September 26th, 2011
It's a postcard-perfect image of South Africa: the antique steam train chugging along the Garden Route, through lush forests, alongside lakes and lagoons, and past pristine beaches.
Pictures may be all that's left of the Outeniqua Choo Tjoe, which hasn't plied its regular route since floods in August 2006 severely damaged the tracks.
The Choo Tjoe - pronounced like choo-choo - was the last regularly scheduled steam train in South Africa, riding for nearly four hours every day but Sunday along 67 kilometres of the southern coast from the Knysna station to the Transport Museum in George.
South Africa, pressed with other priorities, has yet to undertake repairs to the route. The train has tried running different rails to the west of George, but hasn't found a ridership for a less scenic route.
Transnet, the state enterprise that manages the nation's railways, decided to cut its losses a year ago.
"We are very eager to see it resume because it is very important for our heritage and the tourism industry in the area," said Tammy Evans, spokeswoman for the provincial tourism department.
"We have asked to take it over when it closed. We want the line, and we want the train as well," she said.
The Western Cape province and Transnet have held talks on a public-private partnership to revive the line, which could cost up to 200 million rands not including the cost of renovations to the train itself, which is now idle in a nearby "heritage depot".
Transnet says merely that it's "considering options regarding the Outeniqua Choo Tjoe, including the reopening of the line."
"That line was never profitable. It was charitable so to speak," company spokesman Mboniso Sigonyela told AFP.
One Transnet executive, speaking on condition of anonymity, was blunter.
"South Africa has more serious problems to deal with than to finance toy trains for white tourists," he said, noting the still major investment needed in national infrastructure.
But the provincial government believes the train could find a way to pay for itself.
"We are convinced that that train line is so special that it could make a profit," Evans said.
The line used to carry nearly 120 000 passengers a year, mostly foreign tourists who would probably pay more than the roughly R120 that the tickets once cost.
The "Friends of the Choo Tjoe", which is lobbying for the train's return, says two private operators have already expressed interest in taking over the line.
"We are optimistic, but we are feeling a little frustrated by the slow pace of progress," said Fraser Howell, the group's chairman.
The infrastructure could be repaired in phases, starting with short journeys across the Knysna Lagoon, said the group's secretary Kees Estie
"We need to do it now, before the line deteriorates completely," he said.
Knysna is so impatient for the Choo Tjoe to return that it's already developed a new housing and commercial complex that doubles as a marina. It's just next to the train station, if the train ever arrives. - Jean Liou - Sapa-AFP