Soul of A Railway ©‎ > ‎System 1‎ > ‎

Soul of A Railway ©

Cape Town prior to WWII

Please note: text and photographs in Soul of A Railway are protected by copyright and may not be copied or reproduced in any way for further use without prior permission in writing from the authors.

Although Natal had the honour of opening the first railway, from Durban to Point in 1860, the first proper main line in South Africa – the Cape Town Railway and Dock Co’s 63 miles to Wellington via Stellenbosch – was opened on 4 November 18631. Using 4’-8½” gauge it was built to high standards: substantial earthworks with 1-in-80 gradients and wide-radius curves – specifications attributable to W G Brounger, first railway civil engineer at the Cape. One year later Wynberg in the southern suburbs was connected to the city.

In those days the Cape was poor so the terminus languished in Wellington for several years before, spurred on by the discovery of diamonds around Kimberley, extension into the interior was sanctioned by the Cape Parliament in 1872. However, it was to be done on the cheap: 3’-6” gauge with light rail, minimal earthworks and steep gradients. Brounger was against this policy, his assessment that initial cost would be less but running costs higher proved correct within a few years as traffic grew rapidly after the discovery of gold on the Witwatersrand in 1886. By the time the Boer War began all the ports were connected to Johannesburg and Pretoria notwithstanding which the rail network was taxed to the utmost. From early in the 20th century a policy of replacing these hastily-built lines was put under way2, slowly at first but picking up quite rapidly between the wars and continuing into the 1980s. When it was done all the main lines and many branches had been rebuilt to specifications suitable for standard gauge so the rails themselves could just as well have been laid to 4’-8½” gauge from the start. Brounger had been vindicated.

By all accounts the Cape Town Railway and Dock Co never was a money spinner. After all, its two lines were not big generators of traffic – barrels of wine, grains and bales of wool from Wellington and commuters from Wynberg. When the time came to extend the fledgling railway towards the newly-discovered riches up country very little private capital was available. This called for government intervention – which meant involvement by the politicians who are notoriously ignorant about railways. Like politicians all over they called in consultants. The only problem was that one (R Thomas Hall) advocated a gauge of 2’-6” on the strength of his experience with the Cape Copper Company’s railway from Port Nolloth to Okiep. The other (W G Brounger) was equally adamant that the gauge should be 4’-8½”. So the politicians chose 3’-6”, a compromise that already had been successfully adopted in Australia. This fateful decision would have consequences for the whole of southern Africa – leading to the largest (but not the busiest - Japan has that) 3’-6” network in the world. Much to the chagrin of the Queenslanders (who were the first to adopt it on a large scale almost a decade ahead of the Cape), it became universally known as the “Cape Gauge” - except in Australia!

1. By the late 1880s the national network had reached the Transvaal and its fabulous sources of wealth. The CGR’s traffic was outgrowing the capacity of its el-cheapo infrastructure - note the use of hand tumblers as late as 1896 in an already busy terminus. In the middle is the curved arch of the Cape Town Railway & Dock Co’s train shed which survived for 101 years before insensitive railway architects replaced it with the present-day concrete monstrosity. Dominating the left background is the imposing new General Post Office, considered by Capetonians to be an architectural masterpiece, it too destroyed forty years later to make way for a multi-story department store in the singularly unimaginative “style” of the mid-twentieth century (see picture 12).

2. Scarcely ten years after the scene depicted in photo 1, Cape Town’s yard was stuffed full of carriages, proper signaling had been introduced and the CGR had taken a giant leap into the 20th century. Careful study shows three suburban trains with engines attached ready to depart while prominent on the left is the signal cabin for the new mechanical interlocking. On the extreme right is Monument Station with the steam of a passing train showing above all the rolling stock. Monument served the East Pier, Sea Point and certain up-country workings (the ones that connected with the weekly mailships). In later years it was used as the arrival and departure station of the Bombelas, the trains that safely ferried migrant labour to and from the Cape in pre-taxi days. The General Post Office again dominates the left background. Interesting that during this period passengers accounted for most of the business – gold bullion and mining machinery don’t take up much room but fortune-seekers in their tens of thousands do. If nothing else, the War (1899-1902) had brought even more prosperity to the railways as the British Army sent in 620,000 men to invade the Boer Republics.

3. Between 1905 and 1907 a photographer, Ravenscroft by name, was commissioned to photograph 100 towns served by the CGR in the Cape Province. That he had more than average ability is evident in this wonderful view of the impending departure of 5-down mail to Johannesburg – one of the finest photos ever made of Cape Town station. The locomotive is the 2-6-4 version of cl 6Z, almost brand new. Behind it is the more usual 4-6-0 version of class 6 and one of the graceful "Wynberg Tender" 4-4-0s ready for their evening commuter turns. On the right is another Wynberg Tender Cape 3rd-class 4-4-0 on another suburban working – this one probably to Bellville. A magnifying glass focused on the main-line train would reveal fashionable folk of the day – ladies with their Edwardian bustles and men wearing boaters – come to see off their fellow socialites.

4. A beautifully-made varnished teak private saloon of the CGR c mid 1890s. We would be grateful if anyone could shed more light on this vehicle. Thanks to Piet Nel for providing the illustration. 

5. Class 10C departing from Monument with the Rhodesia Mail (in later years this was 105-down, does anyone know what its number was when this photo was made just before WWI?). On Fridays, the Union Castle Co’s mailship berthed at the East Pier whence mail trains to the Transvaal and Rhodesia would depart. A shunting engine would bring these carriages via Dock Road to Monument Station where the main line engine, dining saloon, kitchen car and day/sleepers for city passengers were attached. A recurring theme of these articles will be the excellence of the CSAR’s pre-SAR locomotive designs of which the 10Cs – introduced in 1910 – were fine examples. Originally intended for local passenger work around the Reef, their outside-admission valves with straight-ported cylinders made them extraordinarily free runners so they soon were found suitable for the main line as well. All but two of the 10Cs received Watson standard boilers (becoming 10CRs) and the whole class of 12 engines had a working life of more than 60 years.

6. The best of several sound designs by SAR’s first Chief Mechanical Engineer, DA Hendrie, the 15As were the anchor power on the Cape Main Line from their introduction in 1915 until gradually displaced by huge new engines from the USA – the 15CBs and 16Ds (+ later, the 15CAs) – in the mid 1920s. From the tenure of A G Watson onwards the 15A’s combustion-chambered Belpaire boilers were replaced by less efficient standard No 2A boilers. Without combustion chambers the rebuilds were inferior steamers compared with their non-rebuilt sisters. No 1843 and crew posed for a railway circle member at the old Tennant Road shed c 1930.

7. If Ravenscroft’s overall view of the station gives the best impression of the atmosphere of the place, Eric Manken’s classic picture of the departure of the Union Express in February 1926 is surely the most memorable action photo ever made of a train leaving Cape Town. It has been published several times before but, like "Casablanca", it always seems fresh. Everything came together in a perfect example of composition - the two dwarf signals on the right, the high rails, pointwork and point rodding all drawing one’s eye towards the majestic 15A and its rake of Hendrie 1st-class day/sleepers. Note the passenger giving a last wave!

8. Railway artist Jack Hill’s copy of a photo by Martin Leendertz of the precursor to the Union Express departing from platform 13, included here to give an idea of how impressive the signal gantry must have looked in colour. Note the varnished-teak ex CSAR vestibule stock, in many ways superior to the later Hendrie standard balcony day/sleeper coaches (although I much preferred the latter – standing on the balcony with steam up front was the best way to arrive with a black face).

9. I’ve used so many superlatives even my mother’s shorter Oxford Dictionary can’t keep up. This is Frank Holland’s stunning photo, shot mid 30s, of a 15CA taking the avoiding line. If Eric Manken’s is the best then this must surely be the next most beautiful picture of a train leaving Cape Town.

10. Having come off the avoiding line a mile back, the 15CA of the Union Express is accelerating rapidly through Thornton (originally Woltemade No 3 - thanks to Rollo Dickson for identifying the location) towards Bellville. The sound would have been overwhelming. Note the speckled white stripe along the side of the carriages. This is an optical illusion created by the white card booking slips flapping in the breeze with the names of the passengers in each compartment typed on them. Aussie readers will note the similarity in appearance of the locomotive and its all-clerestory rake with the other SAR’s “Overland” between Adelaide and Melbourne - they were practically contemporary.

11. During 1935 A G Watson’s poppet-valved 15Es heralded the start of SAR’s superpower era. Their sister engines, the 16Es actually came before the “Bongols” but, although tested here, they were never intended to work out of Cape Town.

12. The USRA profile of a 16D Pacific juts into Dock Road at the foot of Adderley Street, once the proud main thoroughfare of the mother city. The date would be c 1940, judging by the bland tower of the new GPO behind the engine (it replaced the magnificent old one seen in photos 1,2&3). On the right is Garlicks’ attempt at art deco, it too replaced a much more impressive structure, and just in front, the flat-iron building (every city worthy of its status had one). Half obscured by a weird three-wheeler Karrier Cob used extensively by the SAR Cartage Service in Cape Town and Johannesburg, is a 1938 Austin 12/4 of which more in a future episode. Stretched out behind are the Gothic kranses of Adderley Street. As a portend of the destruction to come already the streetcars and their rails have gone, replaced by trolleybusses which never could match the grave presence of trams. Today only the Standard Bank remains as a reminder of the time when Victorian extravagance blended seamlessly into centuries-old Cape Dutch architecture, mere blocks away from the city center.

13. By the time Vernon Wilson took this photo in the mid-sixties Cape Town was far advanced in destroying its cultural heritage, almost as if we were ashamed of it. Look at the monstrosity that replaced the graceful CGR station - not yet demolished in the background. As if to emphasise how little railways featured in the minds of the 'architects' who dreamed up this prison-like concrete structure, take a look at the mosaic frieze above the doors. There are eight panels depicting a transport theme. Not one features a train.


1 I was probably the only photographer around when the 14:15 Wellington (via Stellenbosch) departed from Cape Town on the 4th of November 1963. Completely unheralded, it represented 100 years of steam haulage to Wellington. The morning EMU to the same destination had a fancy head-board to commemorate the date and there were several press photographers present to record the event. If you are wondering why the 14:15 was still steam ten years after the juice to Wellington was switched on it was because the engine was used to service non-electrified private sidings between there and Paarl. Three weeks later steam finished when these duties were handed over to 150/151 pick-ups (photo will be in Part 6).

2 The first improvements were made by the CGR as early as 1904 between Artois and Wolseley to ease the 1-in-40 climb out of the Berg River catchment to its Breede River watershed (the most southerly railway crossing of the continental divide!). The steeper original line was kept for “up” traffic while “down” trains used the new 4½-mile, 1-in-80 deviation. The last major deviations and re-alignments (excluding “heavy-haul” lines which were built to an altogether higher standard from the start) were the complete re-alignments of the Hex River and Laingsnek passes in the 1980s. It should be mentioned that on the Cape Western (System 1) “down”, expressed in odd numbers, meant away from Cape Town whereas “up”, with even numbers, meant towards Cape Town. This was the only System where such numbering applied, all others used Johannesburg as their reference point.