DOING THE DISTANCE: LONG DISTANCE MASS TRANSIT SERVICE DESIGN IN SA

Major cities in SA endure a persistent flux of rural-urban and urban-rural mobility. Whether for tourism, commerce or migration the role of passenger transport cost and service quality demand attention.

Within the context of the Integrated Urban Development Framework (IUDF) the rapid urbanisation and associated gross value added are biproducts of active rural landscapes. At the same time, domestic tourism circulates economic activity and opportunities for all metropolitan areas in SA. The connection is also cross pollinated across intra-urban and intra-rural commerce, migration and tourism. A major factor enabling or discouraging such circulation, especially across regions, is the related transport costs and the service design thereof.

Although metros expand their capacity for urban mobility through BRT, railway upgrades and seamless services. But in terms of regional mobility and cross-pollination, metros have yet to make clear efforts toward seamless, integrated and high quality long distance mobility in SA. This also limits potential for much needed cultural exchange and other co-benefits in a diverse and geopolitically spread country.

Park Station November 2016, @ohmokwena

Over the last couple of months I’ve been making trips to Durban to visit my partner, attend some meetings and participate in courses. The most recent visit was an academic trip with colleagues on the Primiere Classe Train. This article comes from conversations, experiences and observations.

To keep this article simple, I’ll be discussing some travel time, cost and service design issues for the transit options that carry more than 35 passengers per trip. Long distance taxi and other modes are excluded from this version of the article. My concerns are related to the value proposition many metros are missing out on in their transport functions in the long distance mobility context.


A view of the Golden Mile in Durban shot from the Blue Waters Hotel in November 2016 Ofentse Hlulani Mokwena

Durban is the capital city KwaZulu Natal which absorbs the largest influx of domestic tourists and families during the festive seasons. The Golden Mile, a 6km stretch was rated the most overcrowded beach in the world in 2014 by the Huffington Post. Most domestic tourists trips toward Durban probably fill up in Joburg. In this piece all the prices are based on off-peak services for a trip to Durban from Joburg. But this can be transferred to other cities too (which is forthcoming).

Park Station in the City of Joburg is a major transit interchange in South Africa. It is a hub for regional, intercity and local transport services — in practice it is an airport for land based transport services.

Price

Long distance mobility options in SA are priced competitively in a market of mixed segments — this is not necessarily equitable. The bus options spike at just under R370 for an overnight trip (550km) with a bus operator offering a cup of tea, a seat, toilet, aircon and a reliable service (i.e. Greyhound which is my favourite at the moment).

Shosholoza Meyl a rail based option is R330 for a basic trip to the same destination. The Premiere Classe, for the same trip costs R 1 230 per person including a light snack at the exclusive lounge, dinner on the train and an early breakfast. Both rail trips are overnight.

The Chef on the Primere Classe train @ohmokwena

Booking a refundable 13:00 flight two weeks before the trip costs about R1000 (R650 is the ticket price) with a light meal and a two hour flight time. The full cost of the flight trip including a Gautrain trip from Park Station to the airport (R162); and an Uber ride to Durban city center ranging between R270–R370 adds up to at least R1432. The total travel time is approximately four to five hours.

Service

A typical bus trip involves booking online and redeeming the voucher at retail outlets — or buying directly from the outlets. Smart lifestyle insurance companies have leveraged on this by offering discounts on reliable long distance buses — see the relationship between Greyhound and Discovery. Boarding time is 20min before departure but arriving just before is also acceptable. Tickets are screened before entering the terminal. The typical trip involves a 30 min stop in Harrismith where passengers may access nearby shopping and eating options. A blanket may also be provided, but this seldom happens unless if passengers ask for them in advance. The total travel time is just about 12 hours.

Booking a train trip may be done through an agent or directly at the station. Prices don’t change over time. Boarding times are similar to the bus services. For Premier Classe it is a few minutes earlier because of the snack at the lounge. Train rides allow passengers to bring their own food, and in some cases food and bedding are available at a price. In the Premier Classe, both sleeping cabin and food are part of the price. In the cabin, bedding, slippers and a gown are included no charge. Security is present on the train.

Flights are the most seamless and well organized. Booking can be made online, through an agent or at the airport. Prices vary as the date approaches. Boarding gates close 40min before departure. No just-in-time arrivals are accepted (i.e. 10min before departure).

Although airports entail a fairly long drive, unlikely to access by minibus or bus (other than Cape Town’s MyCiti Bus) they offer a safe and attractive environment for a traveler. In economy class, with an early booking an SAA flight may be caught at a price-value proposition similar to low cost carriers in SA. The price difference would be R200 but, as the date approaches SAA flight prices could be double or triple that of LCCs. So booking early is crucial.

Option Value Policy

UrbanLand Mark, the South African Cities Network and various other organisations have discussed the importance of capturing value from transport interchanges. The competitive position between airlines and rail services have also been highlighted in a 2012 short article from InterVISTAS — but in the high speed rail context. The big advantage for rail was the seamless access and no exorbitant pre-boarding arrival time requirement.

Interchanges are the base interaction point consolidating and distributing trips. But their value is also in how long people stay in them comfortably; with confidence and spending power.

The value of accessible, convenient and safe transit options in the regional mobility context is important. Service offerings in each mode are unique to the specific mode. But basic lessons from the airline industry should be absorbed in the road and rail based sectors. From an environmental perspective, the lowest emissions per passenger are possibly from rail: if the trains are full. But the service design, aging coaches and locomotives place significant risks to the market share of such services.

A view from the Primier Classe train @ohmokwena

The growth of middle class travelers is a key opportunity for labour mobility and tourism. Middle income travelers who afford a flight but are not time constrained would appreciate the morning views from a train over breakfast but won’t tolerate deteriorating infrastructure and poor quality service. At a similar price point, a luxury bus service with a broader amenity set could provide attractive niche services.

Again, learning from airports — safe and accessible public transport, vehicle rental and bike-sharing services (supplemented by baggage delivery services) would make long distance transit options very attractive.

Simple Opportunities

The business propositions of many metros in SA are weak in the long distance travel market. Loosing out on SME development opportunities that could revitalise rail and commuter bus services to a quality that is competitive. For instance rail and bus furnishings, integrated booking and trip apps; real time location indicators, advertising space and so on are tangible job creation opportunities.

Given the distance and the average speed of trains and buses, broader evaluations are necessary to justify rapid regional corridors that compete with air travel. More specifically, railway services that connect large metros, large towns and opportunities along the way in half the travel time of bus services but double the price would be very attractive. The most affordable competitive advantage could be based on service quality relative to an expensive unit increase in speed.

With the festive season at the door, regional mobility for low income households needs take a dignified tone in quality, safety and convenience — as much as affordability.

At the same time, moving households out of dangerously long drives to visit families through competitive quality of service in long distance transit has an accident reduction co-benefit.

My opinion is that metropolitan transport officials should be taking the opportunity to leverage business cases that both save lives, improve quality and offer integrated options that generate revenue for both businesses and municipalities alike. A serious policy position toward option values is a crucial part of integrated transport long distance transport.

I’m working on a broader technical report on the subject. Keep watch. None of the companies mentioned sponsor the trips.

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