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System 5, Part 1: Bloemfontein


1. Class 16E No 856 "Kroonstad" appropriately framed by a "Bloemfontein" nameboard.  SAR's express-passenger locomotives and Bloemfontein were synonymous for 35 years.  In fact, after a relatively brief 4 years stationed in Kimberley when new, the 16Es worked out of Bloemfontein for the rest of their lives.
Until the early 1970s, South Africa's judicial capital, the Provincial capital and seat of the System Manager, was a steam-locomotive enthusiast’s paradise. There were still steam-hauled suburban services to Melorane, Lynchfield, De Bloem and Kloofeind while numerous main line passenger services were arriving or departing the city every day.  Add to this numerous goods trains passing through the main station especially before the goods avoiding line was completed in 1966.

The wide variety of classes stationed at Bloemfontein or working in from sister depots also added to the enjoyment of observing and photographing trains in and around the City in those years.  These included classes 3R, 6 Belpaire, 8 (in several subclasses), 12R, 15A, 15AR, 15CA, 15CB, 15E, 15F, 16DA (narrow and wide firebox), 16E, 19C, 19D (MP1 and MX tenders), 23, 25 and 25NC – the latter two on turn-around from Kimberley.  Occasionally exotic types such as Garratts on transfer would pass through, usually on trains to avoid congestion on the busy main lines.  During 1954/5  Classes 15CA and CB as well as 15A/AR moved on to other Systems,  particularly after the arrival of all 44 "Bongols" (class 15E) which had been bumped off the Cape Main Line by the Condensers.  Even after this exodus the remaining variety was still exceptional.

Belpaire 6s worked the local passenger service to De Bloem and Kloofeind until the early 1950s but the suburban diagrams to Lynchfield and Melorane were handled by narrow-firebox 16DAs. All had regular crews which resulted in plenty of polishing and competition for the cleanest loco in the depot.  These men also had competition from the main line passenger-link crews. All the 16Es and some of the wide-box DAs had allocated enginemen. Again this spurred on lots of competition.  Naturally, Bloemfontein Loco also had pooled engines – plenty of them (and not always so clean) – so there was much variety to be seen and photographed. 
Personally, I became active photographing in and around Bloemfontein in the early 1950s. I was just in time to see the Belpaire 6s working the local services as described above. 
The Orange Express was the premier passenger train passing through Bloemfontein but there were other top link trains like 438, the Port Elizabeth – Johannesburg Express and its opposite numbers – 432/435.  During this time the Orange Express was worked almost exclusively by wide-box DAs and 16Es to and from Kimberley - except for one occasion when I photographed the Orange leaving Bloem behind a narrow-box DA but this was already quite rare.  As class 23s were released from the Cape Main Line by new 25NCs and condensers in the mid 1950s they became a common sight on the Free State Main Line, working mainly south from Bloemfontein to Noupoort and Burgersdorp. Occasionally they worked north to Kroonstad and west across to Kimberley but 15Fs generally did most of that work.

2. Portals to a world of steam!  The honest but stately frontage of the Oranje Vrijstaat Goewerment Spoorwegen (OVGS) main station, now more than 120 years old. 
Imagine the excitement of anticipation as one approached this entrance to a world of steam where every few minutes a train would be arriving or departing or, in the case of goods workings, passing through to or from distant places. 
Harder to imagine was this fact: through those portals (for that matter in most of the town) there was not a single minute of any single day when loud exhausts of hard-working locomotives were not continuously audible.  At night the effect was to convince one that there was a shunting yard in the back garden.  Christmas day?  All right then, there was a brief lull to honour the birth of Christ.  Some of the good folk of Bloemfontein called it noise pollution, we called it music.  By golly, how we miss it.
Note the SAR RMT Canadian Brill bus - reminder of an extended era when SAR&H comprehensively covered the transport needs of an entire nation.  In those days the Road Motor Services and its connections occupied equal space with trains in the official public "Railway Timetable" - a thick book of 400+ pages. 


3. About to depart for distant places: 3130 cl 15F on 435, the 21:45 fast passenger to Port Elizabeth, 3286 cl 23 on 289, the 22:10 overnight stopper to Kimberley and an unidentified Bethlehem cl 23 on 81-down - the 22:00 mail to Durban, February 1968


Evenings at the station were always entertaining as several passenger workings interspersed with freights (before 1966, only block loads thereafter) arrived or departed for all corners of the compass.  The passenger parade kicked off soon after 5 o’clock with commuter runs to De Bloem, Melorane, Lynchfield, Springfontein, Kloofeind and some corresponding return trips, followed by long-distance passengers to Johannesburg, Durban, Zastron, East London, Port Elizabeth, Mossel Bay, Cape Town and Kimberley.


4. 856 cl 16E on 23-down to Burgersdorp and 2879 cl 15E on 75-down to Bethlehem, July 1969

For many years, until the suburban service was discontinued in December 1972, there were eight simultaneous departures each week, all steam.  Photographically the best was at 08:20 on Sunday mornings, especially on frosty winter mornings when the mercury dropped below –10°C.  All that was necessary to secure a good picture was to ensure that the guard’s watches were synchronized!  Peeping through the trees on the left is the facade of the old Victoria Hotel, which must surely have been one of the noisiest hostelries anywhere.

5. Bloemfontein, 847 cl 16DA + 2554 cl 23 on a down goods to Noupoort, 16 January, 1960


I was standing on the outside walkway of Bloemfontein South mechanical signal cabin when this interesting combination came by with a heavy freight heading for Springfontein.  The station is situated, literally, right on the Bloemspruit which means there are pronounced gradients away from the platform ends.  Both northbound and southbound trains required working at the limit of adhesion - as can be seen by the vertical exhausts from these two engines.  Before the bye-pass was completed in 1966 there was a constant parade of freights passing through the the main station.  All things considered this made Bloemfontein's station the best place to watch trains in South Africa. 


6. Belpaire 6th class making up its local passenger train in the yard behind Bloemfontein Station, c 1950.


In those days Bloemfontein was still controlled with mechanical semaphore signals.  The Belpaire 6 worked the local passenger service to Kloofeind on the Kimberley line and to De Bloem on the Kroonstad line.  The steel suburban coach is a type O-38 2nd class, one of a whole series of new steam-hauled stock (1st, 2nd & 3rd class) for local workings introduced in 1949/50. 



7. 209-down, the westbound Orange Express, departing for Kimberley from Bloemfontein, December 1959.


Class 16E No 857 "Ann Smith - Bloemfontein Queen" digs in to get her heavy all-steel consist underway (I was lucky to get this shot at all, the train pulled out just after a heavy downpour!).  857 got her name in 1944 when a lady clerk in the System Manager's office was rewarded for collecting the most money (Union-wide) in a national fundraising campaign in aid of our troops up north.  By this time the Orange Express was made up of C-34 first-class saloons, E-16 second class and a C-33 all-coupe saloon - all for whites and a D-32-C reserved saloon for nonwhites and bedding attendants (separation of the races was still in vogue - remember?).  Just visible towards the middle of the train is the A-37/AA-38 air-conditioned twin dining-car set, one of nine new twin diners imported from Germany in 1958. Note that in the interim years between photos 6 and 7 the semaphore signals with mechanical interlocking had given way to colour lights with route indicators and pneumatic-controlled points.


8. Class 19D No. 2747 (her fireman just about to hand the tablet to the Station Foreman) coming in from Aliwal North with 178-up passenger on 6th January 1969. (Copyright photo by H L Pivnic)


Shannon was one of the larger country stations a few miles east of Bloemfontein.  With only a couple of conditional halts to go this would probably have been 178's last stop before the OFS capital.



9. A pooled and dirty class 23 No.3220 rolls into Bloemfontein on 16th January 1960 with another “Bombela” from the Eastern Cape. 


The Bombelas brought migrant mine-workers from the Transkei to the Reef Mines (and back). Until the business was taken over by Combi Taxis from the early 1980s onwards they were a lucrative source of business for SAR while at the same time alleviating an annual death toll on the roads – which these days amounts to several thousand/year.




10. Bloemfontein-Hamilton, 02662-up block manganese ore for Maydon Wharf, 23-down to Burgersdorp and 993-down T&P to Springfontein, May 1969


Looking north from the footbridge near Hamilton early on a May morning in 1969. On the left a Class 23 and a 25NC have teamed up on No 02662 block manganese ore en route from Postmasburg to Durban (it looks empty but in fact is a full load, 2700 tons on 140 axles). On the right 3229 cl 23 “Springs” is on southbound wayside goods No 993; while in the background another cl 23 is coming around the corner on 23-down southbound to Burgersdorp and East London. 


Until the Postmasburg branch electrification late in 1966, block loads of manganese ore were worked by steam over the 520 miles from Postmasburg to Harrismith.  For almost five years prior to this, condensers displaced by the electrification from Touws River to Beaufort West worked the ore from Postmasburg to Bloemfontein, whence relays of OFS power worked through to Harrismith.  However, the most interesting time was when ore traffic first began to take off in the late fifties – when caboose-working was instituted.  Charlie first heard about the operation when he was transferred to New Works, Bloemfontein, in April 1969. There was a clerk there, Faan Fouché, who had joined SAR as a fireman in the late 1950’s.  He related the following:


Pairs of Class 23s with a caboose attached worked in 21-day cycles out of Bloemfontein.  The crews were supposed to work eight hours on and eight hours off but by agreement they worked twelve hour shifts instead.  Each cycle began with the picking up of a string of 34 empty AZ hopper wagons and van in Bloemfontein’s Down Block Load Yard.


These were worked through to Postmasburg, with engines recoaling at Kamfersdam, outside Kimberley.  There they picked up 34 loaded AZ wagons and a van (an approximate load of 2 700 tons) and worked through to Kroonstad where the loads were remarshalled into 1500 ton bites for the 1-in-66 grades east of there.  By the time Faan was put on these links Vereeniging - Kroonstad had already been electrified, so I can't tell if there ever were such workings north of Kroonstad.  At Kroonstad the loaded AZ’s were exchanged for empties and the whole cycle repeated.


According to Faan it took roughly two days to complete a loaded/empty cycle over the full route and they managed an average ten cycles on each three-week tour of duty.  Faan was a bit vague on dates but I gathered that the workings started sometime during 1959 and continued until the condensers took over the section from Postmasburg to Kamfersdam (the junction just north of Kimberley) about 1962, after which caboose working was discontinued.  No reason for this was given by Faan but it could have been that two condensers (at 108ft each!), + caboose + 34 loads + guards van were too long for the loops.


At none of the refueling points (that is, Postmasburg, Kamfersdam, Hamilton and Kroonstad) were the appliances situated such that coaling could be done with the engines attached to their trains.  For example, at Hamilton the train was simply left standing on the main line while the engines uncoupled and moved to the coal stage.


No watering or fire-cleaning was done at Hamilton so this was done at Kloofeind and Glen. There were four such block loads of iron ore despatched to Maydon Wharf every 24 hours, including Sundays.  According to Faan they were always worked by pairs of 23’s and this was borne out by an old work colleague, Ralph Knott, who actually saw the trains.  To my regret I never saw nor photographed them.  I remember Ralph predicting that the 23’s would be the first of the big main-line engines to go because of the strenuous nature of this work.


By the time the Railways stationed me in Bloemfontein in February 1968 the caboose working had stopped but block loads of manganese ore from Postmasburg to Maydon Wharf were still coming through at a rate of four every 24hrs.  However, by this time steam was only coming on at Beaconsfield and engines were once more being changed in the traditional manner at Bloemfontein, Kroonstad and Bethlehem.



11. Class 15CB No.2062 with 1134-up Bombela (mine-workers passenger train), just arrived from Burgersdorp.


By 1952 the 15CAs and CBs were nearing the end of their 25-year association with Bloemfontein. The 15CBs especially were starting to look a little neglected, as if nobody loved them anymore. Yet these robust Baldwind-designed and built machines, which looked so much like scaled-down versions of the standard USRA light 4-8-2, still had another 30+ years of useful work ahead of them. Who can forget their loud, always even, rasping bark when working hard. They never seemed to get tired – take a good look at that fat boiler.

12. Bloemfontein, 3235 cl 23, driver Kallie Ludick, on 212-up eastbound Orange Express, Nov 1974.


Sometime during 1974 the Orange Express became the Trans Oranje and its steel orange-painted drumhead with stainless-steel letters was replaced with a small oval-shaped glass-fibre piece of junk.  Not surprisingly, Kallie Ludick, a very proud railwayman refused to spoil 3235’s good looks with this affront to his engine’s dignity. Kallie’s association with this engine had been a long one – at least 10 years – and only ended when he went over to electric traction early in 1976.


The light 19D on its way to loco had just brought in 178-up from Aliwal North, scheduled arrival time 16:50 which would indicate either that the Aliwal came in early or the Orange (scheduled departure 16:45) was running a bit late this day.  Note the System Manager’s teak match-boarded private saloon parked in the bay road on the right.


13. A Lynchfield local passenger train departing Bloemfontein with 873 cl 16DA on 15th Jan 1960.


Twelve years later, on the 8th of December 1972 Bloemfontein's suburban service was summarily abandoned.  The public were given one day's warning in the official notice sections of the Volksblad and the Friend (the Afrikaans and English dailies).  Train personnel themselves only knew about it when their names failed to appear on the roster for that day and so ignorant of it were the public that they turned out in their usual hundreds on the morning to commute to work by train.  Such cavalier treatment of its patrons became a feature of SAR&H in the last decade of its existence.


14. Estoire, 3229 cl 23 on 438-up overtaking a cl 15F on 16-up goods, July, 1971 

SAR’s freight tonnages increased rapidly during the sixties.  By the end of the decade there was so much traffic that the use of diesels north of Burgersdorp was curtailed.  For almost 5 years Bloemfontein reverted to a 100% steam city.  In addition to more than 280 scheduled arrivals and departures in the WTB there frequent hauler and cross trips to the city’s goods shed, the abattoir, the brickworks at Shannon and the waste dump at Kloofeind.  Scenes such as the above occurred daily – it was simply a matter of being in the right place at the right time!




15. Bloemfontein’s original roundhouse – one of two photos of it published in the SAR & H Magazine in 1933.


15CAs and 15CBs are much in evidence while in the first stall on the right is an Elliot class 10B of the erstwhile CSAR, at this time still employed on fast passenger trains. The roundhouse was replaced by a standard SAR run-through shed in 1933.

16. Bloemfontein shed at sunrise, June 1969


Here more than 300 engines were received, serviced and despatched every 24 hours.  Upon arrival off a train the crews would stop opposite the roster office and the shedman (or “hostler”, to use an appropriate American word) would take the engine for water, then to the coal stage.  After turning on the triangle next stop was the ashpits for fire cleaning.  From there the engine would be taken to the shed for lubrication and steam cleaning (but not polishing, that had to be done by the crews themselves), whereupon it would be ready for its next tour of duty. 


The whole process took an average two hours but could be done in less.  Every three weeks the fire would be dropped and the boiler washed out in the washout roads.  Every 15,000 miles the engine would be given a “15M” when all worn running gear such as coupling-rod bushes, brake gear pins etc would be replaced. Although I have frequently seen it described as a 12-road shed it was in fact a 14-road shed, with the two roads on the extreme left devoted to 15Ms.

17. Three class 16Es at Bloemfontein Loco


It was quite rare for three of these iconic Pacifics to be found on shed at the same time - they were kept extraordinarily busy on the top passenger links hauling the Orange Express and other similar trains south, west and north of Bloemfontein.  The 16Es were allocated to this depot for 35 years and when this picture was made in 1952 all had regular crews. 

18. Five different classes (19D, 16DA, 16E, 15F and 23) are clearly visible in this undated official SAR photo at Bloemfontein shed.  


Judging by the angled safety valve on the 16E but not on the 15F or the 23 the photo was taken in the transition period when all the big engines were being fitted with four small Ross pop valves on top of the boiler instead of two larger ones jutting out at an angle from just below the top of the boiler.  The conversions took place between 1949 and 1952.


19. Wide-firebox Class 16DA No. 878 gets some attention in the 15M Shop at Bloemfontein. 


This particular DA had a regular crew at that time.  Note the wide Wootten-type firebox with its 60 sq ft grate.  A.G.Watson was very keen on a large grate to reduce the combustion rate/sq ft of grate.  He introduced this policy in 1930 and would persevere with it in all his subsequent main line designs.


20. Class 16E No.859 “City of Bloemfontein” departing Bloemfontein with 291-down, the 05:50 stopper to Kimberley on 15th of January 1960. 


It was by no means all glamour jobs for the 16Es.  Apart from top-link passenger trains this was another regular duty.  Note the eclectic mix of carriages.


21. Class 12R No. 1867 on duty in the carriage sidings at Bloemfontein, January 1960


Towards the end of the fifties the traditional sixth-class carriage-yard pilots (and occasionally class 3Rs) at Bloemfontein made way for the much sturdier class 12s displaced by 15Fs on the Cape Midland Main Line. Although they had been drafted in for these lowly duties, such was the phenomenal growth in traffic during the sixties that the 12Rs frequently were called for road jobs on the Kroonstad as well as the Bethlehem-Harrismith main lines. Note the freshly-shopped 1st&2nd class "Reserved" (i.e. non-white coach) in SAR Imperial Brown livery.

22. Bloemfontein yards from the north, May 1975


The Witwatersrand was SAR’s primary generator of traffic.  Stretching from Springs in the east to Krugersdorp in the west there once was a chain of shunting yards which served private sidings, mines and industries.  Until the concentration yard at Sentrarand was commissioned in the 1980s, cross-Reef haulers brought Cape traffic to Germiston where random destination trains were made up for the south – all made up with their short wagons at the back1 so there was a lot of shunting.  These trains were then funneled down the Free State main line to Bloemfontein where they were finally sorted into consists bound for East London, Port Elizabeth, Mossel Bay, Cape Town and a host of Cape country towns. 


This meant that Bloemfontein had one of SAR’s more important marshalling yards. The retarder yard had 40 tracks, 24 for southbound traffic and 16 for northbound.  There were two humps with two primary and five secondary retarders, the latter split into 3 for southbound and two for northbound traffic.  Although the need to re-marshall northbound trains was considerably less, the hump leads were served 24/7 by two 0-8-0 shunters of class S1 – see photo 23.


The photo was made in early 1975 when class 23s, recently displaced by diesels on the south main line, had mostly replaced 12Rs on hauler trips.  An unknown class 23 is shown on a transfer run to the goods sheds about 2 miles to the east while coming in from the right is a 12R on a string of empties from the abattoir, 4 miles north of town.  So, study this photo!  Everything was as busy, tidy and organized as it looks.


Travelling on the Orange Express thirty years later Charlie came past this once mighty marshalling yard.  It had the stench of death about it.  Nothing moved, but every inch of every siding was crammed with rusting not-to-go’s.  Perhaps “death” is a bit morbid.  The wind was blowing towards our train so it would be more accurate to say the yard stank of shit from illegal squatters who had set up camp among the rows of idle wagons. 


On second thoughts, “death” is more appropriate.   



1 As track standards improved goods train speeds increased during the 20s and 30s.  Derailments increased whereas they should have decreased.  A high-level inquiry was set up involving the Chief Civil and Chief Mechanical Engineers2.  After months of deliberations the main conclusions were:


·   The wheelbase of 4-wheeled wagons was too short, leading to instability at speed

·   Random formations of short and bogie wagons in trains was undesirable


Resolving the first was a simple matter of lengthening the wheelbase of short trucks. 


Satisfying the second was an altogether different matter.  It meant that every station where trains were compiled and despatched needed shunting tracks, locomotives and appropriate manpower – usually around the clock – to ensure that shorts were marshaled at the rear.  Eventually the re-arranging of trains became so onerous that hump yards were required at all main centres.  Not only was the practice a huge time waster, the delays it caused were a major source of dissatisfaction among rail customers, causing SAR irreparable harm as well as costs that no one – not even railway accountants (!) – could calculate.


2 The date of this watershed investigation and inquiry was some time in the thirties.  If anyone has more details of it, especially when exactly it took place, we would like to have them please





23. Class S1 No. 374 posing on the 15M track at Bloemfontein shed, May 1971


SAR had 37 of these chunky S1s, the first 12 (Nos.374-385) being built departmentally at Salt River Shops in 1947. The remaining 25 (3801 – 3825) were built to SAR design by NBL in 1948.


Engines 374 and 375 worked the two hump leads at Bloemfontein. When one of them was incapacitated its duties were taken over by a 12R (for instance, while 374 was in for its 15M). The first engine released from Salt River Shops in 1947 was No.375.  To publicise the fact that  SAR could build its own locomotives, engine 375 was named “Voortrekker” and worked in Cape Town yards for a brief period before being transferred to the Western Transvaal System.