Notes from underground

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Archive for the tag “railways”

A South African Train Journey

These are some memories of a train journey in South Africa in 1979. Train travel has probably changed a bit since then, as it was nearly 35 years ago. I was living in Melmoth, Zululand, and needed to travel to a church synod in Grahamstown. Most people travelling to such things went by air, but the travel allowence covered the cost of a second-class train ticket, and I generally preferred the more leisurely pace of train travel. Apart from anything else it would give me time to look at the synod documents.

Someone gave me a lift from Melmoth to Durban, and I got on the train in Durban station, which left at 7:30 pm on Wednesday 28 November 1979.

The train, like many mainline trains in South Africa in those days, was a composite one. The main destination was Cape Town, but there were some coaches destined for Port Elizabeth and East London, which would be shunted off at the appropriate places. There wasn’t a coach going to Grahamstown, so I got on one of the Port Elizabeth coaches. I would have to change at Alicedale.

The train was hauled by two Class 5E electric locomotives of 2000 horsepower each.

There were three other guys in the compartment, all railway people who had been to write an exam for promotion, and had come from Port Elizabeth — Christo van der Merwe, and Martin van Antwerpen, and another guy who consumed enormous quantities of cane spirit, and they all drank fairly heavily. I sat reading a book on wills most of the time before going to bed on the top bunk.

Thursday 29 November 1979

I woke up just before the train reached Swinburne, and went to a compartment in another coach, as everyone else in my compartment was sleeping. It was not possible to sit in the compartment while others were sleeping, as the back of the seat lifted up to form the middle bunk, while the top bunk was pulled down from the wall above it. Once everyone was awake and up the usual practice was to let down the middle bunks so one could sit, and dump all the used bedding on the top bunk, where the bedding attendant would collect it.

At about 6:00 we reached Harrismith, and I went out and bought a Coke. There was no dining saloon on the train, only a refreshment car, from which I bought a couple of pies, and the train went on to Bethlehem, and there they took off the electric locos and put on a steam one, a Class 25 NC Henschel. The NC, I think, stands for “non-condensing” — some of the Class 25 locomotives that ran in the drier parts of the country had an extra tender with a condenser to re-use the steam.

Henschel Clas 25 NC

Henschel Class 25 NC at Bethlehem Station

At Bethlehem there was some shunting.

Bethlehem Station

Bethlehem Station

The train from Durban and the train from Johannesburg arrived at roughly the same time, and the coaches from the Johannesburg train were added to ours. The train from Johannesburg went to Bloemfontein via the eastern Free State, and I had travelled on it about 20 years previously on school camping trips, including a pony trek in the mountains of Lesotho. On those trips we got off at Fouriesburg, where the station was six miles from the town, and the town was six miles from the Caledonspoort border post with Lesotho, where we stayed at the Wyndford Guest Farm. Back in the days of those trips (1957/58) one did not have to show passports at the Lesotho border.

Steam locomotive hooking up to the assembled train

Steam locomotive hooking up to the assembled train

Eventually all the coaches had been shuffled to their right places on the train, and it went very slowly up the rather steep climb out of Bethlehem. I remembered that from the earlier school trips, as the train went little faster than walking pace.

Henschel Class 25 NC detail

Henschel Class 25 NC detail of valve gear

I sat and watched the Eastern Free State countryside go by, and read Ben Temkin’s biography of Gatsha Buthelezi, and we reached Modderpoort about 3:00. There were several steam locomotives there, though they had disappeared almost entirely from Natal, and they seemed to be getting fewer and fewer.

Henschel Class 25 Cab

Henschel Class 25 Cab

We had just left Marseilles when the train stopped, and it appeared that a soldier had fallen from the train, so we went back to pick him up from where he was lying on the side of the track, and then the train reversed into Marseilles station for him to be taken to hospital. He was unconscious, but whether from his fall or the liquor he had consumed beforehand it is hard to say. One could only say a prayer for him.

The long slow climb out of Bethlehem

The long slow climb out of Bethlehem

That incident delayed the train for an hour, and it arrived at Bloemfontein just after sunset, but there was a long wait at Bloemfontein anyway for shunting in to connect with the train from Johannesburg — the train was broken up completely, with some coaches going to East London, some to Kimberley, and ours to Port Elizabeth. There was a through coach to Grahamstown that came in on the Joburg train, so I moved my things to that. There was also a proper dining saloon, though it was now closed for the night. I was in a coupe on the Grahamstown coach, which I had to myself. From Bloemfontein we had exchanged the steam for a diesel locomotive, and went on south through the night, the second night on the train.

Diesel locomotives of the type that hauled the train from Bloemfontein to Port Elizabeth - at Alicedale Station

Diesel locomotives of the type that hauled the train from Bloemfontein to Port Elizabeth – at Alicedale Station

This part of the journey was of some interest to me, as my great grandfather, William Matthew Growdon, had helped to build the line. He came from Cornwall in 1876 and was a platelayer for the Cape Government Railways (CGR) and ended his career as a permanent way inspector stationed at Bethulie in the southern Free State. After retiring he went to live in Queenstown, but died in a carriage accident a few months later. On this particular trip, however, we passed through Bethulie in the middle of the night, so there was nothing to see.

The Grahamstown coaches are taken off the Port Elizabeth train at Alicedale, and hooked to the back of a goods train

The Grahamstown coaches are taken off the Port Elizabeth train at Alicedale, and hooked to the back of a goods train

Friday 30 November 1979

I woke up with the train travelling through the Eastern Cape countryside somewhere near Cradock, and went to the dining saloon for breakfast, and sat with a chap who was a charismatic Anglican from St Nicholas in Port Elizabeth, and so had a long talk with him over breakfast, and then went back to my coupe to read the synod papers, and then had morning tea again in the dining saloon, until reaching Alicedale, where they shunted us off to make up the Grahamstown train, which was again steam-hauled, this time by a Class 19D.

Class 19 4-8-2 locomotive that took the train over the hills from Alicedale to Grahamstown

Class 19 4-8-2 locomotive that took the train over the hills from Alicedale to Grahamstown

The Grahamstown train acually went through to Port Alfred on the coast, and was a mixed passenger and goods train, with the passenger coaches at the back. There was another steep climb out of Alicedale, though the train did not go quite as slowly as it did out of Bloemfontein.

The last stage of the journey -- Alicdale to Grahamstown.

The last stage of the journey — Alicdale to Grahamstown.

It had turned cold and raining, and the train reached Grahamstown about 3:00, and Godfrey Ashby, the dean of Grahamstown and bishop-elect of St John’s, picked me up at the station and drove me to Kimberley Hall of Rhodes University where most of the meetings were to be held.

 

Narrow gauge railways of KwaZulu-Natal

When I was young, there used to be narrow-gauge railways all over KwaZulu-Natal. Many of them were branch lines, leading from mainline stations to villages in the Natal Midlands. The area was very hilly, and the traffic was not heavy, so narrow gauge lines were much cheaper to build.

In addition, in the coastal region, there were countless privately owned lines radiating from the sugar mills for taking cane from the fields to the mills to be crushed and refined. When I was 12 years old I spent a holiday with a friend at Mount Edgecombe, and we used to sneak out at 4:00 am, nick one of the cane trucks, and ride on it down the hill to the mill to beg for “treacle-toffee” — the caked residue chopped off from the cauldons in which the cane was boiled. We then used to ride back up the hill on a train pulling empty trucks out to the fields, and jump off when it got close to home. They were pulled by steam engines in those days, but I never got a photo of one.

By the 1960s many of them had vanished, being replaced by “hi-los”, or Gila monsters, big diesel lorries that crowded the narrow roads. Smaller growers used trailers pulled by ordinary farm tractors. So when in 1980 I spotted what was possibly one of the last surviving cane tracks in Zululand, I quickly took a couple of photos.  The steam engines had gone, but now the diesel that replaced them has probably gone too.

My beautiful pictureThe tracks used to wander in and out of the cane fields, and seemed to be inviting one to a journey to a mystery destination, and the complex network of lines seemed to belong to a romantic different world. Being stuck behind a lumbering hi-lo on a narrow winding road was a poor substitute, and a great nuisance.

Cane train in Zululand, December 1980

Cane train in Zululand, December 1980

When the cane was loaded on to the trains, it was burnt in the fields before being taken to the mill — the cane had to be burnt before it was crushed. I don’t know what they do now — burning it on a hi-lo would probably melt the tyres.

Narrow-gauge Garratt locomotive at Umlaas Road, 8 December 1980

Narrow-gauge Garratt locomotive at Umlaas Road, 8 December 1980

The cane trains were light railways in every sense, but the ones belonging to the South African Railways were “proper” trains.  Their locomotives were many times bigger than those used on the cane tracks, and were often articulated Garratt locomotives, to cope with the sharp curves winding among the hills, which Alan Paton described so lyrically in the opening paragraphs of his novel Cry, the beloved country.

There is a lovely road that runs from Ixopo into the hills. These hills are grass-covered and rolling, and they are lovely beyond any singing of it. The road climbs seven miles into them, to Carisbrooke; and from there, if there is no mist, you look down on one of the fairest valleys of Africa

Cari

Carisbrooke Halt, with corrugated iron waiting room, January 1972. This featured in Alan Paton’s novel Cry, the beloved country. The view of the fairest valley in Africa lies just beyond and to the right of the waiting room, but this post is about the trains rather than the view.

The station at Carisbrooke, described in Alan Paton’s novel, was a branch off the line from Donnybook to Umzinto, and it the only one of the Natal narrow-gauge lines I have actually ridden on. A friend and I set out to hitchhike from Pietermaritzburg to Grahamstown on a long weekend, but after being stuck in Ixopo for hours decided to make for the coast instead, and got a lift from Highflats to Hluntankungu with a witchdoctor and from there walked three miles to to Jolivet, and seeing no lifts in cars likely and a train coming, ran to the station and hitched a ride on it to Umzinto (see The vanishing hitchhiker). I once wrote a children’s novel featuring an imaginary extension of this like from Donnybook to Himeville, but I haven’t found a publisher for it yet, and probably never will. [Update: published as an e-book in December 2014].

The Donnybrook-Umzinto line somewhere between Hlutankungu and Jolivet, May 1964

The Donnybrook-Umzinto line somewhere between Hlutankungu and Jolivet, May 1964

There was also a line from Port Shepstone to Harding, and I saw trains on it as recently as 1980.

Train on the Port Shepstone-Harding line, 10 December 1980

Train on the Port Shepstone-Harding line, 10 December 1980

Because of the sharpness of the curves and the narrowness of the gauge, the trains could not mtravel very fast, but they did give one a marvellous view of the countryside that they passed through.

Train on the Port Shepstone-Hardin line, 10 December 1980

Train on the Port Shepstone-Hardin line, 10 December 1980

At Umlaas Road station, where the narrow gauge line from Mid-Illovo met the main line, the trucks would be placed side-by-side to transfer the loads.

Transferring a load of poles from the narrow gauge to a mainline train at Umlaas Road, 8 December 1980

Transferring a load of poles from the narrow gauge to a mainline train at Umlaas Road, 8 December 1980

The narrow gauge rolling stock could also ride piggy back on the mainline wagons for trips to the repair shops in Durban.

Narrow-gauge truck riding piggy-back on a mainline train. Umlaas Road, 8 December 1980

Narrow-gauge truck riding piggy-back on a mainline train. Umlaas Road, 8 December 1980

Most of these narrow gauge lines have now been closed. There used to be one between Estcourt and Weenen, but it was closed and the rails have been removed. The line used to cross the old Durban-Johannesburg road just outside Estcourt, but though I must have crossed it dozens of times, I never saw a train on it. And I believe most of the others have now been closed too. I’m glad we managed to get a ride on some of them before they did close.

Narrow-gauge Garratt locomotive at Umlaas Road Station, 8 December 1908

Narrow-gauge Garratt locomotive at Umlaas Road Station, 8 December 1980

Deteriorating transport infrastructure

potholes warning
One of the things we have noticed in our holiday travels is the deterioration of the transport infrastructure in the country.

In some provinces, notably the Free State and Mpumalanga, the roads are in poor condition, and the Free State roads were particularly bad, full of potholes. The 700 km drive from Clarens to Graaff Reinet was very tiring, because of the concentration needed to drive along the potholed roads, and that was in daylight and in good weather. At night, or if it was raining, it would have been far, far worse. When we reached the Eastern Cape the roads were a lot better, and likewise in the Western Cape. The Free State roads, however, were beginning to resemble those of Albania 10 years ago, where repairs could never catch up, because as soon as one section was repaired, and the road workers moved on to a new section, the newly repaired section began to deteriorate again.

But it wasn’t only the roads; the railways are also deteriorating. Around Villiers in the Free State we saw abandoned railway lines, covered with weeds. There was another abandoned line between Steynsburg and Rosmead in the Eastern Cape, and yet another going north from Graaff Reinet.

weeds on railway tack

The reason for both kinds of deterioration seems to be the deregulation of road transport, which took place about 25-30 years ago, during the privatisation mania of the Reagan-Thatcher years. This led to a huge increase in the number of heavy goods vehicles on the roads, and in many cases the roads were not designed to carry such traffic. Goods that used to be carried by rail now go by road, with a consequent deterioration of both the road and rail infrastructure.

My cousin-in-law in Graaff Reinet, Nick Grobler, told us of a woman he knew who had uterine cancer, and had to go to Port Elizabeth for a hystrerectomy. In the past it was a comfortable overnight train journey, but now, being discharged from hospital within three days, she had to return to Graaff Reinet in a cramped minibus taxi, and though the roads in the Eastern Cape are not (yet) as bad as those in the Free State, it was not a pleasant journey after major surgery.

Trains and individualism

You find some really bizarre stuff on the web but this is one of the strangest I’ve come across yet – on trains and individualism.

Dagny Taggart Wept – NYTimes.com:

the real reason for progressives’ passion for trains is their goal of diminishing Americans’ individualism in order to make them more amenable to collectivism.

This comes from an article by Paul Krugman Diminished Individualism Watch – NYTimes.com commenting on something he wrote earlier about what someone called George Will wrote here: Will: Why Liberals Love Trains – Newsweek. I have no idea who George Will and Paul Krugman are, and I came across this series via theMiss Eagle Daily, a digest of tweets from a fellow blogger I follow on Twitter.

I have a certain amount of sympathy for George Will’s doubts about the usefulness of high-speed trains. The Gautrain is due to come into operation later this year, and it has been a pretty expensive exercise. It is supposed to provide high-speed connections between Johannesburg, Pretoria and the airport.

But I cannot help remembering an earlier high speed train attempt, the Metroblitz of the 1980s. It required an expensive upgrading of the existing line between Johannesburg and Pretoria — the one via Germiston. But by 1995 the train had been abandoned, and the coaches were lying, forlorn, vandalised and abandoned in a siding at Koedoespoort.

This picture shows the interior of the vandalised coaches. But a couple of years later most of the bodywork had gone too.

We rode on the Metroblitz once, when we had just bought our present house, and had to visit lawyers in downtown Johannesburg to sign some transfer documents. It seemed easier to go by train than look for parking in Johannesburg. But to get the Metroblitz we had to take a train from Sportpark in Lyttelton to the centre of Pretoria, because the Metroblitz did not stop at Sportpark. It went non-stop from city centre to city centre. It took 45 minutes, as opposed to the hour-and-ahalf of the regular trains.

Perhaps the Gautrain will improve on that. At least it has intermediate stops, and in places that people actually want to go to.

So yes, I have my doubts about high-speed trains.

The real problem with George Will’s article is not his doubts about the economic viability of high-speed trains; it is the ignorant ideological claptrap that surrounds it. As Klugman points out: Dagny Taggart Wept – NYTimes.com: “But anyway, it’s amazing to see Will — who is not a stupid man — embracing the sinister progressives-hate-your-freedom line, more or less right out of Atlas Shrugged; with the extra irony, of course, that John Galt’s significant other ran, well, a railroad.”

And then there is Will’s Orwellian doublespeak of the “war is peace and peace is war” variety, when he ascribe to liberals a desire to destroy individualism and promote collectivism. Anyone with a rudimentary knowledge of history would know that the rise of liberalism cannot be separated from the rise of individualism. Perhaps George Wills is not a stupid man, but if he expects people to buy this “wet is dry and dry is wet” argument, he is either remarkably ignorant, or expects his readers to be.

Building bridges for the Gautrain

Just about every road in Gauteng is being dug up, widened or resurfaced, and if that weren’t enough, a new railway line is being built between Johannesburg, Pretoria and the airport. One of the most spectacular pieces of construction is where it will cross the N1 highway at Centurion.


When the first railways were built in this part of the world about 120 years ago, President Paul Kruger of the South African Republic (ZAR) did not like Johannesburg, and so would not allow a direct rail link between Johannesburg and Pretoria, but only an indirect connection via Germiston. Now at last this is being rectified, but in the intervening 120 years most of the land in between has been built on, so the new line will be underground from central Johannesburg to Risebank, then on the surface through Midrand, and overhead through Centurion.

There is talk of it possibly being ready in time for the Soccer World Cup next year, though that will also push the cost up.

At the point where it crosses the freeway here, the freeway is also being widened from three lanes to four, though it seems unlikely that that will relieve the traffic congestion. But the road is also likely to become a toll road, and the toll will be about the same as the train fare, which will mean that only vehicles with two or more occupants will be cheaper than the train.

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