The International Steam Pages

Steam Locomotives in Botswana, Zimbabwe and Zambia 1997

Peter-H. Patt Email reports on 3 weeks in Southern Africa in May 1997.


A visit to Selibe Phikwe saw no diesel action seen at all, all trains were hauled by steam, either ex NRZ Garratts class 14A or 19 and ex-SAR 19D working on the Selebi and Phikwe sections.
Locos found:
(ex 14A) : 809 & 810 (working), 811 cold but in operational condition
(ex 19/19D): 804 working, 806 & 807 cold but in operational condition, 805
overhaul nearly finished, 808 dumped


I saw plenty of action at Wankie Colliery even on Sundays which is normally a day off for steam operations but due to high demand the colliery were tending to work 2 shifts (but this is not regular). There is at least always 1 ex NRZ Garrat (ex 15th class) working, either together with 1 or 2 ex class 19 or with a 2nd Garratt. The scheme of operation is very simple: one Garratt is responsible for the traffic shunting yard - shaft 3, while the other 2 engines shunt at the yard and exchange hoppers between the colliery and Thomson junction NRZ yard. In case of heavy load going from TJ to the colliery a Garratt will work these trains as well. Traffic to/from shaft 3 is most interesting because nearly all trains use the loop and get a 2nd loco to assist when returning: the Garratt pushes empties to the loop, pulling them tender first to shaft 3, hauling the loaded hoppers chimney first back to the loop where the helper is waiting, hauling it, banked by the Garratt, back to the yard.

Locos found:
(ex 19): 3 & 4 working, 5 (torpedo-tender) dumped, 6 scrapped
(ex 15): 11 working, 10 cold but in operational condition, 9 to be overhauled

Steam in Bulawayo is still going strong - as the NRZ has got no money to repair the necessary number of diesels which should take over the steam operations! The actual Monday-Friday roster sees a total number of 11 engines (plus nearly weekly special charter trains).

Interesting that the monthly figures of the general availability show:
electric : 50 %, diesel: 35 %, steam: 85 %

Interesting as well that the shed foreman at Thomason Junction has asked the NRZ authorities to exchange his 2 class DE9 diesel shunters for a 14th or 16th class locomotive because his crews always face problems in handling heavy trains with more than 1600 tons: the diesel shunter simply donīt move these loads without splitting it before. A steam engine would easily pull the complete train out of the yard...but the NRZ management told him: no steam anymore outside Bulawayo! Disaster for the NRZīs diesel-supporter: they tried to run the "mainline" shunts to Cement with diesel as well - did it without any problem for a week unless the load came to heavier trains where the diesel failed pulling the first 1000 tons train up to Cement - now it is steam hauled again...

Due to the low availability of the diesel engines nearly all passenger trains are running as "mixed" at the moment - but even this canīt solve the NRZīs serious problems with their Canadian diesel locomotives. Although steam is banned from the mainline officially, there are chances to see "real" steam hauled trains there. When the Union Limited steam special train left Zimbabwe running with a 16th class Garratt from Bulawayo to Plumtree, no NRZ diesel was available to haul the waiting freight train from Plumtree to Bulawayo - what a pity - the crew of the 16th class coupled to the 1200 tons container train and thrashed back to Bulawayo...

Locos seen:
15 class: 371, 387, 394, 406, 414 & 417 working, 395 & 400 (steam test) & 416 overhaul

14A class: 509 (shunting at Cement) & 515 working, 525 cold but in operational condition

16A class: 604,607,610 & 613 working, 601 & 612 overhaul, 605 & 608 cold but in operational condition

20 class: 740 working (a Rovos Rail special - and performing extremely well...), 736 (or 739??) cold but operational.

Unicem no 1 was going to be boiler tested and should be back to Cement by the time this report appears. There is another loco (class 9, no 115) standing in the shed - possibly for overhaul... The list of dumped locos at the shedīs wide yard near the coal stage is (sadly) getting longer and longer each time:

501/512/516/518/522/524 (all class 14); 377/386/398/407/420/421/424 (all class 15); 602/614 (class 16); 742/749 (class 20).

Victoria Falls could become a new steam destination. A Zambian class 10 no 159 (overhauled at ZECO a few years ago) was planned to run 2 daily tourist specials to Livingstone and back: a "Champagner Cruise" around noon (with a whistle blowing stop on the bridge) and a "Sunset Dinner Cruise" in the evening. The carriages were to be supplied by Zambian Railways but unfortunately the loco broke down after a few runs and is momentarily stored at a goods yard near the NRZ triangle. A company called "Victoria Falls Safari Express" is apparently selling tickets for this train but their office is always closed and the phone-number given on a leaflet found at the NRZ station is invalid...guess what the future of this operation will look like! The locomotive is not safely stored and it will be a question of time unless the first spare parts are going to be sold by poor or very tricky locals...

(This report is, of course from May 1997 and in October 1998 I had an angry fax from VFSE!  I am happy to give their contact points as PO Box 1338, Borrowdale, Harare, Zimbabwe, Phone 263 4 727366/7 Fax 263 4 705851/2.  So I assume that visitors now will find it easier to contact them. RD)

Rob Dickinson