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System 5, Part 2: Makouvlei to Bosrand

System 5 Part 2: O.F.S. Main Line - Makouvlei to Bosrand

by Les Pivnic ©

Having had a look around Bloemfontein in Part 1, we are now going to visit the northern section of the OFS Main Line - from Makouvlei, just across the Vaal River from Vereeniging - working our way south to Kroonstad and beyond as far as the famous Bosrand Bank. But enough of this, the captions will tell the rest of the story.
 
 

1. On 30th August 1959 I was waiting at Makouvlei on the Free State side of the Vaal River when 2962, class15F – named "Pretoria" at that time – thrashed past with train 432/3, the fast passenger from Johannesburg to East London and Port Elizabeth. Several passengers riding in this classic clerestory formation have their windows open, indicating that it was either a very hot day or that they were appreciating the stack talk. Either way, they would probably be ending their journeys with ears and eyes full of cinders.

Note that the electrification masts were already up but the wiring was still to come. Sadly, it didn't take long – on the 28th of November that same year, train 432/3 was hauled by steam to Kroonstad for the last time.

 

2. By the late 1950s, the fast passenger trains between Johannesburg and Port Elizabeth and East London were mainly worked to and from Kroonstad by Braamfontein 15Fs. There were odd occasions when an older class 15A or 15AR would be rostered in place of a 15F. This was one such occasion – class 15AR No 2023 approaching Viljoensdrift with 438 – the Port Elizabeth-Johannesburg express on 20th September 1959. Although the catenary was already in place (electric traction was only two months away!) 2023 and her classmates would find useful employment on other stamping grounds for another 25 years.
 
A note on these remarkable locomotives from the drawing board of SAR’s first CME, D A Hendrie, would be appropriate here. From the time they began to enter traffic in 1914 until the last of their numbers finally were removed from main-line passenger service more than 70 years later, they were constantly called upon to punch above their weight and invariably delivered.
 
 
3. An extremely rare view of the unsuccessful diesel-hydraulics, class 61, motoring past my camera on that same September day at Viljoensdrift on their way to Kroonstad with a down goods. From late in 1958 onwards the newly established diesel depot in Germiston provided most of the power on goods trains going south from the Reef. However, the class 61s did not last long in road service - they were prone to overheating and other problems and soon were confined to shunting on the Reef. But the hum of their GM diesels sounded good when they came past!
 
 
4. Another shot taken at Viljoensdrift on the same day - this time train 432/3 with 15F 3045 in charge. Viljoensdrift was at that time a favourite haunt of mine because locomotives would be really wound up before attacking the grade away from the Vaal River up to Verest and Coalbrook (later renamed Sasolburg).
 
 
 
5. On 30th of August 1959 Boswell's Circus came past my camera at Makouvlei with two class 1-DEs Nos.703 & 719 in charge of a VERY mixed train! Note the passenger coaches at the rear. The 1-DEs later became class 31 but back in 1959 they were used regularly on open line work and very successfully I might add. When originally ordered it had been the intention to use them on shunting and block-load transfers on the Reef, but their success in this service prompted a change in policy. For many years they were used between Johannesburg and Volksrust as well as to Kroonstad and Bloemfontein. They showed their ability to handle anything from goods workings to fast passenger trains like the Trans Natal.
 
 
6. Thirty years later, steam was back in action at Makouvlei! In 1989 the General Manager granted a concession to the Electric Running Shed staff at Braamfontein to use steam traction on Fridays on the Up Trans Karoo from Johannesburg to Klerksdorp - returning on Saturday mornings with the Down Trans Karoo. This indulgence – ostensibly to attract tourists – caused a lot of interest and Germiston Loco soon asked if they could do something similar on the main line to Kroonstad. Operating then allowed Germiston to provide steam power – 15F or 25NC – to work the "Amatola" or "Algoa" passenger trains (to East London and Port Elizabeth respectively) on Fridays from Johannesburg to Kroonstad. In the photograph, Germiston-stabled class 25NC 3472 "Lily" is seen working the Algoa in stormy conditions having just left the Transvaal by crossing the Vaal River at Makouvlei. Driver Piet Steenkamp had his steed's regulator wide open as he headed for Viljoensdrift - the first station at the northern end of the OFS Main Line.
 
 
7. In the latter half of 1990 I was again at Viljoensdrift Station to record the passage of the Amatola en route to Kroonstad with 25NC 3472 Lily in charge. As one came to expect at the beginning of the climb away from the Vaal River, 3472 roared past! The weather conditions were again stormy but worse was still to come…… 
 
 
8. This shot was NOT taken at night! It was about 16:30 when 3040 cl 15F hammered through Viljoensdrift with the Amatola – just ahead of a massive thunderstorm. I captured the moment of glory and then ran back to my car as 3040 raced on up the bank to Sasolburg. Piet Steenkamp was wasting no time in his attempt to out-run the storm. What a privilege it was to have witnessed steam power back on this line even for a limited period.
 
 
9. Down the main line at Dover there was a branch to Parys and Vredefort. A class 24 who lived in her own little shed at Vredefort worked the daily mixed to and from Dover. Roger Perry took this shot of the mixed travelling on the branch. Unfortunately I have no record as to when it was taken.
 
 
10. Kroonstad in July 1953 before electrification, before canopies and before the erection of an apartheid footbridge at the southern end. Here the Orange Express (or in this case, a relief Orange Express carrying mostly a bunch of unruly schoolchildren) was allowed 15 minutes to couple a fresh locomotive, refill the carriage water tanks and change the bedding (note the bedding attendant next to the 2nd carriage from left). This was approaching the end of an era, starting at the turn of the 19th century, when no one thought it necessary to switch the baggage and guards van to the other end of the train at the direction changing stations (Kroonstad and Kimberley), so 856 class 16E simply coupled onto the van.
 
While all this was happening a freight came rumbling through – you can see it on the right of the picture. A few minutes later we passed it where it had taken refuge in Gunhill yard, whereupon 856 proceeded to give us the run of our lives to Bloemfontein, including a terrific climb of Bosrand. It was the only run Charlie ever had with a 16E on the OFS main line.
 
 
11. To allow some passengers to embark, the station foreman at Kroonstad flags 364-up Transship and Pick-up (T&P) on its way from Gunhill to Klerksdorp via Westleigh. For almost the entire life span of SAR this was common practice and most goods guards vans had passenger accommodation for the purpose. Those were the days when the railway understood its role as a service industry and its responsibility to rural citizens. Class 3E No 202 had just arrived with goods for the South from the Reef.
 
 
 
12. The train guard supervises the loading of the family seen in the previous photo, with all their precious possessions.  Footnotes in the public timetables carried the entirely non-commital message "Passenger accommodation is provided on the following goods trains when run" (the italics are mine).  However, for pretty much the entire SAR era the goods trains did run and the service was well used.
 
 
 
13. On 20th January 1968 Roger Perry was on hand at Kroonstad to photograph the arrival of class 15F 3089 on 444-up ex Bloemfontein. This engine would be detached at Kroonstad and replaced by electric traction for the run to Johannesburg. The fine old signal cabin was still very much in use and Roger also managed to include a character who used to be very important in our lives – the wheeltapper, complete with his long-handled ball-pene hammer.
 
For generations, at each division point arriving trains would draw slowly into the station, like a diva appearing onstage. For small boys, such as the writers of these notes, these entrances made an everlasting impression – especially if the engine was a majestic 15F, its dignified chuff accompanied by the ping-g-g of the wheeltapper’s hammer.
 
The practical reason for drawing in slowly was to allow the carriage-and-wagon examiner to tap each tyre and feel each axlebox on the platform side of the train. After the train had come to a halt he would do the other side while the engine was changed. These were the days before hot-box detectors although I don’t know what the high-tech solution for alerting a loose tyre would be. Not too long ago a Deutsche Bundesbahn (DB) ICE suffered a derailment at 260kmh due to an undetected loose tyre so perhaps low-tech has been re-introduced over there.
 
 
14. On the same day, Roger also shot this line of electric locomotives at Kroonstad waiting on their rostered turns to the Reef. Class 3E no.203 heads a line of 5E1s and others.
 
 
15. A class 15E departing from Kroonstad bound for Bethlehem with 209-down, the eastbound Orange Express, in February 1964. The traditional signal box with its mechanical interlocking still controlled all signals and points at the south end of the station. Note the use of continental-style pulleys and wires instead of the British system of point rodding favoured in the Cape.  
 
16. We now move across to the Loco Depot in Kroonstad. In October 1968 Roger Perry was back - he couldn't resist another visit to record all that glorious main line steam! Here is a general view of the running shed and coal stage as seen from the northern end.
 
 
17. In the late 1950s I visited Kroonstad Loco and when I walked through the Running Shed to the northern end, my eyes nearly popped out. Standing against a stop-block near the coalstage was the solitary type FT tender originally attached to No 2551 class 21 – a one-off experimental 2-10-4 which was scrapped in 1952 at Pretoria Shops. I asked the Loco Foreman what the tender was doing in Kroonstad - he replied that it was sent as a spare for use on class 15F locos. It was not clear whether it had been used in that capacity at all – I sensed a reluctance on his part to use the tender and I cannot say whether it ever was used on a 15F even as a temporary measure. On subsequent visits to Kroonstad Loco, it had disappeared - presumed scrapped.
 
 
18. Kroonstad Loco in the late 1950s. A class 15CB on turn-around from Bloemfontein was photographed in the Running Shed taking a rest before working a load back home. The massive type EW tender on a class 23 on the adjacent road appears to dwarf the "Big Bill" due to lens perspective.
 
 
19. An SAR photographer was on hand in July 1955 to record the departure of 434-up from Kroonstad to Johannesburg with a class 15AR – somewhat unusual as 15Fs usually handled these turns. I had a few opportunities in those days to travel on these trains when worked by classes 15A/15AR and can report that they acquitted themselves admirably - keeping time and running easily at speed. In the background, just to the right of the home signals, is a 15F with empty coal hoppers waiting to follow 434.
 
 
20. In December 1959 an SAR photographer was again in Kroonstad. This time he/she found a long line of new diesel locos waiting for their return workings to Germiston. The locos are all virtually new class 1-DEs with a sole class 61 at the far end. Electric traction was taking over the Vereeniging - Kroonstad section at this time but the process was gradual so the diesels were kept in regular use for a while. Steam had gone – the steam depots at Braamfontein and Germiston had lost virtually all the rostered workings to Kroonstad, never to return until that all too brief Indian summer 30 years later.
 
 
21. A class 15F makes its way to the down main out of the station goods sidings at Kroonstad with train No 4041 a high-rated express goods with WTB endorsement which read "Conveys a block load of competitive traffic from Kaserne exclusively for Touws River and beyond. Load 1250/100 or 1170/140. Must be specially watched and expedited". In those days railwaymen took such injunctions in deadly earnest – alas no longer.
 
On the left is a late-running 02141 down block coal from Witbank to the Cape with a pair of class 31s in charge. From here the load would be taken on by double-headed 15Fs. We ask anyone who still remembers these workings on the Western Transvaal system to advise us whether the diesels were worked through from Witbank to Kroonstad as with the GMAMs before them.
 
 
22. This is another SAR official photograph and a very interesting one at that. It was taken in April 1945 and shows a 16E on 4-up approaching Kroonstad from Bloemfontein. Until 1953, Bloemfontein-based 16Es and 16DAs (wide firebox) worked through to Johannesburg on this train and returned home on 11-down the following morning. At that time Bloemfontein footplatemen were unfamiliar with colour-light signalling so they were relieved at Vereeniging by a Braamfontein passenger-link crew who would work the train onwards to Johannesburg. The following morning Braamfontein men would work the Bloemfontein engine from Johannesburg back to Vereeniging where the Pacific’s regular crew would be ready for the long haul back home.
 
In the early 1950s when 16DAs and 16Es were still working through to Johannesburg, I regularly took a local train to Vereeniging on a Saturday (usually worked by a 15AR or 16CR) to have the opportunity of returning home on 4-up worked by a Bloemfontein Pacific. 4-up was booked "conditional stops only" from Vereeniging to Germiston. This meant that passengers travelling from stations south of Vereeniging could arrange with the ticket examiner to have the train stopped so that they could alight at any one of the intermediate stations. This very seldom happened with the result that we would run express all the way to Germiston. What an experience it was to ride behind a 16DA or 16E at speed! I would take up a position on the first "white" saloon – invariably a balcony coach to take full advantage of the opportunity available. The ticket examiner often tried to get me into the coach and off the open balcony but he soon realised that I was determined to stay there and soak up the performance of the steed up front!
 
From Daleside to Kliprivier there was a slight downgrade and a level crossing just beyond the station on the north side. I remember particularly one trip behind 16E 857 Ann Smith – we tore down the hill with whistle screaming for the level crossing – regulator wide open for the heavy climb up to Angus – my hair covered in soot and spray – dust flying off the platform at Kliprivier - the balcony saloon swaying over the trailing points – the 16E in full flight……………
 
On another occasion my dad (who was Captain of the Johannesburg Pharmacy Cricket Club) asked me to stand in for a player who had booked off sick for a match against Stewarts & Lloyds at Three Rivers just north of Vereeniging – right alongside the main line from Germiston. Dad’s side was fielding and I was sent to the long-on boundary. At the instant the batsman on-drove towards me my full attention was drawn to 11-down with 16E 856 in charge sweeping past the ground en route to Vereeniging and Bloemfontein……… The ball went clean through my legs to the boundary for four. That was the only time my dad ever asked me to stand-in for another player!
 
In those days when one could enjoy such thrills on a regular basis it seemed as if they would never end. I seldom put these everyday experiences on film. Why bother with a camera – just go out and enjoy the ride. How I would regret being so blasé in later years when one day in 1953 the magnificent Pacifics simply stopped coming through from Bloemfontein.
 
 
23. Five freights ready to depart from Gunhill South departure yard in April 1973. From the right, 3210 class 23, coupled and ready to go, had come up from Bloemfontein that morning on 438-up, the Port Elizabeth – Johannesburg express. On the adjacent road is a made up load, the engine for which is waiting on the extreme left. The next track has another Bloemfontein 23 which that morning had brought 444-up to Kroonstad, also coupled onto its return goods load and ready to go. On the next two tracks (to the left of the light poles) are Kroonstad engines – a 23 and a 15F, each bound for the Free State goldfields.
 
Within three years electricity had taken over. By this time steam was moving more than 20 million tons/year southwards from Gunhill. The big bottleneck was Bosrand bank, seven miles of 1-in-90 immediately after crossing the Vals River, itself only a few hundred yards beyond the yard limit. Although the section was split by inter-block signals, trains invariably had await their turn before joining the procession.
 
 
24. Whoever decreed that the deviation of the original 1-in-66 OVGS main line between Gunhill and Bosrand (seven miles) should have a gradient of 1-in-90 ought to have been shot. This was a classic case of penny wise and pound foolish, the decision being made during WWII at a time when money was tight. No sooner had the new route been completed in 1944 than work started on re-aligning, regrading and doubling the 112 miles to Van Tonder just north of Bloemfontein on a ruling grade of 1-in-100 (completed in 1956), so Bosrand’s 1-in-90 continues to dictate the loads. It is estimated that more than 100 million tons of traffic has been lost, calculated at 120 tons reduced per singleheaded train. This could have paid for a flatter route many times over.
 
The tonnage reduction was not pro rata so engines had to work extra hard to get their loads up the steep section, which ended 200 yards before Bosrand’s outer-home signal. On frigid winter nights and frosty mornings trains had to be banked, as in this July 1972 view of a down goods charging the bank, having just crossed the Vals River. Exhausts from shunting activities in Gunhill marshalling yard and a following train are also visible in this photo.
 
 
25. With the characteristic hokey-pokey motion of a two-cylinder locomotive working at the limit of its adhesion, this 15F was pulling 149-down goods up Bosrand in February 1964. Note the downhill freight in the background. A recurring feature of these photos will be the frequent evidence of other trains in our photographs – not difficult on a line that by the late sixties was carrying more than 100 trains/day.
 
 
26. The banker has just cut off and is heading back to Gunhill while down in the valley another freight is already on its way. 3052 class 15F is giving all she’s got, note the stoker engine exhaust steam alongside the tender indicating that the fireman is furiously feeding her 63sq ft grate. The bigger cloud of steam coming from the left front piston packing is an unfortunate indication of declining standards of maintenance that were creeping in by the seventies. 
 
 
27. Bosrand Bank was a marvellous place to see big main line steam in action – 15Fs or 23s, frequently doubleheaded, daily put on shows that were guaranteed to stir the blood. Here two 15Fs were blasting their way up to Bosrand on 4407-down, a 2500-ton block load of coal destined for the power stations of the Cape – these were the days before the National grid. Early in 1968 Roger Perry was on hand to capture the image.
 
 
28. Having surmounted the seven miles of 1-in-90 the driver of this class 23 on 11-down all stations to Bloemfontein has just shut off for the stop at Bosrand.
 
 
29. On a rainy Saturday in April 1968 this 15F was working a down goods through Bosrand, having been banked out of Gunhill. Although it was a Saturday, the traffic up and down was virtually non-stop. As the semaphores dropped after a train had passed through, the bell codes could be heard in the station's cabin indicating the imminent passage of yet another train – for that matter it was the same on Sundays, or any other day of the week.
 
This freight is about to take a long sweeping curve to the right and thereby hangs a sad story. A few years after this photo the facing crossover in the foreground was the scene of a major derailment when the driver of 3214 class 23 working 444-up all stations, blinded by the curve (for him it was a left-hander) failed to notice that the home signal was set for the turnout road. Even though he was braking for the station stop 3214 couldn’t take the crossover and ended up on her side just about where the second wagon is in this photo. The crew survived but there were fatalities in the first coach, a wooden 3rd-class clerestory that got badly splintered.
 
At the inquiry it came to light that the fireman was inexperienced and had failed to warn the driver that the home signal was set to send his train into the down running loop. The station foreman had got himself into a jam because all the block sections between Bosrand and Gunhill were occupied by up freights. When he admitted a freight into his platform road ahead of the passenger he had expected this traffic jam to clear in time, which did not happen, hence the disastrous diversion of 444-up.
 
 
30. After photographing the coal drag, Roger moved further up the grade to record this 15F working 11-down to Bloemfontein. At this point the gradient has eased off as the line takes a sweeping half-mile radius curve around a slight depression. This was where the drivers of fast passenger trains would leave the regulator wide open even after topping the grade – charging through Geneva with dust flying off the platform! After Geneva engines would wind up to a frenzy along the gentle uphill to Holfontein – a stretch where drivers like Dick Marsh could get their two-cylinder 15F sounding like a three-cylinder DB 01-10 Pacific tearing up to Verte between Osnabruck and Bremen with the Scandinavian Express!
 
With this image we reluctantly leave Bosrand and move further south towards Bloemfontein - that will form Part 3 of System 5 - the OFS Main Line.
 
For more than 80 years the Bosrand Bank was one of the finest places in South Africa to see main line steam in all its glory. But those 100 trains/day have now dwindled to 12 and less. Nearly all the business that used to be carried by the OFS main line has been lost.
 
RIP Bosrand.