History of the Blue Train

Old photo of the Blue Train.
The Blue Train is unique it is not merely a train but combines the luxury of the world's leading hotels with the charm of train travel.

The journey of a lifetime

Think of this experience as an all inclusive luxury rail cruise with an opportunity to view South Africa's spectacular landscapes and visit interesting tourist attractions along the way.This unique luxury recreation and business experience takes you where you want to go in an endless, five-star splendour. It pauses only to pick up prestigious World Travel awards for being a cut above the rest and the Diner's Club accolade for its connoisseur selection of South African wines.The Blue Train cuisine puts sheer good taste on a plate while butler personal attention puts you on a pedestal.

History Steeped in Tradition

Southbound, the train with its distinctive sapphire-blue carriages, was known as the 'Union Limited', and on its return journey, the 'Union Express'.

People soon began referring to them as 'those Blue Trains' and so... a legend was born. The Blue Train celebrated its 50th anniversary in February 1996. Although officially named The Blue Train in 1946, the train's enthusiasts trace its history to the 1890's and the discovery of diamonds and gold.Before the turn of the century, advertisements, offering direct-route journeys to the gold and diamond fields of South Africa, were couched invitingly: 'England to Johannesburg in 19 days, the first 17 across the ocean on board a Union or Castle line vessel to Cape Town, the remaining 2 on a train steaming through mountains and valleys and over the South African veld to Kimberley and the Reef.'It is not difficult to imagine what conditions must have been like on these early trains. The extremes of heat and cold, the dust, the multiplicity of insects and the smoke and coal dust from the locomotive would all have added up to an experience of tedious discomfort,' writes author David Robbins in The Blue Train (Viking).But the accommodation and level of passenger comfort on the trains soon improved as the first years of the 20th century brought a new breed of trains which were considered to be the most luxurious anywhere in the world at the time.These were the luxury precursors of today's Blue Train. While the hoi polloi roughed it with smut in the eye, prospectors and men of means were able to disembark at Table Bay and climb straight onto a train which boasted showers, washrooms, electric lighting, fans, oak-paneled dining saloons, smoking and card rooms. The Imperial Mail and the African Express were among the lines which provided these special services.At the same time Cecil John Rhodes, who built his influence and wealth on the Kimberley diamond fields and who founded the De Beers Mining Company in 1880, was forging ahead with his dream of 'painting the map red', an euphemism for extending the British Empire.His dream was of a Trans-African railway between Cape Town and Cairo. Although this never materialized, he achieved the construction of a line between South Africa and, the then Congo Free State, formerly known as Zaire, now the Democratic Republic of the Congo.Soon after the turn of the century, the railway line from Cape Town reached Victoria Falls, enabling the luxurious Zambezi Express to make excursions there as The Blue Train does now, almost a century later. The Imperial Mail and the African and Zambezi Express trains were on par for comfort and champagne service.By the early 1920s, however, the luxury Cape Town to Johannesburg trains were called the Union trains, with the Union Express running from Cape Town to the Reef and the Union Limited travelling the return route. Their accommodation became even more luxurious and spacious with the introduction in 1928 of articulated coaches equipped with heating, hot and cold water, bunk lights and bells for the summoning of the coach attendant.In 1933, a new dining saloon called Protea was introduced on the Union trains. The new coach and attendant kitchen car were advanced in design and had revolutionary suspension. To demonstrate the smooth-running qualities of these coaches, a glass of water was filled to within 6,4 millimeters (0,2 in) of the brim during a test run. After more than 190km (118 miles) travelling at considerable speed, not a drop had been spilt.The exterior of Protea was finished in very distinctive colours: azure and cream with a silver roof. By 1936, both the Union Express and Union Limited were painted in the same livery. Three years later, new train sets made in England were placed in service. Luxury all-steel, air- conditioned trains, they were finished in blue and grey and became even more popularly known as 'those blue trains'.

World War II caused a suspension of service which was only resumed in 1946.

'The Blue Trains re-emerged as the premier express between the mail-boats in Cape Town and the industrial and economic hub of the country some 1 600 kilometers (994 miles) to the north- east. Only this time, the locomotives which hauled them carried a new name board: Blue Train,' writes Robbins.Steam reluctantly gave way to electrification and diesel as the grand all-steel blue icon adapted to progress, tirelessly journeying backwards and forwards. More and more people booked on The Blue Train for the sheer pleasure of the experience rather than the business orientation of its early history.But time and wear was taking its toll on the grand old train and in 1965, the decision to build a new Blue Train was taken by railways management and detailed design specifications were prepared. The opening paragraph of the specification document summed up the intent as follows: 'These trains are to be of a standard of luxury and quality of material and workmanship equal to the best in the world.'Tenders came in from all over the world but it was the South African Union Carriage & Wagon Company outside Nigel (45km or 28 miles - east of Johannesburg) that won the commission in 1968. While the new train was being created, a Blue Train Anniversary Special set off on a historic run from Johannesburg to Cape Town on April 11, 1969. It was a memorable occasion with two mighty old steam steeds - the 16E 855 and 16E 859 - resurrected to pull the train.The sense of gaiety on the platform next to the locomotive was briefly tempered by a scene, both heart warming and nostalgic. A contingent of retired drivers had formed up alongside the 16E to have a group photograph taken. Most of these men had, in their day, driven The Blue Train or its predecessors like the Union Limited. What memories must have come rushing through their minds as they saw a steam locomotive once again at the head of South Africa's crack express.The second generation Blue Train was completed in 1972. It became a symbol of luxury, sophistication and technological progress. Largely constructed by South Africans, the train incorporated the latest railway technology from Britain and Germany.Beyond the technology, The Blue Train's reputation for comfort, excellent service, food, punctuality, Irish linen, crystal and silverware in the heart of some of the world's most rugged and spectacular scenery, soon spread around the world.But in 1995, after 25 years of service, the time had come to build a new Blue Train. On August 1st, 1997, the third incarnation of The Blue Train glided out of Cape Town station heralding a new era in the history of luxury train travel. On 5 October 1998, the second new Blue Train commenced from Pretoria.

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View Blue Train routes to experience this historic luxury South African train.
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