Railway History

South Africa was one of the last bastions for steam locomotives and they attracted many tourists from across the globe to travel on our trains or watch them go by, camera at the ready. Steam engines have an enduring appeal to railway enthusiasts (buffs & gricers will also do) as they seem to live and breathe just like a wild animal. In fact it was seriously considered to make a “Reserve” for steam engines along the Garden Route, in the province of the Western Cape, centred on the city of George, where a Steam Museum resides.

Members [of the Railway Society, Natal Branch] can hardly fail to be aware that the Umgeni Steam Railway (USR) restoration team has been busy for many a long day with a circa-1928 kitchen car, no. 269. One of the USR senior members has been heard to refer to it despondently as “the gift that keeps on giving” as every problem solved seems only to generate another problem. However, work continues and has turned up a story this ex-Johannesburger finds fascinating and worth re-telling.

The Cape Government Railway (CGR) from Cape Town was opened to Matjesfontein (192 miles 66 chains. Altitude 2966 feet) on 1 February 1878. From Matjiesfontein [today’s spelling] the alignment followed the course of the Bobbejaan River eastwards. The next passing loop was Whitehill (199 miles 27 chains. Altitude 2715 feet).

Word association is where you give me a word and I respond with the first thought that comes to mind; for instance you say “London Bridge” and I would reply “Station” (although most would say “is falling down”). Again you would say “Paddington” and my reply would be “Station” (although “Bear” is the usual response). Likewise “Waterloo” would elicit the same response from me, “Station”, thus the psychoanalyst would say that I have a one track mind, not that I need therapy as I am well aware of my condition which I have controlled since childhood.

I recently watched a documentary, originally screened on the BBC in 2007, entitled “Ian Hislop Goes Off the Rails” presented by Ian Hislop, the editor of “Private Eye” and also a resident panellist on the long running TV show “Have I Got News for You”. It was Mr Hislop’s very informative “Take” on the controversial findings of Dr. Richard Beeching’s  report on “The Reshaping of British Railways” and in his commentary he said “I’m asking whether Beeching’s actions were a necessary evil or one of the great acts of vandalism of the 20th century?

The Cape Government Railway’s [CGR] construction of a railway from Cape Town to Kimberley (1875-1885) was governed by the imperatives of rapid construction and the limitation of costs. Consequently the alignment followed contours and minimised cuttings and embankments. Sections of this alignment became inadequate as traffic increased and faster times for train operation were demanded. Consequently the re-alignment of certain sections became imperative for operating and cost efficiencies. This work was tackled piecemeal when funds were available.

Should you search on the internet for Shildon, a small town in County Durham in the North East corner of England, you will find out that it has house prices one-tenth of those in London, but that is not the town’s major claim to fame. Shildon is world famous for being the cradle of the Railways (a.k.a. Rail Roads), which were launched in the first quarter of the 19th century.

Even with Covid-19 still raging, Sandstone Estates was able to host a spring event from 19-22 November 2020, attended by hundreds of rail and transport enthusiasts, all wearing facemasks and practicing social distancing. This was a smaller event than the Stars of Sandstone event held in 2019, and which attracted visitors and specialists from all over the world.

The tiny town of Marikana (established in 1870) was never much of a town and for a long time was really no more than a railway station and a collection of shops. In fact, the outside world would not have heard of Marikana at all if it were not for the notorious Lonmin Marikana platinum mining strike and shooting, where 34 striking Lonmin miners were shot and killed by police in 2012.

The SAR&H Magazine (South African Railways and Harbours) traces its origin to the Natal Government Railways Lecture and Debating Society, formed in the early 1890s in Durban. In December 1904, John McConnachie, the Chairman of the Society and a District Superintendent of the Natal Government Railways (NGR), forwarded a suggestion by a colleague HC Richardson, in a letter to the Secretary, AH Tatlow:

Wolwehoek is a railway station on the Vereeniging-Bloemfontein line to the south of Sasolburg (see photo above). The railway between Wolwehoek and Heilbron was part of a longer line which connects further down to Petrus Steyn, Lindley and joining the mainline between Bethlehem and Bloemfontein at Arlington. This article is about the section between Wolwehoek and Heilbron, a distance of about 50km. On the map below, dating from the time of the Anglo Boer War, it is the line marked in blue.

An article on The Heritage Portal about disused rail lines in South Africa (click here to view) prompted me to put this article together, taking stock of what is still around and how it used to work. It is about the unused line from the Dover Station through Parys ending in Vredefort. 

 

There are not many South Africans who have been honoured by having a statue of themselves erected in London. Only two come readily to mind and they are Jan Smuts and Nelson Mandela, whose statues stand proudly in Parliament Square, Westminster. However, there is a lesser known South African who has a statue which stands outside Bank Station; he is James Henry Greathead (1844-1896), the grandson of an 1820 Settler of the same name. So why is it that a boy from Grahamstown should be so honoured and what was his achievement?

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.

In the previous installment of the History of Southern African Railways series Peter Ball explored the politics and economics of the Benguela Railway. In this edition he heads east and unpacks the complexities of the Tanzania-Zambia Railway.

On the 14th July 1976 the Chinese officially handed over the TAN-ZAM Railway to the Governments of Tanzania and Zambia. It had taken just five years to build and its commissioning would change the pattern of economic dependencies in the region.

In this article Peter Ball jumps across a few borders and looks at some of the history and politics of the Benguela Railway which runs for over 1300km across Angola.

This installment of the History of Southern African Railways series looks at the demise of the branch line network and will be relevant to many in the heritage community. Over the last few decades many lines have been closed and the heritage assets associated with them have fallen into disrepair. We certainly hope that Transnet's strategy to revitalise the branch line network will go some way towards turning this situation around.

In the previous installment of the History of Southern African Railways series Peter Ball looked at the role of the railways during the South African War. In this piece he looks at post war reconstruction, the completion of various lines and the contribution of the railways to political union in South Africa.

Following hot on the heels of the 'Race to the Rand' here is the third installment of the History of Southern African Railway Series by Peter Ball. The article looks at the role of the railways during the South African War (the Second Anglo-Boer War).

In the first installment of the series on the history of Southern African railways, Peter Ball described some of the earliest railways in the country and the extension of a number of lines into the interior. In this article he looks at the fascinating politics and economics of the 'Race for the Rand'.

Over the coming months we will be publishing a series of articles, compiled by Peter Ball, on the history of Southern African railways. The first installment looks at some of the earliest railways in the country and the extension of various lines into the interior (driven by the great mineral discoveries of the second half of the nineteenth century).

It was forty-five years ago (1970) that the Johannesburg City Council was formulating a policy to tackle the issue of traffic congestion brought about by the increased use of the motor car as a means of commuting to work.  One solution which had great appeal was an underground railway system similar to that of London and Paris.

Below is another fascinating article from the South African Railway Magazine. It puts the spotlight on Bloemfontein's history, buildings and, of course, the momentous occasion of the arrival of the railway. It also highlights the rapid development happening in the Colony following the end of the Anglo-Boer War. Thank you to the Heritage Office at Transnet for giving us access to their archives.

Take a journey back in time before the car, the plane and luxurious train and you will find some epic railway journey stories. The article below tells the tale of a trip from Cape Town to Bloemfontein in 1889. It reveals the adventure, risks and tragedy of the ten day journey. The piece appeared in a 1907 edition the South African Railway Magazine. Thank you to the Heritage Office at Transnet for giving us access to their archives.

In South Africa railway men do things big and it doesn't get bigger than the Sishen-Saldanha line. In 1989 the longest and heaviest train in the world made an historic trip down the line. The article below, compiled by Norman Chandler for The Star, tells the story of this record breaking feat. It appears as though a train in Australia broke the record in 2001.

This gem of a piece was published in the South African Railway Magazine (October 1906 issue). The unknown author describes what life was like for railway men posted to small railway stations in the Karoo. Thank you to the Heritage Office at Transnet for giving us access to their archives.

Subscribe to Railway History