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Blue Train Blues

It is beyond belief to me that anybody involved should have expressed surprise, shock, or dismay at the general publicís reaction to the new Blue Trainís disastrous maiden trip.

The expectation was there, the hype was there, and the build up was obviously intended to show that, despite those earlier set backs at airports and stadiums and glass factories, the government, this time around was going to deliver the genuine article.  There would be no last minute cock-ups, no unexpected hitches, everything was going to be done to perfection. Alas, the auguries could not have been worse. It was reported that the management of Botswana Railways (BR) was being investigated by DCEC, and that the Board admitted that it had brought it in, having been totally sidelined and rendered ineffective by BR’s management.

I saw no statement refuting this report. The great day arrived with those principally involved in the re-birth of the Blue Train, holding their breaths and hoping desperately that there would be no further disasters. In the event, it couldn’t have been much worse. The train wouldn’t go. And stranded passengers in Francistown were left asking if it would help if they all gave it a push? But I remain much puzzled by these strange events. We have been led to understand that these trains would run every night from Lobatse to Francistown and from Francistown to Lobatse crossing presumably, as in the old days, at Mahalapye.

This appears not to have happened or not even to have even been intended. Botsalo Ntuane referred to the train’s ‘maiden return journey from Francistown to Gaborone’ (Mmegi 31, March)which suggests that one train was making both the up and the down trip.  The absence of comment about the experiences of passengers on the second train indicates that, for the moment at least, the one train is attempting to fulfill the role of two.

But think about this for a moment. The inaugural run of the new Blue Train started from Lobatse and Gaborone with maximum fanfare and jubilation. It arrived at Francistown, seemingly with nothing particularly amiss. But there it got stuck. Minister Mabeo was reported as saying that, ‘we would like to assure Batswana that as of the 28th, we have managed to solve the main problem, drained the contaminated diesel, because the problems were mechanical, some instances of problems with the lighting, flushing system and air conditioning still remain in some coaches and will be dealt with’.  (Mmegi 31 March) The hope must be that he was misquoted.

Mixing diesel and water is not

mechanical; it is criminal – as older residents of Francistown are most likely to recall from their memories of the 1974 crash of Wenela’s Douglas DC-4 when 78 people died.  Investigations must clearly pin down how the Blue Train’s fuel was contaminated and identify the individual or individuals responsible.

This is not just one of those things that can happen from time to time. Similarly, questions have to be asked about those other problems which the Minister, understandably, tried to play down. The lighting, flushing system(s) and air-conditioning still wouldn’t work in ‘some coaches’, he said. Obviously it wouldn’t have been too clever to admit that passengers on that trip experienced similar conditions to those, which were a norm for everyone 10 years or so ago -  non-working flush toilets, air-conditioning which was set at hot in the summer and cold in winter, and lighting which worked during the day but not at night. But what about that fuel? 

Had the fuel been contaminated in Lobatse, the train would have managed to get no further than the Goings farm. It would then have come to an embarrassed stop and all the passengers would have been disembarked and bussed back to Lobatse. This didn’t happen. With or without flushing toilets, lighting and air-conditioning, the train did somehow reach Francistown. What now? 

The re-emergence of the Blue Train gave everyone a hope that the huge disappointments of the recent past could, for the moment, put aside and national pride be foBE cused on the new ‘we can do it’, Blue Train. If this, however, is to be merely a repeat of the past, we are set for a period of enormous disillusionment. We all desperately hope that we can do it, and that we can pull it off.  The problem is, however, that the failings and weaknesses that brought the old Blue Train to its knees were never publically spelt out by the government. 

There should have been a public enquiry which set out precisely why gold had turned to dust. Because it didn’t happen, it may be more understandable that the blunders, misjudgments and inadequacies of the past already appear to be repeated today. The old Blue Train service was brought to an end because the country then proved to be incapable of running it efficiently and safely. How much has changed in those seven intervening years?

Etcetera II



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