Soul of A Railway ©‎ > ‎System 1‎ > ‎

Part 5, Beaufort West - De Aar by Charlie Lewis ©

Please note: All photographs, maps and text 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.

We continue the story of the Cape Main Line through the Karoo, with the emphasis still on the condensers and how they performed.  However, there is a bit of politics in this issue – a state-owned and operated railway is always going to be subject to the whims of politicians, so I have tried to describe how the well-run, tidy and busy SAR became the mess we see in photos 2 and 5 – a situation that prevails throughout the country.

The current disarray of Transnet was set in motion by the previous regime but under the present "management" it has gained unstoppable momentum.  With the benefit of hindsight one can pinpoint key events, each triggering another downward slide in the fortunes of our national railway (as this series progresses we will enlarge on the bullet points where they are relevant):

  • The Road Transportation Act, Act 14 of 1977.  A seemingly harmless relaxation of the permit system provided the initial breakthrough for the road freight industry
  • The budget-breaking sums spent on creating SAR/SATS/Transnet’s biggest white elephant – Sentrarand marshalling yard (an epic cock-up and unmitigated disaster from the customer's point of view, mercifully it was never finished)
  •  Rather than relying on experienced men coming through the ranks, from the early eighties there was increasing emphasis on employing “Business Managers” from outside.  Despite being clueless about railroading, they brought with them the bizarre notion that they were absolutely right about everything
  • The scrapping of the Railway Police, 1989
  • The full deregulation of transport, 1990
  • The appointment in 1992 of Mercer Consultants – the same firm that almost caused the bankruptcy of Union Pacific.  A “Mercer Disaster” was the closing of Regional Manager’s Offices and centralising decision-making in Johannesburg which practically destroyed what was left of Transnet’s general freight business - so dependent upon close customer relations.

A crucial factor was the blocking of promotion channels for anyone who was not white.  This led to a situation where potential managers were either kept at low levels or left the service for the private sector.  Worse, it meant that when jobs finally were opened to all races there was no one with railway experience to promote from the ranks of the “previously disadvantaged” (to use the politically-correct phrase).  Coupled with this has been the aberration that anyone with business training can run a railway - since 1994 Transnet's "management" has succeeded in comprehensively disproving this particular conceit.  Three examples among several:

  •  Dolly Mokgatle who came over from Eskom – “transformation” (i.e. Apartheid with a different name) was her brief.  She was responsible for ‘instant’ train drivers and other operational personnel. Result: the worst accident record in our railway's history
  • Maria Ramos who came from the Ministry of Finance with a reputation for being shrewd about money.  She was.  This lady set about ‘improving’ the bottom line by asset stripping (she would not be at Transnet long enough to face the music)
  • Siyabonga Gama, the current CEO. It may be recalled that this individual was dismissed for ‘irregularities’ and was subsequently re-instated with a ‘final written warning’.  Achieving this took the firing of the recently appointed, no-nonsense Minister, Barbara Hogan and the entire Transnet Board of Directors!

The senior management of Transnet have not been shy when it comes to salaries (from the Business Times, September 16, 2012):

  • Siyabonga Gama/ceo Transnet Freight Rail: R12.639m/annum – up 211% on 2010. 
  • Karl Socikwe/ceo Port Terminals: R9.874m/annum – up 42,46% on 2010
  • Tau Morwe/ceo National Ports Authority: R9.395m/annum – up 18,86% on 2010
  • Richard Vallihu/ceo Rail Engineering: R9.238m/annum – up 21,92% on 2010
  • Khomotso Phihlela/ceo Group Commercial: R8.423m/annum – up 18,5% on 2010
  • Anoj Singh/Chief Financial Officer: R8.191m/annum – up 71,54% on 2010

This profligacy is reflected down the ranks.  Small wonder that so much of our once magnificent railway looks like a graffiti-ridden bombsite.  After paying these outrageous wages there is barely enough money to maintain Transnet’s plant and equipment, let alone provide a satisfactory service to its customers!  While all this thieving has been going on, 150 years worth of institutional memory has been lost.  There is no way back.


1.  7-down pausing for the ritual exchange of engines at Beaufort West c 1950.  This photo was used in the introduction to System 1.  We make no apology for its re-use - it is relevant to this chapter and contrasts vividly with the wasteland that is Beaufort West station today (see the next photo, taken from the same vantage point barely three months ago - July 2012). 

2.  Note the complete absence of trains or freight rolling stock.  Just before the wholesale pruning of long-distance passenger services in 1984 (just after a R70 million* order for new day/sleeper carriages), it was decided to build a new passenger facility on the west side of the tracks, notwithstanding that the town is on the east side. The characterful original building with its Cape Dutch gables, and the traditional signal cabin were flattened to make way for staging roads for electric units.  Like for the huge new freight marshalling yard (photo 6) the anticipated business never materialised and by July 2012 the new station was looking shabby and forlorn.  From the commuter 'services' in the cities to the remotest country station pride seems to have flown out of the window. 

*1984 rands!

3.  Beaufort West shed never underwent a radical rebuild as at Touws River. Still on its original site, it was simply added to over the years.  Until they were demolished to make way for electric unit staging tracks in 1984 the walls consisted mainly of stone masonry from the very first structure, and the main water tank was supported on its original dressed stone foundation. 

Les found this class 15E coaled and ready to work a northbound train in December 1952.  According to his archives, at this time, Beaufort West was home to 39 class 15E, 3 class 3/3R, 3 class 6 and 4 class 19C (for working the Calvinia branch).

4.  A general view of the shed in March 1962.  By this time there were no more 25s based at Touws River (only 7 years previously the latter’s new shed had been purpose-built to service the condensers) and the rapidly dwindling southbound steam workings were being handled by Beaufort West engines and crews. 

5.  The site of the steam locoshed in July 2012.  Only a part of the Loco Foreman’s office remains and the large modern workshop, both on the left.  A dozen or so grubby class 6E1s await assignments – given the paucity of traffic this wasn’t likely to be anytime soon. 

6.   A down goods setting out from the huge new 24-track exchange yard in March 1962.  Nowadays these tracks are unused and weedgrown not only due to reduced traffic but because with electric power it is quicker, easier and more economical to adjust the number of locomotives than to remarshall the load.

7.  Also in March 1962 (for three weeks in that month I was stationed at Leeugamka!) another northbound goods was passing the loco.  Note the splitting dolly signals in the foreground, the top one is the starter for Up trains departing from the station yard, the lower one gives access to the yard's non-electrified head shunt.

8.  Another De Aar-bound freight passing a class 4E just in from the south and awaiting its next turn of duty.  In March 1962 less than half of Touws River – Beaufort West traffic was being worked by the 4Es.  Within 6 months regular steam to the south had ceased.

9.  A pair of 4Es just arrived with 7-down.  Notwithstanding the heavy train, one of the units was being worked north due to a surge in southbound traffic (the train was taken onwards by a single class 25 – see next photo).  The 1962 ‘Railway Timetable’ – a veritable treasure trove of more than 400 pages – provided the following endorsement for 7-down: “Conveys booked passengers from Cape Town and stations where times are shown to the Northern Cape, Orange Free State, Transvaal and on the respective connecting days to Port Elizabeth, East London, South West Africa and Natal…..”  For this, the train was allowed 45 minutes at De Aar to enable the appropriate carriages to be shunted off on their “respective connecting days”.  It should also be mentioned that there was no nonsense about not shunting occupied carriages as nowadays decreed by the Rail Safety Regulator, this was done for more than a hundred years without physical injuries to passengers.

10.   The shadows have shortened noticeably as an unknown class 25 makes a smoky start with the same train featured in photo 9.  SAR engine changes were notoriously languid, for instance, 7-down was allowed 18 minutes here in 1962 – more than enough time to stretch one’s legs and get a couple of leisurely photographs.

Accustomed to SAR practices, I once tried the same stunt at Nevers on the SNCF.  I leapt off the Clermont-Ferrand - Paris Rapide to get a shot of our 241P, but it was already uncoupled and receding into the distance while another 241P backed on.  I ran forward to get a photo of the fresh engine then missed the train.  It had taken barely two minutes to change engines!  No whistles, no fanfare, the big compound rapidly slid away, leaving me behind.

11.  3530 cl 25 making a smoky exit from Beaufort West with 7-down in March 1962.

12.  The same train moments later.  Note the fine old Hendrie 3rd-class day/sleeper balcony coach.

13.  Ten years earlier we had departed Beaufort West on 3-down with a 15E – my first and most exciting long-distance trip on SAR.  It was a school camp for Cape Town kids to Leisure Bay on the Natal South Coast via Port Shepstone – three nights and three days on the train each way!  The rail distance was 1410 miles of which 1150 miles was behind eight different classes of steam – 15F, 23, 15E, 15BR, 15CA, 15CB, 15AR and GCA.  Overnight from Harrismith to Durban we had double class 1E units and a converted wooden goods van fitted with a coal-fired vertical boiler for the steam heating!  I remember lying on my stomach on the middle bunk, facing the window, watching the orange glow on the smoke and coming from the open door of this van – it was like having steam all the way!  Coming back the above order of motive power was reversed.

14.  A pair of condensers with 401-down on Riemhoogte between Renosterkop and Riem in May 1973.  Classified as ‘fast goods’ in the WTBs, 401 conveyed bulk beer, spirits, wine and other high-rated traffic from the Cape to the Transvaal.  It was an efficient service appreciated by its customers.  Nowadays every item on this train goes by road.  Note the three alignments visible in this picture and refer to the Google map below.

15.  For the precise location of photos 14 and 16 see the Google Earth image with the suggested original CGR and intermediate alignments courtesy of Bruno Martin.  It can be seen that the railway was deviated twice here.  The three alignments are clearly visible between the present line and the abandoned formation on the right.  When the latest deviation was built it seems as if one of the embankments was removed to provide fill material.  The dates of these deviations are proving elusive.  Can anyone help?

As you can see, there is no train in this photo, but Google's camera did spot a 28-wheel 58-ton articulated truck on the N1 highway - in all likelihood carrying freight that would have been on the railway not so long ago.  The N1 between Touws River and Colesburg has one of the highest accident rates involving heavy goods vehicles in the country.

16.  A little further up the Riemhoogte these condensers were working a heavy 455-down, the Wednesdays-only relief fish, another fast freight consisting entirely of high-rated traffic.  All fish now also goes by road so there are no latter-day equivalents of 55-down (the fish), 401-down (booze etc) or 455-down (the relief fish).

17.  A down goods with 15E in charge passing Juk halt between Riem and Nelspoort, date unknown but judging by its original flared chimney it is unlikely to be later than the mid forties.

Soon after they were introduced in 1935 the 15Es made Beaufort West – De Aar their stamping ground.  With relatively efficient rotary-cam operated poppet valves they were lighter on coal and water than the mechanically-fired 15Fs and 23s.  Nevertheless, the 63 sq ft grates and large boilers required plenty of muscle power to keep them hot, earning them the nickname “Bongol” – Saffa slang for a donkey and a not so subtle reference to how hard they made a fireman work.

18.  Until the sixties doubleheaded condensers usually were only seen south of Beaufort West where the gradients were more severe.  Doubleheading northwards only became common in the late sixties as traffic escalated in harmony with South Africa’s booming economy.  Early intimations of the coming surge were multiple crossings, as evidenced by these three goods passing at Nelspoort in 1962.

19.  Minutes later, the train on the 3rd road pulled out, to be followed not much later by the goods with the bulldozer working south on a permissive tablet.

20.  Nine years later doubleheaded condensers were commonplace – that’s 216ft of engine on the point of 33-down goods!  No wonder they had to lengthen the loops.  Nelspoort, May 1971.

21.  An old Boer-war blockhouse stands vigil of this lash-up of two condensers and a 15F rolling into the water stop at Kromrivier.  The water was for the 15F, not the condensers.  It was an impressive sight and the train was lengthy but no more than it would have been for a doubleheader due to a strict instruction in the local appendix that tripleheading was not allowed.  The 15F was in light steam, being ferried from Capital Park (Pretoria) to the Western Cape for branch line and local freight service. 

“How the mighty are fallen” applies to this scene, the first time I realised that the beloved 15Fs, for >30 years pride of SAR’s main lines, were finally losing their status.  The reason?  From 1972 onwards the General Electric and General Motors erecting plants had begun turning out class 34 diesels like Eskort pork sausages.

22.  3-down paused for passengers at Three Sisters in October 1959.  The milk churns standing in the sun surely must be empty.  Such interludes at country stations had altered little in decades but big changes were on the way.  Soon, mechanisation of track maintenance would empty those track labourer’s cottages and toolsheds, centralised train control would make the station foreman redundant and farmers would no longer be able to interact with local staff to order their supplies or dispatch their produce.  In those days WTBs earmarked certain goods trains that were to convey the children of railwaymen at outlying stations to and from school but this time-honoured practice also died out in the sixties.

23.  A block load of coal for the Western Cape with a seemingly random mix of DZs and B-bogies trundling through Three Sisters in July 1973.  Don’t ask me why this bum photographer cut off the fine three-masted home signal on the right!  If anyone is kind enough to send a photo showing the signal (and, of course, the Three Sisters) I will gladly substitute it.

24.  This is either 3- or 7-down accelerating past Three Sisters’ domestic borehole some time in the mid fifties. Not only locomotive water was a problem in the Karoo.  Domestic supplies were needed for staff, which at stations such as Three Sisters with its contingent of track labourers could be quite considerable.  Sometimes the borehole water wasn’t potable which meant that drinking water had to be supplied by train (note the water tanks on the “platform” in photo 22).

25.  Towards the end of the condenser’s 20-year reign in the Karoo doubleheading became more the rule than the exception.  A crossing at Noblesfontein in July 1973.

26.  The day stopper, 15-down with 3533 in charge between Noblesfontein and Stapelia on the same day as photo 25 in July 1973

27.  Condensers 3519+3508 barreling downhill to Noblesfontein on 4000-up fast freight in May 1973.  Note the concrete-block sleepers.  By this time they had fallen into disfavour because the steel tie bars developed metal fatigue.  Track engineers preferred solid concrete sleepers with Pandrol or Fist fastenings, they packed easier and held the running top much longer.

28.  One balmy afternoon in May 1973 we were braaiing in the shade of a pepper tree next to the down water column at Kromrivier when 3431 cl 25NC “Lindy Lou” unexpectedly arrived on 413-down perishables and stopped for a tankful.  As this seemed like a good opportunity to get an untypical photo at a favourite location, we hastily abandoned the braai and asked the crew for a bit of smoke at mp 399.75 near Stapelia.  The road distance was 30 miles as against 20 along the railway so we just made it in time.  That’s the original CGR track formation in the foreground, now being used as a district road – see Bruno’s map.

29.  Please tell me if all these doubleheaders are getting boring!  This was 22-up goods with a mysterious tarpaulined string of B-bogies coming downhill through Stapelia.  The leading condenser is 3531.

30. Courtesy of Pierre de Wet comes this early 1930s photo of what I think must have been 3-down with 15A in charge climbing to Biesiespoort.  This would be on the CGR’s original 1-in-60 uncompensated alignment – see Bruno’s map. Nowadays, in order to justify the outrageous wages paid to him out of our taxes, the Rail-safety Regulator would have a lot to say about standing on the balconies - a practice that was enjoyed without incident by passengers for more than 100 years.

31.  The northbound "Doppies" (explosives train) grinding up the 1-in-80 to Biesiespoort, May 1973

32.  At sunrise on 6th July 1973, 21-down goods was crossing Mannetjies Roux’s farm on the sweeping curve of the 1941 deviation.  Ahead is a long, very deep cutting on a right-hand curve leading into Biesiespoort station.

33. The same train entering Biesiespoort station after emerging from the deep cutting.  This was taken by swiveling 180 degrees at the vantage point used for photo 31.  Allen Duff tells us that the clearly visible raised formation angling in from the left was for a temporary connection from the CGR line to the new Biesiespoort station, presumably put into use pending completion of the cutting excavation which was a major work.

34.  A southbound doubleheader starting out of Biesiespoort in September 1969.  Smoke was arranged.

35.  South of Verster the Karoo is a series of ridges and koppies, mistily filling the background of this early morning condenser coming northwards out of Biesiespoort with empty B-bogies.  Less than a mile ahead is the highest point on the main line between Cape Town and De Aar – 4,530ft at the insignificant halt of Eggoklip.

36.  Groomed by Alec Watson, the legendary loco foreman of De Aar, 1970 cl 15A “Milly”, one of Hendrie’s masterpieces, brings a SABC special past Verster’s fine four-post home signal in April 1977.  Second arm from the left is a wrong-road signal to enable up trains to cross over to the down main – the line is double here.

37.  Another view of Verster’s home signals with 3539 cl 25 on 194-up, the schools train referred to in caption 22, cleared for the Up main.  This is the end of the short (8-mile) double track southwards from Hutchinson.

38.  With practically all their hard work done, these condensers were coasting downhill through Verster with 1313-down perishables, a through fast freight with fruit and vegetables from the Western Cape for Natal.  Exemplifying how busy the line was at this time are the two Up freights in the holding sidings on the right.  They were waiting for 1313 to clear before proceeding down the single track to Beaufort West.


39.  We have to thank Pierre de Wet for this portrayal by an unknown photographer of what looks like 3-down at Hutchinson c 1925/6.  From the 15A to the baggage/guards van, with a rake of day/sleeper balcony coaches and clerestory twin diner in between, this was as pure a Hendrie train as one could wish for. Note the general-dealer store on the right.

40. Thirty years later little had changed.  Hutchinson station looked busier but the old algemene handelaar (general dealer) across the road was still there, condensers had replaced 15Es which in turn replaced the 15As but the carriages still looked the same - dowdy in their Imperial Brown livery (was there ever a more blatant euphemism for a shit colour - but I loved it more than the maroon and grey that followed) and customer-friendly 4-wheeled wagons were still being used.  3-down had stopped for passengers and a booked connection with the Victoria West shuttle.

41.  And here comes the shuttle with a tender-first 19C!  Meanwhile a following freight had caught us up.  There was time for one passenger to cross the platform and then we were off on the final flat and fast 82 miles to De Aar. 

42.  The westbound Orange Express, 209-down accelerating away from its passenger stop at Hutchinson in July 1973.  The driver kindly opened the blow-down cock as soon as he spotted me.  It seems that the previous week all the crews had been urged to do this by a British train photographer, who shall be nameless.  Unfortunately it took about another week to get them to unlearn the habit.

43.  401-down fast freight departing for De Aar in May 1969.  Although the 25s could work through in theory, in practice coal quality had declined so much by the seventies that trains invariably had to stop here for a fire clean so they topped up their water at the same time.  Remember that from the early sixties the practice of firecleaning on the run had been stopped and ashpits installed at all watering stations.

Hutchinson was a busy junction.  It was the starting point of the 250-mile branch to Calvinia (with its own 28-mile branch from Kootjeskolk to Sakrivier).  The track leading towards us off the facing points under the second engine is the Calvinia branch.


44.  The imposing entrance to the Yeomanry Hotel at Deelfontein, 30 miles south of De Aar.  Situated across the road from the station, the hotel was erected just after the Boer War, but Deelfontein itself was the site of the Imperial Yeomanry regiments' military hospital during the war.  When we passed through here in 1973 there was only one man, a Mr Adamstein, living in the hotel, I think he was the owner.  He also ran the adjacent bottle shop but according to the excellent story of Deelfontein by S A Watt (see ) he is no longer there and this extraordinary spooky place is deserted - left to the spirits of the many soldiers whose war ended in the hospital here. 



45. The phone lines get some attention somewhere south of De Aar while 401-down mixed (all stations Cape Town Monument – De Aar) trundles by with a 15E in charge c 1950.  Before the days of microwave towers and satellites every station on the SAR was linked by analog telephone.  This highly efficient network ran parallel to, but completely separate from the GPO lines, so one could actually phone any part of the country (including South West Africa) from any SAR station, a fact not generally known by members of the public.

46.  Here we have the reason for Marshall Clark’s decision to electrify the Cape Main Line and Willem Heckroodt’s decision to employ condensers.  The 15E leaving Hutchinson with an up goods during a dry spell c 1950 is hauling two feeder tanks, which take up 10% of its permitted trailing load of 1275 tons.  South of Beaufort West where northbound 23s were only permitted 750 tons, this percentage could be more than 15% - a serious reduction of revenue-earning traffic potential.