TRAXI part two: The dark side of the SAR

How To. Not

JASPER COOK / I have never known a black person who loved train travel, as I did, and I’m not really surprised. Second Class and then First Class were reintroduced on black trains only late in the apartheid days. They had been around before apartheid, but I’ve never seen any preserved coaches, so I have no idea of their comfort levels.

For all of my young life, while I was loving the space and comfort of our family compartment, trains would pull up on sidings next to us so that we were face to face with Third Class. It was strong medicine, the difference between their accommodation and ours. Back then, “Third Class” meant “Non-European” under the United Party, and later “Non-White” in the National Party government days.

There is a plaque in the station of my home town, Pietermaritzburg, commemorating the ejection from a first-class compartment of one MK Gandhi. He was an attorney, smartly dressed in the classiest finery of the time. There was nothing about him to justify the treatment he suffered. Clearly, running staff could see only the colour of his skin. That incident happened in June 1893, 130 years ago, 55 years before Afrikaners were supposed to have started apartheid, and 30 years before Natal colonials came up with the Group Areas Act.

I doubt there were obvious notices explaining that First Class was reserved for whites, and Gandhi’s money for a first class ticket was accepted by the ticket officer. When it came to getting what he paid for, that was another story. That is typical Natal colonial hypocrisy. I know. I come from there. They pocket your money, then stuff you up, especially if there are six of them and one of you.

Things had not changed in the more that half a century by the time I was a child rail traveler. And just by the way, in all my seventy-plus years of mainline rail travel in South Africa, I met only one person of subcontinental descent on a mainline passenger train. He was from India, curious about South Africa post 1994, and said to me: “I see Indians, but not on the train.” I told him why PMB station is named after Gandhi.

He remains the only Indian person I have met on a train. Otherwise, nary an Indian, Pakistani, Bangladeshi, Sri Lankan or Aghanistani did I see on a single train, ever. That’s quite a scary statistic. How can you run a train service while locking out a whole section of the population? Lest we forget, they were not even allowed in the Orange Free State, and every mainline train other than the Trans-Natal crossed the OFS. People of Indian descent had plenty of reasons, including Gandhi’s treatment, to lose all interest in train travel. Yet India, which already had a steel industry when the English arrived, has the fourth largest rail network in the world, with more than four times South Africa’s track distance. Wikipedia says it is the fourth largest employer in the world, employing 1 1/4 million people.

We are smallanya potatoes compared to that. Even at its height, the SAR employed only 116 000 workers. Our dearth of Indian rail travellers amounts to probably the single most successful boycott of rail in world history, though nobody talks about it in those terms. The Indian traveller I met on the train withdrew into his thoughts for a long time. Was he piecing together the reason why he felt so solitary on a South African train?

Third Class

As a child, I was accustomed to green leather in rail compartments, and later, in first class, blue leather upholstery. Third-class bunks had no upholstery at all – they were made of plain wooden slats, painted grey. Third Class, comprising both sleeper and sitter accommodation, was always at the front of the train. The intent of putting “them” up front was clear. They got all the locomotive noise (I would have wanted that), and most of the soot and cinders. It would not surprise me to find that the leading wagons were also the first to “go” in a derailment or crash: that was certainly what I saw at Modder River in the Afro 4000 derailment there.

You may begin to see why blacks are not big on trains. Then, too, as per Bra Hugh Masekela’s song “Stimela”, trains copped a bad rap as cheap and nasty transport to get miners to the mines from rural reserves. Doesn’t “rural reserves” kind of say it all already? The only saving grace about third class was that it was very cheap. That continues to the Sitter Class right up to current practice (currently only to Queenstown). I once dabbled with the idea of taking a sitter to then PE. Where my first-class fare was R600, the Sitter fare (meaning, previously third-class seats, no sleeping accommodation) was R200.

I ended up in First, because the booking clerk explained to me that there was no reservation available for “Economy” (read “Sitter”) class. She warned (knowing from my ID number that I was already a pensioner) that I might have to fight for a seat in the sitter coaches, and could also be asked to leave the train if the conductor decided the coach was too full. I mean, who wants that? Did they seriously put passengers through all of that, for all those decades?

The booking clerk did not seem in a hurry, and she chatted readily. I have trouble hearing, and asked her to spell her name. When I pronounced “Mabogoane” perfectly, she politely asked if you she could ask me a personal question, which turned out to be: “Are you white?” It blew her away that I was able to pronounce her name. Anyway, returning to the subject of fighting for a seat on a sitter train, she urged caution. “Those mamas” she said, a little too knowingly for my taste.

A few YouTubers, who appear not to be white, are posting videos about PRASA and Transnet trains — mostly about the new blue Xtrapolis commuter trains — but some videos are also posted by enthusiastic train-spotters about this or that locomotive, both diesel and electric, so all is not lost. What I found most rewarding is that those trainspotters  were impressed about punctuality, not about comfort: that is believable, because nobody in their right mind will describe the new commuter trains as comfortable. Seating accommodation is bone-breaking plastic, and scarce: mostly it’s “standing room”. You can get away with that on commuter trains.

A signal failure

I’ll say this about mainline trains: they’ve lately been good at paint jobs. Shoshaloza Meyl has highly coloured coaches, making for good-looking trains. For a while, Premier Classe was known loosely as the “Purple Train”, but they then changed the livery to a pleasant blue. It was then colloquially nameless, because there is already a Blue Train, and nobody is going to walk around talking about the Light Blue Train. Will Premier Classe make a comeback? Time will tell. I will be tempted if it does. I enjoyed a couple of very comfortable trips on Premier Classe. However the delays were intolerable. I was later on Premier Classe trains than on any other train, ever, arriving eleven hours late at Park Station in Johannesburg.

How can anyone make a train so late? The most obvious answer is that mixing freight, commuter and mainline traffic on the same tracks was doomed to failure from the outset. Trains were scheduled to arrive in cities at quiet commuter hours, between 10am and 3pm, so the mainline and express trains could be hurried through the city outskirts without challenging commuter traffic. Once you make a train so late that it arrives in either of the daily rush hours, it is a signal person’s nightmare to sneak it in. Experience to do that took a hike with the majority of white signal staff who “took a package” and left without transferring their skills. A huge number of whites did this, either because they did not want to work with or under blacks, or because blacks did not want to work with them. Equal blame goes to black management, who thought it would be a doddle to learn these jobs, and were therefore cock-a-hoop about getting rid of whites.

I once talked to a signalman from Johannesburg who was on the same train as me. He didn’t think he was good at the job. “I have no idea what to do,” he said, “when I have a goods train, a passenger train and a commuter train, all blocking a line and I have to somehow let the goods through to the East Rand, the passenger train to berth at a platform, and a commuter train to its platform, when all these other rush hour trains are coming and going”.

He was a brown man, quite candid. “They all shout at you” he said. “The drivers, the main line bosses, the commuter line bosses, they all shout at you. Then, it’s reports and please explains day after day after day”. He was not a happy chappy.

My very late train was the most gormlessly run train I’ve ever been on. How anyone can delay a train that long is beyond me. When we crawled past the signal cabin at Park Station, some of the signal staff were leaning over banisters, outside the signal cabin, mugs of coffee in hand. Their eyes did not meet ours, and they looked exhausted and depressed.

Braking bad

In Traxi Part One, I touched on how lucky I was, as a young man, to work as a footplate worker for a while, and thus to find out how difficult it is to control a steam locomotive. Locomotives slip very easily, with thunderous wheelspins and worse on a curve, for example, so you need to cope with that. They can even break into wheelspin at 100 kph! If it’s raining, it’s much harder still. If on an incline, even harder. If on a decline, a little easier, but then it becomes a matter of braking and limiting speed rather than using power. That is easier on electric units, where regeneration augments vacuum brakes.

On steam, controlling vacuum brakes is a skill set all on its own. For example, if a train stops at a station on a slight decline, there is no need to use power to get started. Normally, releasing the vacuum brakes will cause the train to make one of those wondrously gentle starts, but very soon after the challenge is to use just a whisper of vacuum braking to keep the buffers stretched out tight. Although well sprung, each passenger coach coupling buffer has a centimetre of play in it. One coach slamming into another over a distance of few centimetres is enough to cause people to overbalance at low speeds. At high speeds, it can rip a sleeping passenger off his or her bunk. Multiply that single coupling between two coaches by eighteen coaches, and the distance of the impact will be 20 centimetres, and that is a really dangerous lurch, especially if you are a steward carrying a tray of drinks or food, an oldie or an infant. So, the driver applies the brakes very slightly to stretch the couplings taught between coaches, avoiding nasty surprises.

You can do this with vacuum brakes. Air brakes, not really. They tend to grab. Modern trains have clever electronics to smooth things out. Old steam drivers took advantage of the outdated properties of vacuum brakes for “trains running”, and turned them into an opportunity, a skill only mastered with years of practice. Downhill, a whisper of vacuum keeps the buffers stretched, Uphill, they stretch out by themselves. The trick is to catch things at exactly the right moment when you end a decline and start on a hill, otherwise every passenger can be jerked off his or her feet. The greatest challenge is when half of a long train is on an uphill and the back half is on a downhill. You need power to attack the incline, but some braking to control the rear of the train, because that will bunch and jerk people off their footing. No wonder it was hard to get and keep  engine drivers.

1914: the war on vacuum brakes

Some years ago, the luxury train operator Rovos Rail suffered an incident involving vacuum brakes. Several coaches, secured only by vacuum brakes, ran down an incline and derailed. There was a lot of discussion about vacuum brakes at the time, and how unreliable they are. The fact is that coaches, when parked for any length of time, must be secured with their hand-brakes. Every coach has one, looking like a small wagon wheel on the buffer. The reason is that vacuum brakes have been known for more than a century to be unreliable for stationary wagons.

Japan Railways, which also runs on Cape Gauge (not bullet trains — they are Standard Gauge), threw vacuum brakes out in 1914. We are still saddled with them on passenger and general goods trains. That has changed with the new, blue Xtrapolis commuter trains. Gautrain, which is also government-owned, but not part of Transnet or PRASA, and running on Standard Gauge, has modern brakes.

Transnet ore, car, and container trains have air brakes. The immediate result of replacing vacuum brakes allowed Japan Rail to comfortably and safely run trains at 120kph on Cape Gauge, because stopping distance is hugely reduced. If SAR had followed suit, our mainline passenger trains, with no further modification, would have enabled the national rail speed limit to be raised to 120kph. This does apply to these three train types on Transnet, but it’s a bit of a joke, because only one of our (non-steam) locomotives is capable of as much as 110kph (except downhill, which is why it is nearly impossible to “make up time” when pulled by non-steam locomotives — their only chance to pick up time is downhill, whereas steam drivers routinely made up time when late, because steam locomotives are usually faster on a flat, and run happily at maximum speed. John Gilberthorpe, an English engine driver, who emigrated to South Africa when steam died in England, is credited with evolving a “full-out” driving technique on class 25NC steam locomotives. He would pull the regulator all the way out to maximum, leave it there, and control the power with the steam percentage cut-off lever.

The Red Devil

On the “steel Kyalami”, the section between Kimberley and de Aar, Gilberthorpe was known especially for his “kapituit” driving on the class 26 “Red Devil”. This was a class 25 NC locomotive modified by an English engineer, David Wardale, who also emigrated to South Africa when steam died out in England. He successful modified a very poor steaming 19D by way of a proof of concept, and then applied the same to 25NC number 3450, with stunning results: a huge increase in power, and equally huge decreases in water and coal consumption. By then, it was the world’s most advanced steam locomotive.

The only problem with the Red Devil was that it was too powerful for its own good, prone to frenzied wheel slipping, and thus very difficult to get going when stopped on an incline. There are YouTube clips showing how easily this locomotive coped with large loads, and how fast it could be on a passenger train on that section. All the 25s were speedy, but none faster than the Red Devil. John Gilberthorpe and his (also from England) fireman, Richard Niven, regularly made up time on delayed trains. At 4.07 in the video, the Red Devil pulls the Orange Express, full out, (I estimate the speed that moment to be 120kph, possible faster)) hurried along by this crew.


Another high point in SAR engineering history was Metroblitz. For a long time I could find only a single YouTube clip about this remarkable train.


Although enthusiasts know it was a high point, we generally also know it was not a commercial success. It was a higher speed (160 kilometres an hour) train, not a true high speed (320 kilometres an hour) train, wrongly deployed between Jhb and Pretoria. True enough, that was “Inter-city”, hence the “Metro” name, like most expresses in England and Europe, but  it could have been a true intercity success, plying between the Reef and port cities.

South Africa still holds the world speed record for Cape Gauge at 245 kilometres an hour, made possible by Herbert Scheffel’s self-steering bogie. Fitted to five modified class 6E1 electric locomotives (they were then re-classed to 12E), the bogies reduced flange wear and enabled Metroblitz to routinely travel at 160 kilometres an hour. It did Park to Pretoria Stations in 43 minutes, whereas the Gautrain takes 41 minutes on Standard Gauge, despite going east to Germiston first (that was the only way it could go). There is a more recent YouTube clip whose creator re-hashes the first video.


Mainline was thought about: the train ran a test run from Pretoria to Bloemfontein, completing the trip in 3 hours and 51 minutes. At that time, the normal time for a passenger train was eight hours. What a lost opportunity! Such a train-set could, for example, have reduced the trip time from Johannesburg to Cape Town to something like 14 hours. Imagine departing Johannesburg at 17h00, and arriving in CT the following morning at 07h00, showered and fresh for a day’s work (and saving on a hotel)!

It was never going to be, though. The Metroblitz and Red Devil innovations were accomplished against all odds, in the age of dunderhead managers who believed that saying “NO” to everything was the way to not get the chop. And they were mostly right. The engineers in charge of both projects (it sticks out a mile when you read between the lines) needed subterfuge to get their legendary new tech signed off.

During apartheid, the attorney Halton Cheadle used to submit applications for an interdict shortly before lunch on Fridays. The applications would be more than 300 pages, impossible to read before the weekend, more particularly by a magistrate or judge who just didn’t want to read it. The “beak” wanted to go fishing, or go away for the weekend, or whatever, so (because Cheadle Thompson Haysom had a reputation for reliable evidence) he would grant a temporary interdict. It’s infra dig to rescind a temporary inderdict, so they were usually made permanent on Mondays. You play the man, not the game.

Engineers on SAR were much the same, taking their troublesome and advanced technical budgets to Chief Engineers on Fridays, just before lunch. These managers also wanted an easy life and “do a slide” on Friday afternoons, so they hastily signed off on these budgets before rush hour, making a hasty exit before the weekend.

No stations

There were other reasons why passenger mainline travel lost to cars and taxis. One most obvious is that mainline stations in areas where blacks lived were rare, not thought of, and so not adequately served. There is a long lead time for rail development: the current National Rail White Paper deals with rail development up to 2050. Some townships had not even been conceived when rail routes were planned. It wasn’t only that, though. Blacks living in townships (that meant all of them in those days) were catered for only insofar as they needed to commute short distances to work.

The rise of taxis

It was a hurdle to get from a township to a station to take a long-distance train. Even if commuter trains were available, they were crowded and not family- and luggage-friendly. If there was no nearby commuter train service, it meant getting a taxi, and taxis, effectively illegal for decades under apartheid, being capable of “door to door” service, naturally took over. The thought was, “if I can hire a taxi to come to the house to collect us for the train, why not hire one for the whole journey?”

As soon as taxis evolved from nine-seat Chrysler Valiants into 14 seat mini-buses, taxi fares could compete, and that was the end of rail. Taxis and their drivers were often not kindly, but as one man told me “they are our guys”.

Not our guys

I witnessed many times, on my train trips growing up, how harsh and curt the approach of ticket inspectors and running staff was generally when dealing with black passengers: they were not made welcome at stations. In PMB, the trains got longer over the years, and, large as it was, the vast Victorian roof was outgrown by train length. Blacks found themselves squeezed out of its shelter, and would therefore have to wait outside in all weathers. They came in for further abusive treatment at the ticket office, where there was usually a separate queue for blacks. It didn’t stop me, at my 1st/2nd class window, hearing the curt, officious (and worse) vocal tone of a person, usually a man, dealing harshly with one person after the next. For some while, there was at last one person at the “black” ticket window who spoke fluent Zulu. He was fine with Pondos and Sothos, too, but he was an exception.

It was as if the SAR was regarded as an Afrikaner Nationalist creation and territory, and it certainly became a political tool. Up until Union in 1910, though, when the SAR resulted from a merging of Cape, Natal and other government railways, the railways were remembered, especially the running staff, more for Scottish, Welsh and English personnel. When I grew up, Pietermaritzburg, though it started as a Voortrekker town, was known as an English-speaking town, but by my teenage years, it was hearly half Afrikaans-speaking. That was from a National Party plan, swelling the population of PMB with both railway and civil service personnel, so as to swing the vote.

By the time I was in matric, it had all but worked. The United Party gained only 51% of the vote in that election, the NP 49%. There wasn’t much difference between the NP and UP, and that election was the beginning of the end of the UP, when more Progressive Party MPs joined Helen Suzman in parliament, leading to the DA of today.

Bulldozed memories and scorched Karoo earth

I saw some evidence that some white extremist people regarded railways as “theirs”, and did not want blacks to have anything to do with it. The destruction of South African railways began with a scorched earth mentality years before the ANC came to power, with the bitter and spiteful demolition of stations on the main line to Cape Town in the Great Karoo.

In the early nineties, my brother and I sentimentally visited Hanover Road Station in the Northern Cape, only to find it in ruins. We were traumatised. As we looked at the parking area, with white stones still demarcating the station master’s parking slot, and even some pretty flowers still surviving from the days when station masters competed for “best kept station” awards, a friendly farmer, possibly lonely for a chat, joined us on the station platform.

As we gaped in horror at the remains of the building that was central to our childhood memories, this farmer eventually divulged that he knew who had demolished the building. He didn’t name anyone, but he told us the whole story — that they were whites, that he knew them, and how they brought a bulldozer on a flat-bed truck, and ‘dozed the cute station into rubble, within a few hours and in broad daylight.

When I asked him why, he dipped his head in the direction of some black workers in his fields, and said “They don’t want them to have the use of our systems.” I think you can figure out pretty accurately the shade of political affiliation of the perpetrators. The worst thing was that nobody seemed to care. I never heard of an outcry, nor read a report about any of this widespread damage to government property, nor of any arrest. It went by unnoticed.

About a decade later,  an entity called the National Railway Safety Regulator was created, supposedly to replace the old Railway Police. Still no arrests, nor a mention of multiple destroyed station buildings, more than twenty years later. While it was true that CTC “Central Traffic Control” had taken over signalling, and switching lines, making station masters redundant, with people in de Aar and Kimberley and further away in total control of all trains moving, it still felt extreme to wipe whole stations off the face of the earth. Our farmer acquaintance, as we moved toward our car, pointed at a toilet bowl still visible in the ruins and said “This was the only flush toilet for miles around. He used to let me use it”. He turned back toward his mielies and sunflowers, and trudged away, slowly shaking his head. Farmers, of anybody, know how easy it is to destroy, and how hard it is to build.

Institutional myopia

Ignoring the majority of your population when planning rail is about as nuts as it can get. The demise of railways, though, is not due to a lack of planning. It is due to wrong planning, sabotage, or both. I have always been deeply suspicious and cynical about the safety regulator. The railways ran glacially slow trains. It was not as if we needed people to hurry along and restrain our reckless train staff. With a national rail speed still languishing at 90 kilometres an hour (admittedly with some exceptions), I cynically joked that they emerged from whatever political woodwork had been hiding them to take up sheltered employment for “werkelose” ex-NP censors. Never forget that those idiots banned Anna Sewell’s Black Beauty, even though the black beauty written about was actually a horse. I figured they had somehow been deployed to “finish off” the railways. Well, here we sit, with no mainline trains. It doesn’t feel so funny any more.

Not long after that sentimental visit to Hanover Road station, I took a train from Johannesburg to Cape Town. Many other stations had also been destroyed, thoroughly and professionally. Merriman, not far down the line from Hanover Road, was also a ruin, and others too. I had no desire to sleep on that section of the line, being curious to see whether other stations had gone the way of Hanover Road. It was bright moonlight. The remains of those stations, some of which had been around for a century, in the bright moonlight, was akin to apocalypse movie sets, one after another.


I continued using trains into the “new South Africa”. After 1994, the service took a dip. It was plain that a huge majority of white staff had ‘taken a package’. and left the railways, taking a vast body of institutional knowledge with them. It seemed too hasty a way to go, and their replacements were not always properly trained. On a trip to then Grahamstown on the then Port Elizabeth train, I boarded my coach on an underground platform in Park Station. I found it in darkness.

Within minutes, a khaki-clad bedding attendant appeared, and I asked him to switch the lights on. He said he didn’t know how. I told him I didn’t know either, but we could find out, as long as he approved and stayed with me. He said, ok. We went to the end of the corridor, found a panel looking like a cupboard door, and he used his cabin door key to open it, revealing a switchboard, like you would find in your home, with fuses and switches. I asked him to switch them from down to up, and voila, lights started switching on. He smiled winningly, and thanked me. “They never showed me this”, he said, a little shyly, and scurried off, pleased with himself.

On a later trip to Durban on a Friday evening, I tried to shower before reaching Durban, once we had passed through PMB. It was a no-go: the coach had no water, either in the shower room or in the washbasins. My return trip was on a Sunday night. Coincidentally, I found myself in the same coach I had been in on the trip to Durban. You can imagine my shock when I found that the carriage was still bone dry. When I trained as a learner-stoker in the Greyville Loco sheds, it was the duty of ground staff to fill Trans-Natal coach tanks with water: the carriage yard sidings had water taps with hoses every twenty yards or so. It was an easy job for one person.

Nobody in Durban had bothered. The train manager was unmoved when I complained, and said he could do nothing about it. I was not having it, and threatened to break the glass and use the emergency train brake in the corridor if he did not have someone fill the tank at PMB. At first he said, “And I will have you arrested.” Great customer relations! I approved, good idea, there will be a court case and the court will hear how you didn’t give a damn about passengers. End of job. Tough.

Sullenly, he relented, though in PMB he had just this one coach filled and no others. He never met my eye, nor apologised, nor engaged with me in any way for the rest of the overnight trip. He clearly was unsuited for the job.

It has to be said that it was a tough job. When I boarded in Durban, my reserved compartment was full of big women, big baggage, and small kids. They adults ignored me, and told the train manager they weren’t going to budge an inch. They were taking schoolchildren from KZN to Johannesburg, because they were unable to get them into school in KZN.

Hell, I thought. The system was such that schools did not admit children who did not live in the school’s learner catchment area. How these women from Durban would manage to fix up their children in Gauteng, I had no idea, but it would surely involve a lot of lying. Still, I did hope they would succeed. They were good kids, with their whole life ahead of them. The train manager eventually found me a coupe, and I never saw those imposing women again. I hope their kids got sorted out.

Spoornet had already outsourced catering to a fast food chain called J-something, and the result was worse than useless. I ordered a hamburger, and can’t begin to describe what was handed to me with no cutlery (not even plastic) in a polystyrene punnet. It was burnt, rock-hard, and I couldn’t make out whether it had once been animal, mineral or vegetable. I asked for a VAT invoice. The attendant tore a piece of paper from a page lying on a table, and wrote in a red ballpoint pen. I couldn’t read most of it, but I had been served a “buger”. There was a money amount, but no sign of a VAT number.

Without pressing the point, I returned to my coupe, only to find it was infested with cockroaches. The train manager did nothing about that either, and said cleaning the coaches was not his job. I disagreed. Back home, I wrote a detailed complaint about all this to the local System Manager. I received neither acknowledgment nor reply, but on my next trip, some months later, I found to my pleasure a roach-free coach, and that problem never recurred.

Cool customers

Training was not only a recent problem. Throughout my rail travel days, heaters in compartments never worked. They were steam radiators, on the floor under the washbasin. If we had a diesel-electric or electric unit pulling the train, but without a steam tender, we knew we would not be lucky. In the steam days, heaters very seldom worked, which was strange, because no steam tender was needed – steam came directly from the locomotive.  A steam tender looks like a tanker wagon, but has a cab in the middle. It’s a kettle on bogies, getting electric current from the locomotive for its heater elements. I always asked the train managers to see to the heating, but they never did.

One day, sitting in a coupe in Park Station, while the train manager — a pleasant middle-aged brown-complexioned man — checked my ticket, he agreed with me when I said it was forbiddingly cold in the coach. I asked why the heaters never worked, even when there was a steam tender. He sighed. “My trains always have heat,” he said firmly. “I’ll sort it out.”

He explained that when a train has been out of operation for a few hours, the heater pipes fill with condensed water, preventing the steam from getting through. Someone hd to go to the rear end of the train before it set out, and bleed the system. For that, you had to remove a bung. A long column of water would burst out, followed by a burst of steam. Problem solved. Knock the bung back on, and you have working heaters. He was as good as his word, and a pleasant trip through the Karoo to Cookhouse followed, in a coupe as warm as toast through a freezing Karoo.

It was the only time in my fifty years of rail travel that anyone took that trouble for me. All those other times, there was simply no will to do the right thing. Old SAR, in that way, was probably worse than Shoshaloza Meyl. Black passengers were surely very vocal about heating, whereas whites would just silently endure. Unionised black staff sleeping on the train would be just as unlikely to accept freezing compartments. It was easy to see if someone has done their job: every coach had a plume of steam issuing from the steam pipe connector near the couplings. If those little plumes of steam were visible at each coach end, you were likely to have a warm trip.

A few years ago, coaches were refurbished, and the floor-mounted steam radiators removed. In their place, a bare element, looking rather like a large filament from a light bulb, was mounted next to the main compartment light on the ceiling. I tested mine. It didn’t work. On both trips I made with these new heaters, I had no heat. Another cheap, nasty, useless tender worth millions down the drain?


There was a reason for why the SAR improved as much as it did from the mid-fifties to the mid-seventies. In those two decades, the minister of transport was Ben Schoeman, an ex-driver on steam in SAR. You can’t fool an old steam driver. Many problems around trains running are actually perpetrated by scheming drivers — they are inveterate schemers, turning every possible technicality to their advantage. I saw that at first hand when I was a stoker. Drivers scheme to get overtime and to get off work. If they find the slightest error with a locomotive, it’s declared “out of service”, and they get to return home if a spare locomotive is not available. Or, they make a note of the fault, and report it on a later day when they want a day off.

I used the Simon’s Town line for some years, on either side of the 2010 FIFA World Cup. The worst days to commute on the Simon’s Town line were Monday and Friday. Fellow commuters commonly observed that Monday was “babelaas” day, and Friday was “going fishing” day — hence the shortage of drivers and the cancellation of trains on those two days. Not HR rocket science, but management seemed utterly incapable when faced with drivers going AWOL. One gets the feeling that Japan sorted this stuff out a century ago. Or that they never needed to.

Going nowhere slowly

Added to his practical experience, Ben Schoeman was a moderate. According to Wikipedia, he was actually elected to parliament for the United Party, but switched to the Nats in order to vote against South Africa’s participation in World War Two. Widely expected to take over when H.F. Verwoerd was assassinated, he withdrew from the succession race, said to be due to gossip about some personal issues. Some people, among them Terry Bell and Gwede Mantashe, thought he had been blackmailed by B.J. Vorster, who got the job. I can’t help wondering how we would have fared as a country with Schoeman as prime minister — not that he would have lasted long with the NP Nazis around.

So where to now?

Actually, passenger rail was never much good in South Africa. We may have liked it as kids, and it might have suited us, but it was not a railway system that served the bulk of the population, and I’m not surprised that it has all but vrekked. There were some stellar moments when the engineers got their way, as with Metroblitz and the Red Devil, but the sad truth is that railways management was largely deadwood for half a century when management was no longer engineer-heavy.

All you need to do is look at time-tables. It took a half century for them to shave two hours off the trip time from Johannesburg to Cape Town. From the time the safety regulator took over in 2002, they have not only cut out most of the stops, but the trains also somehow take longer. How thick do you have to be to achieve that?

The Gautrain is the way to go for commuter rail, and the National Rail White Paper sets this out plainly. No matter how down I personally am on managers, Jack van der Merwe did the most fantastic job of ushering Gautrain into the world, and his current successor is equally “kop-toe”.

  • In Part Three, we will look at the future of rail, including the Gautrain, with its plans to connect Jabulani in Soweto with Mamelodi in Eastern Tshwane, and a lot in between, including Lanseria Airport. It’s looking good.
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