TRAXI part one: A personal view of Mzansi passenger rail

JASPER COOK / My dad was born in Douglas in the Northern Cape, and my great-great Uncle Bernard somewhere in the rural Eastern Cape. Both of them surely owned a portmanteau, because nearly everyone did back then. The dictionary definition is as follows:

portmanteau /pɔːtˈmantəʊ/

noun: portmanteau; plural noun: portmanteaux; plural noun: portmanteaus; noun: portmanteau word; plural noun: portmanteau words

1.    a large travelling bag, typically made of stiff leather and opening into two equal parts.

2.    a word blending the sounds and combining the meanings of two others, for example motel or brunch.

We had one. It came out of the store room every December, along with a massive trunk. Packed full of clothing, the trunk was sent to the PMB railway station a day before our annual train trip to the Karoo. The trunk, even in those days of lumbering yank tanks, was so big it went on the back seat, or as a bakkie load, or even on a rickshaw. It would not fit in the boot of any car. The portmanteau did fit in the taxi boot.

We would set off nearly numb with excitement for the station after supper to board “the Bloemfontein train” late at night. If we had a “through” coach to PE, we could relax in Bloem without needing to change trains. If we did not, everything had to be unloaded, and put on the PE train for Noupoort.

That usually meant a trek to another platform. A porter would bring his trolley (he usually called it a kruiwa), make for the end of the platform, go down a ramp, and cross the tracks. We would climb up steps and cross via the pedestrian bridge. There was no hurry, we had about four hours to do it in. Many times, my parents put everything in the luggage storage, collected a ticket for it, and walked with us to Hoffman Square, to see the coloured fountain, and maybe go to a café for an ice cream soda. SAR saw nothing wrong in making people wait four hours for a connection. We were made to understand that other trains, from South West Africa and the Transvaal, were making their way to Bloem, and our train was given hours to wait for those connections.

I could barely breathe as the train pulled gracefully into the PMB station, usually behind a pair of Class 1E electric locomotives. These units were deployed in 1926. They were capable of a leisurely 72 kilometres an hour, very slow compared with steam locomotives, but way faster on hills, which were all we had in then Natal. In their defence, these units soldiered on for forty years before major overhauls: I was a stoker in 1966, and they were just that year trickling in for their first major overhauls. Today, we have Transnet personnel bleating about Chinese parts being unavailable for locomotives that are almost brand new and should not yet need parts. This stinks of lies and corruption – why import spare parts for locally made units?

As to the other meaning of portmanteau, the title of this article is one: combining track and taxi is a portmanteau.

From oxen to Iron Horse

Back to (great-great) Uncle Bernard. He was a transport rider, and began to ply his ox-wagon service from Algoa Bay to Bulawayo in the 1880s. He retired in 1933, partly because he was old enough and it was time, but mainly because, after half a century, rail from Algoa (Nelson Mandela) Bay to Bulawayo was finally fast enough to beat his ox wagons. Rail improved steadily from the 1880s through to the 1930s. In the war years, things slowed, naturally, but the steady improvement continued into the 1950s, when the last of our steam locomotives, built by the North British Locomotive company, were assembled in the Salt River works.

These were class 25s, and they were good enough that two of them are working today on the Belmont-Douglas branch line, nearly 70 years old, and going very strong. At 54 400 N-m of torque, they remain the most powerful non-articulated locomotives ever built for Cape Gauge. To put that in perspective, the most powerful trucks on our roads may have 3000 N-m of torque, and most have less.

Hordes of rail fan tourists make their way to Kimberley from all over the world, bent on one thing: taking pics of these working steam locomotives.

SAR: the ‘good’ old days

I had many good years of train travel on SAR. I was also lucky to travel on trains in England, France, Germany, Switzerland, Canada, Australia and Japan. In France I travelled on a sleeper train, an interesting comparison with SAR in that the compartments were unisex. I was on a top bunk, while a young woman slept on the opposite top bunk.

All these trains lacked the one unique characteristic about South African mainline passenger travel, known to everyone who has enjoyed long distance passenger rail here, especially overnight, and while growing up. We all “know and love” this special quality. However, if you ask what it is, you will get many answers. It is surprising how many people take this unique characteristic for granted, but they have probably not travelled on other trains overseas, where timetables are everything, and trains start quickly and are really in a rush.

People will talk about glossy varnished Burmese teak compartments, exquisite dining cars built in an age of coach builders who really knew their craft. They will go on about coffee served steaming in a silver pot with heavy crockery on a silver tray at the crack of dawn. I said served, and I mean served: the waist-coated steward would pour the milk for you, all the while swaying gently on his feet against the lurching and pitching, quite the circus talent in areas like the Eastern Free State, where the mbombela snaked through mountains, across dongas and rivers.

Jasper the stoker firing a class 19D locomotive, Empangeni, 1966.

They may recall the earlier wooden coaches with a balcony at each end of the coach, and spending most of the day on these balconies, out of parents’ way and free to inhale the glorious mix of country air with the steam smells: graphite from the brake blocks, steam and hot oil from the engine, farming odours, and sometimes, if one was very lucky, the aroma of Free State or Karoo earth after rain.

For youngsters trains meant a return to school, or home for the holidays. For farm children, this could mean waiting at a halt, nothing more than a sign atop two posts next to the track, displaying the name of the halt. The wait could start any time of the day or night. Main line trains were scheduled as often as possible to begin and end their runs in daylight, meaning you would sleep through the platteland. So, if you were a schoolchild from Schoombee, that wait was at night, maybe even in the small hours, freezing in winter, but for all that, exposure to rural spaces instilled a love for the wide open spaces in many young learners. At high school, I found that boys who travelled by train talked about scenery, and those who were driven by their parents in a vehicle did not.

At rural halts, train drivers would stop if they saw a passenger waiting, or speed straight on if nobody was seen. For the engine driver, a passenger manifest would alert him to expect a passenger, if they had made a reservation, but farms had shared “party” telephone lines, and phoning was difficult. One had to book a trunk call to phone the city to make a reservation, and it didn’t always work out for days on end. Without a reservation, one had to simply pitch at a halt, hoping for a bunk on the train. Drivers knew to watch out and stop for surprise passengers.

Many old timers will talk of the powerful beam of the locomotive, lighting up the line, straight as an arrow in the Karoo, for miles ahead. They will talk of the firebox setting up a bright dance astride the steel cab as it pounded through cuttings and along embankments.

They will talk of sitting in the dark in the compartment, enjoying nights of incredible stars, nowhere brighter than in the Karoo night. They will recall eagerly waking at dawn, flying through grasslands silvered brightly with dawn mist, of stalking egrets already on the hunt, of shiny blesbok flanks in the dawn glow, their clicking neat gait, necks and horns bobbing.

They will talk longingly of the raptors, sitting on the line-side telegraph poles, that they wished they could have seen so close up for longer — the Steppe Buzzard, Martial Eagle, Brown Snake Eagle or Bateleur. The veld was alive with sightings of Stanley Blue and Crested Cranes, Secretary Birds, Korhaans, and here and there, if you were very lucky, a Kori Bustard.

They remember breakfast, lunch and supper in a dining car named always after a river (Modder, Pongola, Umkomaas, Tugela, Bashee, Kei). Porridge, bacon and eggs in the morning, roast chicken and veg with salad for lunch, and supper of bobotie or carved leg of mutton with mint sauce, all served from silverware.

They remember that each river along the way was named on a large sign just before the steel girder bridge crossing it. There were maps covered with perspex on the undersides of upper bunks. The bunks were stowed upright to become the compartment wall. The maps displayed the entire South African rail network. You could note the river name as you crossed it, transfer your attention to the map, find the river, and know where you were.

They will recall fondly how train drivers would still the train in the “middle of nowhere” to allow lady farm workers to wade through long grass to sell out their entire stock of freshly picked peaches, from grass baskets balanced on their heads, to travellers who could not wait to get their tongues around a sun-warmed Free State, Karoo or Cape peach, moving off gently with a cheery blast of the whistle when the stocks were exhausted. Lineside track embankments were lined with peach trees in those areas, the trees grown from peach stones thrown out of the window through the years.

They may recall a guard, huffing and puffing along the track on a blinding hot platteland day, cantering past eight or nine coaches of a twenty coach train, only to find the peaches sold out, and say “sorry, man” to the perspiring, brow-mopping guard as he trudged back to his van, the last wagon on the train.

That unique thing

Like me, people will tend to fondly recall things like this from the golden age of South African Railways, but they don’t pinpoint the unique quality of the experience. Hoping to feel a connection with people about this, I have asked many people to nail this unique thing, but in close to eight decades I have yet to hear anyone volunteer it spot on. Yet, when put to them, their faces light up, they laugh in fond reminiscence. “Of course! Of course, yes!”.

On not one ride on trains in England, France, Germany, Switzerland, Canada, Australia and Japan, have I felt this one thing. I first became aware of it at a very young age. We would board the train at Pietermaritzburg Station for our annual holidays to the Karoo, late at night. It was exciting enough to wait on a huge, airy platform, under a vast Victorian station roof (it didn’t look so vast when I grew up), a nip in the air even in summer. But the big moment came when we were in the compartment, luggage stowed, and we four siblings would line up, two to a window, waiting for the driver to toot the horn. We watched the big four-faced clock on the platform, ticking by agonisingly slowly.

Then the stasiemeester blew a whistle, a white flag was waved, followed by a green flag once the train was moving. The white flag brought the confirming toot, and our heads would drop, eyes glued to the platform. Nothing happened. There would be an eerie sound, and a strange, slight stirring of some slight vibration felt by our bare feet through the floor. I learned later that that was the vacuum brakes. There was a vacuum cylinder under each coach, levered to brake blocks on the wheels. But sometimes, even when the vacuum brakes were released, nothing happened. It could take time.

And then, with a close to imperceptible movement, our vertically downcast eyes would detect the slightest movement. We were pulling out! We would strain our eyes, not completely sure. But, yes, no doubt. We were, maybe glacially slowly, but definitely, on the move.

This never changed, right up to the last trip I made, on Premier Classe, to De Aar in 2019. Over the years, especially noticeable by the 1980s, there was added grace, due to improvements in track laying and maintenance, and the ride quality had become amazing. Sometimes, lying in my bunk at night, I could not tell whether the train was moving or not. On Cape Gauge, this is a remarkable achievement. Those amazing, gentle starts never changed from my childhood right through to a few years ago.

From concessions to concessionaires

However much I and many whites enjoyed train travel in those years, I hesitate to say that SAR passenger trains were “good”. We seldom arrived on time, and were usually drastically late. Just because one gets used to things does not make them okay. Everyone knew what rail was like. Slow and late. Combining goods and passengers (and commuter trains) on shared routes was never going to work, but the nub of it is that rail was always for goods, passenger trains were an afterthought, and commuter trains were not even a thing until the 1950s.

In a conversation with a mechanical engineer on one of my train trips, he even revealed that, to him, passenger rail was a “flinking nuisance”. It was a loss-making poor cousin to goods, and he wanted nothing to do with it. He was travelling by train, he said, because he was given a “free concession” as railway employee. In the cold light of day, and with what I know today, it was a rather humble passenger rail experience compared with European and North American practice. I have to say, the mechanical engineer was not the happiest in his work. When asked what being a mechanical engineer on railways was like, he grumbled, “you are lucky if you get asked to design a doorlock.”

It is surprising how good long-distance travel was, given its low priority by the powers that be back then. We were, however, way ahead of our neighbouring SADC states. No more. They at least have trains, and PRASA’s main line future does not look promising. We will look at this in Parts 2 and 3.

Only goods is good

PRASA and Transnet are trying to concession out sections of routes to private operators, but they have divvied up sections such that some are owned by PRASA, the rest by Transnet, so that a reef-to-port operator would have to negotiate with two entities to organise a service. On top of that, the concessions are offered for two years only, and how many businesses are designed to work up to profitability in that time?

In PRASA’s minds, these private operators should just take over PRASA trains, lock stock and barrel, but what if I wanted to introduce a tilting train as in Queensland Railways, for a quicker overnight trip from Jhb to Gqeberha? Not going to happen. For a start, the track from Jhb to Bloem is owned by PRASA, but the line from then on is owned by Transnet.

That means Transnet will favour its freight trains southward from Bloem through to Gqeberha, and the sleek express train will have to wait. Metoblitz did prove, however, that a quick train as far as Bloemfontein is a real possiblity. A passenger train averaging 110 kilometres an hour could safely follow a freight train averaging 80 without catching the goods train, if it departs 1 hour and 45 minutes later than the goods. Surely that is not to hard to schedule?

Nobody will fall for that. It sticks out a mile that Transnet’s privatisation concession plans are solely with freight in mind. Passenger trains are ignored. We will discuss later what the National Rail White Paper has to say about future passenger rail.

 The unbearable lightness of steam

All my growing life, I enjoyed those uniquely gentle, subtle passenger starts: silence morphing into gentlest motion. Only as an adult, working on steam, did I finally experience the reality of achieving such grace. My driver, Roy Lindemann, was trying to teach me how to pull off, and neither of us was succeeding, Not for nothing does it need five years for a steam engine driver to learn how to get and keep a train going, or conversely to stop the thing running away downhill.

Baby Torque

In the first instance, opening the regulator to get a steam engine moving needs strength and energy. You would not normally use that effort, even in the gym. One millimetre too far will cause a deafening, explosive wheelspin. You are playing with 141,700 Newton Metres, and driving wheel contact area on rails is tiny – about that of eight stiletto heels. Steel on steel skids very easily when a few thousand horsepower apply, and this translates into the roughest of rides in a railway carriage, yanking people off their feet, and even worse, off their bunks.

Rijlwei Afrikaans

The lessons were taking place in a locomotive like the one you see in the picture, a class 19D. No driver I worked for was able to get as much out of a “Dolly” (19D) as Mr Lindemann. They punched well above their weight on branch and main lines, cruising happily at 80 kilometres an hour with a dapper gait and a pleasing tom-tom beat. Five light shovels of coal every few minutes was all they needed to steam, as Roy would say “laaik a baasterd”. We only ever spoke Afrikaans – or, as he would say “Rijlwei Afrikaans”.

After many fails and only one success, I asked Roy where this tradition of ultra-gentle starts came from. He shrugged, and said “Ons maak so vanuit toeka se dae” (we’ve been doing this forever). I blurted “But why?” It must have come out wrong: I had clearly lost my cool, and he stared at me for a long time, surprised. Working with him was such a pleasure, I had never come even close to being irritable before that. I did not, though, enjoy failing or doing badly, and conclude my “waater oppie staater” failure really irked me.

Maybe to calm me down, he patiently dosed out the English, not easy for him. “We pull off like that”, he intoned, because:


Share via
Copy link
Powered by Social Snap