overcrowding which often led to thieves taking advantage to pick-pick. 

 I was then taken to the cargo coaches where assortments of goods are stacked nicely for their final destination. The locomotive is operated by two people and it was pleasing to learn that Botswana Railways has now trained women drivers who are already on duty. 

During the journey, I spoke to some of the passengers to get their views on the BR Express and they, in overall, gave the thumbs-up to the new train and all that it offers.  

I had laughed when I was told the train would arrive in Mahalapye at 00:41 because I just couldn’t understand why they had to give such a seemingly exact time. Well, at exactly 00:41 the train halted at Mahalapye station where I found BR Communications Manager Kebabonye Morewagae waiting to take me to the hotel. 

‘‘We are very strict with adherence to scheduled time because we don’t want our passengers to be unable to give those who are picking them up the exact time of arrival”, he says with assured confidence. Travelling with BR Express is total bliss. I rode once and I am hooked.

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