Just the Ticket: Luxury Technology Aboard the Blue Train

10 May 2011 (Last Updated May 10th, 2011 18:30)

Through technology, luxury trains are finding new ways to offer guests a fast-moving five-star hotel experience. Frances Cook finds out how South Africa's legendary Blue Train is wiring in to offer guests an impressive range of modern services.

Just the Ticket: Luxury Technology Aboard the Blue Train

The Blue Train covers a great distance, during which, customers' requirements need to be met at all times. The route between Cape Town and Pretoria is a 27-hour journey of 1,600km and the aim of every aspect of the Blue Train is to ensure that passengers have a peaceful, safe and comfortable journey along with a unique and luxurious experience. The train never exceeds 90km/h to ensure that the noise level below 55db is maintained; every public area has a smoke detector system that is constantly monitored; and even the braking system is designed with the customer in mind to ensure a smooth ride.

However, there are other technologies used on the train that make this train stand out from the crowd. These include a separate conferencing facility coach, an individually controlled air conditioning system, a GPS and camera system that tells guests how fast the train is going and what upcoming scenery to expect, and a digital entertainment and announcement system.

Frances Cook spoke to Jacques Posthumus, the Blue Train's senior engineer, to find out more details on the technology used to provide passengers with the ultimate luxury rail experience.

Frances Cook: The Blue Train's onboard conference facilities are just one example of how attention to detail keep guests returning again and again. What mixture of technology do you use to provide this service?

Jacques Posthumus: The conference facility is housed in a separate coach with seating for a maximum of 22 people that can be arranged in various configurations - schoolroom style, boardroom style or casual style, depending on the requirements of the delegates.

"Every aspect of the Blue Train is designed to ensure that passengers have a peaceful, safe and comfortable journey."

The facility includes a motorised screen, Proxima, laptop / PC connection, PA system, DVD / video player and light dimming controls. The facility is also complemented by a bar where food and beverages can be served to the delegates. The sensation of entering the conference at one scene, such as Gauteng and the city and exiting the conference in another scene, such as grasslands can be quite exciting, however maybe the window blinds should be kept closed during the conference to prevent delegates from staring at the passing scenery instead of paying attention.

FC: Guests must also welcome the individually controlled air conditioning system, can you explain how this works?

JP: There are three different systems used on the train - all of them individually controlled - depending on the area in question. The system used in the suites is a water-cooled system. Water (with added anti-freeze) is cooled and pumped to each suite where the guest can then add heating (with heating elements) and adjust the airflow to create his or her own comfort zone. The temperature can be set between 16°C and 26°C. During extreme cold conditions under-floor heating is automatically added to the heating elements for additional capacity. The train has double-glazed windows (that cannot be opened) with treated glass to minimise UV penetration. Fresh air is also added to the system to prevent guests feeling drowsy to allow them to enjoy the complete trip.

FC: The train also helps to keep passengers relaxed and interested during the trip by providing camera images showing the upcoming scenery, what is the process behind this system?

JP: The camera is placed on the leading locomotive's footplate so that guests can view the approaching track and scenery. It is fed via an electrically screened TV cable to the onboard entertainment system. Various makes of cameras have been used (being placed on the leading locomotive can be hazardous at times). The camera must be full colour with stability control and a special lens (to cater for 'direct into the sun' viewing). The camera footage is fed into the train on a separate TV channel and guests enjoy it quite a bit, some say it beats counting sheep.

FC: What about the GPS system that tells guests where they are and the speed of the train?

JP: The GPS is a Garmin, such as is used in luxury cars - these cars normally have built-in screens and only require the GPS unit. The GPS units have a special screen output which is fed to our entertainment system for distribution. Guests are quite familiar with the screen setup of the Garmin unit and can recognise the speed and GPS coordinates, and so on.

"The Blue Train never exceeds 90km/h to ensure that the noise level below 55db is maintained."

FC: How does the digital entertainment system work and what does it offer guests?

JP: It is a computer-based system with digital outputs, converted to analogue for distribution in the train. The following are available 24/7 on the televisions in each suite: camera, GPS, five pre-recorded movie channels, four music channels and three radio channels (depending on reception). The guests can select any of the mentioned channels - the movies are not 'on demand' but are scheduled on the five channels, so that the same movie is not viewed on more than one channel at any time.

FC: Does the announcement system feed into the entertainment set up?

JP: Yes, the PA system is integrated into the entertainment system and has a 'normal' and 'emergency' mode. In emergency mode, an announcement will come through into each suite to alert guests. Normal mode is used for announcements in the public areas, corridors and vestibules of the train.

FC: Finally, what aspect of the train do you feel uses technology most effectively to make passengers' journeys as comfortable and efficient as possible?

JP: As far as comfort is concerned I think that the air suspension contributes the most - the train glides along and guests are sometimes surprised when they find that the train is actually moving.