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Soul of A Railway, System 1, Part 4, Touws River-Beaufort West by Charlie Lewis ©

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Touws River-Beaufort West: The Condenser's Home Turf

Early in 1953 this advertisement began to appear in the SAR & H Magazine and various trade journals. To at least one ignorant schoolboy it was like a dream. The new engines looked enormous and he especially liked the smokebox front fashioned by Henschel – it seemed to mean business.

At the time it was not evident that this would be SAR’s last new steam design (apart from the one-off class 26). In reality, the condensers were an afterthought, something the politicians dreamed up because they wanted to use on ideological projects the money that should have been spent on the Hex River Pass tunnels and electrification. Among the first casualties when the National Party came to power in 1948 were the outstanding General Manager Marshall Clark, the Hex Tunnels and electrification beyond Touws River – i.e. through the Koup. The money was needed elsewhere, mainly to put towards the party’s vision of separation of the races – everywhere, in every sphere. In case you are wondering how this is relevant, it leads directly to how profoundly Apartheid affected our railway and its operations.

Although a few lesser machines will be on display, in this chapter we concentrate on SAR’s finest steam locomotives, the 90 condensing 4-8-4s of class 25 – why they were built, how they performed and recurring teething troubles during their first years in service.

Without dependable water every 40-50 miles trains could not run, which created perennial problems in the Great Karoo. As traffic reached unprecedented levels during and immediately after World War II, borehole-fed locomotive water supplies in the Koup, driest region of the Great Karoo, began to dry up. The Water Engineer (in steam days second only to the Chief Civil Engineer in the pecking order) had advised that there was no possibility of strengthening these supplies. The costly tanking of water was absorbing too much of the single line’s capacity at the expense of revenue traffic. This was the key factor in Marshall Clark’s decision to electrify the Cape Main Line.

The General Manager who replaced Clark was Willem Heckroodt. Nowadays it seems likely he was a closet steam enthusiast! Having cancelled electrification, the water shortages did not go away so the proposed solution moved towards Henschel's proven condensing technology of the 1930s1 as applied to 240 Kriegsloks for the eastern front and more than 4000 units of the Russian SOk class mainly for use in Turkestan and other arid regions of the USSR. For trials, A.G. Watson’s experimental class 20 No 2485, a light-axleload 2-10-2, originally intended to replace the aging 7th classes in South West Africa and on branch lines in the Union, was equipped with condensing apparatus and a Kriegslok condensing tender by Henschel, mounted on standard SAR six-wheeled Buckeye bogies (photo 6).

After extensive tests it was decided that 90 of a pending order for 140 new 4-8-4s would be condensers. But the leap from a light branch-line locomotive to a fully-fledged main line machine proved almost insurmountable, not least because a 25-class had twice the steam-generating capacity of the 2485. Nevertheless, after five years of experimentation and tuning SAR had a magnificent performer – one that used 90% less water than its non-condensing counterpart, giving a range of 500 miles between water stops (condensing tenders carried 5,000 gallons as opposed to 10,500 gallons for a 25NC). With one-piece castings for engine and tender frames and roller bearings on everything that moved, the 25s became the second-least costly engines to maintain on SAR after the 25NCs, which of course had no condensing equipment. A famous paper on the condensers, their growing pains (separation of cylinder oil from the exhaust steam and rapid wear due to char cutting of the blower fan proved particularly troublesome) and how they were cured, was presented at the Institution of Locomotive Engineers in March 1960 by Professor Dr-Ing Richard Roosen of Henschel 2.

Unfortunately, resolving these problems took so long that the patience of the operating department wore out. In 1958 work began on extending the Cape Main Line electrification to Beaufort West, 339 miles from Cape Town, completed late in 1961. This was at least a partial recognition of Marshall Clark’s foresight.

1 The idea of using condensing locomotives was first brought to the SAR’s attention by Syd Ash founder of the legendary firm of Ash Brothers, railway supply agents (see below)

2 “Class 25 Condensing Locomotives on the South African Railways: Design and Operating Experiences”, paper No 607, Journal of the Institution of Locomotive Engineers, London, 1960

The gist of the foregoing was written and circulated directly to 40 recipients in December 2008. At the time it was well received, especially as photos of condensers at work when they were still new are comparatively rare. We therefore decided to post it on SoAR because in the interim our readership has increased to more than 3000!

Introduction of the 25 Class, by the late Kim Ash

Ash Brothers were the agents for Henschel in South Africa. Paul Ash, son of Kim, responded to my original posting with his father’s riveting account of the trials and tribulations of Ash Bros, Henschel, North British and SAR in resolving the start-up difficulties that they encountered with the introduction of the 25s. It is sad to record that the end of the first phase of the condenser story ended in tragedy – the stress-induced death of Paul’s uncle, Langton Ash, in August 1961.

Herewith, from the horse’s mouth, is Kim Ash’s account of the introduction of the class 25s (with acknowledgement and thanks to Paul Ash):

……some words from someone who was actually there, at least for some of the time:

At 73 I am pedantic, so I shall ‘phoneticise’ German words to ensure that they are properly pronounced. Where I have forgotten first names, surnames only will be used, with any appropriate titles or qualifications. Dipl.Ing. [Diplom Ingenieur] is equivalent of B.Sc. or M.Sc. Ober Ingenieur is Chief Engineer." [note from Charlie: with due respect to Kim Ash, in the interests of brevity I have left out the phonetic spellings]

"1. Some CVs:

1905: my father, Syd Ash, served apprenticeship at Robert Stephenson & Hawthorne, Newcastle-upon-Tyne followed by Mech. Eng. diploma at Armstrong College (Durham University).

1919: Johannesburg, Ash Brothers formed by recently demobbed Major Syd Ash (Royal Engineers) and Captain Arthur Ash (Royal Field Artillery).

1920: Brother Arthur returned to England and pursued a successful career as an architect.

1923: Ash Brothers approached by Henschel und Sohn, Kassel, Germany; appointed their South African agent.

[Paradoxically, Syd Ash from North of England (Leeds) thereby represented a locomotive company in Kassel and Dr.Theodore Reunert (Reunert & Lenz) – actually born in Kassel – represented North British Locomotive Company (NBL)!]

1937-1939: Langton Paton Ash did two year apprenticeship at Henschel followed by Mech.Eng. diploma at Wits Technical College.

1923 to 1939: many Henschel locomotives supplied to South African Railways [SAR], including Class 23's and the glorious 16E Pacifics for the Union Limited ‘Boat Train’, forerunner of the Blue Train.

1939-45: WW II.

1947-48: Oskar Henschel made contact, and visited S.A. to re-establish the relationship.

1948-49: Henschel & Ash Locomotive Company (HALCO) formed to manufacture locomotives in South Africa and specifically to tender SAR for 100 Class S2 shunting locos. Contract awarded to Krupp, however, for reasons beyond the scope of these notes but an interesting story on its own.

1956: I worked 3-1/2 months in Henschel drawing offices and on the shop floors during summer vacation from Mech. Eng. degree course, London University, and after qualifying in 1957, 3 months at General Motors Locomotive Division, La Grange, Illinois.

(Henschel had acquired a license to fit GM diesel engines and electric equipment in its own DE locomotives for Europe and Africa markets. At that time the Bundesbahn itself was pursuing a strictly diesel-hydraulic policy, based on the German Voith and Mekhydro transmissions. The arrangement with GM was, of course, Henschel hedging its bets!)

In short, Ash Brothers was not just an ‘agent’ – we did know something about locomotives."

"2. Background to a Bold Decision.

The late 1940's drought was about the worst S.A. had ever known. With watering points on the main line through the Karoo running dry, the situation was critical. To keep traffic moving SAR quite often had to dispatch more water-tanker trains than those for freight and passengers.

So what to do?

Diesel traction? SA had no oil and plenty of coal, facts-of-life with serious strategic implications. Moreover, at that time even in the USA, diesel was only just beginning to catch on. For SAR the lead time to implement such a programme would have taken quite a few years.

Electric traction? With no overhead catenary, no sub-stations, no national grid, and not nearly enough power stations – now we're talking decades.

Road transport? About half the road which is now the N1 was still corrugated gravel, and in some places there were even farm gates to be opened and closed! How long to upgrade ~700 km of road surface?

Airways for the passenger traffic? In Vickers Vikings (which had to land twice for fuel just to make Cape Town) DC 3s, Lockheed Lodestars, and a few DC 4 ‘Skymasters’ just beginning to enter service?

Quite clearly, any realistic solution would have to involve finding more water – or using less of it.

In 1935 Syd Ash first drew SAR Administration's attention to Henschel's expertise with condensing steam locomotives, which included existing designs and patents. Experimental units had run on German railways, and numbers of condensers were in actual service in Russia and South America.

Faced with the water crisis described, SAR decided to conduct trials with a converted SAR Class 20 locomotive, Henschel to supply a condensing tender of suitable dimensions, and the essential accessories (smoke-box turbine/blower to create the necessary draught for the boiler, condensate return/feed etc.) for fitting locally.

I saw this tender when it arrived at Capital Park, and was shown over it by Heinrich Carl, Henschel field engineer who had spent the war years in Argentina looking after the condensing locos in service there. We became good friends – he spent years in S.A., later with the Class 25s, GMAM Garratts and, finally, the Class 61 Henschel-GM-Voith diesel-hydraulics.

The trials – in the Karroo and South-West Africa (Namibia) – were very successful. The Class 20 was quite an old design, of course, hand-fired and with a large (old fashioned?) steam collector dome (more of this later). When he was writing his book ‘Ein Leben fuer die Lokomotive’ many years later, Dr Richard Roosen phoned me one day from Kassel to ask ‘What was that nickname the SAR men gave the Class 20 during the trials?’ and I could tell him it was ‘Trapsoetjies’ (actually, the correct spelling, ‘---suutjies’ is only an alternative!) It means ‘soft-footstep’, or ‘tip-toe’), a picturesque reference to the quietness of the converted Class 20 which had, of course, no exhaust beat (by no stretch of the imagination, however, could this later also describe the Class 25's at work!)"

"3. Implementation of the ‘Bold Decision’ – the Offers and the Orders

The ambition of every Chief Mechanical Engineer was to leave behind at least one significant locomotive design as a mark of his time in office, and for CME Grubb it was certainly to be the Classes 25 and 25NC, described to me many years later by then CME Emslie as ‘by far the most successful SAR steam loco ever’.

In1950 the SAR Administration issued specifications and invitations to tender for 90 Class 25 Condensing – and 50 Class 25NC (non-condensing) locomotives, indeed a giant leap from one simple experimental unit to ninety of the most advanced, powerful and technically complex steam locomotives ever to enter SAR service. But time was of the essence and instead of design iterations and further tests which might have been prudent, testosterone would simply have to suffice.

The Henschel-Ash tender consisted of quite a few massive, leather-bound volumes sufficient to fill a large suitcase. In Roosen's book there is a picture of my brother Langton and Heinrich Carl completing the daunting task of finally checking this document before submission. Of the offers received, only those from Henschel and North British merited serious consideration, the condenser concept being, of course, essentially a Henschel speciality, but now there came a negotiated ‘role reversal’. This was dictated by the urgency with which all the locos were required, NC's as well as 25's, the production capacities of the respective works, and also, no doubt, some political overtones. North British (NBL) had been a competent and loyal supplier to the SAR for at least 20 years longer than Henschel and there would have been a strongly argued case for such valuable orders to be shared as fairly as possible between the two companies. So it came to pass that NBL received contracts for 89 Class 25 and 11 Class 25NC locomotives, while Henschel received the orders for 1 Class 25 (for NBL to copy), 39 Class 25NC locomotives, and the Class 25 condensing tenders. In terms of total contract values, this was probably a reasonably fair split, even if it did not quite reflect the respective areas of expertise and competence (in my opinion, by the way, it would have been far more logical to have designated the non-condensers as Class 25, and the condenser versions as Class25C – but no one consulted me!).

Execution of the orders demanded a commitment to close cooperation and consultation between two proud and competitive firms that represented a departure from ‘normal practice’ almost as radical as the designs themselves. One may be amazed that the end result turned out as successfully as it eventually did."

"4. Some Technical Comments

This will be a short section. I was not a steam man, and not directly involved at the time. These notes are what I heard and read, then and later.

I never heard any suggestion that the 25 basic design was a copy of a Norfolk&Western J type. To me it looked like a natural evolution of the Classes 15 and 23. I remember a debate about firebox cross-stays, and that the Henschel view eventually prevailed. The loco beds with integral cylinders were one-piece steel castings from General Steel Castings, aka ‘GSC/Commonwealth’, and were very successful. GSC became a ‘preferred supplier’ to SAR for many years, for any complex cast steel items (e.g. loco bogies), and SCAW Metals of Wadeville later obtained the license to manufacture their products locally. It was said at the time of adjudicating the Class 31 diesel-electric tenders in 1957 that the willingness of GE to include GSC cast steel bogies tipped the decision in their favour; GM insisted on their standard ‘Flexicoil’ bogies – take it or leave it – and lost the contract! Later they did see the light and started to get orders, but GE had a head start. All the SAR electrics from class 5E onward had GSC cast steel bogies, at least for the 3 kV DC types; what happened later on the 25kV AC types I have no idea. The Timken roller bearings were a serious problem, never resolved. I know that Bill Arthur, MD at the time of Timken SA, literally went grey with the worry and the stress. Eventually SKF bearings were fitted instead. Before commencing manufacture, Henschel had queried a design detail on the valve gear; I believe it had something to do with the securing of the reverser crank. Old hands in Kassel remembered earlier problems with similar designs from years back, but CME's office insisted there would be no modifications. Which leads to another anecdote – amusing only because it had ahappy ending:

The first loco to be delivered was a 25NC from Kassel, its erection at Salt River workshops supervised by Heinrich Carl. Needless to say, the first test run attracted considerable attention, and present on the footplate that day were the then Minister of Transport, Paul Sauer, probably Ben Schoeman who later became Minister, several senior SAR men and Heinrich himself. The locomotive was, of course, running light, and all went smoothly until someone began urging the driver to open the regulator more – then still more. (When I asked what speed actually was reached, Heinrich would answer only by putting his finger to his lips – he wouldn't say). Whatever the speed was, the valve-gear finally flew off into the veld, smashing away the brake cylinders on the way, and there was the first brand-new 25NC with a load of VIP's on board, doing perhaps 140 kmh and no brakes! The presence of mind of the driver hanging on to the whistle lanyard, and of the signallers setting points and signals appropriately, allowed the loco to coast to a safe stop along many, many kilometres of reasonably straight track. The design of the valve gear was duly referred back to the drawing office.

Every one of the contracts we ever did included a file section headed ‘Maker's Defects’. Often more than one large file was necessary-sometimes an entire shelf. Described also by the euphemism ‘teething troubles’, and stressful as these were from time to time, usually they could be dealt with reasonably quickly and were accepted as inevitable when dealing with highly complex machines operating in arduous conditions. The Class 25, however, was in a category of its own!

1. In works grey the newly-completed 3534 stands outside the NBL factory in Glasgow early in 1955.

"5. 5.2  Failures of the blower turbines.

Without a blast of exhaust steam from the cylinders to create draught for combustion in the firebox, a condensing locomotive has artificial means for doing this – a powerful blower driven by a steam-turbine operating on exhaust steam on its way back to the condensing tender. Design and manufacture of this component for the 25s was sub-contracted to Escher-Wyss, a world-renowned Swiss company in the field of steam turbines, and the product was fully up to expectations.

Then turbines started failing, sometimes in the most embarrassing situations, e.g. at the head of the Blue Train trying to get started out of Park Station, Johannesburg (leading to screaming headlines in the Star and the Rand Daily Mail and questions in Parliament) and continued randomly, frequently and completely unpredictably. The engineers were baffled, necessitating many visits from Kassel by Drs Frietag, Roosen and Chief Designer Dipl.Ing Hany (a tall and gangling Austrian with buck teeth and a great sense of humour), Dipl.Ing Herbie Anzinger (delightful Bavarian, we became close friends) and of course, Heinrich Carl who was here anyway, plus specialists from Escher Wyss. In desperation even the Council for Scientific and Industrial Research (CSIR) was consulted.

I recall being taken to dinner by Dr Loubser (later head of CSIR) when I was working in Kassel in 1956. He was looking at the design of the turbine-blade fastenings (the blade-roots) but declared himself also completely baffled. The problem seemed to defy solution (interestingly, Dr Loubser was a son of a previous CME of the SAR; his brother Kobus became Chief Stores Superintendant, CME and in due course, General Manager of SAR.

Then one day a Class 25 blew a cylinder-head off, something not unknown with steam locomotives due to priming i.e. water (incompressible) being carried over from the boiler and collecting between the piston head and the cylinder cover. After this happened a few more times the penny dropped – could this be a factor in the turbine problem? Yes it could! Water carryover from the massively powerful 25 boiler could result in excess water in the exhaust steam to the blower turbine spinning at many thousands of rpm – one might just as well have chucked handfuls of lead shot into the turbine blades. Having identified the probable cause, what to do about it? The design of the boiler (it had no collector dome)and its sheer power made the problem as intractable as ever, and I remember some weird and wonderful solutions being put forward.

In the end it was Hany who came up with the answer – a classic example of lateral thinking. He pointed out that, as the turbine was being expected to operate with a high water content in the steam, what was called for was a simple water turbine along the lines of a Pelton wheel instead of a sophisticated, reaction-type turbine which would operate perfectly with superheated, or even saturated steam. On a drawing board in his hotel room in Pretoria, he designed a simple Pelton-type turbine and several were then made up in Koedoespoort workshops. The blades were made out of boiler-tubing cut in half, ground and polished, and welded to the hub. It worked! Later, rather more refined replacements were manufactured and sent from Germany."

"5.3 More trouble in the smokebox: Blower failures.

These were not as dramatic as the turbine failures, but they did go on and on. In the end a perfect solution could not be found and a compromise was accepted. The wear of the blades on the blowers was so severe that they were having to be replaced at quite unacceptable service intervals, sometimes after only hundreds of kilometres instead of the tens of thousands which would have been considered normal.

The factors at work were coal quality, the mechanical stoker (not fitted, of course, on the test Class 20), and the high firing rate required by this powerful boiler. The stoker, working at high rates like a mill, would grind the coal into relatively smaller chunks, and the uncombusted fragments then blasted down the firetubes as a hot and highly abrasive char into the blades of the spinning exhaust fan. No machine or material could withstand such treatment for long. Many redesigns of blower fans and blades were tried, as well as many experiments with different blade materials, coatings and heat treatments, and some significant improvements were achieved. In the end, however, it had to be accepted that the smokebox blower was a wearing item which would have to be replaced at regular servicing intervals with sufficient stocks of spares in reserve.

I remember playing golf in 1958 with my brother and Wynn Douglas – by then Chief Mechanical Engineer. Over drinks after the game the question of blower mileages came up. Langton indicated that the latest figures he had were for an average of about 8000 miles (~13000 km) between replacements. Douglas seemed to be quite pleased with this answer!"

"5.4 Excessive char

A problem directly associated with the difficulties in the smokebox was the quantity of char out of the chimney, and not being ejected high enough, especially when the blower blades were beginning to wear. This caused serious discomfort to engine crews, also to passengers in non air-conditioned coaches – there were not a few cases of tarpaulins on goods wagons (and even the wagons themselves) being set alight! A partial solution was to fit high-velocity steam ejector nozzles in the stacks, to augment the draught and some improvement was achieved."

"6. Summary and conclusion

The Class 25s were never regarded as a ‘nice to have’, a prestige item for the SAR to brag about. They were put into service in a hurry to solve a serious and urgent problem, and this they certainly did.

Henschel could also claim with justification that the condensing tenders themselves gave almost no trouble at any stage, and met their design criteria of up to 90% water saving plus a fuel saving of about 7%. They remained in service as condensers for more than 20 years – I know this for a fact because I processed the spares orders! It goes without saying that they were more expensive to maintain than the Class 25NCs, they were considerably more complex locomotives, but they were finally converted to non-condensers not because of these service costs but because there was no longer a water crisis to deal with (the converted 25s, by the way, must be just about the ugliest locomotives I have ever seen!)."

"7. Epilogue

My step-brother, Langton, was severely stressed throughout this epic saga. He was in the front line, in the trenches, the first to get the heat from a demanding and sometimes angry customer, the first to have to swallow the disappointment of yet another failed design modification or test run. These many years took an enormous physical toll.

One chilly winter morning in August 1961 I went through to his office to discuss a telegram I had just received from Henschel. They planned a demonstration tour with a new diesel locomotive to Central Africa, Angola and the Congo, and wanted us to participate with trials in South Africa and also to assist with the logistics of transiting the unit from Durban to the north. I found him sitting at his desk, stretching and writhing, and complaining of muscular pain in his back and arms. He wouldn't hear of my calling a doctor, but then he got up, lay down on the table in his office and died. He was forty-three.

Courtesy of Dr Lutz Massonne we have a translated précis of an interesting part of Dr Roosen's book “Ein Leben fuer die Lokomotive”:

The first Henschel condensing locomotive was built in 1930 for the Argentinian State Railways. It was a Mikado type and the test runs were a complete success (95% water saving). In 1937 Argentinia got 6 more condensing locos of Mountain type together with 15 similar but non-condensing locomotives in 1937.

In 1934 a Soviet five-coupled goods engine built in the 1920's was fitted with a condensing tender at Henschel. The engine (number Eg 5224-K) was tested at Moscow and the Soviet Union subsequently built 4200 condensing locomotives of class SOk during the third five years plan. (Yes, 4200!)

The advancing German troops in the USSR captured numerous of these condensing locomotives and found that they were well suited for lines with bad of sparse water supply (e.g. in Turkestan)
Therefore 240 of the class 52 war locomotives were built as condensing engines (1942).

In later stages of the war the locos were also used in the West, as the condensing engines had no steam exhaust and were such less easily detected by Allied planes. After the war one of the locomotives (no. 52 2006) was shipped to the US and displayed there.

After 1953 the class was no longer used by the German railways.”

2. Newly erected No 3480 at Paarden Eiland in 1954 with the experimental centrifugal oil separator as described by Dr Roosen in his paper to the Institution of Locomotive Engineers and discarded in favour of larger periodically replaced filters as described by Kim Ash. The banjo-fronted smokebox extension has already made its appearance but the Timken bearings and Alligator slidebars are still in place.  And just look at those beautiful coupling and connecting rods.

The designs for the 25s were done by the manufacturers to specifications prepared by a team of SAR engineers headed by HJL du Toit. The late Murray Franz, one of the team, was responsible for the coupling and connecting rods, in preparation for which he had done extensive strain-gauge tests on classes 23 and 15F in the late '40s. He was then seconded to the Norfolk and Western in 1950 and spent several months consulting their engineers before preparing the specifications for Henschel's detailed designs. So there is more than an element of truth in the legend that the 25NCs were a scaled-down N&W J-class. It should also be mentioned that the design parameters for the boiler were derived from tests with the type 3B boiler of a class 23 specially fitted with a combustion chamber.

3. This fine portrait of class leader 3451 exemplifies the final version of the condensers - they ran in this condition for >15 years before conversion to 25NCs began. Among many improvements, SKF crankpin bearings with redesigned coupling rods had replaced Timkens (but main bearings remained Timken throughout their lives - these hardly gave trouble), Alligator slidebars had given way to the multiple-bearing type and (unseen on the engine's LHS) a more sophisticated method of filtering out the cylinder and valve lubricant from the exhaust steam had replaced the original centrifuge. Invisible inside the smokebox was the redesigned exhaust fan manufactured from manganese steel. The only programme that wasn't seen through was replacement of the original tapered Timken bearings with SKF spherical ones. When new, the Timkens soon became notorious for throwing their lubricant onto the underside of the boiler. It then ran down to the lowest point, dripping onto the driving wheel tyres on the way. This manufacturer's fault (which also applied to the NCs) was one of the reasons for the 4-8-4's reputation for being slippery. Timken managed to resolve the problem before all their bearings had been replaced – I don't have the exact number but at least two-thirds of the 25th classes were converted to SKF.

Other relevant statistics: the condensing tenders carried 5000 gallons of water and 19 tons of coal, (giving a range of about 500 miles depending upon coal quality, load and ambient temperature); cylinders 24”x28”; driving-wheels 5’-0”; axleload 19,5 tons; engine weight 235 tons; grate area 70 sq ft; tractive effort (85%) 51,400 lbs.  Weights are in Imperial measure: one ton = 2240 lbs.

From this point we continue with our plan to present the Cape Main Line in generally geographical order, resuming the condenser story along the way as the relevant photos appear. Please note that in this chapter "southbound" means "Up" trains and "northbound" means "Down" trains.

4. Our Colonial masters had class.  This remote siding in the Great Karoo, 15 miles beyond the summit at Matroosberg, got the full Victorian treatment. Touws River – at that time an abandoned farm in the wilderness – was selected as the site for a shed and workshops, not only for bankers up the north slope of Hex River Pass but also to provide fresh power onwards to Beaufort West. When the CGR reached here in 1877 it was named “Montagu Road” (changed to Touws River in 1883) and it would have been hard to foresee the important division point that it eventually became. The associated village was one of numerous settlements around the country that owed their existence to the railway.

5. As far back as I can remember, my Dad made an annual tour of Western Cape running sheds. Usually it was restricted to the Boland side of the Hex River mountains but in December 1951 we ventured as far as Touws River. This was the old shed in the heart of the town, cramped between the passenger station and the hillside. Note the line-up of class 23s ready for northbound assignments (I didn't have a wide-angle lens - this is a stitch-up of two images exactly as I saw it). On the left is a 15F ready to return to Cape Town. Within a few years the old shed would be gone, 15Fs on the Cape Town run would be replaced by 4Es and the 23s replaced by condensers operating out of a brand-new facility. 

Quoting from Les’s archives we have the shed allocation for Touws River just over two years later, in November 1953: Class 3R - 4; 7 - 2; 23 - 48; 25 - 1 giving a total of 55 engines.

"The 3R's were used on the shunt while the 2 class 7's (one of which was an ex NCCR class 7F) worked the Ladismith branch.  The 23's worked the main line to Beaufort West and the first class 25 condenser had arrived from Salt River Shops!  It would be the first of many to follow because the new Touws River Loco (opened in 1954) would be the main depot stabling class 25's in the immediate years to come. The depot was built about a mile to the north-west of the station and would soon show off a massive brand new type of coal stage on the SAR specifically designed to feed the 25s.

In 1953 Paarden Eiland 15F's were still working the main line to Touws River but this would slowly come to an end as the electrification from Worcester and the 4E's reached Touws river in April 1954. Touws River Loco would see less and less of the 15F's as increasing numbers of class 4Es became available from Natal.  Curiously, many years later, 15F's would return to Touws River - not as main line engines anymore - but to shunt the local yard in the dying days of steam.

6. On our 1951 visit a big surprise was to find 2485 cl 20, the test engine, standing dead on the drop-pit road, still being tested according to the loco foreman. The large condensing tender was mounted on standard SAR/Buckeye six-wheeled bogies. Two years later I photographed her again at De Aar loco, out of use, looking neglected and forgotten.

7. An extremely rare photo, possibly the only one in existence of a class 25 in service with its smokebox shaped as Henschel intended is this one by Les of 3536 on the Up Blue Train at Laingsburg in 1956. Visually it was a rather more pleasing arrangement than the banjo front with which the whole class was eventually equipped.

8. The banjo-shaped extension to the smokebox opened to allow replacement of a superheater element at Beaconsfield loco in 1978 (included here as part of the condenser story). The extension was found necessary to cope with the copious amounts of char generated by brittle Witbank coal and brutal mechanical firing. Out on the road the char was periodically ejected from the trough of the banjo by steam directed through the vertical pipe (prominent inside the door). Note the filthy state of the engine, this was during the time when class 25s were being shopped for conversion to non-condensers.

9.  Line up of condensers under the huge coaling plant at the new locoshed. When the photo was made during Easter 1960 the fate of this modern facility was already sealed. Two years earlier, parliament had voted the money to extend electrification from Touws River to Beaufort West. On the left is one of the class 3Rs used to remarshall loads for north and southbound trains.

10. Another view of Touws River’s most impressive structure. After the Beaufort West electrification came on stream in 1962 it was redundant. For the next quarter century it stood tall and brooding alongside the N1 – an imposing monument to planning folly.

11. Overall view of the loco from the coaling stage. The buildings on the right were meant to be the workshops for shop, shed, intermediate (SSI) repairs. They were completed but never equipped!

12. Three condensers blowing off steam prior to having their fortnightly boiler washouts. 3535 in front already has had its Timken crankpin bearings replaced but not yet fitted with multiple-bearing slide-bars.

13. How pristine the coaling plant looked at Easter 1956! The problems with the condensers were gradually being overcome and there was no talk of further electrification. If you look closely you will notice that the facility had not yet been commissioned and coaling was being done by cocopans (see also the next photo). At this time the newest condensers were still less than a year old and all the 23s had not yet been drafted away – note plain tender of a 23 behind the huge condensing tender. From Les's archives, Touws River's allocation in January 1956 was 61 class 25; 5 class 23; 3 class 3R; 2 class 3BR; 3 class 7/7A and one class 7E (ex NCCR). 

14. That evening I was lucky to find class leader 3451 at the coal stage, about to take a northbound freight. It was interesting to see this engine, less than three years old, already looking battered from all the testing and adaptations that had been made (but still with Timken bearings and alligator slide-bars). Later I caught a freight to Laingsburg (until the '80s most SAR freights had passenger accommodation in their guard's vans) to spend a couple of days at what had always been a major servicing point, 52 miles from Touws River on the main line to Beaufort West. When I bought my ticket direct from the guard he told me he would have to inform the driver as the train wouldn't normally stop there. This astonished me and was my first realisation that the condensers really could save water. Of course those were the days of decent low-ash coal when fire cleaning was permitted in section on the run.

15. Export grain for Table Bay Harbour taking the freight-yard access track from Loganda Junction in March 1962. The passenger main can be seen in the background. At this time the electrification to Beaufort West had been energised but steam predominated at least until mid-year after which there was a rapid decline as more class 5Es entered service.

16. Forerunner of the Trans Karoo, 203-down leaving Touws River at Easter 1956. I had ridden the train from Cape Town behind a 4E electric unit (that's it on the right). This was my first experience of electric traction over Hex River Pass, compared with steam it was utterly boring. However, the purpose of the trip was to get photos of the brand-new condensers at work so I alighted and got this one of 203 departing. Note the nice old imperial-brown clerestory carriages, each a different shade according to how long it had been out of shops. The little white cards clipped to the window posts are clearly visible, typed on them were the names of passengers booked into that compartment. Note the condenser's banjo-fronted smokebox with its small circular door at the bottom of the vee, this was adopted when the more attractive Henschel design proved to have too little capacity to keep accumulated char away from the exhaust turbine. Timken bearings on coupling rods and the original oil separator. The dolly signal at danger ahead of the train refers to the first loop track!

17. The prevailing direction for revenue tonnage was southwards, so in steam days the 70 miles mostly at 1-in-80 from Dwyka (1570 ft – same height as De Doorns) to Pietermeintjies (3500ft – highest point between Cape Town and Beaufort West) were the most operationally difficult on the Cape Main line. On a returning school-camp special from Durban to Cape Town in July 1953 (supposedly running to Orange Express timings) this cl 23 was making time up the last stretch to Pietermeintjies, running about 2 hours late.

18. Arising from another valued query from André Kritzinger I revise my guess as to where this train is standing, I now think it is a southbound train standing at Tweedside, the siding on the farm owned by James Logan and the photo dates to around 1885/8, i.e. before completion of the Lord Milner Hotel in 1889. The attire of the individuals in the front row suggests that they are mostly staff connected with the railway in one way or another. Also, judging by their appearance, one of Logan’s line-side refreshment rooms was already in use. From right to left we seem to have the fireman, the driver (sitting on a step), a city slicker who has insinuated his way into the line-up (you always get one), the guard, the conductor, the stationmaster and waitresses from the refreshment room (one wearing an apron). The CGR carriages with their giant oil lamps are probably crammed with would-be diamond millionaires on their way to Kimberley with so much baggage that some of it has been stowed on the roof of the guard’s van.

André Kritzinger has also pointed out that the locomotive is No 83, one of 18 CGR 3rd class 4-4-0s with Joy's valve gear - hence known as the "four-coupled Joys" - supplied by Neilson in 1882.  Thanks you André for correcting my originally wrong information (I had thought this was one of Tilney's experimental long-firebox 4-4-0s, also 3rd class), and once again I urge you to visit the monumental Wikipedia sites developed by André covering in great detail all SAR classes, and recently their tenders as well.  Also, thanks to Pierre de Wet for providing this wonderful scan and for telling us the engine's name: "Sir Hercules" (after Sir Hercules Robinson, Governor of the Cape Colony at the time).

19. Sunrise found the southbound Blue Train crossing the Buffels River at Laingsburg. Note the abutment of the CGR bridge in the foreground. This "river" was usually dry as a bone but in January 1981 it came down with such fury that half the town was wiped out with huge loss of life. Most of the houses nestling inside the curve of the railway were washed away as was the railway embankment either side of the bridge which miraculously stood its ground. This was the flood which put paid to the Ladismith branch.

20. A southbound (“up”) doubleheader drifting down the 1-in-66 into Laingsburg. Before mechanical stokers the 17-mile stretch of downgrade from Ruiterskop gave respite to firemen between Dwyka and Pietermeintjies. However, the 600 feet of altitude lost was more than made up by the climb of 1300 feet (mostly at 1-in-80) in the 25 miles onwards from Laingsburg through Matjiesfontein to Pietermeintjies. The tiny dorp is in the background, the houses amongst the trees were all wiped out in the great flood. Today this once innocent-looking dorp is almost a metropolis, like so many RSA towns and cities, swamped by the population explosion.

21. Predecessor of the Trans Karoo, No 202-up arriving at Laingsburg some time in the mid fifties in a fine view by the SAR’s official photographer, probably taken on the same trip as the previous photo.

22. Less than a year old, 3533 still with Timken bearings and Alligator slide-bars, awaits a crossing at Laingsburg during Easter 1956. Immediately ahead of the engine is the twisting 1-in-66 grade to Geelbek which meant that steam-hauled freights starting cold could barely manage walking pace for the next five miles. Put this down to a fundamental error in the 25 class concept - they should have been 2-10-4s!


23. The severity of the start out of Laingsburg may be gauged from the difference in levels between the shunting lead on the right and the main line. These two condensers had not stopped and were charging the grade with a lengthy down freight. 

24. Last knockings of an Easter Monday sun in April 1956 found 1-down briefly paused for passengers at Laingsburg.

25. Minutes later the turbines were roaring like a jet airliner as 1-down’s condenser took off up the bank to Geelbek. 

26. Earlier in the day a doubleheader came down the hill in the deep cutting just north of town, which Chris Jeffery informs me is not through Dwyka shale but Tillite. Another potential argument settled here is “how many cooling fans in a 25’s tender?” As you can see, it’s five! For a must-read account of what it was like maintaining these monsters read Albie Bester’s hands-on experiences in Wikipedia.

27. A condenser + 25NC essaying the long 1-in-80 incline southwards from Dwyka (at 1570 feet practically the same altitude as De Doorns). Home territory for the 25NCs at this time (January 1958) was between De Aar and Klerksdorp but this combination occurred fairly frequently when they were on their way to or from shops at Salt River.

28. We have already mentioned the 30th anniversary run of the Blue Train in April 1969. Here is the southbound working between Koup and Wyke with prizewinning condenser No 3496.

29. Another view of the southbound Anniversary special crossing a down freight at Gemsbok. 

30. No 1415-down, the “Doppies”, conveying dynamite from the African Explosives & Chemical Industries (AE&CI) factory at Somerset West for the mines in the Transvaal, with its pair of 25s working gingerly away from the Dwyka River on a warm morning in January 1958. This is the heart of the desperately arid Koup, the desert for which the class 25s were designed.

31. A block-load of power-station coal for the the Western Cape in the siding for 7-down at Prince Albert Road, March 1962.

32. Fifty years and more have passed since the events outlined above. A lot has changed, not all for the better. Take this station for example. It was once Fraserburg Road – transshipping point for the Road Motor Service (RMS) to the Karoo Highlands beyond the Nuweveldberge of which Fraserburg, 84 miles from the station, is the focal point. In the late fifties the Place Names Commission changed its name to Leeu-Gamka – fairly logically since it is situated at the confluence of the Leeu and Gamka rivers.

Until comparatively recent times, Fraserburg Road/Leeu-Gamka was a busy station – a good revenue-generator for SAR/SATS/Transnet. The RMS was constantly busy, carting livestock, fuel and fodder to and from the substantial road/rail transshipping facilities. One might be forgiven for assuming that passenger business was not inconsiderable, gauging from the fact that there were not one but two footbridges (Apartheid decreed that it was essential to ensure that whites and non-whites did not use the same bridge – however, they were permitted to mingle on the platform!). Statistics for passenger numbers here would be hard to find but an educated guess would be six white passengers and perhaps two dozen non-white ones on a busy day – a generous facility then.

SAR could afford such extravagance when enforcing the government’s policies - after all, it had a monopoly. In part 3 we mentioned how the Hex River tunnels and electrification were shelved as the money was needed elsewhere. The footbridges at Leeu-Gamka are visual proof of what the money was spent on. Multiply their cost by the number of stations (more than a thousand), then include separate waiting rooms, ticket windows, toilets, benches, carriages, city terminals, staff facilities…… and you would find enough to cover electrification and doubling of most of the main lines. Counterbalancing the above it should be said that for most of its life, SAR was run by highly competent staff at every level. Only when politicians interfered, and railwaymen began to take advantage of the monopoly by getting greedy, did things start to go wrong.

How wrong they went is encapsulated in this view of Leeu-Gamka today. The goods sidings and transshipping facilities are moribund. There is no longer a RMS presence, the yard is weed-grown and the passenger facilities are fenced off from the tracks with razor wire – no more passengers here! The old station buildings are now privately owned and restored. The station nameboard still says "change here for the Road Motor Service to Fraserburg" - twenty years after it was no longer possible!

Recently, and since the above was written, I was idly listening to a business report on SABC when my blood started to boil (again).  For the umpteenth time on this government-propaganda station the speaker referred to my country as having an "emerging third-world economy".  It's not that I disagree that nowadays we have a third-world economy.  Far from it.  It's the word "emerging" that I disagree with.  In fact we have a distinctly un-emerging economy.


The double footbridge (more than a million rands worth in today's money) provides a clue.  Twenty years ago it would still have had labels denoting which side whites and non-whites could use.  Human beings are supposed to be intelligent.  Can you imagine that one small branch of it considered it necessary to provide separate footbridges according to whether we were lilywhite or not?  Imagine how this wasted money could have been spent on housing, decent schools or almost anything that could and should have been done to improve race relations.  It didn't stop at footbridges - the physical and psychological cost of separation is too vast to contemplate, whether in money or damage to our image or the national psyche.

My point is that when, eventually, a black government took over they were (and still are) ill prepared to run a modern industrial state.  After they finally laid the ghosts of the Boer War to rest in 1948, Afrikaner euphoria lasted a decade before greed and corruption started to creep in.  In the case of our black fellow-citizens it took only a couple of years for greed, corruption, nepotism and crime to become normal - in next to no time we reached the situation that prevails today where almost every public body from local to provincial to national is so top-heavy with freeloading officials that there is hardly any money left to run the country properly.  In the space of 20 years since the ANC took over they have managed to reduce us to the "status" of a third-world country.

Is it possible to restore first-world standards in a third-world country?  I wish I knew the answer, but I think it is NO!

33. From earliest memory, Beaufort West was always bulging with traffic, so much so that by the sixties huge exchange yards had been built south of town. As a division and engine-changing point since CGR days it also was the place were loads had to be reduced for Up trains (the ruling grade for southbound traffic changed here from 1-in-100 to 1-in-80). This was the critical direction as northbound business was generally much lighter. Note the venerable old slide-valved, unrebuilt class 3 about to shunt a load of loco coal across to the shed – it was on the eastern side of the main lines. In the far distance a northbound freight is just leaving. Judging by the girders on the flat wagons to the right, the photo was made when Cape Town-Touws River electrification was under way – c 1950. Note also the fine old station building and signal cabin, all demolished after the bland new station was completed on the west side of the main line during the 1980s (no, I'm not Chinese - I meant bland as in plain and ordinary).

34. Just before the condensers arrived, a class 23 departs from Beaufort West with a southbound freight in March 1953.

35. A condenser gets a steam clean at Beaufort West loco. In March 1962 the bulk of southbound traffic from here was still handled by the 25s even though the electrification was complete. This would change rapidly over the next six months.

36. The stone masonry base of the watertank at the loco as well as part of the side walls of the main shed date back to CGR days.

37. In the dying days of steam to Touws River Les took this shot of a southbound coal train from almost the same vantage point as photo 33. By this time the first of the new yards to the south of town had been completed and most trains departed from there. Note that there are now two passenger platforms and a row of 4Es in their new red livery awaiting assignments. Even the old 3R has been modernised, it now has a Watson standard boiler. The fine old station building and signal cabin are still there but architecturally insensitive (in fact, downright hideous) facebrick facilities for non-white passengers have been plonked down on the up platform.

33. Another view of the same train about to leave.

That completes this chapter. The next one carries straight on from Beaufort West, ending at the outskirts of De Aar.