TRAXI Part Four: A personal view of future Mzansi travel

Will long-distance taxi travel be a thing in 2050? This is Mo. He asks the tough questions. So, let’s get the Hanglip crystal ball going.

Morning coffee, rusks, and Mo has posed a toughie. Eish! The dog sneezes, and flops back, his back legs twitching in a dreamy run. ‘Tsa! Tsa!’ hisses Mo.

‘Well’ says Jay. ‘First things first. Will there be petrol and diesel in 2050? We know there will be hydrogen. No shortage of that!’

Mo longs for his pipe. Sighs. Those were the days. He grabs his smartphone from the coffee table. ‘Now, let’s see …’ whipping his fingers across his Korean Oracle of Delphi. ‘Largest oil deposits in the world. Wait! What? Venezuela? Yissus. It says there are trillions of barrels, virtually limitless, but … well, the tech for finding it has improved, but the tech for digging it out, not so much. There’ll come a point when it won’t be worth it.’

‘So much for OPEC’ says Jay. ‘So, let’s agree there will be oil, petrol, diesel’.

‘Ex … pensive, though: says Mo. ‘Eye-watering.’

‘Taxis will definitely be electric’ says Wors. No one wants to speculate on how he got the nickname.

‘Agreed. And taxis will Steer By Wire, and maybe there will be no steering wheel. Lots of unemployed drivers.’

They fall silent. A pair of hoopoos settle on the lawn, bustling about.

Drifting from taxi to buses, Jay inwardly recalls the tragic loss of a composition by Al Cook and Tony Voss, back in Grahamstown days. Composed during a night of joyful boozing, the song told of a white bus driver during apartheid days who had relocated to Makhanda for ‘wife reasons’, only to find that Grahamstown had no white bus service. Slegs Swartes. Tony’s snappy kind of opskud guitar was the tapestry onto which they wrested the lyrics: ‘Die Ballade van die Witbusdrywer’. In the morning they both slunk off quietly to work. Life went on. Mr Bullock, editor of Grocott’s Daily Mail, said: ‘Well, there it is.’ He said that every day. A one-fits-all profundity.

That evening, Tony and Al rendered the raucous chorus ‘Soos die Swart bus draf verby’. Then, aghast, they fell silent and stared at each other. They couldn’t remember anything else – not a word, not a chord, not a note. ‘Korsafoff’ mumbled Al, ‘thou art mighty yet.’ A travesty, the loss of a legitimate, alternatiewe protest song.

Jay suddenly bursts out: ‘It could have been up there with James’s “Hou my vas, korporaal“’.

Nobody has the slightest idea of what he means, so of course the story has to be shared. The shadows on the stoep deepen as the sun arcs overhead.

‘Anyway, whatever became of the song ‘Die Apartheid Ry My Weer’? asks Wors. ‘I heard it many times in old Mafikeng days.’ Nobody answers — they’re lost in their hand-held oracles.

Back to taxis in 2050. ‘There will be platforms,’ says Jay. ‘Platforms, like this.’

He passes his phone around. ‘Car manufacturers will split into platform makers and body makers. The bottom of the car, and the top of the car. Everyone replenished.’ Mo longs for his pipe. Sighs. Those days …

‘And,’ Techno Jay continues, ‘Agreed. No steering wheel. One extra revenue-earning seat! It will park crab-wise. Like this.

Pass the phone along.’

‘It will have in-wheel motors’ says Jay. ‘Remember Saab? ‘Saab is Baas’, was the saying? Good Swedish cars. Like Volvo. Electric motor in the wheel, like this.’

And so it goes, a good morning of top-class Stoep Science. Then Jay asks: ‘Would you like to hear my suggestion for fixing the mail. I mean, the Post Office is cutting 6000 workers!’

‘Go ahead,’ signals Mo. We all want to hear how to fix the mail. Another miracle first for Hanglip Stoep! As it turns out, he did mean the mail, but also the Meyl. And rail.

Smart city: a damming debate

The taxi routes from the Reef to the Transkei are among the busiest in the country. They have little competition. Aspirant train services and start-up airlines have made the news from time to time, but have failed to gather momentum. One train service promised to take people in comfort and safety from East London to Mthatha. A two-hour drive, while the train took all night. That was soon ‘streamlined’ out of the way. The airway went the same way. For years, after the Mine Bosses had finally lost patience with rail, miners were flown to the mines in Dakotas. People didn’t fancy paying for it in seemingly the same old Dakota aircraft with a new coat of paint.

Wanting to travel ‘home’ to rural areas in the provinces: Will that change? It will be all about who can afford what, and it follows it should be about what becomes of the middle class, the bulk of our weekend travellers. The current president has dreamed from the start of his time in office of ‘smart cities’. The obvious site for this is Port St Johns. Since the 1920s, experts have wondered why it is that the Umzimvubu catchment area receives 70 per cent of South Africa’s rainfall, which is then simply allowed to flow into the sea.

Politically, for an old guy like me, what happened or didn’t happen to the Transkei is the strangest thing. For years, the ANC had a Xhosa-speaker identity. Remember the ‘where do you find?’ question-and-answer language group jokes? They were passed around drinking spots for some years early in democracy.

Q: uwatholaphi amaZulu?

A: erenkini.

Q: uwatholaphi amaXhosa?

A: epalamente. … and so on.

Whatever else one could say about the previous National Party government it (mostly bad), it left Afrikaans-speakers and supporters way better off than they had been under Union. The wool boom didn’t hurt.

Everyone I know assumed that the ANC would do the same for its adherents, but there is little or no new development in the Transkei other than housing and some schools. Not a metre of new rail has been laid, and roads, everyone knows, are all about potholes. This is strange, or as Shakespeare might have said, ‘Nay, ‘tis ten times strange.’

Fixing the Meyl

Long-distance taxis will be around in 2050 only if government allows them to be. They will have to be electric or hydrogen-powered to comply with carbon targets. To reach those targets, they will need to get a lot of traffic off the roads and onto rail. They will need to build good and quick rail, because nobody will want to climb onto an old-style mbombela unless it is free or dirt-cheap AND safe.

Poor Old Transkei

The Matatiele line to PMB was a very busy passenger corridor, transporting miners from the Transkei on the first leg of their journey to the Reef. It was a busy freight route too, largely for mine props for the mines. That line owes its existence largely to Reef mining. Typically, it was a slow route: railway old-timers believed the Scottish engineers who built our tracks charged by the yard, making it a cunning way to up the ante, kind of like Eskom paying R84k for kneecap pads.

It was mountainous all the way. The line climbed all the way for the first 60 kilometres to Elandskop, on a grade of mostly 1 in 45, keeping two fireman shovelling their GEA continuously. It was that tough, yes, but there was another reason for the pairing: the GEA class was designed for mechanical stoking, but the stokers were ordered separately. When the shipment arrived, all the stokers were an inch too long or too short. I can’t recall which.

So Elandskop was a stiff pull, or ‘character-building’, as a fellow fireman told me. The stoker equipment on order was not as expensive as Daniel Mthimkhulu’s AFRO 4000 mess, but it led to huge costs in firing wages over decades. Actually, the Kokstad line is just three uphills and three downhills, quite evenly divided into up and down – it’s just that each of those three hills is a massive climb.

It is said that Brunel surveyed the rail route from London to Bristol in six weeks by horseback, submitting his report six weeks after he had dismounted at home. It is about half as far as the PMB–Kokstad route, but a lot easier. At no point did Brunel’s route vary by more than fifteen feet above sea level. No wonder the early Brit surveyors fainted when they cast their eyes over Southern Natal terrain.

The excuse for the winding line was that there was no money for tunnels and bridges, so the curves were necessary to keep to specified grades. I’m not convinced. The mines had endless money. The will to build a straighter line was blunted, because the zeitgeist was typically:

  • They had plenty of time.
  • Passenger rail ran at a loss, so why care?
  • Other transport modes were slower, taking decades to overtake rail.

At the height of Reef mining activity, workers would start in Matatiele or Kokstad and arrive in PMB the next day. From there, it was another overnight trip to the Reef. Two days travelling to the Reef may have been acceptable to mine workers at contract start and end, but it was too long to get home for long weekends. Mine recruiting companies eventually flew workers in Dak transports, but ony at start/end of contract. They did not see the point of flying them home for long weekends. Long-distance taxis and bus travel took that over after apartheid. To this day, transit in this area is sufficiently neglected that the (further) Ciskei is reached quicker than the Transkei. Today, you can reach Queenstown by rail, but not Matatiele.

Trucks that want to be trains

There is another growing issue to deal with in future road use. Convoy trucking. Elon Musk says Tesla semis are designed such that one driver can lead the way with several more Tesla semis slip-streaming one another. This will hugely reduce drag, but will also reduce drivers. With semis being around 20 metres long, imagine a convey of three or more of them snaking along a single carriageway. Will your average holiday passenger car driver want, or even be able, to overtake?

Q; Which will the government kick off the roads? Private cars or truckers?

A: Whatever loses less votes.

Rules may be introduced for long-distance driving, for a few reasons:

There is a world-wide tendency to fail at infrastructure maintenance, so laws will be passed, once quick rail is available, to get private cars off the road. This will simply be because roads will have to be properly fixed or rebuilt for the extra-heavy truck traffic, as there is only so much that can be done to repair potholes.

There may be an exception at holiday periods, such that truckers will go on leave and make way for private vehicles for three weeks at Christmas, and perhaps a week during religious fasts or at Easter. Local rules may apply for the yearly pilgrimage to Moria, for example.

Pollution control will tend to force any or all combustion engines off the road for a start, and forever from around 2040. So, expect harsh laws against anything but electric or pollution-free vehicles.

Inspired by Gautrain, government will dodge some road travel problems by ponying up for fast trains. This will suffice for main Reef to Port destinations, but not for the rest of South Africa – other regions, faraway rural hamlets and dorps.

This leads us at last to my suggestion, Traxi, that will restore passenger rail’s earlier ability to carry passengers to almost every settlement in South Africa, replace hundreds of vehicles carrying the post, and restore the SA Post Office to part of its former glory. To this day, Shosholoza’s weird copywriters (as per Shosholoza Meyl) explain about Shosholoza being a work song, but then spoil their story by saying that the word ‘Meyl’ gives a warm, colloquial sense. They seem utterly unable to link the word to the fact that our trains carried the mail for a century.

Traxi: Taxis on a train, door to door

Earlier in this series, I mentioned that one reason why taxis won out over trains is the door-to-door aspect. Load up at home-home, and unload at other-home. No need to carry kids and baggage on a variety of trips to and from railways stations or airports. So, if I were a PRASA engineer, I would give some thought to using our existing, vanishing Cape Gauge lines to combine taxis and trains.

So there it is: taxis travelling on trains. Actually, it’s not a ground-breaking idea, in the sense that we have the various elements that make up such a system. We already have in place (nothing new to invent):

  • car trains
  • container trains
  • flatbed goods wagons
  • container offices and homes
  • main and branch lines stretching to most corners of the country.
  • power generator wagons supplying electricity to entire trains – vehicles can be charged while on trains, even where there are no overhead wires to steal.

The trains themselves could be based on flatbed container trains, with air brakes, quicker than past train trips limited by vacuum brakes. I am not saying they would be fast. They would not, but they would be very convenient for a family or group, and would especially be safe in the event of a pandemic, when family could just stay in the vehicle, and the system would restore the previous railway operator’s ability to get people almost anywhere in the country.

An advantage from the rail operator’s point of view is that flatbed container wagons are much cheaper to manufacture than passenger coaches. A flatbed wagon is just a steel platform on wheels, with twist locks fittings to secure containers.

A few passenger facilities containers can be slotted between every third or fourth wagon, either as part of a train set, or in the form of a container-coach of toilets, showers, and baby changing cubicles. For refurbishing, just lift it off the flatbed, put another one on, and the train needs little downtime. There could also be a café container next to the toilet container. Same principle. Whereas Shosholoza Meyl coaches have to be withdrawn from service for refurbishing, we would create a whole new industry to make container rail accommodation. Container homes are already a thing, even being used as BnB accommodation.

That’s another possibility. Carriage yards and sidings are unused all over South Africa. You can see them at Nelspoort, Touwsrivier and Hutchinson just to name a few. PMB had a whole hillside of carriage yards in Prestbury, now overgrown with greenery. It has vehicle access, it wouldn’t take much to lead water, and in any case the homes could have chemical toilets. Why not get creative, PRASA and Transnet, and get into housing? There’s money in them thar carriage yards.

Traxis would steer on all wheels, like this.

They would be about four metres long, with up to four of them fitting on a (18.44 metre) flatbed wagon. Reviving unused lines would  open many rural destinations, instead of leaving the track to rust (or be stolen), creating jobs and renewing facilities on neglected devastated old stations. Government made promises about job creation. Here is one way. They could carry both mail and passengers, removing a lot of regional, polluting vehicles from our country roads.

The Traxi could be crab-driven off the wagon on to a platform. Most station platforms already have vehicle access, but building a ramp is simple and cheap. Or, our talented engineering students could design some ramp or means like this to unload or drive the traxi off the train.

Where the destination station is end of the line, Traxis would replace the old RMT (Road Motor Transport), driving to rural settlements up to 150 kilometres from the station terminus (more as batteries improve). At such settlements, community batteries such as those advocated by James Martin should be put in place for recharging, as well as electricity upgrades to faraway settlements and industrial parks.

Consider this for Colesberg. The Traxi would drive off Colesberg station platform, and do the final section by road: by 2050, passenger would choose these options while booking by smartphone, or Google Glasses, or similar. This container train spec would mean a train leaving Johannesburg at around dusk would release its Traxi at Colesberg around dawn for the final drive to Kuyasa, Colesberg, Philippolis, Steynsberg, or any settlements towards Gariep Dam, for example.             

If Traxis still have drivers (unlikely by 2050) and are railway-owned, they could be left on the train by a local driver at the start destination, and met at a destination station by another local driver, instead of a driver going along all the way. Both local drivers would know their local routes without need of a GPS. This would save or create local jobs in places sorely needing them.

Of course, if tyres become puncture-proof, drivers may not be needed at all in the not too distant future. One advantage is that rural stations, currently unserved by passenger rail, could see a return to train travel. Another is that vandalised or demolished rural stations would not need to be rebuilt, other than a ramp or similar for them to join the road from the station. No one would need a ticket office: Traxis could be booked and paid by phone. Passenger train travel would adapt ride-hailing software for reservations. Internet would enable quick recheduling decisions: Are we carrying mail only? Mail and people? People only?

On non-mail destinations, no would train set out unless there were bookings (as with combi taxis). Mail trains would be scheduled.

We’re not talking about anything fancy or difficult to invent. Kenya even allows for Uber by SMS, so people without smartphones can use ride-hailing. Sleepy South Africa has yet to get there. Kenya tends to be ahead of us on electronic innovation. MPESA, the system of paying by phone, comes from Kenya. Places like Nelspoort and Leeu-Gamka, with a return to rail on any scale, will benefit, with tuckshops, accommodation and other businesses getting a shot in the arm. Mail will improve, and jobs be created.


Traxis would mean that whole families could travel safely in a minibus, from door to door, pack and go without lifting or loading any baggage on the way. This mode of travel would remain unaffected by pandemics, with families contained in their own traxi space. The 2020 lockdown is the main reason PRASA gives for suspending its passenger services. This is not strictly true. They lost their operating permit six weeks earlier, when the entire country’s stock of iron brake blocks was stolen. Trains can’t go if they can’t stop.

With local battery storage like those that James Martin is seeing to, there would be local recharge points at most rural destinations. Traxis could recharge at the destination, make their way back to the nearest main line station, and wait to be loaded onto a train back to a city. Installing solar, with batteries, for charging points and dwelling backup is true development. Let’s hope whoever wins the next elections knows that and gets cracking.

Railways as housing schemes

The western end of PMB station led to an entire hillside of sidings where goods wagons and carriages were kept. That entire tract of land is now overgrown. It is difficult from Google Earth to see whether the tracks have been lifted or not, but if they were not, this is an opportunity for housing. All they would need is to run some water into the area. The houses already have airline-style toilets, so there would be no need to install waterborne sewerage.

There are carriage yards like it all over South Africa, most of which have been vandalised to a degree, but there is no reason why Transnet can’t become landlords. There were ‘railway houses’, now sold, at every rural station for decades. Plate-layers and repair gangs lived in zinc shacks, like present-day mkhukhus, placed on goods wagons. If the container housing is actually on container wagons, it need not be temporary housing. With the right kind of ‘stilts’, container houses can be plinthed and the train pulled out from underneath them, leaving them straddling the rails. Just add steps. And solar panels.

This is ideal accommodation for things like arts festivals. It was done for the Makhanda Arts Festival, but with passenger coaches. Everything I write about has been done before; there is nothing new under the sun! The difference with passenger coaches is that they are not available for regular trains while people live in them. A switch to container homes will allow them to be removed, and the flatbeds used for regular freight duty.

Down the road

If South Africa turns the corner, the middle classes increase (and therefore taxes and SARS benefit), there will be money for fast trains and whatever else quick and convenient the future holds, but the great limiter will be legislation forcing us off the roads due to pollution.

FEATURED IMAGE: Minibus taxis in Alexandra, Johannesburg. Instead of competing with trains, argues the author, they should combine forces to form the transport of the future..

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