Railway History

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.

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