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Port Elizabeth - Loerie: Passenger Services (including the Apple Express), General Freight and the Fruit traffic, text by David Payling, captions by Charlie Lewis

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Passenger Services, Including the Apple Express

Introduction

Although advertised passenger services were discontinued c 1946 (we still have not been able to track down the exact date), unadvertised accommodation continued on scheduled Tranship and Pick-up (T&P) trains into the '80s.  For instance, each weekday until 1990 one could travel on a steam-hauled mixed train between Loerie and Patensie – not a complete anachronism considering that the line served settlements far from the main road.  Only one coach was provided, but what a vehicle!  With a wrought-iron balcony at each end, it had a small first-class compartment (big enough for six persons), and a third-class section (officially for 12 and unofficially for about 36), with longitudinal seats on each side.  Built in 1912, it has been completely refurbished, becoming No 50 in the Apple Express consist.   

Until well into the seventies – and perhaps even later – it was still possible to travel from PE to Avontuur on these scheduled, unadvertised mixed trains by buying a standard ticket in the normal way at the Humewood Road station (eventually the starting point for the Apple Express), as well as any other manned station along the way, or directly from the train guard.  Rapid they were not.  To see the whole line in daylight one had to stay overnight at Humansdorp and continue next day.  From the perspective of the 21st century it is hard to understand why this unadvertised service continued for so long.  But local people certainly knew about it – the first- and third-class coaches were invariably busy, perhaps because until the late 1960s the Langkloof was still a remote place with only a gravel main road.  During the fruit season the “mixed” would have more accommodation than usual, usually made up of a third-class passenger brake-van, two third-class carriages, a rather more comfortable first-class one and about 10 fruit vans, full or empty depending upon whether the train was east- or westbound.  The whole would be hauled by a Garratt of classes NGG13 or NGG16 or (after 1961) a NG15 locomotive, and the conductor would check tickets by walking along the outside on the footboards, exactly as described and illustrated in Sydney Moir's "24 Inches Apart".  Ostensibly, the first-class coach was reserved for white passengers but in the fruit season it was anything goes - on many farms, even into the seventies, the most efficient access for the pickers was by train so there was frequently a shortfall of seats. 

With the advent of guardless trains in 1984 these unadvertised services disappeared from the main line, which made sense as there was no longer anyone to sell or check the tickets.  The provision of carriages stopped abruptly, without fanfare or announcement of any kind – the attitude of South African Transport Services (SATS – the inheritor of SAR) at all times was “the public (especially the 3rd-class public) be damned”. It was different on the Patensie branch, which ran through a number of small communities without road access, so this service was only discontinued at about the time of cessation of regular steam on the Patensie Branch in July 1990.  No roads had been built yet so one suspects that SATS’s successor, the awfully-named “Spoornet”, just lost interest.  While the citrus traffic was still on rail the Patensie branch services - its trains now powered by class 91 diesel-electrics - needed guards to assist with shunting the sidings at Hankey and Patensie.  He travelled in a type V16 goods guards van with no accommodation for passengers until the use of these vehicles was discontinued, thus after July 1990 the only passenger services became the special trains generally running under the title of the Apple Express. 

1. Standard format of the mixed until the mid-eighties.  Three well-filled coaches tacked onto the back of No 627-down T&P, approaching Waaihoek on Loerie Bank on a Friday afternoon in May 1962.  First after the tender is a domestic water tank car used to provide water to outlying ganger's cottages (a slow process that demanded considerable patience from the passengers) followed by a variety of general freight including two vanloads of potatoes from the Gamtoos valley.  It has to be said that T&Ps, being required to shunt almost every siding and to make way for all other trains - even the limestone - were not the ideal workings on which to attach passenger accommodation, let alone fresh produce, but it suited SAR so it was done.  Of course the vegetables did not take kindly to this treatment and by the end of the seventies most of this business had gone over to road.
 

2. My love affair with the narrow gauge began right here at the unprepossessing Humewood Road ticket office on a Thursday morning in January 1959.  Although I had been to the shed before, previous visits were always on a Sunday because that was when Friday’s 9-down from Cape Town arrived in PE so, in the complete absence of advertising, there was nothing to show that a regular scheduled passenger service still started from here. 

On my way to the loco shed from the "broad-gauge" station I had walked alongside the narrow gauge goods shed, through the Baakens River truss girders and up the old wooden trestle leading to Humewood Road station which I assumed had not seen passengers for more than a decade.  It was not very early, about five to nine, when I happened upon the astounding sight of a mixed train, complete, that would have graced the pages of John Snell’s “Mixed Gauges” or Bryan Morgan’s “The End of the Line”.  For both of these authors, quaintness was a prerequisite for inclusion and this one certainly qualified.  In front was a NGG16, No 126, followed by a selection of goods vehicles, including a wooden gondola loaded with a big corrugated-iron water tank (empty!).  Bringing up the rear, well-filled, were a first-class carriage, a third class and a third-class passenger brake van.  Of course all the passenger stock was in Imperial Brown.  

Because my SAR “Railway Timetables” had been telling me for years that “Passengers between Port Elizabeth and Avontuur are conveyed by Road Motor”, I was astounded.  This must be a special, surely?  But no, a word with the driver revealed that it was an every day except Sunday working.  “Is there time to get a ticket”, I asked.  “Yes, you must hurry, we’re supposed to be off at nine but I’ll wait for you”!  With the crew and their engine anxious to get under way I ran to the ticket office and bought a standard Edmondson first-class single ticket to Avontuur – a bargain at 7/6.  What is more, I was told that the RMS ran a daily bus from Avontuur to Camfer that connected with 8-up to Cape Town.

Never did a hasty decision on the spur of the moment turn out so well (I had planned to go back to Cape Town later that day on 8-up via Klipplaat and Oudtshoorn).  A coupla minutes after nine driver Harry Edmonds blew 126’s whistle.  Notwithstanding the cold start set we set off furiously to gain speed for the mile at 1-in-43 up to Valley halt. There followed two unforgettable days (I slept over at Humansdorp) on what was then an unspoiled, almost Emett-like, rural railway - every aching detail is etched in my mind.  Much of the second day was taken up with the traverse of the Langkloof – at that time still one of the most isolated valleys in South Africa, only accessible by narrow-gauge railway or a corrugated, potholed and twisty dirt road.  Some of the photos which follow were taken on that first journey, but others come from numerous subsequent pilgrimages to this sacred land of the little trains.

3. Charging the bank.  Whether or not this fine study of a flat-out NGG16 charging the bank up to Valley Halt was taken by Sydney Moir is debatable but it does come to youse courtesy of Terry Hutson, who has several photos that seem almost certainly to have been taken by the late, great author.  This appears to be 628-up T&P crossing the Humewood Road c late forties judging by the tramlines (PE's tram system closed in December 1948) and the level crossing was replaced by the present-day bridge in 1962.

4. Reverting to my journey in January 1959, after about three hours we reached Van Stadens siding (27 miles!) where we took water.  Noting that I was carrying a camera, Driver Edmonds suggested that while his fireman, Agmat Gerber hooked out clinkers and raked the ashes, I should walk on ahead over the bridge.  He undertook to stop on the other side, inviting me to ride with them on the footplate from here to Loerie.  Nothing could prepare one for that first thrill of gingerly treading across SAR's highest bridge.  It looks so frail, quite inadequate to carry the weight of a train - and yet we are told that it was designed to be converted to broad gauge.  Anyway, this was my first glimpse of the famous structure, still painted red oxide, SAR's standard livery for bridges at that time, with No 126 slowly drawing the mixed across - note the corrugated-iron water tank! 

5. Early in 1904 the railway was operated under construction conditions as far as the Van Stadens river gorge - 28 miles. At that time, steelwork for the bridge began to arrive in the port and truckloads were transported to the bridge site by rail.  Amidst a pile of platework and other paraphernalia, the Manning Wardle 2-6-4T and the Krauss 0-4-0WT hold a conference as to what to do next.  One assumes that the MW was the main-line engine which brought the materials all the way from PE, while the dwarf engine moved the components in small bites down to the eastern abutment.  This is the mysterious Krauss that John Middleton referred to in the PE ng introduction.  For convenience it is repeated here: "The other Krauss is the one that creates the greater confusion - the 0-4-0WT Krauss 2479 of 1891, built a full 11 years before the narrow gauge was started, this was delivered to 'Baare, Berlin, for Port Elizabeth'. It certainly ended up on the Avontuur as the SAR Rolling Stock Registers conveniently give its works number, but what did it do from 1891-1902, perhaps a CGR civil engineer's construction loco ?"

 

6. By mid 1904 construction on the west bank was proceeding in earnest.  Beyond the havoc wrought by the construction work, and the bell tents, one can get a good idea of what virgin fynbos looked like at the turn of the 20th century.  Within this view there are six tents, quite large.  Say eight men/tent meant that at that time some 48 workers were employed on the West bank.  To the left of the piles of girders and other bridge parts there are stacks of sleepers.  Also there seems to be a track leading to the left-hand edge of the photo so it would seem that the platelayers did not wait for the bridge to be completed before pressing on towards Humansdorp.  To make meaningful progress the track gangers would need wagons and a light locomotive and these would have been transported by ox-wagon through Van Stadens pass, quite a hairy piece of road even into the 1970s.  These were the days before ISCOR so the steelwork for the bridge was imported in kit form from the UK.  The engineers would have had a finicky job setting out those concrete piers, not to mention the holding-down bolts, so that when the time came the parts manufactured 6,000 miles away would fit exactly.

7. The Blondin winding gear used to convey stuff across the gorge looks far too delicate.  Unsurprisingly, Moir records that at one time the holding-down bolts sheared off entirely when someone attempted to send over an item that was beyond its designed capacity.  There seems to be no record of how the really heavy items - the main bridge spans themselves - were put into place.


8. By 1905 the work was well advanced.  By late October the bridge was completed and, thanks to the efforts of the advance construction crews, the line was opened right through to Humansdorp on 1st November of that year.   


9. Another view of the first diesel Apple Express to Loerie performing the traditional photographic run-past at the bridge.  With brand-new 91-001 and 91-002, this Apple was
 for invited passengers only, consisting mainly of important customers in PE and railway top brass (see photo 39, part 1).  


9a. In the intervening years since photo 4 was taken the paint specification and formula were changed resulting in the grey colour that henceforth prevailed on steel bridges throughout SAR by decree of the Bridge Office in Johannesburg. Speaking of the Bridge Office, let us hear from the man who ran its Research Department until he retired in 1989 - Charles Strydom.

"I visited the Van Stadens bridge many times. The Cape Midland Bridge Foreman, John Rose, who was stationed at Cradock, took me on my first visit. It was daunting walking out of the cutting and straight onto the high bridge with an icy wind howling through the raking bents. The wind always blew through that gorge.  John was a great story teller. Called himself "lelike John" - ugly John (!) but he was such a great character that I never noticed - salt of the earth.  When the drivers complained that the bridge swayed alarmingly it was referred to the Research Department to do some stress testing by applying tensometers to selected members of the structure.  A young engineer, Arthur Kretzman was sent off with all the necessary equipment to do the testing. John had arranged for a 44-gallon drum to be suspended on cables to lower him to the various positions to apply the strain gauges - the accepted method of inspecting this type of structure.  John took him onto the bridge and explained the process. He took one look and exclaimed " What! ME in that @*@**ing  thing? I am #$@%^ing off on the next train to Johannesburg " and he did. Subsequently Lappies Labuschagne, head of the department, went and put some strain gauges onto the lower trestle members, accessible from the stream bed and found no serious vibrations.  He too was not prepared to venture high up!  After the repainting from red oxide it was not repainted until the eighties but horizontal and diagonal bracings in the trestles were replaced on several occasions.  The late David Krijnauw, System Engineer used to do his inspections by abseiling [brave man!]."

I'm sorry to say that at least one cowardly Regional Engineer based at Port Elizabeth in the eighties used to ask the Bridge Office to perform the annual inspections.

The Apple Express

By the mid sixties, the treasures along the narrow gauge, among them Van Stadens bridge – at 254 feet one of the highest narrow-gauge bridges - and the glorious views of the Eastern Cape's "Valley of a Thousand Hills" on the descent to Loerie, were attracting attention, both from locals and visitors to the Friendly City – especially from overseas.  In 1965 the Port Elizabeth Historical Society, led by its Assistant Secretary, Mr Clive Burton, persuaded SAR's regional management to run a special passenger train.  Volunteers were commandeered to assist with the marketing and promotion of this first tourist excursion on the narrow gauge – prominent among them Allen Jorgensen, an American-born resident of PE, with experience of running steam excursions in the USA.  The train ran on 31st May 1965 and was an unqualified success.  A second train ran the following weekend to cater for the many people who had been unable to obtain a ticket for the first.  Loerie was chosen as the destination because it was regarded as a convenient distance (approximately four hours on the train) from Humewood Road.  Also, its station grounds were large and attractive and, crucially, it had a turntable so allowing the engine to run chimney-forwards on the return journey. 

The success of these two excursions encouraged local SAR management to organise a regular monthly Saturday train.  The Port Elizabeth Publicity Bureau suggested that the train be marketed as the “Apple Express.”  By the late seventies public demand had increased to the extent that the Apple Express was running every Saturday.  The format for operations was a single train journey per day.  Trains would commence their journey from the original station at Humewood Road in the city where booking office and platform facilities were available.  The station yard was also adjacent to Humewood Road locomotive depot.  Morning departures saw the train leave Humewood Road and climb out of the city, passing the airport before running through the suburbs.  A pause would be made at Chelsea, junction for the EPCC line, where passengers could alight briefly before the train continued to Van Stadens.  While the engine was being serviced, passengers were able to leave the train and walk forward across the high bridge to the other side of the gorge.  The train would then follow across the bridge affording a spectacular opportunity for photography. 

With passengers back on board the train continued through a countryside of rich farm land including much cattle grazing.  After passing Thornhill and its wayside station the train reached Summit, almost 750ft above sea level.  With spectacular views after Summit, the railway began its 12-mile winding descent at 1 in 40 into the Gamtoos River valley at Loerie, now almost back at sea level.  This was the furthest destination that would allow a return journey in a single day.  However it soon became possible to charter a special train to more distant destinations on the basis of an overnight stay.  

10. The NG15s formed the main motive power for the Apple Express.  As the train became established its engines received embellishments, the first being a large circular headboard of solid brass.  It was heavy enough to need two to lift it comfortably!  Its centre was occupied by a brass apple in raised relief, together with the date of the first train, 1965.  Around the perimeter the board was lettered "Apple Express" and "Appel Snel".  As the train became established, three NG15s (No’s 122, 124 and 145) were specially selected for these duties.  By the early 1980s 122 and 124 had been equipped with smart dummy smoke deflectors, each displaying the Port Elizabeth coat of arms.  The whole effect was enhanced by the gloss black SAR locomotive livery with bright stainless steel boiler bands and polished pipe work and hand rails.  

11. On the descent to Loerie.  Until its carriages were painted green in the 1980s this was the standard format of the Apple Express for almost 20 years - NG15 in working clothes and SAR grey and red livery for the coaches. Eager customers almost fall out of the windows in their eagerness to get a decent picture - the Rail Safety Regulator would not approve. 

The Great Train Race

Danie Malan, convenor of the University of Port Elizabeth Athletics Club and ex-Springbok athlete himself, had the brainwave of organising a race between road runners and the train.  The first "Great Train Race" was run in August 1980 – from Humewood Road to Loerie – and proved an instant success.  From the beginning it became an institution, drawing thousands of runners in teams of ten, both serious and those who entered for fun, from all walks of life and from all over the Republic.  On the first occasion it was the train that won, the brass Apple Express headboard carried on No 124 being adorned with a new perimeter inscribed Herald- Mainstay- Great Train Race.  

The race started from the bridge over the new dual-carriageway road just outside Humewood Road station.  With the train standing on the bridge, the starting gun saw the runners leap into action on the road below.  The race took train and runners out through the suburbs of Port Elizabeth and through several level crossings, arriving eventually at the station at Loerie.  Down the years however the honours became fairly even between runners and the train.  In recent years sponsorship of the prizes has been given by local and national businesses.  These included Pretoria Portland Cement and Spoornet.  The race took place each year approximately on the anniversary of the first in August 1980.  

12. The Great Train Race has been completed, the runners winning as usual, and everyone begins to settle down to a soul-restoring braai after all the tension of the race.  And what better than to have the whole show accompanied by a genuine (well almost) German Oompah band. 
 
13. At the end of festivities in Loerie an Apple Express essays the twisting 8-mile stretch mostly at 1-in-40 up Loerie bank. 
 
14.  A striking late-afternoon study of the returning Apple in charge of No 124, still in black livery but wearing the fancy new relief Apple Express headboard and dummy smoke deflectors.  That's the head of the photographer's grandfather peering out of the last compartment of the second last coach.   

And here we will leave the Apple Express for now.  David will bring us back there to wind up this chapter which, I'm sorry to say, ends on a very sad note.

Meanwhile let us continue coverage of the ordinary passenger services as well as the fruit traffic between Loerie and Port Elizabeth. 

15. We have seen how prominently Loerie bank features in the annals of the narrow gauge - it was what determined the capacity of the railway to move its traffic.  This undated and rather blurry image from the PE Public Library (unearthed by Chris Jeffery, as were all the Van Stadens bridge construction pictures) shows the line under construction somewhere between Waaihoek and Kwaaibrand, probably early in 1905.
 

16. A pair of NG15s with a solid block consist of AY ballast hoppers descending Loerie bank into the Gamtoos valley in April 1973.

The energy of those engineers and navvies between 1902 and 1907 produced a railway 177 miles long with a host of bridges, station buildings and other structures in seven years.  Some sixty years later another impressive but less obvious project was begun - the relaying, resleepering and reballasting of the entire line with 60lb rails, steel sleepers and hard limestone from Koega quarry, the latter about 20 miles along the broad gauge from Port Elizabeth which meant that every cubic yard had to be transshipped into narrow-gauge AY trucks at Humewood Road.  For a dozen years these double-headed ballast trains plied the line in order to prepare it for diesel working into Avontuur. When I took up my post in Port Elizabeth in 1981 the ballasting had already reached Joubertina at a rate of 1200m3 per km - practically a broad-gauge specification.  And this had been going on for more than ten years!  The spec was lowered to 800m3/km without head office being the wiser, thus shaving 33% off the huge cost of ballast needed for the strengthening programme.  Even so, and I hate to harp on it, the last stretch into Avontuur was only used by the diesels for one season.  

17. When the line reached Loerie, the village didn't exist.  There was no reason for it to.  But there were many settlements that owed their very existence to their proximity to long, steep stretches of railway (e.g. De Doorns, Glenconnor, Sterkstroom, Waterval Boven and a host of others).  By the 1960s Loerie was a thriving community, still almost entirely dependent upon the railway for employment - locomotive crews, guards, porters, operating staff, gangers and track labourers.  This was the poskantoor c 1975 - note the rail hitching post, long unused, now leaning crazily.
 
 
18. The water tank hasn't fallen off yet.  628-up T&P just after my first wide-eyed descent from Summit down to Loerie in January 1959.  What better tour-guide could one have had than driver Harry Edmonds, who took delight in pointing out the line doubling back and forth below us in its wriggling struggle to restrict the gradient to 1-in-40. Something that struck me upon my return to PE more than 20 years later was how overgrown the landscape had become - mostly with Acacia thorn trees.  On that first trip, from the cab of 126 the track could be traced all the way down except for two brief stretches where it disappeared behind the bluffs at Waaihoek and Kwaaibrand.
 

19. Like a horse-worked trunk road, a steam railway was always busy.  A typical mid-day scene at Loerie in May 1962 with 628-up mixed unusually being shown into No 2 loop while in the right background an NG15, also unusually, backs onto a banked limestone train about to depart from the main platform road (see photos 22 and 24 in Part 2 - the limestone story).  The NGG13 and NG15 for the next limestone working (it would follow in about 2 hours time) are being readied on the loco track.  Note how limestone took priority over the hapless narrow-gauge passengers!
 

20. By the 1960s many SAR secondary and branch lines had gained so much traffic that it became necessary to use heavier power that could only run on 96lb rails - Krugersdorp-Mafeking, the Steelpoort branch and the busy branches radiating from Pietermaritzburg spring to mind among dozens.  Released 60lb material was then handed down to minor branch lines still using 45lb rails, and the narrow gauge.  Being the busiest, the section between Loerie and Chelsea became the first part of the Avontuur line to be relayed with 60lb rails, even before dieselisation was contemplated.  Having finished rerailing as far as Summit, the relaying gang complete with huts (some for accommodation), a push trolley, a corrugated-iron long-drop toilet and truckloads of sleepers and fastenings was being moved from its camp at Loerie to a new site in Thornhill station yard.  No matter how busy, there was usually time for a bit of skinder (gossip) - check the ganger and driver chatting alongside the engine while waiting for an opposing train to arrive. 

21. The perway special was waiting for the crossing so, because the Garratt had come through from Humansdorp, Driver Laufs had his coal trimmed while enjoying a quiet skinder with the ganger in charge of the relaying gang. On the left another NGG13 was being prepared for the next limestone working.  May 1962.
  

The next few photos depict 627-down and 628-up T&Ps negotiating Loerie Bank, mostly taken in 1962 when Charlie was based in PE for six months.  On the Avontuur line "down" meant eastbound and "up" westbound.
 
22. Absolutely thrashing up the 1-in-40 with a full load, 128 class NGG16 on 627 T&P crossing the old main road from Thornhill to the Gamtoos valley, with Loerie already far below to the right of the engine's front tank.  Those with sharp eyes will be able to trace the double S of the railway wending its way into Loerie. Note the newly relaid (with 60lb material) and reballasted track.

23.  On this day in June 1962, 627 T&P was made up of ten vanloads of delicious Hankey navels on their way to market, so there wasn't capacity to take the usual three passenger coaches.  This was close to the maximum that a NGG13 could handle up the bank, as might be deducted from the wisp of steam showing above the Garratt's front tank, indicating that the driver was working the front sanding gear donkey engine. 

24. The NG15 has just brought 627 T&P up and around the promontory known by railwaymen as Waaihoek ("Windy corner").  There was no nameboard but it had a reputation among railwayment because, as its name implies, the wind is invariably blowing here - once so strongly that it blew a train over.  On the horizon in the background, above and slightly to the right of the engine's smokebox, is the rocky outcrop known as the Lady's Slipper - favoured by rock climbers for its practise pitches.  

25. No 124, class NG15, later to become famous as the Apple Express engine, bringing 627 T&P around a favourite curve adjacent to the old Thornhill - Loerie main road.  The promontory referred to in photo 23 is just behind the coaches and Waaihoek is the hairpin bend where the line disappears from view.  This is pretty much the standard make-up of train 627 - the fruit vans are either loaded with late-season Granny Smiths or early-season navels off the Patensie branch as the photo was made in May 1962.  Fifth vehicle from the end was the operating inspector's caboose, which during the fruit season would be parked off at various tie points.  The smoke above Waaihoek, almost on the horizon, comes from the sawmills of the Longmore state forest.
 

26. A few yards further up the bank but eleven years further on in time, NG15s No's 118 and 133 were working 627 during the 1973 apple season - the last that would be steam-worked east of Assegaaibos.  The coaches are interesting: closest to the engines is No 50 referred to in David's introduction, with seating for twelve 3rd-class and 6 first class patrons plus lavatory, then a 1st/3rd compo also with lavatory, a 3rd-class passenger brake and the stubby vehicle bringing up the rear is the rat-catcher's caboose*, probably pressed into service as an ordinary guards van.
 
* In railway parlance, ratcatcher = Health Inspector 

27.  The same train as in photo 25 about a mile further on (unlike Union - Volksrust, train chasing on Loerie bank was a breeze).
 

28.  Having crossed up limestone empties, the Garratt of 627 T&P finds its way back onto the main line at Summit.
 

29. 627 T&P, fulfilling its passenger role, paused for passengers and parcels at Thornhill, May, 1962. For almost 100 years our railways had been carrying the milk.  How could we know this was coming to an end?  Perhaps the intrusive Vespa - the only concession to modernity in the photo - was a clue.
 

30. The last Garratt produced by Beyer Peacock, class NGG16 No 143, now on the Welsh Highland Railway, coasting into Thornhill with 628-up T&P in May 1962.  Looks like there are even more milk churns to be picked up by 627-down on this day. Note the two watertanks, one for the engine itself - they were designed to carry less water on the engine and use a separate feeder tank but it would have been far better to increase the water carried by the engine until their driving-wheel axleload was that tolerable for 60lb rail.  The second, square, watertank was for the obligatory domestic water supply delivered to outlying stations.
 
31. Still at Thornhill, the same train as in the previous photo. By 1962, as carriages went into shops for overhaul they were coming back with the new red and grey livery. On the right a Bedford truck has brought in gumpoles from the nearby Woodford sawmills.

32.  No 128 on the same train shown blasting across the Loerie road in photo 21 eventually caught up with us in Thornhill where it was parked in the loop for - guess what?
   Some passengers are waiting to board the train, the one wearing a waistcoat on the right of the group was a real dandy, quite determined to pose for every shot. 

33. The dandy's family have come to wave goodbye but 627 isn't going just yet, she's standing in the loop for a reason.
 

34.  The peace is shattered - this is why 627 T&P was in the loop.  Were there many railways where lowly ore took priority over passengers?  Admittedly, neither 627 nor its opposite number, 628 were classified as mixed, or even advertised, but here is 627 in the hole for an eastbound limestone blasting through as though its crew were intent on scaring the passengers out of their seats.  During the course of several months when I was stationed at Port Elizabeth I noticed that limestone was given priority over everything except fruit.  Note our dandy friend, still posing in the window - he's in for an eardrum-shattering surprise! 

35. With tranquility restored to Thornhill we'll say goodbye for now to 627-down, classified "Transship and Pick-up" but really a mixed, even though its passengers were either incredibly patient or narrow-gauge enthusiasts.  The flat wagons on the loop road were loaded with hand-me-down 60lb rails in 40ft lengths for the Loerie-Chelsea relaying and strengthening mentioned earlier.
 

Fruit trains between Loerie and Port Elizabeth harbour 

36. We've doubled back to Loerie in April 1973 to show some of the Langkloof fruit traffic in its last year of steam haulage east of Assegaaibos (except for a brief while in 1984). The front engine is No 134, now being restored on the Welsh Highland Railway, but neither John nor I can trace the number of the second engine.  However, they've had their fires cleaned in preparation for the climb ahead and as soon as 134's tank is full they'll be off on the last leg of their round trip to Assegaaibos.

37. Whenever I look at this photo I feel guilty (no really).  Back in Loerie those weary firemen had already been on the road for more than 10 hours when I thoughtlessly asked them to make a bit of smoke as they came across the main road.  This they did with such alacrity that they almost blotted out the sun entirely.  During the fruit season pairs of NG15s worked round trips to Assegaaibos, bringing in 300 ton block loads of export apples and pears.  Theoretically it could be done in 12 hours but inevitably there were delayed crossings and other snarl-ups that could extend shifts beyond the legal 12-hour limit.
 

38. The same train just over a mile further up Loerie bank.
 

39. An export fruit block load crossing Van Stadens bridge in April 1973, the last 100% steam-worked fruit season.  The intensity of the service may be judged from the fact that up to a dozen fruit blocks were scheduled out of Assegaaibos each weekday from February to early May, many of them double-headed (fewer on Saturdays and Sundays). 

40. Confrontation between a PE Tramways Company double-decker diesel bus and NG15 No 121 on the Verdun Road (Lorraine) level crossing in December 1965.  John Lemon has kindly corrected the details which we got wrong in the first instance.  He tells us that there was a casualty - Kobie Vosloo, who was killed while riding the rear platform of the PE Tramway Company's double-decker bus.  As we know, the engine was soon repaired and back in traffic.  Note the double-roofed OZ wagon at a crazy angle behind the tender - they were used to bring in fresh vegetables from the Gamtoos Valley. 

41. When export fruit blocks arrived at Humewood Road the locomotives would immediately uncouple and head for the shed.  The load - minus its guards van - would then be worked down to the docks, in early years probably by an NG8 or 9, then by the first SAR Garratt, No 51 (after its arrival from Natal in 1946), or in later years, Nos 54 or 55, the later model NGG11s that were allocated to hauler duties after they were transferred from the Estcourt - Weenen line in 1965.  In this magnificent panorama 
from April 1973 by David Mitchell of the Talyllyn Railway, an NGG11 is bringing one of these block loads to the underground precooling sheds used for stacking fruit before loading into reefer vessels for shipping overseas.  The engine itself was shy of going underground.  It would park the wagons in the fan of tracks just ahead of the train, run around and then shove them into the shed in cuts of six or seven.  Broad-gauge fruit used the same precoolers - the interlacing of the gauges was just ahead and to the left of the parachute tank in the middle background. For the precise juxtaposition of all these facilities please see the aerial photo below.

42. The dark curving gash in the middle of the quay on the left marks the entrance to the precoolers.  Clearly visible is the fan of three tracks where narrow-gauge block loads were divided into three before being shoved underground.
  Bottom right is the truss-girder bridge over the Baakens River, referred to in the caption to picture 2.

43. Class NG15 No 122 bringing empties out of the precooling shed, obviously on a day when no NG11 was available.   Note the interlacing with the broad gauge.  There could not be a common rail due to restricted clearances underground.  We have no date for this picture except that it must be between 1961 when the Kalaharis arrived in PE and around 1966/7 when the traditional headlights were replaced by ugly sealed beams. 


44.  We have to thank Alan for getting up early one morning in March 1984 to record one of the last ever steam-hauled freights out of Humewood Road - a pair of NG15s on a fertiliser train.  As we have recounted, the 1984 season was the best ever apple crop until then, which resulted in NG15s having to fill in for diesels that for the first time were working all the way to Avontuur.  In many ways this photo and the next one are the saddest of the whole lot because this was the last deciduous fruit season on the narrow gauge before the catastrophic disruption wrought by the Assistant General Manager (Commercial) Dr Coetzee, as related in Part 1.  Eventually, after ten years, the deciduous fruit did come back to rail - albeit not permanently - but that is a story that will be told in part five.

45. Morning at Van Stadens in March 1984 by Alan Buttrum.  A fitting image to complete our coverage of the fruit traffic between Loerie and Port Elizabeth.  This is by no means the whole story, we would welcome some decent photos of the diesel workings - they can and will be added to the site at any time.  Also, of course, we shall be covering the fruit traffic beyond Loerie quite comprehensively in chapters to come.

Decline and Fall

46. No 122 "Starking" and 124, "Granny Smith" posing at Humewood Road the day before the publicity run to Humansdorp.

Our account of the decline of everyday traffic on the Avontuur Railway after 1984 despite the modernisation programme of the 1970s and the efforts of the regional railwaymen to win back the business has been related in parts one and two.  In an attempt to attract publicity and growth in traffic, SATS management decided to mark the 80th anniversary of the opening of the line with a special train to Humansdorp where several innovations designed to improve productivity of the narrow-gauge rolling stock would be on show.  To haul the special two of the NG15s received further embellishment.  Thus No 122 received a bright red livery with the smoke deflectors and tender lined boldly in yellow.  The name “Starking,” a red-apple variety grown in the Langkloof, was carried on the smoke deflectors above a miniature Apple Express shield resembling the brass headboard.  A similar lined livery, but in apple green, was applied to No.124, with the name “Granny Smith” (after the green apples that finished off each season) carried on each smoke deflector.  

Despite this stimulus affairs continued much as before.  At the end of 1986 Charlie left PE to take up his post with ACR and Chris Muller took his place.  Fortunately, in addition to his regional engineering responsibilities, Chris was an avid supporter of the narrow gauge and continued to provide support to those who were endeavoring to regain the traffic that had been lost.  Unfortunately the Apple Express operation, in common with tourist trains everywhere, was never able to cover its own fixed infrastructure costs.  Spoornet, formed from SATS in 1990, continued to operate the Apple Express until March 1993.  However, at this point the mounting losses could no longer be justified.  At the same time the viability of the entire Port Elizabeth narrow-gauge network again came under review.  

From then on the Apple Express operation was increasingly affected by the changing regulatory and commercial environment.  With the impending cessation of the Apple Express service, Spoornet decided to invite tenders for private operation of all Avontuur branch services including, as an option, the Apple Express.  Alfred County Railway (ACR) in Natal was the successful bidder for the combined operation.  For the passenger service there was substantial voluntary help from prominent local supporters of the world-famous train.  Strong support came also from ACR staff and other professional railwaymen.  The first privately-run Apple Express steamed out of Humewood Road at the beginning of the December 1993 holiday season.   By the end of this holiday season in early January 1994, in little more than a month the private/volunteer-operated train had exceeded the total passenger numbers achieved by SAR/SATS/Spoornet in their best years. 

Following the managerial changes, an innovation introduced by ACR resulted in most Apple Expresses terminating at Thornhill, a shorter and more family-friendly journey of 3 hours each way.  The hotel at this destination offered a meals service as well as the opportunity to enjoy a picnic or a braai (barbecue) in the gardens.  Since the station has only a passing loop and a siding, the class NG15 tender engine then had to make the return journey tender first over the 6 miles to Van Staden siding where there was a triangle.

47. The hotel at Thornhill was a popular refreshment stop for the ACR/Apple Express Society-operated Apple Express.  The hotel dates back to before the railway, being an overnight stop on the way to Humansdorp in pre-railway times.  It seems to have been well used after the railway arrived too, as is clear in this lovely old print.

47. The highly successful brochure and timetable prepared by the Apple Express Society for its private operation of the train.

In April 1994 the new ANC-led government took over and from the start it was clear that henceforth, socialist ideology would prevail.  The very word “privatisation” was anathema to the new regime.  At the end of 1994, ACR's freight operating contract was annulled at the behest of the railway unions who were, and remain opposed to privatisation. But it was not all bad news.  Chris Muller, who was in any case to be ACR’s general manager, stayed with Spoornet and was appointed by the latter’s head office to be narrow-gauge manager.  This was the best man, by far, that they could have chosen.  But having made the right appointment they hamstrung him by insisting on setting rates in head office – an untenable state of affairs.  Meanwhile, the logistics of supervising, marketing and administering the Apple Express from Port Shepstone was impractical, consequently ACR withdrew from day to day management of the train.  Thereafter an operating pattern became established whereby the driver, fireman and guard were Spoornet staff working on leave days on a volunteer basis.  This left the manning of the booking office, the sale of tickets and passenger care to the local volunteers.  By this time the volunteers had formed themselves into the Apple Express Society.  With its own constitution and officers the Society actively marketed the service and encouraged the advance booking of special trains to longer distance destinations.  A suitable van was converted into a mobile sales and catering vehicle, running as the “Apple Tavern” (see photo 48 in Part 1).  

48. At the instigation of the late Alan Clark who was in charge of the ill-fated narrow-gauge museum at Humewood Road at the time, Uitenhage shops produced this exceptional restoration of No 54, in an unauthentic and rather gaudy lined out red livery.  "Solly" was named after an erstwhile Mayor of Port Elizabeth.  ACR and the Apple Express Society introduced a new train with this locomotive - the "Diaz Express" which ran a shuttle between Humewood Road and Kings Beach in the main holiday seasons.  It met with only moderate success but the numbers were becoming encouraging just at the time when ACR decided to pull out.

With the new basis for operations established under the watchful eye of Chris Muller, the Apple Express thrived, its participation in the Great Train Race bringing world wide publicity and the longer distance excursions to destinations including Patensie, Loerie, Humansdorp and even Avontuur, bringing much appreciation from parties who included many from the enthusiast community.  These included the Ffestiniog Travel organisation who included a journey over the whole line from Port Elizabeth to Avontuur in their Southern African tours of 1996 and 1997. 

The next problems were however already appearing on the horizon.  Possibly as a result of accidents to tourist passenger trains on the Cape Gauge system elsewhere, Spoornet announced a “Steam Exit” plan.  This would take effect from 2002 and affected Apple Express in that it would no longer be permissible for off-duty Spoornet staff to take part in the running of trains on Spoornet metals.  This forced a temporary cessation of services whilst the situation was resolved.  The difficulties were resolved by the formation of a “Section 21 Not-for-Profit Company.”   First, it was necessary to dissolve the Apple Express Society and to re-constitute it as “The Apple Express Association.”  This was carried out in the Autumn of 2002, an appropriate constitution being implemented.  This in turn cleared the way for the formation of the Section 21 Company in February 2003.  

The directors of the new company included prominent local businessmen and they in turn appointed Bobby Louw, a senior railwayman ex-SAR and ex-Spoornet as Operations Manager.  The launch of the new company, The “PE Apple Express,” took place on 15th April 2003 at a reception in the cooling sheds at Port Elizabeth harbour.  Civic dignitaries were present including the new mayor, Mr N Faku and Mrs Lesley Lowe, a local councillor with special responsibility for promoting tourism in the Eastern Cape.  The mayor spoke at length about the importance of the Apple Express to the city as being among its top three marketed icons.  He pledged the continued financial support for the company, having already committed some RSA 100,000 to refurbishment of the carriages.  The chairman of the new company, Mr Roy Puffet of Sheltam, a locomotive hire and train operating company, outlined plans for the development of the site and facilities at the Humewood Road terminus station.   These were to include a museum and coffee shop.  A new passenger platform was to be built together with ticketing and information arrangements.  New facilities for passengers were to include a waiting room and toilet facilities.  Consideration was also given to preserving the carriages through the building of a new secure carriage shed.  It was also proposed that the journey should be further shortened by terminating at van Stadens.  Here a viewing platform would be erected to allow passengers to appreciate the view over the gorge.  

To comply with Spoornet's Steam Exit Plan, train crews would be recruited externally and certified as appropriate for work on the train.  The new company duly appointed a salaried driver and fireman, plus other staff including a maintenance fitter, a coach builder and others.  Services began straight away.  

The new arrangements had hardly settled down before fresh difficulties appeared in 2004.  A dispute erupted between Athletics South Africa (ASA) and the Eastern Province Athletics Association, affecting participants in the Great Train Race.  This arose from a clause in the regulations of the ASA that prohibited the award of financial prizes to foreign athletes.  Local athletes who wished to compete were then threatened with suspension if they took part.  The Eastern Province Athletics Association mounted a legal challenge to the controversial clause and thankfully, the race eventually took place in 2004, this time the train unusually being the winner.  However, the race in 2004 proved to be the last.  Put off by these legal wrangles its sponsorship for future years was not renewed and the event effectively lapsed.  

Undeterred by these set-backs the Section 21 Company and the volunteers, now reconstituted as the “Apple Express Steam Association,” began marketing and running the trains.  Here another difficulty was soon to emerge.  The highly-competent, selfless Chris Muller was replaced by an incapable affirmative appointment who was mainly interested in feathering his own nest and immediately increased the track access charges.  This coincided with a decision by the new Rail Safety Regulator (RSR -  a scary new bureaucracy) to control train loads, ostensibly for safety and reliability reasons.  In practical terms this meant that both train lengths and passenger loadings per vehicle were now dictated by the RSR.  Train lengths were to be limited to 75% of the permitted load of the locomotive whilst individual vehicles were to be filled to just 75% of seating capacity!  The combined effect of these decisions was to make it very difficult to cover the expense of running the train whilst charging an acceptable fare to the passengers.  
 
Despite these problems the train continued to run and was supported financially by the local authority.  In addition to the regular Apple Express trains to Thornhill, a number of special excursions were organised to more remote destinations.  A notable example saw the collaboration in September 2005 between Sandstone Heritage Trust in the Free State and the PE Apple Express.  The train was promoted as the “Avontuur Adventurer” and was to be a four day tour originating at Humewood Road in Port Elizabeth.  On the first day there was a short excursion to Chelsea Junction and return.  It was hauled by the Section 21 Company’s only serviceable steam engine, NG/G16 Garratt No.131, now in the final weeks of its boiler certification and needing extensive firebox repairs.  There were several photographic run-pasts.  The main part of the tour was however handled by Sandstone’s NG15, the recently restored No 17, the pioneer engine of its class having been built by Henschel in 1931.  On the first day of the tour the train reached Patensie where passengers stayed overnight in local Bed and Breakfast accommodations.  Lunch was taken at Loerie Station and there were many stops for photographs during the day.  The day concluded with a Reception and braai in a marquee erected on the station platform at Patensie.  On the second day, the train re-traced its path along the valley to Gamtoos Junction where it rejoined the main line towards the Langkloof.  Lunch was taken at Humansdorp, an important centre of population.  The passengers were welcomed by an official reception beginning with a demonstration of African Dancing.  In the afternoon the train continued westward, entering the Langkloof and arriving at dusk at Assegaaibos, once an important centre in the operation of the fruit trains.  After a photographic session the passengers were transferred to the Tsitsikama Lodge to spend the night.  The train was now 100 miles from Port Elizabeth and the final day of the tour would see the train complete the final 77 miles to Avontuur.  This was achieved as night was falling, the train arriving at the terminus in the dark.  During the day many photographic stops had been enjoyed and a lunch break at the important fruit packing centre of Joubertina.  Although other tour trains have traversed various parts of the Langkloof, the whole journey has yet to be repeated.  This has subsequently become increasingly difficult, the status of the line beyond Assegaaibos now being officially designated as abandoned.  Everywhere, the extraordinary interest shown by local communities in continued operation of the narrow gauge was apparent.

With the Avontuur Adventurer Tour over, the stalwart Beyer-Garratt, NGG 16 No 131 was withdrawn for boiler repairs and a period of diesel haulage followed.  Fortunately, the state assistance with funding meant that the repairs and refurbishment of NG15, No 119 (Henschel, 1939) was almost complete, the work having been undertaken in the narrow gauge diesel workshops a short distance from Humewood Road.  With a steam engine as the flagship motive power once more there were now many bookings for the train. However, it had not proved possible to re-start the Great Train Race, a feature of Port Elizabeth’s September calendar.  In the workshops the restoration of former Apple Express stalwart, NG15 No 124, “Granny Smith,” was nearing completion.  The carriage fleet was in a good state of maintenance, thanks to funding now available to employ a coachbuilder.  

In the Spring of 2010, the funding assistance from the state was withdrawn abruptly.  Attempts to reverse the decision proved fruitless and by the end of the year it was no longer possible to fund the running of the trains and pay for the staff.  Hauled by No 119, the final Apple Express ran to Thornhill on 29th December 2010.  Since then no steam trains have run on the Avontuur Railway. During these two years relentless vandalism of the site of the station and steam locomotive depot has culminated in the scrapping of the locomotives stored there including three NG15s and two Garratts.  With continuing attacks it was decided also to clear the site with the demolition of all locomotive shed and maintenance facilities.  Nothing now remains of the station and facilities that were only seven years ago the subject of plans for a new museum, servicing facilities for the trains and a visitor centre for passengers.  The track through the station remains so as to allow any railway operations between the docks below and the narrow gauge railway westward from the city.  Clearly the future of the whole narrow gauge system is now in the balance and it will require strong civic determination to restore the trains to operation.  

The situation at Port Elizabeth in mid-2012 is quite astonishing.  The city stands as the principal city of the Eastern Cape, a land blessed with 300km of narrow gauge railway infrastructure.  The railway and trains stand derelict when they could be taking hordes of visitors to see such delights as the Enon conglomerate cliffs of the lower Gamtoos as they glow red in the morning light.  Further on lies the Philip tunnel (built in the 19th century to irrigate the fertile vegetable farms in the Gamtoos valley).  There are Hankey and Patensie with their neatly-rowed orange orchards; Baviaanskloof; Cockscomb and the Langkloof itself, which the railway accesses by negotiating the rugged foothills of the Kouga mountains that guard its entrance. The Langkloof – epitome of rural agricultural South Africa – is traversed for almost its entire length by the narrow gauge.  Nestling between the Tsitsikamma range – dominated by Mount Formosa – and the remote Kouga, where rare mountain zebra still roam free, the railway has the potential to attract visitors in their thousands, not only because of its magnificent scenery.  During the fruit season visits to the packing sheds are popular, while the Langkloof Fruit Route winds through farms and orchards ablaze with blossoms and wild flowers.  Cottage industries have sprung up throughout its length, like the crockery repair school at Joubertina – what better way to go to school than by narrow-gauge train?  The terminus of the railway is at Avontuur, barely a kilometre from the summit of Prince Alfred's pass with its hair-raising access to the Garden Route at Knysna. 


What more fitting way to close than with this magnificent picture of Van Stadens bridge by Alan Buttrum showing the westbound Avontuur Adventurer in November 2005.  



The next chapter, which hopefully will not be too long in coming, deals with the section from Loerie to Assegaaibos and in addition to some fabulous photos from a wide range of contributors, will include the promised transcript of the chaotic meeting between Dr Coetzee, AGM (Commercial) of SATS and the heads of business and farmers at Humansdorp in October 1985.