Railway History

Once, a train ran from Port Alfred station every day: the 11.10 to Grahamstown, 68km away. In the early 1900s the train used to steam up through the valleys towards Bathurst and Grahamstown taking farmers, farm workers, holidaymakers and commercial travellers, especially on stock-fair days, when the atmosphere was festive and the coaches were full. It is no longer possible to go on the train. One must walk the line or take the road that loops and meets, strays from and returns to it. 

An article published in the May 2015 “Popular Mechanics” magazine (RSA edition), was entitled “SUPERTRAINS coming down the line” in which it was stated “Let’s get one thing straight: we don’t send much freight via railway because the country’s extensive rail network is too narrow”. Yes it is true that South African wagons run on a narrow gauge track (1065mm) - narrow by definition being a gauge less than the standard gauge of 1435mm (4’-8½”).

In today’s world, large infrastructure projects such as the state of the art “Gautrain” rapid transit railway between Johannesburg and Pretoria (80 km in length) are constructed using mechanised plant and equipment for better productivity when working to tight project schedules (fast tracking). Occupational Health and Safety on construction sites has become a main concern when it comes to planning and executing large civil engineering projects with hazard operability studies (HAZOPS) and risk assessments being mandatory.

The Channel Tunnel, nicknamed the “Chunnel” is a 31 mile (50 km) long rail tunnel beneath the English Channel (La Manche) which provides a fixed link between England and France. It is geographically situated at the narrowest crossing – the Strait of Dover (Pas de Calais). The Chunnel has been operational since its official opening on the 6th May 1994 and is run by the company “Eurotunnel” – the concessionaire until 2086.

 

The zenith of long distance passenger travel by train world wide was during the period between the two World Wars (1919 to 1939) thereafter there was increasing competition from other modes of transport, notably the airliner and the motor vehicle (utilising modern road infrastructure), which led to a rapid decline in patronage for rail travel. At the ending of the Second World War (1945) there was a large surplus of Douglas Dakota twin engine aircraft that were sold off at bargain prices, this effectively kick started the modern airline industry.

Present day Southern Africa has inherited its railway gauge from a bygone era of 142 years ago, when in 1873 the decision was made to reduce the gauge from 4’-8½” to 3’-6”, when the Cape Government Railways (CGR) planned its extension from Wellington to Worcester for the reasons why see “Ox Wagon to Iron Horse” - click here to view.

The following article on the history of the Port Elizabeth Railway Station was originally published in the October 1986 edition of Restorica, the journal of the Simon van der Stel Foundation (today the Heritage Association of South Africa). It formed part of a larger piece titled "The coming of the Railway to the Cape". Thank you to the University of Pretoria (copyright holders) for giving us permission to publish.

This article was prompted by my reading of a back number of the “Continental Modeller”, wherein there was a sparkling article entitled “Wanderings in the western Cape -  South African scenes to inspire modelling”, which whetted my appetite to find out more.

 

The railway line that connects South Africa to Namibia is now 100 years old and owes its origin to the outbreak of the First World War in August 1914. The cross border stretch between Prieska, Northern Cape and Karasburg (formerly Kalkfontein), Namibia was hastily built as a military railway to give logistical support to General Louis Botha’s troops in his 1915 invasion of what was then German South West Africa (a colony twice the size of the Fatherland).

The authors of NZASM 100, the definitive study of the railway architecture of the Nederlandsche Zuid-Afrikaansche Spoorweg-Maatschappij (NZASM), describe the tunnel at Waterval Boven as ‘probably the best-known and most famous of all NZASM structures’. We visited this Provincial Heritage Site recently and it is certainly a sight to behold. Add the overall natural beauty of the area and the view of the stunning Elands Waterfall and it is not surprising that the site is a major tourist attraction.

In 1975 the singer-songwriter, Chris De Burgh released his second album entitled “Spanish Train and other Stories”. The title track was immediately banned in South Africa on sacrilegious grounds, due to the mention of the Devil playing poker for souls of the dead with Jesus Christ and the album was re-titled and issued here as “Lonely Sky and other Stories”.

Below is the second part of an article compiled by NZASM expert Robert de Jong in the late 1980s (the Nederlansche Zuid-Afrikaansche Spoorweg-Maatschappij (NZASM) was a Dutch company responsible for the construction and administration of many early Transvaal railway lines). The first piece looked at the structures and buildings of the Rand Tram while this one looks at the Southern Line.

Robert De Jong is one of the foremost experts on the Nederlansche Zuid-Afrikaansche Spoorweg-Maatschappij (NZASM), a Dutch company responsible for the construction and administration of many early Transvaal railway lines. The following article, which looks at various structures associated with the Rand Tram, appeared in a number of publications in the late 1980s.

The catchphrase “Cape to Cairo” was first coined in 1874, by Edwin Arnold (editor of the Daily Telegraph) and was taken up by Cecil John Rhodes as a call for the “Civilisation” of Darkest Africa. To Rhodes civilisation meant the exploitation of the mineral wealth of the vast interior of the African continent. He was a controversial figure in his day and remains so today.

Peter Ball continues his epic History of Southern African Railways series with this superb piece on the line from Mossel Bay to Oudsthoorn. He sets the historical context, highlights the incredibly difficult terrain for railway building and concludes that it is remarkable that the line was built at all.

Thousands of people in South Africa and abroad dream of the day when the famous Outeniqua Choo Tjoe will run again. In the article below Peter Ball sketches the history and potential future of this world in one branch line.

Peter Ball returns with this fantastic article on narrow gauge railways in South Africa. He believes that the line from Port Elizabeth towards the Langkloof, which can be reopened in stages, is the most viable preservation project in the country and argues that we should look to the Welsh experience over the last sixty years for inspiration.

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