The International Steam Pages

Steam in South Africa - the future

For some years, South Africa has been perhaps the most attractive international destination for steam tourism and the operation of special trains. This has been under threat recently following some unfortunate incidents and a new way forward is now being charted:

Trevor Heath has sent me this note copied from the March 2000 Sandstone Rail Newsletter:

"In the era of rapid change in South Africa, steam train operations recently came to a grinding halt at a red signal. During the past weekend and extremely successful workshop was held at George to reflect on the future of steam trains and Spoornet's involvement in their operation. The points have now been set and the historical steam train industry has started steaming its way along a new route. The workshop was hosted by Spoornet and the Transnet Heritage Foundation ( which operates the Outeniqua Choo Tjoe and the Railway museum in George) and was attended by approximately 60 delegates from all over the country.) The delegates represented steam train operators, steam preservation organizations, trade unions and the divisions of Transnet and Spoornet involved with the operation of steam trains. About 40 delegates were flown from Lanseria airport to George and back in the Heritage Foundation's historic DC4 aircraft, while those from the Western Cape traveled from Cape Town to George and back on a special Spoornet passenger train. In typical railway tradition, delegates were accommodated on the passenger train in the unique railway museum in George, and the museum's art gallery was converted into a temporary conference hall.

Spoornet Withdraws from Steam Operations

During a similar conference at Esselen Park (East Rand) during November 1999, Spoornet announced its intention to phase out its steam services to the Transnet Heritage Foundation (Outeniqua Choo Tjoe and union Limited) as well as other steam operators such as Rovos Rail, and steam preservation organizations over a period of two years. Because the preservation of steam is not part of Spoornet's core business, it is no longer possible to pay the necessary attention to this mode of motive power. The steam preservation function is a specialized task which can best be undertaken by specialists in the field like the various steam clubs, knowledgeable private organizations and the Transnet Heritage Foundation.

These services include:

  • training and provision of steam drivers and firemen

  • maintenance and repair of steam locomotives

  • steam boiler inspections

  • roadworthy and certification of steam locomotives

  • provision of material and spares for steam locomotives

During the recent conference the phasing out of these services was discussed in depth and plans were put in place to ensure that Spoornet's withdrawal would not result in an en to steam operations. South Africa is one of a few countries where steam locomotives are preserved "live" and the Outeniqua Choo Tjoe which runs daily between Knysna and George is the only of its kind in the world.

Apart from Union Limited safari trains which are operated by the Transnet Heritage Foundation from Cape Town to George, Knysna and Outshoorn, excursion trains are operated over weekends by steam preservation organizations in Pretoria, Germiston, Waterval Boven and in the Durban area. Other operators include Rovos Rail, Sandstone Steam Railway, Spier and the Apple Express narrow gauge in Port Elizabeth.

South African steam trains are very popular with foreign tourists and are a large source of foreign exchange for the country. Although it will be an almost impossible task for steam operators to become totally self-sufficient in two years, the Transnet Heritage foundation and the steam preservation organizations have accepted the challenge in a positive manner.

"Anything is possible"

With the theme of "anything is possible", steam operators formulated a steam strategy during the conference which will, inter alia, make provision for the:

  • compliance with safety standards

  • retention and preservation of the remaining workshop facilities and steam infrastructure

  • upgrading and maintenance of repair facilities

  • training of firemen and steam drivers

  • training of technicians for the steam industry

Negotiations between Spoornet and other interested parties including trade unions to make the necessary infrastructure available for preservation is already underway.

Training Fund

The future availability of steam train drivers and steam technicians has been identified as a critical factor. As result of the high premium on training, it was decided by the Transnet Heritage foundation to earmark funds especially for this purpose. These funds will be supplemented by amounts which will be levied for all steam train trips operated over Spoornet lines.

New Structures

With the planned withdrawal of Spoornet from steam operations, the need for a body to look after the interests of the various steam operators and serve as the mouthpiece for the steam industry was recognized. The Heritage Railway Association of Southern Africa was established for this purpose and will in future represent the steam industry in negotiations with the various Spoornet and Transnet divisions as well as other authorities. This association will also establish a code of conduct for the industry and monitor adherence to it.

Lifting of Steam Ban

In order to ensure the safety of steam trains and the members of the traveling public, Spoornet produced a comprehensive list of safety requirements for the steam train industry during 1999. A temporary ban was placed on the operation of steam trains by preservation organizations over the Spoornet network until such time as they were able to comply with the safety standards. During the conference it was announced that five preservation organizations now comply with the safety standards and will be able to resume steam operations by the end of May 2000. For members of the traveling public it will be a relief to know that all reasonable steps have been taken to ensure safety on steam train excursions. The five steam club are:

  • Friends of the rail - Pretoria

  • Oosterlijn Steam Association - Waterval Boven

  • Reef Steamers - Germiston

  • Umgeni Steam Railway - Durban

  • Apple Express Society - Port Elizabeth

It is possible that more steam preservation organizations will comply with the core requirements by the end of May and will also be permitted to resume steam operations.

Steam Festival: September 2000

The Transnet Heritage Foundation will host a steam festival in George from 18 to 25 September 2000. As in the past, the focus will be on community involvement but there will also be special train rides for the public and steam enthusiasts. History will be made this year by the running of a special steam train from Pretoria to George. This train will be jointly run by Spoornet, the Transnet Heritage Foundation, and the Railway Heritage Association of Southern Africa.


Enquiries with regard to the new steam policy may be addressed to:
Mr. William Smith, Steam Curator, Spoornet, Johannesburg
Telephone: (011) 773-8628
Fax: (011) 773-3128

Mr. Andre Strauss
Executive Manager
Transnet Heritage Foundation, George
Telephone: (044) 801-8252
Fax: (044) 801-8270

Mr. Ed van der Heever
Acting Chairman
Heritage Railway Association of Southern Africa, Pretoria
Telephone: (012) 349-2765
Fax: (012) 349-1800"

Rob Dickinson