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Caledon line freight part 1: Cape Town - Elgin, the fruit traffic by Charlie Lewis ©

Searching for inspiration to introduce what we're about to describe with photographs I found a suitable paragraph in "The Great Steam Trek" (written almost 40 years ago): 
"Around [May] the markets of London are piled high with boxes of Cape apples.  The chances are they will have come from Elgin, and until very recently they would have begun their 6,000-mile journey behind steam locomotives.  The aroma of ripe apples mixed with steam and smoke used to hang over the Elgin valleys between February and May each year as various combinations of Garratt and non-articulated power struggled to get their cargoes over the mountain and down to the export pre-coolers at Cape Town docks.  There was not much time: from picking to pre-cooling was supposed to take no more than 24 hours, and this meant a continual procession of trains over Sir Lowry's Pass.  At the height of the season an average of 140 loads was cleared each day, over and above regular traffic.  In flat country this might not have been much of a feat but out of Elgin a solid seven miles of 1-in-40 uncompensated faces westbound traffic, and the working of steam on this section over this grade was spectacular"
It is all history now, of course, not only because the steam has gone.  We have written about the manipulations of Dr G J S Coetzee, SATS's Assistant General Manager (Commercial) to transfer the fruit traffic off the railway and onto the in-house RMT service at Port Elizabeth.  Well, he did the same thing here.  The strange thing about the whole affair is how a high-placed, ostensibly highly-qualified official could make such a basic miscalculation as to think that state-run road transport could compete with private road hauliers.  Perhaps he did not understand the main reason why a state-run railway could compete is because it is a railway.  In fact, with dieselisation and the modern fully-opening OZR-type roller-bearing box cars it would have needed only a small improvements in efficiency to maintain a cost-effective service - the option he adopted did not improve the service and the huge Elgin fruit business was soon lost to the private sector.  Today those 140 loads/day would be three times as many or even more.
Having got that off my chest, let's get on with telling you about one of SAR's most thrilling rail operations at the time - the surmounting of Sir Lowry's Pass, the high ridge between Elgin and the Cape Flats and gateway to the Overberg.  We will concentrate on the mountain section as this naturally was where the serious action took place.
2. We're not quite into the mountains yet, just passing the dead centre of Cape Town in fact with class GEA No 4009 on a train of mt OZ fruit vans, petrol and general goods for the Overberg.  This was my first sighting of Johannes Barnard's adventurous experiment to cure the spark problem.  "Renoster" will be more fully described in a forthcoming episode of "Soul of A Railway", enough to say at this point that the experiment wasn't a success and that it was one of the more hideous conversions of a steam locomotive. 
3. Approaching Sir Lowry's Pass station are 1208 cl 8DW + 1767 cl 14CRB on 259-down T&P in April 1969.  As motive power became increasingly stressed due to the rapid growth of freight tonnage during the sixties it became a countrywide practice to allocate downgraded road power for shunting busy country stations and junctions, Caledon being a good example.  Two types were used there, classes 1 and 8 in their various formats.  One of the more interesting workings occurred every three weeks when the Caledon shunter returned to Paarden Eiland for washout.  Only one problem, 273-down and 246-up, the T&Ps used to ferry the shunt engines, ran at night.    
Paarden Eiland at this time had an allocation of only seven GEAs - this was before the migration of GEAs from Natal as a result of the North Coast electrification. So desperate had the situation become on the eve of wholesale dieselisation that after eight years the Calvinia branch had been re-steamised (sorry, terrible word) as well as the SWA main line as far as Prieska.  Sadly unbeknown to me, the Saldanha branch had reverted to 8th-class operation in order to release its 24s for the Calvinia branch.   On the Caledon line, doubleheaded combinations of 19C and 14CRB seemed to be helping out on the fruit while the scarce GEAs were mainly confined to the Caledon run.  Knowing the shyness of the washout turns, I went to Paarden Eiland and asked the loco foreman when the next exchange of the shunt engine was due, and whether it would be possible to do the swap in daylight rather than at night.  It turned out the next exchange would only be in a fortnight, by when I'd have to be back at work.  Then, matter-of-factly he mentioned that the next day's 259-down T&P was scheduled to work to Elgin cross-trip with the GEA off 264-up ex Caledon.  As the latter would have a Garratt load and there was not one available at Paarden Eiland, the T&P was booked for two 14CRBs but he would substitute an 8 for one of the 14CRBs!  Lucky shot. 
4. The water columns at Sir Lowry's Pass were not yet set out for regular doubleheaded working (ironically, they were put up in 1970 - a year before the steam elimination programme was announced).  So there was plenty of time for photos and to arrange for smoke at strategic locations up the mountain.  And, talking of the mountain, there it is, the summit, 1,100ft higher, just visible behind the gate valve.  In the next nine miles these engines will be faced with an almost continuous 1-in-40 uncompensated gradient. 
5. For over 30 years Sir Lowry's Pass (SLP) was the terminus of the "Strand Express" and the weekaday home of the solitary class 5R No 781.  Most of that time she was in the tender care of driver Best, who kept a few tools and spares in the hut on the left.  By the time this photo was made the famous train had been a mundane EMU for almost ten years and the hut was derelict with broken window panes.  Part of the triangle used to turn 781 every night can be seen in the bottom right corner. 
In this photo, 1762 cl 14CRB was just in from Table Bay Harbour (TBH) with some mt OZs and brand new type "O" sliding-door wagons (originally type OZL).  A helper had come over the mountain from Elgin and, after picking up some more mts would assist 1762 over the pass.  Imagine all this traffic, just given away, and now clogging the badly congested N2.
6. No's 1767 (left) which had come in earlier from Elgin, and 1762, newly arrived from TBH, being serviced in preparation for the pass, April 1972.  These true mountain engines have such low driving wheels (4'-0" diameter) the driver has to really buk to tighten up the piston packing.  
7. With another seven "O" vans added to their consist, 1767 + 1762 start out of Sir Lowry's Pass.  It has taken an age to get 8253-down special empties under way again and poor old Station Master Geldenhuys is distraught.  But here she is, finally leaving, with 4029 cl GEA on the left just in with 270-up, picking up a reefer that had been dropped off earlier that day with a hotbox. 
8. By 1975 the fruit traffic had built up to unprecedented levels.  This was to be the last season handled by steam.  Early on, Sir Lowry's Pass SM Geldenhuys phoned John to tell him that they would be using helper engines on both sides of the pass.  Soon after these workings began, and wise to the ever-frequent changes of plan, John set off to photograph one of the early workings - SLP banker, 1900 cl 14CRB was about to assist 4015, the GEA of 249-down on a through goods for Caledon.  Lucky he did that because before long it was decided to send the banker engine back to Paarden Eiland - there was insufficient work on this side of the mountain.
9. Having added some wagons that had been parked off, here they are getting under way with 249-down past SLP's quaintly diminutive splitting home signals.
10. A few years earlier, in March 1970 John found 4009 cl GEA "Renoster" complete with its experimental horn about to take 259-down T&P through to Caledon.  Just arriving on the right is 4002 cl GEA in more recognisable format with 258-up goods from Caledon. 
11. Attacking the mountain, 4040 cl GEA with 259-down T&P barely half-a-mile out of SLP around the first of numerous five-chain reverse curves in April 1973.  Note the guard watching the action from the open window of his van. Imagine being paid for a job like that!  The bright gash on the mountainside marks the widening in progress on the N2.  In the left background the higher level of the railway can be seen on a flatter grade just above the road while on the right, just above the coal bunker, you can see the newly-widened concrete bridge where the N2 passes over the line just before the summit. 
12. At Knorhoek (named for the 18th century Cape Dutch farm on which property the line was built) the gradient eases off for about a train length - just long enough for a passing loop. Note the runaway dead-end on the left, I don't know if it was ever brought into play*.  This was 259-down T&P crossing a late-running 258-up goods in April 1969.
* See postscript from Rollo Dickson (25 May 2014)
13.   During the fruit season Knorhoek became busy enough to warrant an operating official, sent out from SLP station by motor scooter.  The working time book (WTB) provided for up to six crossings there every 24 hours between February and May but when schedules went awry, as they were wont to during high season, there were several more.  By the time this crossing was photographed during the 1973 season nearly all the wooden OZ fruit vans, suitable only for hand loading, had been phased out in favour of the fork-lift friendly type "O" vans with fully opening sliding doors. 
14. Our chat with the crews of 1208 and 1767 at SLP paid off - they almost blotted out the mountain on the first horseshoe above Knorhoek. 
15. Renoster on the charge, coming around the same curve with an equally enthusiastic fireman.  This is the best photo I've seen of the monster in action.   
16. The next horseshoe is more than 180 degrees on a radius of 5 chains (330 feet) as the line turns away from the wall of the Hottentots Holland (see Bruno's map).  The full 1-in-40 requires a sturdy mountain engine like the 14CRB to drag 300 tons (or 11 mt O's plus van) around it, the effort captured in exemplary fashion by John in April 1974 
17. The fruit season was not just about fruit.  All the regular traffic to-and-from stations beyond Elgin had to be handled as well.  This was a block load of mt FZ grain wagons in charge of a pair of 14CRBs, numbers and date unknown.
18. Some photographers will go to any lengths to get the masterphot.  It pains me to record that one of the last known stands of rare and endangered pinus pinaster was ruthlessly cut down to create this clear view of the line with the vertical sandstone walls of the Hottentots Holland looming behind.
19. 1208 + 1767 tackling the big horseshoe, at little more than walking pace it must be said, before clawing their way up the northern flanks of the Hottentots Holland towards the summit.  By this time the 8 was ailing; by excelling himself for the photographers her fireman had succeeded in filling up both the firebox and the ashpan (old Beatty designed the eights for much better coal than was available in the 1960s). 
20. After the horseshoe wide views over False Bay and the Peninsula mountains open up.  That's Cape Point, southern tip of the peninsula, just to the left of the pine tree.
21. About a mile beyond the horseshoe the same train depicted in photo 9, No 249 down, still with 1900 cl 14CRB and 4015 cl GEA in charge. 
22. After dumping about a ton of ash from 1208's narrow ashpan onto the track, as well as a few healthy clinkers from the grate, they were ready to go again.  It only took ten minutes and the restart from here was incredible.  Both engines had lovely crisp exhaust beats but the eight had long-travel valves with Stephenson's link motion, the latter's variable lead produced one of the loudest exhausts I've heard on a steam locomotive. 
23. This is the other side of the line from where that precious clump of pinus pinaster was cut down.  As you can see, some of them on this side of the track suffered as well.  In April 1975, 4032 cl GEA with another batch of mt "O" vans had been tarted up a bit but somebody forgot, or was too lazy to put back the dome cover, which rather spoilt the effect.
24. Until 1973 it was the practice to bank up the pass both from Sir Lowry's Pass station and Elgin although banking from the SLP side was rare - note the banker's smoke. The policy changed in 1974 when doubleheading with Garratt leading was decreed. This lasted for one season only until 1975, the last one for steam, when the assisting engine was allowed to couple in front of the Garratt, a cynical change in policy dictated by convenience but done with the knowledge that it no longer mattered that the old-style non-self-adjusting pivots of the GEAs would have to take much more strain.
25. Some 25 vehicles later the 14CRB banker hove into view, shoving mightily
26. A 19C on down mt OZs coming under the new concrete bridge under the N2 in April 1958. After the 19Cs arrived at the Cape in 1935 the GDs were sent to the Cape Midland System.  For the next 25 years the business-like beat of the roly-poly 19Cs dominated Caledon-line services and the only exceptions were occasional double-heading of the passenger train with 6th classes during holidays and long weekends.  Doubleheading of freights must have been rare, I never saw one until the sixties. Note the lack of houses down in the valley, today those bare hills on the left are crowded with up-market dwellings.  Apologies for the poor quality of this slide which was retrieved along with several others from my parent's loft after they had been subjected to cycles of extreme heat and cold for more than 30 years.
27. This is the stretch of line that offers one of the views of Africa, described in the chapter about the Caledon train.  The train was 267-down Caledon goods in December 1971.  A hundred yards ahead is the summit tunnel, from that point on you are technically in the wondrous world known as the Overberg - as close to paradise as most of us could hope to get - in steam days possibly as close as any of us would hope to get.
28.  The actual highest point between SLP and Caledon is a hundred yards east of the summit tunnel, you can see its crest at the guards van.  This would make it roughly 20 - 30ft higher than Steenbras siding still half-a-mile away, the closest point for which we have an altitude - 1371 feet.
29. On this occasion Renoster was going home after bringing a load of mts up to Steenbras.  From here they would be worked down to Elgin by one of the returning bankers.  Before climbing onto 4009's roof to get this photo I had a chat with the crew.  They were not impressed, saying that she was a poor steamer.  Note the spray pipes around the chimney outlet.  This would seem like belt and braces.  First kill the sparks in the long tubes and then make doubly sure by giving them a soaking as they emerge.
30. Congestion at Steenbras-1.  During peak season the summit station was like a chinese puzzle with temporary staff trying to optimise engine loads in both directions. 4009 on the left has just come in from Cape Town and is waiting for a load to take back.  To save line occupation, at Elgin 264-up goods from Caledon was given a few loads of fruit and a pilot for the climb to Steenbras where it would lose the front engine, leaving just one to take its mixture of goods and fruit onwards to Cape Town.  The 19C on the right was on fruit mts for Elgin, it would be joined by 264-up's pilot (running tender first) for the return down the bank to Elgin.
31. Reducing single-line congestion was of cardinal importance on the mountain section, which could see anything up to 42 movements (including 12 returning helper workings) each 24 hours in peak season.  Attaching Elgin helpers (in this case 2437 cl 19C with its firehole door open) to down trains at Steenbras was one way of easing the situation. 
32. Ole!! Station Foreman Heyns fearlessly admits a raging, snorting, pawing GEA into the third road at Elgin during the 1975 season.
33. I've yet to see photographic evidence that Renoster ever worked through to Caledon, but here at least is visual proof that she did make it to Elgin.  April 1970.
34. In those halcyon days the railway was the only conceivable way of getting your produce to market.  It didn't require huge articulated trucks ploughing up the highway and crashing into cars and killing innocent people.  It only needed a tractor and trailer to shuttle back and forth between packing sheds and station all day long.  The single box on top was the farmer's incentive for the stationmaster to get his apples loaded expeditiously (I never said the old SAR wasn't corrupt, just the scale of things was different).
35. Elgin in peak season, April 1975. Frenetic activity with forklifts and a mixture of RMT and private lorries from outlying farms. It was still very rare to see an articulated truck. 

In the fruit shelter on the left are the traditional labour-intensive type OZ wooden fruit vans which could only be loaded by hand.  It took 18 labourers about 45 minutes to load (or offload) an OZ van.  In the roadstead forklifts are transferring palletised fruit straight off the farm lorries into the new type O vans on the right. One forklift with driver and two labourers could load one of the new vans in seven minutes. 

36. Pallets were introduced in the late sixties, rendering hand loading into the old twin-door wooden OZ fruit vans practically obsolete.  

During the 12 months from January 1970, 500 type "OZL" (now type "O") with a clever design of sliding door* which enabled the sides to be opened completely to enable loading of palletised fruit by forklift, were delivered to SAR by Dorman Long. They were a radically new design, conceived by SAR engineers in the CME's office in Pretoria. So successful were they that an immediate run-on order was placed with the same firm in 1971 for a another 250.  The weight of a loaded O truck is 70 tons comprising 26 tons tareweight and 34 tons load.  In the case of deciduous fruit the latter was made up of 16 pallets each loaded with 60 cartons of fruit.

* The sliding side doors and their operating mechanisms were designed and manufactured by Kisha Seizo Kaisho of Japan. 
37. A quiet Saturday midday at Elgin in April 1975, while 4039 cl GEA tops up before tackling the final stage of her three-hour climb from Bot River.  Meanwhile, 2003 cl 14CRB on station pilot and helper duty has added some fruit loads to the consist of 264-up which will be assisted from here to Steenbras by 19C 2437.  On the left, fruit loading continues apace.
38. Stalwarts of the fruit season on the turntable at Elgin.  I'm ashamed to say that I've lost their names but will continue to look for them.
39.  At rest between banking turns is 1884 cl 14CRB, as sturdy a mountain engine as you'd want to see.  Based on Hendrie's dependable class 14 designed for the Natal Main Line, the 14Cs were a wartime measure ordered from Montreal Locomotive Works (an Alco constituent company) in 1918.  They had Alco-designed improvements such as bar frames and were probably the better for it - all 73 engines in the class gave more than six decades of service.  Although they originally had Belpaire fireboxes the whole class had been reboilered with Watson standard round-top boilers by 1950.  At the same time their original commodious four-window Montreal cabs were replaced by the spartan and unattractive wedge-shaped Watson model. 
40. The 1969 season was the last to completely rely on hand-loading of cartons into the traditional wooden OZ fruit wagons.  The 14CRB was just departing with nine loads and a guards van, slightly overload for a single engine up to Steenbras.  The GEA on the left, just in from Caledon, was the one working cross-trip with our 8DW+14CRB doubleheader and would soon be returning to Caledon with the load brought in from Cape Town.
41. Having turned and taken loco at the eastern end of the station, 1208 then came up and backed onto the Garratt for a photo.  The station staff could not be persuaded to allow the combination to continue up to Steenbras - more's the pity!  Soon 1208 and 1767 were re-united and coupled to 264-up while the Garratt took loco before heading back to Caledon with 259-down.
42. In Elgin station there were few quiet moments at this time of the year, there was constantly some kind of activity.  The 14CRB was making up a train on the far track while the 19C was being readied to assist another fruit block up to Steenbras.
43. During the 1975 season 264-up, working through from Caledon, gets out of Elgin while a 14CRB takes a breather between shunting duties.  On the right yet more cartons of Cape apples are approaching the loading yard. 
44. A 14CRB pilots a GEA through the forest of Australian eucalyptus a mile out of Elgin in April 1975.  Only in the last steam season were the helper engines allowed to be attached in front, which was fine for photos but sad in the certainty that within a few short weeks the show would be over. Permanently. 
45. The previous season (1974) it had been decreed that the Garratt be attached in front.  Somebody in Health and Safety decided it was unsafe to bank trains (he probably didn't know this had been common practice for >100 years).  Nevertheless, some of us living in fantasy-land were still hoping that such scenes would last forever.
46. GEA banked by a 14CRB passing the spot we dubbed "Cottages" in April 1971.  This was the time-honoured, most efficient, least disruptive way of doing it.  There was never an incident, much less a derailment, but by the mid-seventies there were already too many clever-dick instant railwaymen entering the ranks of management who knew it all, so this turned out to be the last year that banking was permitted.
47. About a year later and 250-up, running a bit late with fruit loads added, was rounding the curve above Cottages just after sunrise.
48. In the Overberg at least, the Clean Air Act was not yet in force when this photo was made in April 1975.  As dawn broke over the still valleys the smoke of several trains that had worked up the pass during the night was still hanging in the air.  What a lovely aroma.  
49. The Groenlandberg behind Elgin presides benignly over the exertions of this GEA and 14CRB working their export fruit block up the hill to Steenbras in April 1972. 
50. About half way up to Steenbras, 4023 cl GEA leading 1775 cl 14CRB late on an afternoon in April 1974 
51. Sublime study of a banked fruit block by John Carter in July 1972.  Today the handful of buildings in the background has developed into a full-blown township.  
52. Old Einstein didn't do us a favour when he said that it was impossible to go back in time.  Would that one could re-create scenes such as this 14CRB piloting a GEA midway up the climb to Steenbras and halfway through the 1975 season.  Within a few short weeks it would all be gone forever.
53. At the same location as #52 but this time in the afternoon with a 19C piloting a GEA. 
54. Back to 1974 with the Garratt leading and furiously sanding the dewy morning rails.  Somehow the smaller engine leading was more aesthetically pleasing.
55. Einstein notwithstanding, we've gone back another few years, to 1971 in fact, with 4035 being banked by an unrecorded 14CRB.  This was during the changeover period when there still were not enough of the new "O" wagons to go around.
56.  Four years later, in April 1975, 2437 cl 19C + 4037 cl GEA with a solid consist of "O"s at the same attractive location. 
57. 1888 cl 14CRB + 4019 cl GEA forging upgrade through the Garden of Eden, April 1975.
58. Running slightly late, 250-up the 02:15 Caledon-Cape Town (Culemborg) goods had picked up a few fruit loads and 19C pilot at Elgin. April 1975. 
59. Congestion at Steenbras-2.  A banked fruit block is entering the station, threading the main line between a newly-arrived GEA on mts from TBH and a 14CRB banker off an earlier train.  Those portable huts were occupied 24/7 during the season by temporary operating staff.  There was no CTC or Van Schoor beyond Sir Lowry's Pass station, it was all paper orders and hand tumblers.  Note the bicycle, official issue to enable the dispatcher to get to the facing points as quickly as possible. April 1973
60.  An up fruit block, special train No 8252, being worked through to TBH by 1888 cl 14CRB crossing the GEA on 261-down Caledon goods on a Friday in April 1975.  Judging by his body language, 1888's fireman trudging towards the GEA has just been told that his weekend off in Cape Town has been cancelled. 
61. The same train in photo 58 has dropped off its pilot and the GEA is starting out of Steenbras in April 1975. The summit tunnel is less than a mile away. 
62. In case you don't already know it, these double-headed GEAs were an all-time scoop by John in April 1971.  I have seen no other photos of such a rare event.  He can thank Louis Geldenhuys, the SM at Sir Lowry's Pass who phoned him to say he was combining two Garratt-hauled trains to save line occupation.  But I have left out some important details - I had forgotten them, so let John tell the story: "You failed to mention Geldenhuys phoned me as the double GEAs pulled out of SLP station and I still caught them up by the horseshoe!*  Had it not been for the fact that Heather was in hospital producing Neil and I was babysitting Fiona nobody would have got this combination!  One of the few shots I can date with reasonable accuracy!" [But it comes back to me now.  What John has left out is that he had to take the infant Fiona with him and had to do a quick nappy change between the horseshoe and the summit.......the stuff we dedicated photographers have to endure!]

*For those of you who have it, see photo 39 on page 34 of "The Great Steam Trek".
63. Eugene shows us quite exquisitely the wind-swept, isolated location of Steenbras siding in this photo of a trio of class 35s approaching the highest point on the line with a block load of grain from the Ruggens.  This is what replaced all those dirty old Garratts and rod engines - the youth of today can relate much more readily to them.  Of course, this would have replaced two or even three trains in the old days so line occupation is no longer an issue and, considering that fruit no longer goes by rail, it is probably years since a crossing has taken place at Steenbras. On the left you can see the original N2, barely wide enough for two cars to pass, let alone a coupla pantechnicons.
64. Your reporter is a hopeless romantic, he preferred the old way. But what a contrast. Believe it or not, the GEA is towing a full load of grain from the Ruggens, 470tons on 48axles.  In the space of about ten years from the mid eighties the traditional FZ grain wagons - a feature of SAR for 70 years and more, were phased out in favour of the hoppers seen in the previous photo.

65. The return working of 1208 cl 8DW+1767 cl 14CRB emerging from the picturesque western portal of the summit tunnel in April 1969.  I wish I had taken this in colour, it would help show why the Cape Floral Kingdom is one of the seven natural wonders of the world.  The fynbos was in full bloom with pink proteas and bright yellow athanasia (kouterbossies) set off against the dappled-grey Table Mountain sandstone (for an idea of the effect I refer you again to Eugene's photo - No 63 above). 
66. 4029 cl GEA has just brought train 8248, a special fruit-season working, down the mountain and is having its last drink before heading for Cape Town.  From here on it's plain sailing.
67. In the 1969 season a 14CRB brings another rake of mt OZ wagons into Sir Lowry's Pass while the GEA of an up block load of fruit gets ready for the last leg of its journey to Table Bay Harbour.
68. Our resident gricer John found another of Johannes Barnard's experimental jobs leaving Sir Lowry's Pass with an up fruit working in September 1969.  This was class 19C No 2456 "Takbok" of which we shall be hearing more in a future episode. 
69. From the outskirts of Sir Lowry's Pass it was downhill through market gardens all the way to the junction at Van der Stel.  Today those fields of turnips have been replaced by low-cost housing for turnups. 
70. Let us close on an optimistic note, appropriately with this super train and rainbow shot by John, who did so much work on this line, not only photographically but also in battling the powers to allow steam excursions.  As ever, the pass is visible in the background.
The next chapter will describe the services east of Elgin to Caledon and beyond into the heart of the Overberg known as the Ruggens (or Rûens in purer Afrikaans).