The International Steam Pages

A Garland of Islands, Part 6, Africa 1

Robert Hall writes about island railways of the world in a series of articles:

Click here for the other parts:

Africa has a “round half-dozen” of islands having public passenger railways in their history, at least loosely describable as “off its coasts”. A couple might be thought, geographically / culturally, to belong at least as well with other continents; but this whole exercise has to be done with a bit of arbitariness. For information concerning this “Garland” section, I owe a considerable debt to the excellent book “Steam in Africa” by A.E. Durrant, C.P. Lewis, and A.A. Jorgensen (henceforth referred to as “DLJ”): they deal with the islands element, in one chapter of the book, titled “Seven Island Lines”. I have elected to follow them with these seven; plus a rather vestigial eighth location, the Canary Isla2nds – which have had urban electric trams, outside the remit of the “Steam in Africa” crew. Many thanks for information received, are also owed to Thomas Kautzor.

The biggest island by far, and the only one with public railways surviving at the time of writing, is Madagascar. Some inclination was initially felt, to exclude this venue under my “too big and metropolitan” ban (for trivia-addicts, Madagascar ranks as the fourth largest island in the world) – but fondness for and interest in this particular piece of “real estate”, on other-than-rail scenes; and the quirkiness of its railways and their one-time steam power; persuaded me otherwise.

Madagascar was a colony of France from 1896, until transition to independence in 1958 – 60. The French administration endowed it with a public rail system – fairly sparse, in relation to the island’s great size -- centring on the east coast and the capital inland, Tananarive. The routes including the capital, totalling 738km, were opened between 1904 and the mid-1920s; a decade later, an isolated line was inaugurated some two hundred kilometres to the south: 163km long, from Manakara on the east coast, inland to Fianarantsoa. Hopes for linking this line to the main system, were never realised.

The Madagascar railways were similar in many respects, to those in areas of the French empire on the mainland of tropical Africa. Like almost all such lines, they were built to the metre gauge. However, the steam locos ordered for use on the island were on the whole lighter than was the norm on mainland French colonial lines; and with other unconventional traits. The large majority of them were Mallet 0-4-4-0 tank-tender engines – the tenders being high-sided but tiny four-wheeled affairs, holding fuel (wood) only. A British railfan on World War II service in Madagascar, marvelling at his first encounter with one of these machines (he was invited on to the footplate) remarked that the tender seemed so small and flimsy that he was almost afraid to step across onto it, for fear of its tipping up under his weight. These Mallets – ultimately numbering fifty-plus, with detail differences and technical improvements through the years -- were built between 1906 and 1930 by SACM, Batignolles, and a few, during World War I, in the USA by Baldwin. Further Mallet double-four-couplers were acquired second-hand: eight 2-4-4-0Ts from the Rhaetian Railway in Switzerland, and a number of 0-4-4-0Ts from Tunisia. Mallets purpose-built for Madagascar had tall chimneys topped with modestly-sized cylindrical spark-arresters.

There were a number of tank locos for minor duties – assorted 0-6-0Ts and 0-6-2Ts; and acquired in the late 1940s, two modern Corpet Louvet 0-8-0Ts from the then closing départemental system of Ille-et-Vilaine in France. (Other steam locos from this owner went to neighbouring Réunion at the same time.) The icing on the Madagascan steam cake was two 2-6-2 + 2-6-2 Beyer-Garratts built in 1925 by the Belgian firm of St. Léonard. These burned wood, like all the island system’s locomotives -- they had small diamond-stack spark-arresting chimneys; their rear bunkers were (as with the tender-tank locos) small, and for holding wood only – unusually on a Garratt, the inner half of the rear power bogie unit was actually under the cab. The Garratts were not as successful as had been hoped for; it is understood that although they lasted until the end of steam, they saw less-than-intensive use.

As was almost universally the case with railways in France’s overseas empire, elimination of steam came early – being completed in the mid-1950s, with work shared between diesel locomotives, and railmotors. The indefatigable C.S. Small, an American enthusiast whose job enabled him to range the globe and visit many obscure railways in the 1950s and possibly later, got to Madagascar in time for the “last knockings” of steam there, in 1954. This visit is described in Small’s 1959 book “Far Wheels”. He found the main system, based on the capital, almost totally diesel (though the apparent majority of its steam power was still in existence, and photographable); the isolated Fianarantsoa line remained 100% steam locomotive-wise, though some services were handled by diesel railcars. Sadly, none of the steam locos of Madagascar’s railways have survived.

As mentioned above, all locos burned wood throughout Madagascar’s steam era. The island has very little coal, and that located inaccessibly; whereas initially and for a long while, timber was there plentifully for the cutting. The latter factor, however, has proved “too much of a good thing”. Madagascar is at the present day, and has been for some while past, an environmental basket case – drastically deforested; tragically, in view of the uniqueness in the whole world, of so much of its fauna and flora. Wood-burning steam locomotion is a rare and pleasing curiosity for railway enthusiasts (though, one gathers, usually disappointing photographically as regards smoke effects); however, it causes mixed feelings on the part of the railfan who harbours environmental scruples – one ponders uncomfortably on how big a contribution to the devastation of Madagascar’s forests may have been made by the relentless fuel-hunger, over half a century, of the railways’ steam fleet. There is a 1954 photograph by Small taken at the loco depot at Fianarantsoa, and showing, in steam and ready to go, an 0-6-0T and a Mallet – the pair back-to-back on a track adjacent to an immense pile of wood fuel. A scene to inspire delight in one aspect; but in another, unease, and a sentiment that like it or not, complete dieselisation nearly sixty years ago in these parts had to be overall a good thing.

Incidentally – and a matter which crops up in Small’s Madagascar chapter – he writes fascinatingly about exotic railways; but it’s plain that he can’t spell “Garratt”, which in the book he always renders “Garret”, as in the kind of accommodation in which unsuccessful artists proverbially starve. In mitigation, he was from a continent where the type never ran...

The island’s all-diesel railways continued to run, well-used and with fair efficiency, up to and long after independence; and acquired a “second generation” of diesel locos -- but fell on hard times around the end of the twentieth century, with track and stock wearing out, and insufficient funds for maintenance and renewals. It is gathered that for a couple of years, this situation was so bad that all services over the main system were suspended – the isolated Manakara -- Fianarantsoa line continued to run. In the early 2000s, privatisation took place, with a French-South African consortium named Madarail gaining a 25-year concession to run the main system, and energetically setting about rehabilitating it, including the purchase of a number of new locomotives. If the author’s understanding is correct, freight services have been restored over all of the main system; reinstatement of passenger services began recently, and has so far taken place only on the network’s eastern parts, not including the capital. The Fianarantsoa line, not taken over by Madarail, would appear to have been left to sink or swim on its own. From recent reports, this section is still in use for passenger and freight at the time of writing; but it is in poor shape, with a desperate shortage of operational motive power, and its days may very well be numbered.

At the present time, all regular rail services in Madagascar are loco-hauled. The only railmotor action there nowadays, is by what has long been a Madagascan rail speciality – Micheline diesel railcars, with rubber-tyred rail wheels. These vehicles, comfortably appointed and seating relatively few passengers, and including an “on-car” bar, have always tended toward being “upper-class” accommodation on the island’s railways. They first appeared in Madagascar in the 1930s; those currently in existence (on the island, two operational and one in pieces) are early-1950s Carel et Fouché products. A fourth is in preservation in France – housed at present, at the Michelin museum in Clermont-Ferrand. The “Michelines” are not nowadays used on regular-service workings, but are available for chartering, and / or run weekend excursions over the otherwise freight-only section south from the capital Tananarive. C.S. Small in 1954 appreciated the amenities of the Micheline cars, but writes very disparagingly of the in comparison down-market four-wheel railmotors (now long extinct) which then worked many passenger turns on the island – he found them rough-riding and hideously uncomfortable.

Madagascar has some highly scenic rail delights – largely “unsung”, owing to its being one of the more out-of-the-way parts of the world. The 100-odd km from Tananarive east to Moramanga, over which the line makes a mountain descent from the central plateau toward the coastal lowlands, is testimony to remarkable engineering feats – tortuously, wondrously spectacular, including at least one spiral. This stretch has been compared to highly-admired and better-known lines in the Andes. Unfortunately, there are at present no regular passenger services over this section. The “endangered” Fianarantsoa line is reported also to be mountainously impressive. All this would have been wonderful with steam; but one would need a much earlier birth-date, to have been able to experience that scene in its full glory.

“Twins”, not-far-off identical and not quite 200km apart, in the Indian Ocean east of Madagascar, are Mauritius and Réunion. Islands of roughly the same size and shape (round-ish, some 40 / 50km across); scenically mountainous, not inhabited by humans until a few hundred years ago, having spent much time as French possessions and thus culturally with a strong French flavour (though Mauritius was British from 1810 on, while Réunion has virtually always been French – now an overseas département of that country). Both once had public railways; a small section of those of Réunion survives tenuously under preservation. Mauritius’s rail system was one of those splendidly characterful 1435mm gauge ones which came to be, in several of Britain’s far-flung colonies; whilst that of Réunion was a classic French metre-gauge local railway transplanted to a tropical setting.

The first section of Mauritius’s public railways was opened in 1864 – as things came about, the system’s working life lasted a century, more or less exactly. The network expanded over the next forty years, ultimately reaching a route length of just under 200km and serving most corners of the island.

The Mauritius Government Railways must have been a delight for the enthusiast throughout their hundred years’ lifetime. As has seemed the norm for the overseas domains of France and Britain respectively (North America excepted): while, as will be seen, Réunion lost steam early – Mauritius was virtually all-steam throughout; the MGR, at final closure in 1964, owned exactly two diesel locomotives. And MGR steam was in splendid variety, with an all-time roster of 81. Understood to have been all British-built, from a variety of makers. The system’s first locomotives were 0-4-2 tender engines by Sharp Stewart; after which tank locos became the virtually invariable fare – but in great variety of “styles and shapes” and wheel arrangements, built between the 1860s and 1930. The loco fleet ran the gamut of 0-4-0, 0-6-0, 0-6-2, 2-6-2, 2-8-2, and 0-8-0 tanks, variously “side” and “saddle”.

Although on the face of it, Mauritius would seem one of the less likely imaginable spheres of activity for the Beyer-Garratt type; nonetheless, the railway took delivery in 1927 of three 2-8-0 + 0-8-2 Garratts by Beyer Peacock. The reasoning behind this move, was to acquire relative “super-power” for the “Midland” line, from the capital Port Louis south-east through the mountainous centre of the island – to make possible longer and thus fewer freight trains, and without multiple-heading by tank locos. As things turned out, the Depression of the 1930s was shortly to begin, meaning less trade and less freight to haul: from then on, the Garratts had not so much work as originally anticipated, and toward the end of the system’s life they were seldom used.

Sadly, from then on it was “downhill all the way” for the MGR. Mauritius was a relative backwater in World War II, with no large-scale military activity to boost the railway’s traffic, and with wartime conditions curbing the flow of export of the island’s main product, sugar. After the war, road competition greatly intensified, leading to worsening financial losses. There were closures of lesser lines – according to one source, the earliest closing of lines may even have happened pre-war. The last passenger services were withdrawn in 1956. The amount of the system in freight use contracted bit by bit: as at the final workings in 1964 (a few years before Mauritius gained independence from its colonial status) only a little over 40 route kilometres remained in service.

The MGR’s life ended before many railway enthusiasts were in a position to travel the globe widely; and before there might have been, in that part of the world, a chance for any of the system to be saved on a “preservation” basis. None of the locomotives have survived, even in a preserved-static situation. The few “interested parties” who did get to the island up to the mid-1960s, provided photographs and written descriptions which depict what must have been an enchanting scene for any railfan not of the Kalla-Bishop “antiquated local railway-byways are nauseating” school.

The overall impression got of Mauritius is that it is in the main a tropically lush and delectable location, with fine scenery, inhabited by pleasant folk; though unfortunately, somewhat of a scene of Malthus’s nightmare unfolding before one’s eyes. Playing the “what-if” game: if some part of the island’s public rail system had managed to last rather longer than actually happened – even in total-dieselising circumstances – it might have been fostered and maintained as an attraction for the tourists whom Mauritius is very keen to woo; and / or in point of fact, come to be of practical use as relief to the island’s highly-congested roads. It would have been grand if things had unfolded that way, and something of the MGR were still with us; but the sad fact is that in 1964, the island’s public railways went the same way as its emblematic bird.

Mauritius had in addition, a small 762mm gauge system for public passenger and freight, the Bois Chéri Light Railway (totalling about 23km), active between 1903 and 1951. Also an extensive and eclectic assortment of narrow-gauge trackage in the exclusive service of the cane sugar industry; a good deal of which (latterly diesel-worked) long outlasted the MGR.

Moving on to the French “twin isle” -- at its maximum extent, Réunion’s metre-gauge railway consisted of a single 126km route running round some 60% of the island’s coastline, from St. Benoît on the east coast, round to the north of the island to St.Denis, the capital, and to its port beyond; thence to St. Pierre in the south. The line was opened in its entirety in 1882. Its most important role was always that of linking St. Denis, which lacks a natural harbour, with the artificial one which was instituted some 20km to the west – alternatively named Pointe des Galets, and (with impeccable logic) Le Port. With a formidable basalt massif separating the capital from the port site, three long tunnels in quick succession, totalling 11km, had to be bored in order to connect the two by rail. The whole railway is understood to have been decidedly scenic, with many impressive bridges.

The railway started its life with a fleet, steadily added-to over time, of 0-6-0Ts from various builders; augmented later by Mallet 0-4-4-0Ts whose provenance seems uncertain. As has been recounted, in the late 1940s Madagascar received two eight-coupled tank locos from the départemental light railway system of Ille-et-Vilaine in metropolitan France, then in process of closing down; virtually all the rest of its steam fleet -- eleven Corpet Louvet 0-6-0Ts and 0-6-2Ts – would appear to have gone to Réunion. (A few years before, the island had also received a solitary 0-6-0T off the CF Blanc – Argent in the mother country.) More-modern traction also came on the scene: i/c railmotors, the first having entered service pre-World War II; and in 1952, four Brissoneau et Lotz bogie diesel locos, whose arrival made a speedy end of steam on the railway – the ex-Ille-et-Vilaine machines cannot have performed a huge amount of work in exile before being superseded. A steam loco from the line survives in preservation, on the island (not in working order): it is in fact one of the system’s earliest -- 0-6-0T no.8, built by Schneider in 1879 or 1881, depending on the source.

Small in “Far Wheels” gives an in-words “snapshot” (no actual photographs) of the Réunion railway, from a short 1954 visit. By his account, the railway was then in decline, having lost most of its business to road transport. He was a couple of years too late for active steam power: refers to steam as apparently defunct, with only a few derelicts remaining, dumped in the port area – describes passenger services as worked by “bone-shaking” railbuses of the kind which he had experienced and hated in Madagascar, and the meagre freight by the diesel-electrics. Small implies that as at the time of his visit, the only remaining justification for the railway was emergency use over the largely-tunnel section between port and capital, when cyclones prevented road traffic from using the then new mountain highway linking the two.

The section between St. Pierre and the port was abandoned not long after, in (depending on which source taken) 1956 or ‘57; followed by St. Benoît – St. Denis in 1962 / 63. The capital-to-port stretch (or be exact, St. Denis to La Possession, a few kilometres short of the port) was retained in working order, basically just for meteorological emergencies as described, until supplanted for good in 1976 by an all-weather autoroute. Its track and stock remained in situ for a surprisingly long time subsequently; long enough for local enthusiasts to mount a working-preservation initiative on part of the surviving line. This venture was initially successful, with regular services operating, using diesel railcars, for some years. Sadly, it has more recently fallen on hard times, with effectively no interest or support from the local authorities. At the time of writing, there run only specially-chartered workings. The operational section of line is about 6km, mostly in tunnel, from La Possession to a median station en route to the capital. The preservation undertaking has in working order three 1959 Billard railcars and several trailers; also has in its care 0-6-0T no.8, as mentioned above – restored, but non-operational.

Réunion has the reputation of being a spot which “does different” from most of the world: a preserved railway which struts its stuff in tunnels for most of its length, would seem to be in keeping. C.S. Small would probably have agreed, though not with a positive slant; whilst recommending Réunion to those wishing to add to their list “a railroad in a place which no-one ever visits”, he clearly did not take to the island. Besides reckoning the on-the-skids and steamless railway not worth visiting for its own sake, he presents Réunion as in general a miserable, lifeless, poverty-stricken place, almost without tolerable accommodation or food for the visitor; and characterises the inhabitants as unpleasant hillbilly-ish barbarian haters-of-everybody-who-isn’t-them. He remarks that the Réunionais “managed the extraordinary feat of becoming rabid communists while faithfully showing up for Mass every Sunday”. (An oddity found elsewhere too, in the light of the twentieth century’s various strange and paradoxical ideological situations: for instance, one gathers that similar stuff was not unheard-of in Poland.) Small concludes his Réunion piece with the remark that “Outer Mongolia is more visited and probably more comfortable” – and this was written in 1959 ! – though he adds that this factor would likely be more of an incentive than a deterrent to a true gricing snob.

Others have seen an opposite side of the coin, and considered Réunion a tropical paradise. (It appears that Small never visited Mauritius – thus depriving us of a potentially interesting “compare and contrast” exercise.) No doubt it all comes down to the old but very true, “De gustibus...” -- Small was captivated by Jamaica, whose people are not everyone’s cup of tea. As often observed, life would be dreary if everyone liked and disliked the same things. It’s for sure, that Small is no hero to Réunion’s tourist board; however, he having died in 1993, their opinion is unlikely to be a worry for him now.

The last island on Africa’s Indian Ocean side to be covered here, is Zanzibar; which for a fairly brief time-window in its period as a British protectorate, boasted a narrow-gauge public railway. To the author’s knowledge, this was the only such anywhere “in, or off, Africa”, of the 914mm (3 feet) gauge. The only part of the world where this gauge truly caught on, to a significant extent, was the USA. Its use in Zanzibar is probably attributable to its being planned and inaugurated by the American firm of Arnold Cheyney, who in the first years of the twentieth century were granted a concession to introduce electricity to Zanzibar, including building a power station; and to construct “tramways”. This undertaking duly inaugurated a 914mm gauge railway running 11km northward parallel to the island’s west coast, from Zanzibar city to the euphoniously-named Bububu. Instead of the electric tram route which might have been expected from the initiating company, this was a steam line, carrying passengers and freight. There is some uncertainty about its opening date – on balance, 1906 would seem likeliest.

Appropriately, US-built locomotives were ordered for the line: 0-4-4Ts from Porter, at least a couple obtained for line’s opening, plus more of same at later dates. The railway also had a Bagnall 0-4-2T, which arrived in 1919. In 1911, the government acquired the line; they had plans to extend it further, toward the island’s northern end, but these were never realised. Road competition became a troubling factor in this part of the world, earlier than in many places, and led to the withdrawal of the line’s passenger service in 1922; freight continued for a while. The railway’s final spell in the limelight involved a 1921 southward extension of another 11km to a quarry, purpose being to transport stone from there to the construction site for a new wharf for the capital. The completion of this project coincided with the abandonment of the entire railway, most of its freight traffic having been lost to road transport. Date of abandonment is given as 1928 or 1930, depending on which source is accepted.

There are a few delightful photographs of the line to be found, showing trains of coaches semi-open but with copious anti-sun protection at their sides; headed by the Porter locomotives, equipped with cowcatcher and strange spark-arrester-oid chimney of a tall and thin kind. The last-mentioned fitment would seem not to have been very good at its anti-spark job: the Wikipedia entry on the Zanzibar railway mentions its having been “notorious for its ability to set fire to property and the surrounding countryside”. And DLJ tell of contemporary writers describing the line’s operations as “eccentric”. One suspects that had Percy French ever visited those parts, he would have found the island’s railway a grand source of inspiration (and the gauge would have reminded him of home). As regards historical time and longevity, this line would seem to fall almost in the “blink and you’ve missed it” category; but some envy arises, of the few who were at the right place and time to experience and enjoy it. There is a “slim volume” devoted to the line: “Zanzibar and the Bububu Railway”, by Kevin Patience.

Useful internet links for further information.

Gavin Hamilton's Beyer Garratt website has pictures of Mauritius and Madagascar Garratts (7th picture down) and (2nd picture down).

For more information on Madagascar's Mallets, see a page on this website.

Thomas Kautzor wrote a comprehensive report on his 2012 visit to Madagascar, similarly there is a report of the LCGB visit which formed part of Thomas's own trip.

YouTube has a number of contemporary videos of Madagascar's railways, just search! 

A History of the Mauritian Railway - this may need checking for accuracy! ( link broken by December 2021)

Mike's Railway History has its own island's page, can anyone confirm that the 0-8-0 illustrated is indeed a Mauritian locomotive?

Thomas Kauzor's visit to Réunion in 2012, with further links within it.

For a review of the history of Réunion's railways and remaining relics see (link dead by 26th April 2014)

Zanzibar's railway gets a goodly mention in Nostalgic Zanzibar ( EAfrica/nostalgic- ZANZIBAR.html link broken by December 2021), Kevin Patience's slim volume mentioned above is a good read on the subject.

Rob Dickinson