Rohan Vos is the founder and owner of Rovos Rail, operator of the world’s most luxurious train from its sidings in Pretoria, South Africa. Now preparing to exhibit for its fifth time at the Arabian Travel Market next month in Dubai, Rovos Rail has been picking up more and more passengers from the Gulf.
The passengers range from nationals who love railways to South Africans expatriates returning home for rest and relaxation, and other Gulf expatriates looking for the ultimate rail experience. This is very much a personal enterprise.
A wealthy and successful dealer in car spare parts before he decided to build his own luxury train, even the name of the railway is a contraction of Rohan Vos’ – his first and second names. He spoke exclusively to Emirates Business about his railway business and the challenges ahead.
Do you find the Arabian Travel Market a useful forum for promoting your luxury train service, and how important are guests from the Arab region, especially the GCC, to your company?
As there is no rail service in the UAE we are fully aware that we run a very unique product and therefore also think that it is a perfect mode of transport for clients who are on a honeymoon, who wish to spoil themselves or who wish to relive an era of a long bygone time.
Travelling on Rovos Rail is also perfect for guests who wish to just relax and in today’s day and age forget about things such as TV or video and just enjoy good food, appropriate beverages and company. Guests from the Arab and Gulf region are important to us, albeit still in the growing phase as a market.
Could you explain to us how you have ended up being the owner of the world’s most luxurious train in South Africa? Is it true that Rovos Rail began as a luxury train that you built for your own personal use and then later decided to make it commercial?
This is correct, yes. The long and the short of the story is that in 1986 a member of my staff approached me to assist in the formation of a steam-preservation group in Witbank, where I had my motor-spares and other related businesses.
After agreeing to help I went to a few railway rolling stock auctions and thought it might be fun to have a family caravan consisting of two or three old style carriages.
I approached the railways with this proposal in mind and they gave me permission later that year. But the permutations were such that it would have proved far too extravagant for me to run this as a home on wheels for my family.
I went back to the railways and asked them to reconsider. They held firm to their pricing structure but did give me permission to sell tickets. And that was how the idea of this commercial vintage train was born.
Building the carriages is a practical matter, and having been in the motor-spares business, it wasn’t too difficult for me to overcome the mechanical side. The building of the carriages is perhaps the most fun.
Establishing myself in the tourism industry was not easy. If I have lost any money due to my inexperience in this operation, it has been through my lack of knowledge in the tourism department.
However, when I started I was told that it would take three to five years for the product to mature. Hotels talk longer term – some five to eight years before they become profitable. We broke out of the red after six years and hopefully will remain in the black from now on. But running a train business and a set of rolling stock is more a hobby than for financial reward.
So is this a boutique hotel business or more like owning a fleet of ocean liners? How many rooms or cabins do you have? Can this really be five-star travel on rail? What would you say marks Rovos Rail out against competitors such as the Orient Express, for instance?
It is in all essence a mixture of both. We have the standard and uniqueness of a boutique hotel business, but all the logistic challenges of a fleet of ocean liners.
Each sleeper carriage, 22-metres long, accommodates five pullman suites at 70 square foot or three deluxe suites at 110sq ft or two royal suites at 160sq ft – making these by far the largest suites on any train in the world today. All in all on a full train set we would have a maximum of 10 pullman suites, 26 deluxe and four royal suites, with a limit of 72 passengers maximum.
In the Deluxe and Royal Suites we have permanent beds made up 24 hours a day as well as a separate lounge area with comfortable chairs, unlike other luxury trains where the compartments mainly feature pull out beds from a couch.
Then all our compartments have a bar refrigerator in each suite which is stocked with complimentary beverages, you have a tea and coffee making facility, a digital safe, storage space for up to six large suitcases and a set of golf clubs and even about 25 per cent more cupboard space than our nearest competition.
All compartments are also individually air conditioned. Additionally to this, guests can open windows to provide fresh air should they prefer this.
We have also added features such as a private 56-acre railway station in Pretoria where our trains depart and arrive. The Orient Express, for example, does not have this the advantage of being a privately owned train. I try to meet and greet passengers at arrivals and departures to ensure they are happy and have a good trip.
People travelling in South Africa are usually concerned about their personal security. How safe is it to travel on Rovos Rail? What sort of security do you have in place? And have there been any incidents in the past?
Our utmost importance is the safety of our passengers as well as our train. There is no specific security as such, but our staff and myself are always alert of the happenings outside the train.
We have got simple security measures such as keeping the doors closed to the outside and we have removed the door handles from the outside.
The only problem that we encounter with Zimbabwe is service delivery. The economy in South Africa has not posed any particular problems to my business, no.
On the other hand, South Africa is one of the most beautiful countries in the world. Do you have a favourite itinerary, or if not which route would you choose for first time passengers?
This is a difficult one to answer as it would basically depend on the time available to spend in our beautiful country. Our three-day Cape Town trip is our most popular journey as it gives first time travellers the perfect combination between the Cape area as well as the game reserves up north, so this would be my choice for a first time traveller.
Your most challenging package is a tour that takes passengers from Cape Town to Cairo in considerable luxury. Can you tell us more about this epic journey and what people are able to enjoy?
We completed this journey successfully in January and it was a challenge indeed.
After spending two nights in Cape Town, clients travelled on our train from Cape Town to the Victoria Falls with another one night stop in Pretoria. After arrival in Vic Falls we spend two nights at the grand old Victoria Falls Hotel and flew over to Zanzibar, an island which is a perfect mixture between Africa and Arabia.
From Zanzibar our guests enjoyed the magnificent wildlife at the Ngorongoro Crater as well as a private tented camp in the Serengeti with only our group there. The game viewing was fantastic.
Uganda with a visit to the Chimp Orphanage on Ngamba Island as well as a tour to the source of the Nile followed suit as well as two more nights in Khartoum. Egypt was the last highlight of this sojourn, with a Nile Cruise from Aswan to Luxor and Cairo with a stay at the Four Seasons First Residence Hotel.
Have you got any plans to expand your network further or to add more train sets to your collection? Could you not build for export or operate under license in countries where their railway heritage has been sadly lost? Or even in a place like Dubai which has no railways and is just building a metro?
We are currently busy building a “day train” which will be based at our private station in Pretoria. This will give groups or companies the option to charter the train for shorter trips, lunch or dinner runs.
We are too busy with our own product and I just would not be able to have the time to export or operate under license in other countries. But I am always happy and have been doing so in the past to consult individuals or companies planning a train venture.
PROFILE: Rohan Vos, President, Rovos Rail
Rohan, 62, is the founder, sole owner and President of Rovos Rail. He was born and educated in South Africa and after leaving school started several very successful ventures in the hospitality and retail sectors, most notably selling car parts.
Having acquired a yacht and the other trappings of success, he wanted a private train to tour South Africa. This ultimately led him to sell all his other business interests in 1989 and concentrate on developing the world’s most luxurious train with compartments larger than on any comparable railway.
Rovos Rail presently operates a total of four train sets on both scheduled and special
non-scheduled journeys in and around Southern Africa including the epic annual trip from Cape Town to Cairo.
Rohan likes to personally greet and welcome guests at his private station in Pretoria and brief them before departure. He often travels on the train, conducting quality checks.