Rovos Rail founder Rohan Vos.
Rovos Rail founder Rohan Vos.
Image: Judd van Rensburg

It’s a sophisticated spot, the Rovos Rail departure lounge at Cape Town Station: cut-crystal glasses, finger sandwiches, and a string duo playing light classics.

Monday morning and Rohan Vos, suit and tie neatly in place, breezes in to bid the few dozen — mostly foreign — passengers farewell. The founder of luxury-train operator Rovos Rail makes a point of seeing off each departure, for after three decades in the rail business Vos still believes in the personal touch.

Rewind 30 years or so, and Vos wasn’t yet a train enthusiast, his experience limited to riding steam services between boarding school in Cape Town and his home in Delareyville, where his father was a doctor. “It was a tiny town in the ‘Mealie Triangle’, but a great place to grow up,” chuckles Vos.

That was in the late 1950s. It was only decades later, raising a family in Witbank and running a string of businesses in the automotive industry, that the rumble of a steam locomotive fired Vos’ imagination. The nearby mines were selling off their redundant engines and a staff member asked Vos to help found, and fund, a steam-preservation society.

“At first we just ran the train up and down to entertain people. Then I thought it might be fun to buy myself a few carriages and run a family train for a holiday,” Vos says. High tariffs charged by the railway authorities quickly scuppered that plan, but they made one allowance: Vos was allowed to sell tickets. “Overnight it went from being a hobby to being a business,” says Vos, now in his early 70s.

That first train ran on 29 April 1989, with seven carriages and just four paying passengers. Today Rovos Rail has 440 staff sending 130 coaches clickety-clacking along more than 300 000km of track each year.

“But running a railway is a complicated and expensive business, and the learning curve was steep,” Vos recalls. He misjudged demand for travel to the Lowveld, and though the launch of journeys between Cape Town and Pretoria drummed up passengers, the train still ran at a loss.

“In the first five years I lost a lot of money, in fact, everything,” Vos says. “At the end of 1993 I nearly went bankrupt. The banks were on my back.” It was the launch of journeys to Victoria Falls in 1994 that saved the business. Vos rapidly grew his fleet of coaches to meet growing demand.

Running a railway is a complicated and expensive business, and the learning curve was steep. In the first five years I lost a lot of money, in fact, everything
Rohan Vos

But the good times weren’t to last. Former Zimbabwean president Robert Mugabe’s land grabs in 2000 saw bookings for the lucrative Victoria Falls route fall 60%, cutting overall turnover 40%.

Rovos Rail diversified by offering golf tours and expanded into Namibia, and the business slowly recovered. By 2006, demand for Victoria Falls returned, but there were more challenges waiting down the line. In 2008, 12 carriages burnt in the Rovos depot at Capital Park station, while a derailment near Centurion in 2010 claimed the lives of three staff members. The 2008 global financial crisis also hit the business, bringing yet another shortage of well-heeled passengers.

But Vos seems a pragmatic optimist at heart, and since 2012 Rovos Rail has been on an even keel, putting cash away for a rainy day and extending its fleet. In 2016, Rovos Rail also took over the rolling stock, brand, and staff of rail-operator Shongololo Express, steadily integrating the two operations into aligned, but stand-alone products.

Keeping trains running on time is an uphill battle in South Africa though, with frequent — and lengthy — delays due to signal failure and cable theft. They’re an irritation for high-rolling guests paying north of R20 600 for their journey, but they also leave Rovos Rail out of pocket as overtime and staff costs kick in.

After 30 years of juggling such concerns, you could forgive Vos for running out of steam. Instead, he’s stoking the boiler to inaugurate a new route. This July a Rovos Rail train will depart from Dar es Salaam in Tanzania. Its destination? Across Tanzania, Zambia, and the Democratic Republic of the Congo to the Angolan port city of Lobito, 15 days and more than 3 000km away.

“Immigration has been our biggest headache, because people need visas, and some of the border posts are in the middle of bloody nowhere,” says Vos, who has made multiple trips north to smooth out bureaucratic red tape.

There’s frustration, but I sense he relishes the challenge. Why else would he fly out (incidentally, Vos is a qualified pilot and owns a Lancair IV) to negotiate with immigration officials and test-ride the track on a rustic trolley-train.

“A passenger train has never — ever — run from Dar es Salaam to Lobito,” says Vos with a smile. “We’ll be the first passenger train to run from one side of Africa to the other.”

 From the May edition of Wanted 2019.

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