Soul of A Railway ©‎ > ‎System 7‎ > ‎

Part 12 - South-Eastwards as far as Volksrust (5) by Les Pivnic ©

Please note: All photographs, maps and text in Soul of a Railway are protected by copyright and may not be copied or reproduced in any way for further use without prior permission in writing from the authors.


System 7, Part 12 will bring our coverage of the main line to Volksrust to a close. As already mentioned, steam traction on this line was phased out from the end of March 1964.  We have recorded an interesting period on this, the main line from the Reef to Durban, South Africa’s largest port and thus the most important artery in the country.  Picking up the action in the early to mid-1950s, steam dominated, working all trains to and from Volksrust.  From 1958 with the arrival of the class 1-DE diesels, followed a year later by the class 32s, diesel traction started to make its presence felt with freight on this section and eventually took over the working of the Trans Natal express as well.  Steam still retained the lesser passenger trains between Volksrust and Germiston and, as we have seen, occasionally appeared on the much speeded-up Trans Natal when diesels were unavailable.

From April 1964 the line, now deviated, regraded and electrified, offered less interest than in previous years even for those of us who didn’t confine our photography to the steam-hauled services.

Let us now move on to Greylingstad and beyond for a final look at those interesting times on the main line to Natal from the Transvaal.

1. A typical scene at Greylingstad in August 1961 as train 198 rolls in from Volksrust.  The driver is offered the tablet as passengers are waiting to board the train for destinations on the Witwatersrand and Pretoria. This was the same train seen at the end of Part 4 travelling near Sprucewell at well over 60mph!

2. 1961:  A 15F displaying her versatility is seen steaming hard with a goods train near Greylingstad.  Just a regular three-quarter front shot of another 15F pulling another goods train but it wouldn’t last forever! 

3. The 15F in photo 2 was followed by 2x 32s with another long goods load at the same spot.  Although the diesels ruled the roost prior to electrification on the Trans Natal Express from 1958/9, they were also used on goods traffic.  Their success on these goods and passenger turns must have played a significant part in persuading the Government to allow SAR to extend dieselisation in spite of the “no local oil situation”.

4. Greylingstad August 1961:  a quiet smokeless 15F waits patiently with train 193 for Natal.  This peaceful scene would change dramatically when the F’s driver got the “right-away” from his guard.   The odd colour of this and the following few shots was due to being persuaded by a Johannesburg photo dealer to try a new German Perutz colour film.  I should have stuck with the tried and tested Kodachrome! 

5. The waiting is over – the 15F barks loudly as she departs Greylingstad with 193-down for Volksrust and Natal.  Two class 31s with a goods train wait in the loop for the 15F to clear before setting off themselves for Volksrust.  Note how clean and tidy the platform is – something else that would change dramatically in times to come!

6. Still at Greylingstad, 15F 3042 with train 196 ex Natal waits in the loop as her opposite number – train 193 approaches with another 15F at the head-end.  The year was 1961.  It was possible to take train 193 from Johannesburg and enjoy a ride behind a 15F as far as Greylingstad and then return home same day on 196-up.  Either way, a nice cold beer or a cup of railway coffee could be enjoyed in the dining car.

7. Two 15Fs double-heading a goods train are admitted to the main line at Greylingstad – another shot from 1961.  Photos like this were available while one waited to return home on train 196.  There was also a hotel across the road from the station that served a very tasty Sunday lunch to add to the overall enjoyment of a day out with the camera.  A good train ride and a good lunch – what more could one ask for? 

8. At the opposite end of Greylingstad in August 1961, two 1-DE diesels were heading out past the home-signal gantry with goods bound for Germiston and the Reef.  The old main road to Volksrust and Durban can be seen to the left of the railway reserve.

9. A heavy goods load steams into Greylingstad from the Volksrust end bound for Germiston and the Reef.  The old SAR semaphore signals really looked the part as guardians permitting entry into the station precinct.  

10. Back lineside in 1961, this petrol train passed by near Greylingstad en route to the Reef with two class 31s in charge – the leading diesel already in the new Gulf Red livery.  Note the electrication masts creeping ever nearer in the background and in the foreground the still-ballasted formation of the 1895 alignment curving away to the left.

11. Same place on a different day, two class 31s rolling into the loop with a goods train heading for Volksrust and Natal.  Note the milk cans on the platform – quite safe in those days!

12. More milk and cream cans on Greylingstad’s platform and the same 15F with the up goods that we saw in photo 9.  If that old platform lamp could speak, it would be very interesting to hear about all the different locomotives and trains that must have rolled past it over the years.

13. In August 1961 Douglas Fallwell (left), Benny Gruzin with the coffee pot in hand (both early RSSA members) and I travelled on train 193 to Greylingstad and returned on 196.  The dining car on the forward journey was a type A-18 single, ELANDS.  This sort of trip made a pleasant change from lineside photography.

14. A 15AR leaves Greylingstad with 5120 pick-up bound for Germiston in August 1961.

Having spent enough time around Greylingstad it is time for a change.  In moving down the line to Standerton it is my pleasure to welcome Peter Micenko as a contributor to SoAR.  For a start let’s hear something about Peter and his professional career on “the other” SAR and Australian Railways.  What better way than to have Peter introduce himself:

“G’day SoAR readers, and thank you Les for those kind words.”

“I am a born and bred Australian from Adelaide. After graduating from Adelaide University in 1975, I was offered a job in South Africa with a construction company but left them after a year to join the SAR's Chief Civil Engineer's office in Johannesburg as an Assistant Engineer.
I must admit that CPL must take some unintentional credit as "Steam on the Veld" sowed some seeds, plus a visit by a member of the local model engineering society, John Wakefield, who was  a member of the local South Australian Society of Model & Experimental Engineers who had made a photographic  trip to SA.  His movies shown at SASMEE shortly afterwards made it all the more enticing.

I worked for the  South African Railways for just over 25 years and held various positions over the years.  The work I performed embraced fields such as geotechnical, construction and my favourite, track maintenance. Always in the Johannesburg/Southern Transvaal area but with some positions being of a national nature such as rail technology, track welding and bridge maintenance.  My final position was Senior District Engineer.  Since returning to Australia I have held positions with various companies in track and structures maintenance, located in Wagga Wagga at District, Regional and National levels.  At one stage I was also managing signalling maintenance teams. I am currently employed in Track Asset Management in Brisbane for the privately-owned coal export rail network of Queensland.  Of interest was that I was one of few engineers who also had a South African “drivers assistant (steam)” qualification, and there could be few South African locomotive drivers who had a District  Engineer officially throwing coal for them.

Thanks Peter – what he didn’t mention here is that he is a man who loves railways for their own sake, as well as steam and he also fired on Alfred County Railway – of which more when we travel down to Natal!

Images 15 - 29 inclusive were all taken by Peter Micenko and he also wrote the captions.  Peter’s first photo takes us into Standerton Loco Depot:

15. It is afternoon and the view through the “cocopan” coaling facility at Standerton shows a 15F rostered on ballast train duties for the Union – Vooruitsig doubling c 1976. 

16. A closer view of the 15F (number unknown) at Standerton loco’s water column. This is a 4000-gallon parachute tank - the SAR having three sizes of such tanks. The 3000-gallon tank, usually with an ornate octagonal cast base and rigid swing pipe, was the smallest. They also had a 4000-gallon tank as illustrated here, still with its intricate telescopic and rotating “bowser”, whilst there was a slightly larger and taller 6000-gallon tank design.  Many such tanks lost their “bowsers” to be replaced by more maintenance-friendly fixed pipes and gate valves – at the cost of much slower delivery. In all instances the tanks were fed and refilled by gravity via a reticulation of 100mm diameter pipes from much larger reservoirs.

Peter will now take us down the Standerton – Firham – Vrede branch and we start the journey by reading his very interesting overall description of the line . 


There are a couple of sizeable towns in the south-eastern corner of the former Transvaal. These are located along the Natal mainline between Johannesburg and the border with Natal (or as Transvaal railway men referred to it, “The Empire”).

Most notable are Heidelberg, Standerton and the border town of Volksrust.

The area borders on the particularly well-watered apex of the “Maize Triangle” and the town of Vrede (which actually lies within in the Free State) is a centre for this highly productive agricultural region.  A railway linking Vrede and its environs to the Natal mainline at Standerton was the most logical route as the area to the south and east of Vrede is particularly mountainous being part of the Drakensberg escarpment.

The Vrede branch runs roughly northwards crossing a couple of tributaries of the Vaal River system and as a result has many kilometres of 1 in 50 grades as the line either falls to a stream crossing or rises to surmount the intervening watershed. In its 48 miles the line rises from 5475feet altitude at Vrede to 5595 feet in 7 miles to Matts, undulates but generally falls to 5370 feet in 11 miles to Ascent before dropping to 4969 feet elevation at Varkensvlei (Pig’s lake!) where the line crosses the former Orange Free State/Transvaal provincial border before climbing to 5178 feet at De Kuilen, dropping to 5047 feet at Harvard and then climbing to 5140 feet at Firham before dropping down to 5072 feet altitude at Standerton.

In keeping with normal railway parlance, trains travelled “Up” from Vrede to Standerton i.e. up towards the major city. Timings were leisurely with the railway mixed train scheduled to take a minute under 2-1/2 hours in the Down direction and 2 hours 27 minutes in the Up direction.

In keeping with the rural but generally economically strong area, the train service boasted a daily except Sunday “mixed” which more often than not was almost entirely passenger stock. These “Mixeds’ had their balancing goods workings and most days there was a third return working being freight. In addition the small sub shed at Standerton supplied an engine to shunt the yard and private sidings. The mixed was seen as the link between the town of Vrede and the “big smoke” and train services were sensibly scheduled to allow its inhabitants five good hours in the day in the larger “city” for their business. The main steam depot in latter days being Standerton, provided well for a good train service.  My observations in the mid 1970’s onwards was for the motive power being the ubiquitous 19D in keeping with the 30 kg/m rail profile and mixed timber and steel sleepers of the branchline to Vrede.  In fact resleepering in steel yielded many treasured finds of “Cape Yellowwood” for the amateur woodworker in the railways.

The shed at Standerton was small and suited the handful of 19D’s which were kept busy, not only on the branch but also shunting the numerous private sidings to industries such as grain silos, fuel depots and the dairy amongst others. Generally single heading was sufficient but on occasion double headers have been used. All this activity before the new coal fired power stations were built to the north. The CTC for the Transvaal portion of the Natal mainline was also run from Standerton. During the late 1970’s to mid 1980’s the last single stretch of the Natal mainline was doubled between Union and Vooruitsig (near Volksrust) and a couple of 15F’s returned to Standerton shed for works trains. These must have taxed the small “coco pan” coaling facility and 4000-gallon parachute tank in the shed.

Vrede had a triangle off the main entrance to the station and most locomotives worked out-and-back from the shed at Standerton. The yard at Vrede, with its large grain silos and livestock facilities, typified this agriculturally rich area.

Standerton is situated on the Vaal River and the railway crosses this on one of the elegant reinforced concrete arch bridges that typified SAR bridge engineering design between the iron era and the launched prestressed concrete deck spans era. These bridge types were of three standard spans and used temporary arch formwork supplied on loan by SAR to various contractors engaged to build the bridges.  Such formwork resided in the Bridge Depot at Bloemfontein until the great purge of the new century when all such unused assets were disposed of. The well known crossing of the white Umfolozi near Ulundi was of this type of bridge.  One of the last of these arch bridges to be built was for the doubling of the bridge over the Blesbokspruit at Heidelberg in the early 1980’s. Many branch lines particularly in the eastern Free State taxed the locomotives and crews with the need for a long climb immediately on starting their runs and Standerton and Vrede were no exception.   

17. A box-tendered 19D (number unknown) runs southwards through Matts with a string of livestock wagons and the coaching stock for the advertised mixed. 

18. Early summer rainfall has brought a greenness to the landscape as a southbound freight drops down from Matts to Vrede to clear the section and allow the morning mixed to depart. This scene shows a large stone arch culvert (all spans less than 6 m were classified as culverts on the SAR), providing agricultural passage through the railway reserve. 

19. The morning mixed works clean stacked out of Vrede. This day it has been strengthened with several loads of livestock. The make up of such trains is clearly shown in this scene.

20. The afternoon mixed drawn by Vanderbilt-tendered 19D No 3333 opening up for the climb from the Vaal River crossing to the junction at Firham. The Natal mainline was relocated and deviated several times in its life and the photo shows the remains of the stone abutment and piers of a previous low-level iron bridge. 

Not in the photo but noteworthy is the location of one of the temporary earth dams that were constructed in the early 1980’s during a period of long drought. These were used with associated pumps to create a situation where the flow in the Vaal river was reversed to  move water originally from the Witsieshoek area south of Harrismith, via the Vaal dam to the strategic but thirsty  “oil from coal” plants at Trichard.

21. Having left the mainline junction a few kilometres behind at Firham, the line swung southwards on a huge curve, and descended into a small valley, the afternoon mixed works clean stacked up a slight grade out of this valley. The train had run parallel with this valley on the Natal main line to Firham a few minutes earlier in its journey.

22. Later that day the mixed, No 3333 still in charge, has crossed the Klip River (which formed the provincial border) from the Transvaal into the Orange Free State and a short distance later at Varkensvlei takes a few minutes to take on water, clean the fire, and prepare for the climb out of the Klip valley to the major grain siding and facility at Ascent.  Such isolated locations typified by a willow tree, an ash pile and a small wood and iron “staff” convenience. This design of water tank being the older style with cast iron plates. The interiors of such tanks were an exercise in horizontal and vertical bracing. In latter years keeping them watertight was almost an exercise in alchemy with some strange concoctions of sulphur being applied to seal the joins. 

23. With a good clean fire No 3333 makes time on the 7-mile, 401ft climb to Ascent.

24. It is approaching 5:30pm on a winter afternoon and the setting sun silhouettes a typical “Free State” flat-topped koppie as well as the afternoon mixed as the train continues over undulating terrain a few kilometres south of Ascent.

25. As the years moved on into the 1980s the drought tightened its grip and class 19D No 3334 has an extra water tanker in front of its passenger consist, seen here part way into the climb to Matts with the morning mixed. 

26. In the early 1980’s South Africa was well into the proverbial “7 years of drought” and water supplies were at a premium.  Many trains at that time ran with an extra “torpedo” water tanker to supplement the 6000 gallons in the Vanderbilt tenders, as with No 3334 here, despite its light load of a guards van (sometimes two, to avoid shunting at the termini), the usual two third-class day coaches, a second-class coach and an FP wagon for parcels.  The passenger consist was not normally remarshalled at the terminus.

27. Having left Vrede several kilometres behind, the 19D is still climbing to Matts. The staple crop of the area is in the background and the peach tree alongside the first coach is an indication that past travellers had finished part of their meals at this location.

28. A kilometre south of Ascent, the driver of the northbound mixed has shut off steam as the train passes yet another passenger sown peach tree and also two more fields of the Free State’s bountiful agricultural products.  A line of aged peach trees was a good indicator of former track alignments. The Natal mainline, like most South African main lines, was deviated several times over its lifetime. 

29. Ascent station was located on a curve and also one of the few stations on the branch which had a yard. The main freight was maize from the silos shown but in this instance the morning mixed with 3334 in charge has picked up a GZ wagon of livestock.

Thanks Peter! We will display more of Peter’s work when we go down the Springs – Bethal line as well as many other places where he took photographs.

Moving on, we spend some time on “Palmford Bank”.  This was a nasty climb up to the summit at Palmford and, before the opening of Palmford tunnel in 1954, goods loads on the section Volksrust – Union were determined by what the engines could handle on this Bank.

30. This SAR photo shows a 15F climbing the old Palmford Bank with train 196 to Johannesburg in the early 1950s.  Very heavy steaming was the order of the day on this bank!

31. In the days before the diesels arrived in 1958 the rapidly growing traffic resulted in all available motive power being inspanned for main-line duty.  This SAR photo on the infamous bank shows a 15AR in double harness with a 19D on a heavy coal drag. If you look past the train in the background, you can see the long steady grade that these locos had to conquer.

32. At the same spot the SAR photographer recorded this 15F with an Up goods.  The large-diameter angled Ross Pop safety valves tell us this photo dates back to the late 1940s.

33. An SAR photographer was back at Palmford at a later date (possibly even the same person – he certainly knew his craft) and got another shot of a 15F with a goods train heading for the Reef.  Note that the F now has the later four smaller Ross Pops situated on top of the boiler.
34. This SAR photo was also taken on the Union – Volksrust section but where?   I’m inclined to think that it was near Perdekop or Platrand.  Any suggestions would be welcome. 

35. At Volksrust Loco in August 1961 No 2988, her coal bunker piled high with good-quality Natal cobbles, leaves the depot to work a train to Germiston.  Note the class 8 out of use in the background.  Initially sharing their duties with the classes six, the eights worked the long link line to Bethal for several decades until the end of the fifties.  In their last decade at Volksrust they found themselves increasingly on standby and shunting duties as the 1949 batch of North British 19Ds were phased in and all had finished by mid 1961.

36. At the end of the electrified Natal main-line, from 1937 until May 1964 Volksrust was strategically one of the most important sheds in the land.  In February 1964, with only a few weeks to go until the juice was switched on all the way to Union Junction, the shed still didn’t look as if its last main-line workings were rapidly approaching.  An interesting aspect of this picture is that it shows two of the eight class 24s that replaced 19Ds on the Bethal run late in 1961. Note the solitary coal hopper atop the coal stage and a class S1 banging out wagons in the middle background.  Majuba, scene of the final devastating British defeat in the first Boer War (February 1881), dominates the horizon.

That’s it for the Union Volksrust section. 

In the next part of System 7 we actually move all the way back to Germiston and set out on the line to Springs – Bethal - Breyten as well as the lengthy link from Bethal to Volksrust via Amersfoort and Wakkerstroom.