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Eastwards from Germiston Part 4: Leven to Breyten and Bethal to Volksrust by Peter Micenko ©

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INTRODUCTION

 

As noted earlier the track structure east of Springs was originally 40kg/m rail on steel or timber sleepers until relayed in the late 1970’s with SAR48 kg/m rail on concrete sleepers. This relaying continued eastward to Davel (please refer to Bruno's map) where the concrete continued for another 3 km as part of a deviation necessitated by crossing the Coal Line. After this the economics of the country caught up and the balance of the track to Breyten remained 40kg/m rail on steel sleepers.

 

Restructuring the maintenance approach through good attention to the fish-plated joints and formation drainage kept this lesser strength track going without need for major investment for many years. The main tools were a combination of the lessons learned in track geometry car usage (quite innovative and modern at the time and typical of the world class technology practised on the SAR) and some work on branch line maintenance performed at Bethlehem and Port Elizabeth. Towards the late 1980’s Estancia was developed as a coal exporting terminal although by this time steam had finished and diesels hauled block loads of coal out of the station.

 

Of interest are two connections made to provide easy access from the Springs Eastward railway to Ermelo which was located off the Western Transvaal region and well and truly on the Eastern Transvaal region, and later on the “Coal Line”. Originally a short spur was constructed between Karelshoop and Voorslag which linked directly to the Ermelo line, thus avoiding Breyten. Later, a more substantial junction was made in the vicinity of Kippen and Davel. This more substantial connection was part of Western Transvaal region and greatly facilitated trains which now could run directly from Bethal to Ermelo. In doing so they avoided the traditionally congested Breyten yard. There was even a 6,000 gallon parachute tank provided, ostensibly for the Garratts but the people I worked with never actually saw a locomotive using it. The Coal Line was crossed via a large modern concrete bridge just to the east of Davel which also necessitated a deviation of several kilometres in the line to Breyten.


 

Railways engulf many different aspects and the following are just some: The Bethal-Volksrust line was a 106 mile (170km) long cross country branch linking the large towns of Bethal and Volksrust. The service consisted of a daily SuX mixed in each direction and several seasonal maize trains. Motive power ran the branch line gamut from class 7s in CSAR days, to class 8s from early on in the SAR era.  In fact class 8s were the mainstay of the line until the first class 24s began to arrive in the mid-fifties, motive power being dictated by what the Chief Civil Engineer would allow on 45lb rails. Relaying with 60lb material was completed by the mid fifties when 19Ds, SAR's standard branch-line engine, began to take over.  Of interest is the fact that the unprecedented traffic growth of the late fifties and early sixties resulted in the 19Ds being drafted away for several years from 1961, being replaced with class 24s (see our photo of Volksrust shed in 1964 in Part 12 of System 7).

 

I only ever saw 19D’s on the line, originally with the box tenders, but later with Vanderbilt tenders.  This was also my first sighting of domeless “dollies” and on discussing with the drivers at the time there seemed to be no difference in performance between the two types of boilers. I only saw single locomotives on the mixed trains but the conditional mealie workings were invariably double headed.

 

The line traverses quite hilly country, crossing several large streams and the Vaal River. Altitude was 5582ft at Bethal and 5461ft at Volksrust, with low points of 5352ft at Sukkelaar 12 miles out from Bethal, rising to 5425ft at Maizefield before dropping to its lowest point, 5221ft at Bloukop 38 miles where the nearby Vaal River is crossed on a three-span steel through-truss bridge. From Bloukop the line rises steadily to its highest point at Fickland, 6015ft and 77 miles from Bethal, before dropping to 5785ft at Wakkerstroom from where it climbed over a ridge at Ackerman (5940ft) before dropping down to Volksrust. In between were several minor ridges and valleys as befitting a line crossing a major river system. The branch had more substantial bridges than the mainline, with several picturesque stone arch structures around Morgenzon.

 

Along the route there are small towns at Morgenzon, Amersfoort and Wakkerstroom, with watering facilities at Bloukop, Jozua (just south of Amersfoort) and Wakkerstroom. In fact the latter town, as indicated by its name, has plentiful water and in the drought of the early 1980’s when Volksrust actually ran out of water, water train shuttles were run between the towns with a makeshift concrete apron alongside the track allowing water to be discharged from water tankers into the town's water supply dam. Unfortunately this Good Samaritan work attracted too much attention. The idea of water being delivered by steam trains was too hard to accept and the line prematurely dieselised as a result.

 

With trains normally crossing at Amersfoort and the crews returning to their home depots, Volksrust crews ended up doing the majority of the fire cleaning due to the location of Jozua. Safe working was telegraph (paper) orders except in the latter days of steam when Van Schoor was introduced between Volksrust and Wakkerstroom.

 

The branch line track was the normal 30 kg/m rail on steel sleepers. The rails themselves were second hand from many sources and several different types of 30 kg/m rail were in use, from the modern Iscor profile to the older Cape and NZASM profiles. This was my first experience with “arrow headed” rail.  This occurs when rail on the outside or ‘high leg” of a curve has worn heavily on the “gauge face” and is then swapped around with the unworn “field” side becoming the new gauge face and wearing in turn. Easy enough to perform with the short rails of earlier times. There were also urban legends surrounding the severe speed restrictions on the curves, arising from damage to the rails at the web/foot interface that had occurred during experimentation with Garratts on the line.

There were other legends of a standing bet for the fastest trip down the branch, but these are the sorts of things that make railway history so colourful. And on this note the “Springs eastward” segment is concluded.

 

 

1. After taken water at the truncated column at Trichardt, 3010 cl 15F re-starts her train. A train of oil tankers waits in the background for despatch westwards. The new station building was built in the goods yard in the vicinity of the gum trees in the background.

2. Having surmounted the ridge between Baanbreker and Granary 15F Number 3072 drifts downhill, and into the inter-loop with Train 6422. Photograph 39 in Part 15 shows this same train several years later.  The points indicator showing the route set for the “mainline” so there will be no “cross” at this isolated location.  Ahead the locomotive has a small climb over another ridge and then it is downhill to Trichardt


3. I have included this photo to show one of the unobserved tasks that were performed to keep the trains running when neighbours needed to cross the railway reserve. To the left of the locomotive can be seen a small temporary deviation being constructed to facilitate some activities under the track between Baanbreker and Granary. This sort of railway work was performed by the local maintenance teams and this young engineer did the track design and surveying work. From memory it was for a new water main to some mining activity in the vicinity that called for substantial excavation and subsequent concrete encasement, necessitating a temporary deviation while the works were carried out.



4. The name change from SAR to SA Transport Services on 1st April 1981 heralded a rapid decline in general freight.  Increasingly, trains were not being loaded to the full capacity of the locomotives as booked workings remained in the WTBs even if traffic was not available - an easy way for railwaymen to continue to earn a living - for the time being.  


This westbound 15F has just cleared the home signal of the remote Baanbreker station with a light load of timber in ST wagons. The railwaymen nicknamed these new high capacity wagons “ribbebeen” wagons due to their similarity in appearance to a ribcage. 


Even in this relatively well-populated region of the country, Baanbreker station lived up to its name (=Pioneer) as the station staff at this "attended station" had 10km of gravel road before reaching a tar road to take them into the relatively urban Trichardt.



5. Winter in the early 1980’s sees another Springs 15F No 2950 working easily uphill from Kenia towards Emmasview. The drought has already taken hold as witnessed by the scraggly mielie field infested with khakibos. The railway embankment displays several well established railway peach trees.



6. Late on a winter’s afternoon I was returning from a worksite near Estancia when I spotted a distant wisp of smoke out towards Baanbreker. I knew of this location at Kenia but never managed to have a train at the right time. Luckily on this occasion I had a camera to record the train glinting in the late evening sun.



7. One winter I had an early morning meeting in Bethal and on the drive from Springs was glad to spot a train working towards Bethal.  A search at Emmasview and some quick trimming of a few tall stalks of khakibos* in the critical areas produced this lovely scene of 3072 cl 15F running fast through the station with a trail of white exhaust. Certainly worth the predawn start. 


Behind the train are the cypresses which mark the grave of an engineer of the Springs Eastward railway mentioned in the introduction to section 1 of the SER.  In the second half of the 1980’s a new District Engineer arrived at Springs, transferred from elsewhere due to the radical scaling down of major construction activities on the network. Interesting would be a good description of some of his mannerisms as he tried to stamp his mark on an otherwise very efficient district.  During a track inspection trip from Springs the trolley stopped at Emmasview to change the section track inspectors and the District Engineer inquired what the structure was in the khakibos behind the cypresses. The normally dour and respectful Senior District Supervisor replied deadpan: “That is where they buried the engineer”. You could have heard a pin drop! 


*khakibos: an invader weed imported by the British from Argentina for fodder during the Boer War.  It has taken over the highveld grasslands like Aussie wattle has the Cape streams.   


8. The small siding of Mooisand is between Bethal and Emmasview and  a stormy day in mid-winter saw this 15F returning with a train of tank wagons from further east. Old released steel sleepers found many uses, one of the main ones being for fence posts.



9. With the EW-type tender (class 23) with which many of the 15Fs were fitted upon retirement of the 23s, here is 3072 cl 15F again, this time engaged in shunting wagons into the siding at Emmasview. I have included this photo to show the location of an interesting derailment that I was called out for after the Carriage and Wagon staff at Bethal had noticed a wagon with a liberal covering of ballast stones indicating it had been off the track at some stage although it was firmly on the rails when they examined it. The tell-tale marks on the sleepers indicated a wagon had derailed on the approach to the facing points, run through the station on the mainline in a derailed condition then rerailed itself on the trailing points!

10. The guard of an eastbound train gets ready to hand orders to this freight from Breyten just entering the yard at Bethal. Despite the long tender the engine has an auxiliary feeder tank, an indication of the drought hitting the region in the early 1980’s. Despite this being well into the SATS era the guard still maintains his SAR uniform with pride. Incredible as it may seem, that is an apartheid footbridge in the background with separate walkways for whites and non-whites to provide public access across the tracks remote from the station, as the lines could be blocked by trains waiting at the home signals.

11. On 16 March 1983 a train from Breyten draws into Bethal station whilst another 15F shunts in the yard. My notebook indicates 15F’s 2986 (shunting), 2993, and 3031 with 19D’s 2696(clean), 2701, 3334, and domeless 2656 with short tender.

12. In late afternoon, while one 15F shunts in the yard (left) another, No 3034 waits at the exit of the small locomotive shed to take a train onwards to Springs.


13. Another view of Bethal with a wealth of detail. To the left of 3119 cl 15F's tender is a container wagon parked in the bay platform with an old baggage trailer for moving small consignments to and from the parcels office. On the 15F's right is a yellow telephone for drivers to communicate with the Station Foreman to obtain release from loco. The red and white striped box on the pole indicates a fire hydrant nearby while in the background behind the diesel is the large goods shed befitting the importance of this regional centre.  Further back and out of picture to the right are the silos. The circuit magistrate’s private coach complete with guard was also parked in the bay platform (unfortunately behind the tender) which in earlier years was used for the Bethal coach off the overnight passenger train to Breyten.


14. March 1983 sees 3119 cl 15F (seen in the previous photos) now on its train and working vigorously past the silos as it departs Bethal for Springs. Ahead is an evening and night run to the Reef with a block load of grain. The lines in the foreground gave access to the silos and also the turning balloon.

15. The westbound departure from Bethal involved several kilometres of adverse grade, often to be tackled with a cold engine that had stood for a while in the yard awaiting the road. Here a Springs 15F works upgrade past some original 1920’s design grain silos, each “flask” matching the capacity of the FZ type wagons of the era. The perway gang have a few strategic stacks of timber sleepers for maintenance of the important private siding to the mill and silos on the northern side of Bethal. 


16. A muggy autumn day in the late 1970s saw this first-series 15F shunting grain wagons at Davel on its way to Breyten. This clearly shows the old 3000 gallon parachute tank and its more modern replacement columns adjacent.  We have mentioned before how these small-diameter cheap-jack replacements took almost ten times as long to fill a locomotive tender while putting those responsible for introducing them in a favourable light among ignorant politicians for cutting costs. 


The general unkempt appearance of the track and formation is something that only began to appear at the very end of the SAR era as expenditure cutbacks left barely enough money for weedkiller trains (which only kept the track structure itself weed free) but none for the traditional skoffel gangs that had husbanded the entire railway reserve.  The accountants saw them as doing no useful work - they could not see that pride in the railway was important to its function and image.


 

We thank Bruno Martin for providing this superbly detailed map of the cross-country line from Bethal to Volksrust.

 

17. Time for a change of scene. Winter 1983 sees the sun rising over the east end of Bethal yard and the District Engineer and his team will be aboard their trolley for an inspection down the branch to Volksrust (the right-hand track). The early start dictated by the desire to be ahead of the daily mixed instead of following it.


18. The east end of Bethal had a nice collection of departure, route and shunting semaphore signals to facilitate trains working at this junction. 


19
. June 1976 sees one of Bethal's clean 19Ds No 2507 (the second in a class that eventually numbered 235) busy in the yard at Bethal prior to working the daily mixed to Volksrust.

20. Many years later, in 1983, the locomotives were no longer quite so clean and many were sporting long 12-wheel tenders as in this shot of the afternoon mixed working up the last grade into Bethal.  As usual, Aussie gum trees are in abundance.


21. On 16th March 1983, 3334 cl 19D was working the daily mixed south from Bethal with with a high concentration of farmer-friendly 4-wheeled DE wagons.  The silos at Bethal are still visible in the left background.  For more than twenty years No 3334 was Daan Naude's engine at Klipplaat where she never was anything less than immaculate (we'll be seeing plenty of Daan and 3334 in the chapter dealing with the Klipplaat-Oudtshoorn line). Although starting to look trail-worn, No 3334 and her sister ex-Klipplaat engine No 3352 seemed to be popular - not surprising as they would have been in "as-new" condition when they arrived.


22. June 1976 and No 2507 was working the daily mixed up the grades to Sukkelaar. Goods loading was light at this stage on this day with only two shorts of general goods ahead of the bogie tranship wagon. As the trip progressed more wagons were collected. 


23. In March 1983, 19D Number 3334 drifts across one of several fine stone viaducts on the Bethal-Volksrust line. This one is near Sukkelaar and the fireman is busy laying on a fire for the pull up to Maizefield.


 

24. Two of Klipplaat's beautifully maintained Vanderbilt-tendered 19Ds came to the Volksrust-Bethal line upon dieselisation of the Garden Route in 1979.  It didn't take long for their immaculate condition to deteriorate as can be seen from this workaday pooled example No 3352 rolling along with the northbound mixed, 5310-up, in the early 1980s.  The fireman has used the downhill run from Maizefield to lay on a good thick fire and the driver has just opened the regulator for the long climb from Sukkelaar into Bethal.



25. In the winter of 1983 this double-headed maize train was busy shunting Maizefield (!) before taking their assembled block working off to Bethal. From memory the locomotives were cls 19Ds Nos 2715 and 3352.



26. Daan's engine No 3334 again, with the southbound mixed on the more substantial stone viaduct between Maizefield and Morgenzon. The stone viaduct shows signs of recent work with the addition of a concrete ballast wall to retain an increased ballast depth as well as released rails from the curve rerailing lying alongside the track awaiting collection.

27. Opening up for the gradient indicated by the gradient post, short-tendered, domeless 19D No 2537 pairs up with more conventional ex Klipplaat Vanderbilt-tendered No 3352 on a northbound block load of maize.  This is the same bridge featured in the previous photograph. 

28. The northbound mixed paused for passengers and parcels at the tidy station of Morgenzon in July 1976. In the background the tranship crew are busy offloading parcels and other items for the station.

29. Double headed “Dollies” drift down to Morgenzon with a substantial block load of maize in the winter of 1983.  The depression in the foreground is an original borrow pit from the line's construction days.

30. The locomotive has been watered and the fire cleaned as the driver climbs aboard and the guard is already at his station to part the train in preparation for a shunting move at Bloukop in 1976.  Even the remotest sidings offered traffic in those days prior to the Road Transportation Act of 1977.


31. In the early 1980’s a northbound mixed crosses the Vaal River and drifts into Bloukop where it will take on water and clean fire. In the foreground are some examples of the Ndebele tribe's traditional decorated abodes and a good supply of firewood appears to have been gathered for the winter.


32. After cleaning fire and taking water at Bloukop, 3352 cl 19D worked a heavy 5310-up mixed out of the Vaal River valley. In the distance are two of the perway maintenance gang's orange-painted lorries.


33. In the autumn of 1983, this 19D works northwards with the mixed through a typical highveld landscape of mielielands that will be ready for harvesting after the first frosts.


34. Trolley inspection on this rural branch line could be rewarding. In this case the trolley assistant has scored a couple of guinea fowl which had misjudged their abilities to fly across the path of the trolley. The track structure beneath the 8 seat “Track master” trolley is normal “60 pound rail on steel sleepers” held with the normal “T” bolt a clip fastenings. The ballast profile would have been typical of the line.  With a new and younger Permanent Way Inspector at Bethal, the previous small length gangs with their hap-hazard maintenance work were consolidated into large gangs who specifically and methodically addressed fishplate maintenance and formation drainage and the quality of the track improved.


35. The north and southbound mixeds (5309-down from Bethal and 5310-up from Volksrust) were worked crossing point to Amersfoort where only the crews but not the locomotives were changed, which would explain why the enginemen were not inclined to do any polishing for the next shift.  Generally, when a clean engine was seen on this line it was because someone at the loco had taken pity on it. 


In this June 1976 scene domeless Dolly No 2537 from Volksrust runs in whilst its counterpart from Bethal has done all the shunting. This was the normal practice as the crews swapped locomotives and worked back to their home depots whilst the locomotives worked right through, there being no turning facilities between Bethal and Volksust.  As Volksrust crews handled the locomotive requirements, the Bethal crew shunted both the south and northbound trains at Amersfoort. A recent photograph appearing in Jean Dulez’s “Railways of Southern Africa 150 Years” shows a parachute tank at the northern end of this station although my observation was that watering and fire cleaning was done at Jozua. 

  

 

36. Late on a Saturday afternoon the southbound mixed stops at Wakkerstroom (appropriately = lively stream) for a well-earned drink from the barber’s pole water column. Many years later this column was used to fill water trains from this abundant stream for the drought ravaged town of Volksrust.


37.  The northbound mixed on the climb from Wakkerstroom to Buitenzorg on a typically cold winter morning in 1983.

38.  Domeless cl 19D No 2537 working the northbound mixed on a winter's morning in July 1975, crossing the bridge in the background of photo 37. As you can see, it is interesting although not particularly aesthetic as it has huge dressed stone piers with short fish-bellied plate girders almost as if the bridge was originally intended to be much higher and a late decision was made to reduce costs by lowering the entire structure and its approach embankments.

 

38. Dick Manton called this the "Wakkerstroom taxi service" as they've just collected a load of passengers off the mixed while in the background a short tendered 19D takes a drink.



39. In the last few weeks of steam working on the Bethal-Volksrust line, 3334 + 2537 cls 19Ds (the latter with a recently acquired tender off a withdrawn cl S2) were galloping along with a hefty northbound block maize working.



40. Volksrust was the main shed for the Bethal line although Bethal had an allocation of one engine to work the southbound mixed.  For more than 40 years the service was run by class 8s and only from the early 1950s did the odd 19D arrive to assist in the maize season (they were the heaviest power permitted by the Chief Civil Engineer).  In November 1961 all the 19Ds mysteriously disappeared from the Western Transvaal System.  Instead, class 24s were drafted in to work the lightly-laid branches such as Standerton-Vrede, Balfour North-Frankfort and Volksrust-Bethal.  It was to be ten years before the Dollies re-appeared, this time to take over the branch workings completely.  This view of the shed in February 1964 shows just two of the eight class 24s allocated to it at the time.  


Engine loads were 350 tons for a class 8, 385 tons for a 24 and 455 tons for a 19D (for 50 axles in each case).  To put this in perspective, the WTB says that two cl 32 diesels in multiple could take 1090 tons for 120 axles!  No wonder operating liked them. 



41. Which brings us to the end of this chapter of “Soul of a Railway” as 15F Number 3137 has brought its train back into Springs yard at the end of its run from Bethal, uncoupled and now prepares to return to the shed and the crew book off.