Plans are afoot to introduce custom-built ‘green’ trains – either solar or liquefied petroleum gas-powered – which will run daily along the iconic Apple Express railway line between the city’s beachfront and the R1.7bn Baywest Mall.
The non-profit organisation (NPO) behind the move, Apple Express Rail, is also lobbying Transnet to be allowed the full use of the 285-km line on concession, with plans to not only fully rehabilitate the train track using private funding, but in the process boost tourism, job creation and economic development in the region markedly.
Baywest MD Gavin Blows said the mall developers – Abacus Asset Management and Billion Group – were in full support of the initiative as it would not only boost tourism, but also help create much needed jobs in the region.
Apple Express Rail (AER) will meet with senior Transnet executives by the end of June to present a business case to the parastatal for rehabilitating the unused train line.
Apple Express Rail CEO, Nerina Skuy, who is also chairperson of the Heritage Railway Association of Southern Africa (HRASA), said she has met with private businesses which were willing partner with AER to fund the rehabilitation of the railway as part of their corporate social investment commitment in the region.
“The first phase would be to repair and service the line up to Thornhill so that we can reintroduce the heritage tourism train service by December. This means that the line leading to Baywest Mall will be ready to offer commuters a service by the time the mall opens in March next year,” said Skuy.
Skuy said she was awaiting quotes from international train engineers for the commissioning of two 50-seater, wheelchair-friendly narrow gauge passenger units which would be either solar powered, or otherwise operate on liquefied petroleum gas (LPG) as a second option. Both would depart from the Port Elizabeth Harbour and from Baywest Mall in the city’s western suburbs every hour, during the week workday, with a special weekend service offered.
“We want to include more stops, rehabilitate existing dilapidated stops and even add facilities where such stops are necessary,” said Skuy, adding these would include the airport, Walmer, Charlo, Lorraine and finally Baywest Mall in Phase 1.
The iconic Apple Express heritage train, which is being refurbished and currently manned entirely by AER volunteers, would be used for the tourism services, charter trains and special events, she said.
Phase 2 would involve extending the service to Jeffreys Bay and beyond, with planned heritage tourism trains and commuter rail services running as far as the Langkloof.
“Our plan is to concession the line with the use of the narrow gauge rolling stock,” said Skuy, adding that the entire project would be privately funded. “All the existing rolling stock requires refurbishment, which alone would create about 50 immediate jobs. Other job creation and economic development projects possible through maintenance and operation services.”
More jobs would be created by the teams needed to maintain the train line on a demarcated basis, while an influx of tourists for the unique offering would create further knock-on employment, she said.
“At the moment the line is not being used at all, as it does not form part of Transnet’s core business, and is a wasted asset” said Skuy.
Blows said a station had already been included in the plans for Baywest Mall, with the possibility of a tram ferrying commuters a short distance from the station to the mall and back.
“This is a project which would bring an entirely unique tourism experience to the city. It would mean that people could jump on the train at the beachfront, travel to Baywest Mall for some shopping and entertainment, and then return by train later,” Blows said.
The roll out of development within the 330 hectare Baywest City precinct, of which the mall is the catalyst, would further validate the project, he said.
“Such a project would be an invaluable asset to the city’s tourism industry and business sector,” Blows said.
Skuy’s plans also include introducing a community services train along full length of the line, similar to the Phelophepa Train of Hope which services rural communities in need. The refurbished line could also be used for freight and goods delivery during off-peak hours, she added.
With the Baywest Mall set to open in March next year, Skuy said that pending approval from Transnet, Apple Express Rail could have the commuter trains ready in time for the anticipated opening.