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Archive for the tag “trains”

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


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

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 –

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 – 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 – “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.

The mystery of the runaway train

Several times a week Rovos Rail trains pass our house, and my wife noticed one passing yesterday morning that was unusual in that it was hauled by a diesel or electric locomotive rather than a steam locomotive. A few hours later we heard that one had been derailed at Pretoria atation, and that some people had been killed and many others injured.

Runaway train: Warning screams futile: News24: South Africa: News:

The traumatised owner of the Rovos Rail train which derailed just outside Pretoria said on Wednesday he screamed at others to jump – but his warnings came too late.

‘I screamed at the others (the passengers and crew) to tell them to jump off,’ Ruhan Vos said of the train which sped out of control for about 10km from the Centurion station in the direction of Pretoria.

‘I jumped off while it was moving.’

Vos said the train stopped in Centurion where tourists were allowed to look at the steam locomotive which would take them to the Capital Park station.

The Rovos Rail trains use vintage rolling stock that has been gutted to transform the coaches into luxury accommodation, and they are very expensive to travel on. We’ve often said that if we inherited or won a lot of money we’d like to travel on one of them to Dar-es-Salaam (the news story reference to Cape-to-Cairo trips is nonsense — there is no continuous rail link, and if you want to travel by train north of Dar-es-Salaam there is a break of gauge. Cape Town to Dar-es-Salaam is 1067 mm while north of that it is 1000 mm).

The mystery is why the coaches should run away.

In 1955 I travelled by train on a school trip to Cape Town. We travelled from Johannesburg to Cape Town on the Trans-Karroo in the spring, and woke up in the Karroo to see flowers stretching to the horizon. At Touws Ricver the engine was changed from steam to electric, and we descended into the Hex River Valley, and some of the mountain peaks had snow on them — the first time in my life I had ever seen snow.

On the return journey ten days later I stood gazing out of the window as we passed through the Hex River valley, gazing at the amazingly beautiful mountains lit by the afternoon sun. Then the scenery became less interesting as the train began the steep climb out of the valley, so I went back to my compartment. We had climbed about halfway out of the valley when the train stopped with an almighty jerk, and we were almost thrown out of our seats. When it hadn’t moved for a few minutes we looked out to see what was happening, and there was a small crowd around the electric engines — two of them in tandem to pull the train out of the valley.

We got out and went forward to have a look. The coupling on the front coach, a heavy cast-iron affair, had broken.

The coach was equipped with an emergency coupling — a piece of chain — which the crew hooked on to the engine. But before the train could go again, the vacuum brake pipe had to be repaired. When the coupling broke, the brake pipe stretched and broke too, and the jerk we had felt was caused when the air rushed into the broken pipe to fill the vacuum, and the brakes were suddenly applied.

The train crew cut the broken pipe with a penkife, and mended the break with insulation tape. When it was done, we all got back into the train, and it started forward again, but hadn’t gone more than a few feet when it rolled back, and stopped with another jerk. We got out and went to see what had happened. The chain had broken. Not surprising, since it had to carry the whole weight of the train. Since it had broken while the train was just pulling away, it rolled back a few feet before the vacuum pipe broke, and was brought to a sudden halt as the brakes were applied.

The crew got to work again. There were enough links left in the chain to reach the rear engine — just. There was enough vacuum pipe left to join it up again, but stretched out, and no longer in a loop. If it broke again we would be stranded on the mountainside, and since it was a single line at that point, the main line between Johannesburg and Cape Town would be blocked. We got back in the train, and the crew pulled away very carefully, and this time the link did not break, and we made it to Touws River, where the heavy coupling on the front coach was replaced, and the vacuum brake pipes replaced as well. The steam engine was put on — a massive one with a condensing tender to conserve water in the run across the dry Karroo. It was night by then, and the train was late.

The point of the story is that most of the coaches on the train in 1955 in regular service were the same vintage as those in the Rovos Rail trains. The front one, where the coupling broke, was the oldest, built in the 1920s. The others had probably been built in the 1930s and 1940s. They are the same as the ones that have been converted into luxury accommodation for Rovos Rail. The coach we travelled in was second class, with six compartments with six sleeping bunks in each, and two coupés with three bunks in each. Rovos Rail just stripped out the compartments and made them into bigger and posher bedrooms. But surely they left the vacuum braking system intact. The track out of the Hex River valley is steeper than that between Centurion and Pretoria, and when the coupling broke the train did not run away to the bottom. The second time it did roll back a few feet, but the moment the vacuum pipe broke it stopped with a vicious jerk.

So how could similarly equipped coaches on the Rovos Rail train run away down a hill that is not as steep? As soon as the vacuum pipe was uncoupled from the engine the brakes should have been applied throughout the train.

So therein lies a mystery.

An integrated transport system for Gauteng

An integrated transport system for Gauteng came one step closer with the establishment of the Gauteng Transport Management Authority, and the announcement of a single ticketing system being developed for public transport in Gauteng.

city of johannesburg – One ticket system plan for Gauteng:

A SINGLE ticket system is being rolled out that will make using public transport across Gauteng a whole lot easier.

The system, similar to London’s Oyster Card – a form of electronic ticketing used on public transport services within the Greater London area – is being rolled out by the Gauteng Transport Management Authority (GTMA), a new transport management body.

‘The single ticketing system will see travellers being transported seamlessly and with much ease around the province,’ said Eezi Raboroko, the chief director of transportation management in the province, at the GTMA launch, on Thursday, 9 October.

This is something that has been long overdue, and I wonder about the timing of the announcement — just after the removal of Mbhazima Shilowa as Premier of Gauteng. It has been very much Shilowa’s baby, and he is one of those who pushed hardest for it.

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