The International Steam Pages

Case Notes - Steam in South Africa Part 2

Terry Case writes about his travels for steam. Further tales will follow from time to time covering more of Australia, India, South Africa, Indonesia and Pakistan.

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On my first visit, 14CRBs could still be found in use as pilots, as seen here at Beaufort West, 16th January 1977.

The Port Elizabeth Mail still ran steam hauled from here all the way to P.E. giving 2 nights to fall asleep to the sound of a steam locomotive at work and approximately 37 hours of continuous steam haulage. 3 GMAs were needed to work Worcester - Riversdale - Mossel Bay - Oudtshoorn. A 19D fitted with the long range Vanderbilt tender worked the sector to Klipplaat before a 15AR worked the last leg to P.E. 

Worcester’s small depot had an allocation of 15Fs, GMAs, 24s and 14CRBs. I made an early morning visit and found 16 locomotives on shed. The GMAMs accounting for a lot of space with their auxiliary tanks. The depot was to close within two years of my visit. 

Worcester depot on, 17th January 1977, the fireman of the GMA stands well clear to observe the loading of coal.

GMA 4120 receiving what looks like a load of dust!

A 15F works a freight from the yards, 17th January 1977

In the nearby yard 15Fs were busy dragging rakes of wagons out of the yard, then forcefully pushing them back through a series of points. Shunters were leaping around detaching wagons on the roll and changing point levers. 15Fs were also in charge of two freights that made plenty of noise as they left the yard. 

At the station I caught up with one of the freights that had drawn to a stand on the island platform. At 12.20 GMAM 4067 sauntered into the station with the Cape Town passenger, its job done it drew forward and a pair of electrics backed down. Shortly after the passenger had got underway a freight trundled in behind another gleaming black GMA and drew to a stop next to a 15F hauled freight. The platform bell rang and the crew of the 15F climbed back into the cab and got their freight underway.

I was booked to travel to Port Elizabeth in a coupe, sole occupancy gave me the freedom to photograph whenever I wished. I remember being stunned at how little it cost, this was thanks to the low wages that South Africans received. Leaving Worcester that evening on the Mail I watched as hills turned purple in the last rays of the sun. It is a wonderful experience to travel at night on a long passenger train. I was able to savour a bed neatly made up, the summer warmth allowing the window to remain open, the locomotive occasionally broke into a lusty bark, the carriage wheels squealing as they negotiated the many curves. The mountains that formed a backdrop were the Langeberg range, the lineside foliage was adapted to desert conditions.

Wet weather at Power, where the extra to George takes water, 18th January 1977

I am going to quote Charlie on changes at this time to operating practice- Soul of a Railway system 3 part 12:- “ While the whole world was speeding things up, South Africa in general and SAR in particular swam upstream. With a few notable exceptions, in the early 70s all intermediate stations and sidings between Worcester and Uitenhage had their personnel withdrawn - replaced by little facebrick buildings housing the Van Schoor token apparatus. Henceforth trains-working was to be performed by the train crews themselves for which function they were allowed seven minutes per interloop or station “ 
“The closing of country stations undoubtedly saved SAR a lot of money (although a lot of the savings were simply paid out in salary increases). It also resolved a situation that had become critical: train-working was a whites-only occupation and it was becoming increasingly difficult to find operating personnel who were prepared to live at remote stations.” The vast untapped reservoir of other races was ignored.

Next morning as I was having breakfast in the diner, we pulled into a loop that where the crews performed the change of tablets, this seemed standard operating practice by the time of my visit. A waiting GMA powered away on a freight, leaving the passenger to negotiate a steep ascent by climbing a series of S bends, an excellent start to the day! Rain set in as the train began a slow descent to the coast and Hartenboss. The train trundled down the coastal branch to Mossel Bay. Returning to the mainline the train passed Voorbaai depot once more, GEA class were still to be seen awaiting scraping.

At Hartenboss a fresh locomotive was attached, this GMA was clean and decorated. Despite the line being coastal there were some grades and tight curves to give the locomotive a work-out. The single line was reasonably busy. Prior to lunch a freight was crossed and a passenger train was crossed as lunch was served.

On arrival at George yet another freight was waiting our arrival. I hired a taxi to take me up to Power. Where I had plenty of time to anticipate the arrival of the Port Elizabeth train I had arrived on. A blanket of mist descended obscuring the opposite hillside, but I had a bonus when yet another GMA climbed into Power on a passenger working from Port Elizabeth hauled by 4129. The crew swung the water bag in before retreating to the warmth of the cab. Shortly after The Port Elizabeth passenger arrived.

I was expecting fireworks as the GMA on the George bound train re-started its heavy train, instead it glided past on the wet rails, the crew expertly handling the locomotive. The taxi got me back to George in time for me to record the arrival and an energetic departure. The excitement was over the afternoon Knysna train was cancelled and even the pilots were on siesta.

CRJ 37 Spring 79 reported Christmas/New Year traffic over the Montague Pass, trains running in two divisions and the GMAs in terrific condition. Now all that traffic goes on the highway, progress?

4129 departs Power through thick mist with an extra passenger, 18th January 1977.

A day later I resumed my journey. I had time to watch 24 class 3627, which seemed immaculate in its gleaming black livery and burnished copper work. The fireman was busy, cleaning the boiler as the locomotive shunted, nothing like doing two jobs at once. This was a busy time with the arrival from Knysna and a freight which had its fire cleaned prior to departing under a cloud of clag as it headed for the hills. It must have crossed GMA 4095 at Power which arrived on the passenger to Cape Town, meanwhile a GMA on a freight bound for Cape Town had to do some shunting and it was still busy when my train to Port Elizabeth arrived.

The climb of the Montagu Pass, still rates as one of my highlights of my rail travel. The early part of the climb featured lineside flowers, some obviously planted, giving way to wild flowers as the line climbed and the locomotive settled to the steady slog all the way to Power, the exhaust climbing vertically with distant views of George far below, there were times my coach was heading in a different direction! The super 8 camera chewed its way through expensive film to record the action.

George and the coastal rain were left behind, predictably a freight was in the loop at Power taking water as we pulled in. Our locomotive had been made to work hard continuously, I reflected now tough the firemen on the hand fired GEA class must have been to work this line. The climb now featured some running along ledges, negotiating rock cuttings and blasting through a tunnel. Topping was reached after an hour and a half of climbing.

The countryside now opened up, brief stops were made at little halts like Zebra. At Camfer we made a cross and once underway the train ran somewhat faster to Oudtshoorn reached in the late afternoon. This was the end of the range of the GMAs, long tendered 19Ds with torpedo tenders operated the section through the Little Karroo to Klipplaat.

The landscape had changed and gradually red sand became more in evidence, whilst ostrich farms were seen by the lineside. The tall birds seemingly unconcerned by the steam train running past. The sun was beginning its descent and the photographic light was beautiful, at 5.45 pm we pulled into a loop where a superbly polished 19D on a freight was waiting for us.

The dinner gong sounded at 7pm as the light began to fade and we entered a rocky pass, the train locomotive was often in view as it raced us along this curving section of line. Dining carriages were beautifully set with silverware, flowers, waiters in white shirts and black bow ties serving a 4 course meal served with excellent wine or beer.

The weather had been getting warmer, coupled with the dinner, it was easy to feel sleepy. I pulled the windows down and retreated to the top bunk, a little more stack talk before sleep, pity about the cinders! 

Uitenhage, a 15AR awaits departure on a suburban to Port Elizabeth.

I woke sometime after Klipplaat, where an older and heavier 15AR 4-8-2 took over to my delight, GMAMs were at the time being rostered for this train. Uitenhage was the outer end of the suburban network and the old 15AR roared along at a good clip keeping out of the way of other 15ARs on suburban trains. Pulling into Port Elizabeth Terminus I was thankful to have had the opportunity for such a long and interesting trip.

Rob Dickinson