Rebuilding Foundations

An exploration of international development work in Africa

Train Tickets

Scheduling is impossible in ZA.  I’m a visual person: I like to see a calendar with events and times.  In my head I plan my days as coloured blocks, like that Microsoft scheduling program.  It throws me off when I don’t know how much time something is going to take.  I don’t to know down to the minute, but I like having an approximate range.

For example, it usually takes me 20 minutes to drive to jujitsu so I give myself 30 minutes.  Fifty percent extra time should be adequate planning, right?  Yesterday it took 50 minutes because two traffic lights were not working.  The first was at a major intersection at the highway entrance so the typical four-way stop procedure turned into a messy eight-way stop.

Another example: the train station is 5 blocks from my office and I thought I could go and book tickets during my lunch break.  Nope.  Last Friday it took me two hours to book train tickets.  In a more efficient system I wouldn’t have even had to physically go to the train station.

I wanted to book two tickets to Durban.  Durban is ZA’s third largest city and its biggest port.  Interestingly, it has the largest Indian/capita population in the world outside of India itself!  Another Canadian intern and I wanted to get out of Joburg to eat Indian food and lie on the beach for the long weekend.

South Africa’s major cities

Like most things I plan, it was a last minute trip.  I asked her on Wednesday if she wanted to join me, thinking we’d drive there.  After she did some research we decided to take the train Friday night and fly back Monday morning instead.  We bought our plane tickets Friday, but then found out the train was already booked up.

She phoned the customer service line to see if there was any way she could buy tickets.  She was on hold for half an hour before she gave up.

The train station is close to MHA’s office so I walked there during my lunch break to beg for tickets.

This is how my conversation with the ticket agent went:

Me: “I’d like to book two tickets to Durban for tonight.”
Her: “It’s full.”
Me: “So there’s no way we can take the train to Durban tonight?”
Her: “No because it’s full.”
Me: “Is there any sort of waitlist?”
Her: “No.”
Me: “What if someone doesn’t show up?  Is there any way to purchase a ticket when the train is leaving?”
Her: “That never happens.  But if someone didn’t come we cannot resell their ticket.  Our computer won’t let us since it’s already registered as sold.”
Me: “So the train would leave with empty seats?”
Her: “Yes but that never happens.”
Me: “What about Premier tickets?” [First class tickets]
Her: “There are six of those left.”
Me: “For tonight?”
Her: “Yes.”
Me: “So I can buy two Premier tickets for tonight?”
Her: “Yes.”

I have quickly learned that you have to ask about every possible option here!

Premier tickets cost R990 – a LOT more than the normal price of R270.  But we thought it was worth taking the 13 hour train ride that left at 6:30pm instead of the 10 hour bus ride that left at 11pm despite the extra cost. 

Buying the tickets, however, was a whole new adventure!  This is the part that took over an hour. 

The agent’s credit card machine was not working so we went on a grand tour of the train station to try all the other machines.  The first one was turned off and she could not figure out how to turn it back on.  Then she took me to an ATM, but my credit card can’t draw money from ATMs here.  Then she called her supervisor and asked if we could pay when we returned later to get on the train.  She argued on my behalf, saying “But it’s our machines that aren’t working.  She shouldn’t be punished for that.”  No dice.  We walked around and talked to her colleagues.  They told her about another machine to try.  We walked into the train unloading area – very dodgy!  If someone wanted to mug me, that would have been the area to do it.  But this machine worked, even though it looked like something that had survived a spaceship crash.  Success!

It took two hours to buy two train tickets.  On the positive side, the ticket agent was very helpful and apologetic.  She could have given up instead of walking me around the train station.  At least her customer service skills were effective.

I kept telling her to stop apologizing, that it wasn’t her fault that the machines didn’t work.  Maybe that’s why she got nicer and nicer as we explored the station.

On the other hand, read about my friend’s experience trying to buy train tickets in India.  My incident was not near as frustrating.

For future reference, it’s definitely worth traveling First Class!  I’d never done it before and it was amazing.  We got to wait for the train in the special Premier Lounge.  Snacks were provided: cheese platters, crackers, nuts, dried meat.  Of course, I attempted to eat R520 worth of brie cheese to make up for the extra ticket cost.

But even without the cheese, it was still worth it!  Normal tickets only provide a seat (not even a bed), but we got our own room, free champagne, a 5-course dinner, breakfast, and shower facilities.  We arrived 8am feeling rested and refreshed in central Durban instead of stumbling off a plane feeling outside the city feeling dehydrated and tired.

Our private room

Dinner spread and new friends

Plus it the train’s timing was accurate enough to fit nicely into my schedule.  Definitely worth it!


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