The International Steam Pages

Case Notes - Steam in Zimbabwe, Part 4
Cab riding on the Northern line
Thomson Junction to Matetsi 1984

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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It was 13th September 1984 at Thomson Junction and the  04.15 Victoria Falls Mail changes engines and crews here, I was stood watching the replacement 15th back onto the train. The driver leaned down from the cab and carefully scrutinized my pass before allowing me to climb on board, to join the all African crew. I took up a position behind the driver, the third man stood behind the fireman who was in a relaxed pose in his seat. We waited in the darkness for the colour light signal to change from red. A couple of minutes before departure the fireman swung into action opening the firehole doors to reveal a low fire which he transformed into a raging inferno with a 25 shovel round. The driver made a long whistle call and getting the guard’s green light opened up the Garratt. There was plenty of noise on the footplate particularly from the motion of the rear unit although initially the open cylinder cocks dampened the sounds from the chimney. The cab ceiling was lined with wood as was the floor, which showed scars from the shovel. The wide windows and a generous roof vent remained open throughout the journey.

It was a new experience being on the footplate in the dark. The interior cab lights had been switched off before departure, it was during firing I could see details of the cab. The firehole doors were air activated by a foot pedal, opening with a “whoosh”. The fireman’s sweat liberally sprayed around as he swung energetically and regularly to keep this large fire red hot. The engine was working hard leaving a lengthy trail of smoke behind as the first light entered the sky. The third man sprayed the coal with the hose frequently to reduce the dust nuisance.

After 45 minutes the driver took over the firing and motioned the fireman to his seat, their styles were quite different. The driver started by inspecting the fire using the blade of the shovel as a shade to spot any holes, then would commence a heavy firing spell raising boiler pressure higher than the fireman had maintained, but allowing it to fall back further. The regulator never reached the fully open position, the reversing gear being used to set the speed and the work rate. I only noted one wheel slip and that was heard rather than felt, this was an incredibly stable riding engine.

The third man had an easy ride only assisting at the water stop at Matetsi where he climbed on the front tank of the engine and assisted the driver to position it beneath the water pipe. He then started dragging coal forward, he would have a lot more on the return journey as the coal supply ran down. The sun began to rise as the crew cleaned the fire and serviced the engine. I took my leave of this professional team to return to the dining car, whose crew were just surfacing. The conductors gathered with them to have early morning tea and toast before attending to the passengers.

15th 394 is serviced at Matetsi.

The train heads to Victoria Falls, the dining car is the only carriage repainted in the NRZ livery.

15th 394 on arrival at Victoria Falls, 451km from Bulawayo.

The station at Victoria Falls was one of the most pleasant I have seen with attractive buildings and grounds and it was only a short walk to the Victoria Falls Hotel. In 1984 most hotels remained closed and few tourists were to be seen. Wandering around the Falls area I met a local resident also enjoying the views, he told me that the water passing over was at the lowest level he could remember in 13 years. The advantage was that you could now see more with the reduced spray and mist from the plunging water. To my eyes there seemed a massive flow of water, which left me pondering what it was like after heavy rains upriver. It was a truly inspiring to walk the cliffs to see the graceful rail bridge spanning over into Zambia. 

Mornings at the station would see the overnight passenger arrive followed by a 20th on a freight. One morning the passenger was running hours, the station master told me as a result of a power failure. Control had lost the train and he only had a rough idea when it would arrive. I watched a troop of monkeys playing in the trees whilst a tribe of mongoose made their way cautiously over the lawns towards the hotel grounds. 

402 & 730 with passenger and freight train arrivals on 14th September 1984

One morning In 1986 I was having breakfast at the Falls Hotel when I saw a Zambian 20th class crossing the bridge instead of the regular diesel. Knowing that the train would be held at the Customs post I raced back to my room and grabbed my cameras and headed down to the line. I was rewarded by the sight of Zambian 752 lumbering upgrade with one carriage and van! Surprisingly after the years since Zambian Independence the loco still retained it RR badges on the rear unit although its number plates were Zambian.

752 a Zambian 20th climbs upgrade from the Customs post with a mixed to Victoria Falls on 27th October 1986

The engine assembled a lengthy train, but did not work back till midday, by which time it was near impossible to photograph so I contented myself with the view of the return working over the bridge from the hotel swimming pool!.

The departure of the evening passenger behind its 15th was usually a spectacular affair as the sun dipped low lighting the train and a mighty fire was put on resulting in a column of smoke rising high in the air. Doors were slammed and the guard blew his whistle, the crew replied with several more blasts on the whistle and slowly eased the train away. That evening as the 15th on the Bulawayo Mail swept out of the yard the Zambian 20th (which must have worked back in the afternoon) started shunting what turned into a large load. It drew its train forward to the water columns and infuriatingly it stayed there until darkness fell. Win some, lose some!

On 13th September 1984, 15th 422 brews up prior to departure.

Rob Dickinson