Soul of A Railway ©‎ > ‎System 7‎ > ‎

SOUL OF A RAILWAY PART 21 – WITBANK LINE © By Les Pivnic, Eugene Armer, Peter Stow and Peter Micenko.

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.  

My thanks are due to my friends listed above for their photos and text as well as to Bruno Martin for his beautiful map and John Middleton for additional photo material.

The “Witbank Line” generally referred to the very important rail link between the coal mines near Witbank and the Reef at Germiston.

Although there was a local passenger service on the line from Johannesburg to Witbank, it was essentially a line to carry heavy coal trains bringing the “Black Diamonds” not only to the Witwatersrand Complex but also to destinations much further afield.  

Coal was needed by the SAR for their Steam Loco Depots all over the Country. This fossel fuel was also needed for coal-fired power stations all over the Country.

This resulted in an intensive service of coal trains running between the collieries in the greater Witbank area to the Reef and beyond.

It is not my intention to detail a history of SAR freight locomotives here but a brief synopsis would not be out of place.

In the first decade of the 20th century, the Central South African Railways employed massive Mallet locomotives to haul these heavy coal trains and this practice was continued by the SAR after 1910, culminating in the use of the very large class MH Mallets designed by Mr D A Hendrie – the SAR’s first Chief Mechanical Engineer.

These early years also saw the introduction of the classes 12 and 12A 4-8-2s for this heavy duty work.  They worked alongside the Mallets for several years.

Col F R Collins who had succeeded Hendrie, introduced a new locomotive type specifically for the Witbank line in 1927 that was known as the “Henschel Giant” – a 2-10-2 of pretty big proportions for the 3ft 6in gauge.  Two of the “Giants” were built and were classified class 18.  With more than 90 tons adhesion weight the class 18 ought to have been the ideal machine for coal-line service but it was not to be, for reasons outlined below.

There is a photograph in an issue of the SAR & H Magazine in 1930 which shows one of these class 18s hauling a test load of 20 Baldwin-built 70 ton coal hoppers on this line.  The caption claims that this constituted a world record for a coal train hauled by a single locomotive on the 3ft 6in gauge at that time!

Unfortunately, such early photographs have disappeared from the SAR Photographic Archive but I felt that a few photos of these locos from my private collection might not be out of place but first – an article on motive power by Peter Stow (I remind you that SAR generally gave tractive effort figures at 75% boiler pressure): 


By Peter A. Stow

Over and above my passion for railway carriages I have always been fascinated by the operating history of our locomotives. This includes their performance and the Systems or lines to which new locomotives were allocated and the redistribution of existing locomotives as new ones were placed in service or as lines were electrified or dieselized. This was always planned in the finest detail and from an early stage in the history of the SAR the advantage of concentrating as many of the same class at a particular depot or System was appreciated. Later, consideration was even given to keeping those of a class built by the same manufacturer together. Sometimes these plans were deviated from as traffic demands and circumstances changed but that is the nature of a plan. Proof of the implementation of a plan would be the dates that actual locomotives were transferred as planned.

The above also gives context to the pictures taken of trains over the various sections and why certain classes of locomotives were used from time to time.

It is not possible to cover all aspects of a line's operating history but where information is available it is highlighted so that even if we just get glimpses from the past, at least the effort is worthwhile.

1. SAR No 935, class 11, photographed at Klerksdorp in the late sixties.  When introduced in 1904 this CSAR machine, together with the passenger version designed by P A Hyde, CME of the CSAR, were right up with contemporary locomotive practice.  36 strong, the class survived intact for more than sixty years.  When SAR had no further use for them after 1974 many were sold into industrial service, some reaching almost 100 years (two had been sold to ISCOR in the 1950s for industrial service and also survived into the 1970s).  Peter and Charlie chased a pair of these hauling a freight from Noupoort to Bloemfontein on their delivery run to President Steyn Gold Mine in 1974.  For mile after mile the 70 year-old veterans belied their age by cruising along at more than 60mph.

The CSAR used what was to become the SAR 2-8-2 class 11 on the Witbank line, later hauling loads of 900 tons instead 1,050 in order to reduce running times and then, in March 1910 placed in service a 2-6-6-2 Mallet for test purposes. This locomotive, which became SAR class MD No 1617, was not an outstanding success [mainly because it was not superheated] but nevertheless lasted until 1926.

The Witbank line was of such significant strategic importance that as new, more powerful locomotives were placed in service, these often started life on this line. This was particularly true during Chief Mechanical Engineer Mr. D.A. Hendrie’s term of office from just after Union in July 1910 to 1922, as will be seen below.

An extract from the General Manager’s Report for the year ending 31 December 1910 makes interesting reading:

“The rolling stock programme now in hand provides for forty-six additional locomotives, some of which are already under order, while the remainder will be ordered shortly. The new stock will include sixteen engines of the 'Mallet' type.

For some years past the coal traffic between Witbank and Germiston has been worked by eleventh class engines running the double trip, i.e.80 miles in each direction. These engines have a tractive effort of 34,600 lb., and were given a load of 900 tons, instead of 1,050, in order to enable them to make quicker times. The increase in traffic between Witbank and Germiston, and the consequent congestion, caused considerable detention en-route, and imposed excessive hours of duty on the trainmen. The eleventh class engines are therefore being replaced by engines of the Mallet type of 48,100 lb. tractive effort, and the trainmen work the single trip of 80 miles only. Eleven of these engines are now at work, and it was found possible to haul loads of 1,600 tons gross regularly from Witbank to Germiston, at an average speed of 9 to 10 miles an hour. The ruling grade is 1 in 100, and in four places there are lengths of 3 to 5 miles of continuous up-grade. The loads hauled probably constitute a record for the 3 ft. 6 in. gauge. With the introduction of mechanical stokers – and trials have proved the practicality of such a contrivance – there is no apparent reason why still more powerful engines should not be employed and considerably greater loads hauled. Even with the present engines, improvements in speed and in the general handling of the loads of 1,600 tons are taking place, and a test train of 1,800 tons was recently hauled between Witbank and Germiston under favourable conditions.

It has been stated that engines of the Mallet type damage the track more than engines of other types. This is not the case. Reports submitted show that in Natal the wheel flanges of the Mallet type of engine wear better than those of any other class, thus indicating that the friction between the flanges and the rail is less.”

The same General Managers report indicated that there were only 7 Mallets in service in December, 1910, the solitary class MA 2-6-6-0 and 5 similar of class MB in Natal and the single class MD mentioned above on the Witbank line. One can only assume that the reference to 11 engines working on the Witbank line refers to a period after December, 1910, as the report usually came out some time after the end of the financial year, and therefore included the 9 class MF’s and the single class MG placed in service in 1911 as mentioned below.                      

2. Class MF No 1620.  It was a 2-6-6-2, and because it was superheated, one of the more successful SAR main-line Mallet compounds with a tractive effort at 50% boiler pressure of 46,900lbs.  In 1923 it was converted to simple expansion.

In 1911 the SAR placed in service nine 2-6-6-2 class MF Mallets, No's 1619 to 1627, similar to the class MD, for the coal traffic on the Witbank line, followed by a further five, No's 1629 to 1633 almost immediately. These Mallets were given loads of 1,600 tons. A tenth locomotive of the first order differed to such an extent that it was classified class MG number 1628.

3. SAR class 12 No 1517.  Another long-lived type, the entire class gave more than 50 year's service

In April, 1912, the first of Mr Hendrie's class 12 heavy Mountain-type goods engines for working the coal traffic were placed in service, handling loads of 1400 tons. Although the loads were less than that of the Mallets, they were able to do a round trip while the Mallets could only achieve a single trip in the same time. The first eight were numbered 1494 to 1501 followed by a further batch of eight in 1913 numbered 1502 to 1509. It is not known how many, if any, of the ten built in 1915 or of the 20 in 1922 ever ran on the Witbank line.

Some of the ten unsuperheated 1912-built class MC 2-6-6-0 Mallets numbered 1607 to 1616, although intended for service in Natal, later ended their days on the Witbank line.

In 1914, fifteen improved class MC 2-6-6-0 Mallets, the superheated and much superior class MC-1 numbered 1634 to 1648, were placed in service for use on the Witbank line, while in September 1915, five of the powerful class MH 2-6-6-2 Mallets numbered 1661 to 1665 also went to the Witbank line before being transferred to the Glencoe - Vryheid line in Natal.

4. Class MH was an outstanding 3'-6" gauge locomotive for its time.  Its 18-ton axleload gave over 100 tons of adhesion, therefore SAR's ultra-conservative practice of reporting a Mallet compound's tractive effort at 50% of boiler pressure may be ignored.  The MHs were almost certainly capable of exerting more than 60,000 lbs TE at starting.

In 1919 the first of Hendrie's highly successful 4-8-2 Mountain type class 12A locomotives, designed to supplement the class 12’s on the Witbank coal trains to Germiston, were placed in service.

For interest sake I include here notes of a meeting held on 24 October 1919 with the Chief Mechanical Engineer concerning the allocation of all the new locomotives on order.  Regarding the 12A class the following was recorded: “These engines will have a slightly heavier axle load than the 12th class and will probably take a slightly increased load, and should work the Germiston-Witbank section.”

Here he was no doubt referring to the first twenty, on order from the North British Locomotive Co, No's 1520 to 1539. The 15 mentioned below were from the same company and numbered 2111 to 2125.

5. The fat combustion-chambered Belpaire boiler of the 12A stands out in this portrait made at Germiston in the late 1960s. 

On 3rd May 1921 the General Manager wrote to the CME Mr. Hendrie as follows: You will remember that it was originally arranged for the new 12A engines (15) to come to the Transvaal. At a later date – probably after one of your visits to Natal- it was understood that it was your wish that they should go to Natal, and they were scheduled, as a preliminary measure, accordingly.  At a still later date, namely after the meeting in this office in November last, you definitely arranged that the engines should come to the Transvaal, Natal to get the new 12th class engines (20) instead. The final schedule has been prepared accordingly. Will you kindly say what influenced you in making the recommendation that the 12A’s should come to the Transvaal. It may be mentioned that Natal has all along pressed for the 12A’s, but the Assistant General Manager has been definitely informed of your latest decision.”

Mr. Hendrie’s reply on 10 May 1921 was kind, clear and concise. “The reason I recommended the 12A engines for the Transvaal was because they were designed for service in that Province.”

As if this was not clear enough, the General Manager, Sir William Hoy wrote to Mr. Hendrie on 13 May 1921 personally, thanking him for his letter and continued “but whilst agreeing with your ultimate recommendation in regard to the allocation of the new class 12A engines, I should like to be quite clear on the point at issue. Kindly say whether your letter is intended also to convey that the engines are not suitable for Natal: if so, please say in what respect they are unsuitable.

Now that the new deviation is open, Natal requires heavy type engines, and no doubt Mr. Moore will press for the new 12A’s. It is therefore desirable that the reasons that influenced you in your latest decision should be placed on record: then if the question is asked at a later date as to why the heavier tractive power 12th class engine was not allocated to Natal, an answer can readily be given.

Kindly write further.”

I am sure Mr. Hendrie’s patience was being tried and he allowed his blood pressure to drop a little before he replied on 26 May 1921:

“I cannot say that the 12A class engines are unsuitable for working in Natal, but I consider it is to the interest of the Administration to have them working on the Witbank-Germiston section where the other twenty engines of this series are in service. I have represented to your office from time to time the advisability on economical grounds of keeping engines of one class in one Division and this applies to the 12A’s. The General Manager has written to me from Capetown (his spelling) on the question of the distribution of engines and calling attention to a complaint made by the Chief Railway Storekeeper in regard to the cost of keeping duplicate and triplicate spares where engines of one class are spread over the Union.

The new deviation between Clairwood and Cato Ridge is only partially opened for traffic- about nine trains a day, I understand, and until the road has become properly settled down I would certainly not advise the running of the 12A’s over this section nor over any portion of the old roads where 300 feet curves exist.

The arrival of the 12A’s in the Transvaal should release a certain number of 12th class to augment the number of these engines already in Natal.”

Sir William obviously had an interview with Mr. Hendrie as there then followed further correspondence on 5 July 1921 from him and I feel I must add it just to close this particular issue regarding the class 12A’s and to give our readers some insight into the issues of the day.

“With reference to exchanged wires and to our conversation during your recent visit to Cape Town, my object in suggesting the temporary allocation of the class 12A engines to Natal was to assist that System to cope with a very heavy and increasing traffic.

I had not seen your letter dated 26 May at the time of our interview and have only just been supplied with a copy thereof. In the opening sentence of that communication you state:-

“I cannot say that the class 12A engines are unsuitable for working in Natal”

And then you proceed to give your reasons why they should not be utilized in that Province. But, as explained at our interview, the position in Natal was such as to call for the exercise of every ready measure which would lend immediate assistance to a section of the line where traffic was offering in greater quantities than we could handle, and this at a time when the necessity for obtaining all the revenue possible was never more urgent.

In view of the critical position in Natal, the urgent necessity for providing ready and immediate means for getting the traffic through to the port and the need for improving our revenue position, I regret it was not possible to allocate these engines temporarily to Natal, especially as an assurance could have been obtained from the Assistant General Manager, Durban, that the locomotives would not be used on deviations or sections of the line likely to interfere with their proper working.

The question of keeping duplicate and triplicate spares all over the Union as referred to in your letter of 26 May is a matter which ordinarily might be cited as a reason for insisting on the retention of certain types to specified areas, but at the present time when the utmost must be got out of the available engine power, I think, while adhering to the general principle, we will have to sacrifice a little in getting traffic moved, which, after all, is the prime factor in the existence of Railways. And at the moment we must do everything to encourage traffic and thus obtain revenue.”

And then followed a paragraph which almost made the above irrelevant.

“While I still think that approval to the allocation temporarily of the 12A Class to Natal might have been given, I am glad the position was met by the transfer of a number of twelfth class engines from Pretoria shops and Germiston to Natal before the 12A Class were ready for service.

I have, however, thought it well to set down my views on this matter.”

Then followed a general comment regarding increasing demand for coal through Lourenco Marques possibly requiring additional engine power on Division 8 and that heavy maize traffic in the Free State had commenced.

6. Class 18 No 1360, the machine that ought to have solved the capacity problems on the Witbank line but which did not live up to expectations.

In December 1927 and January 1928 D A Hendrie's successor as CME, Colonel F R  Collins placed in service two class 18 locomotives with a 2-10-2 wheel arrangement, numbered 1360 and 1361, for use on the Witbank line. They were able to haul loads of 1,800 tons.  

In 1929 the CME wrote to the GM on 29 August year under the heading “SCRAPPING OF ENGINES AND PROVISION OF REPLACEMENT ENGINES - 1929-1930 PROGRAMME”.

“I note your remarks with regard to the class 12A engines, a very satisfactory engine, which might be said of a very large number of other classes, and in their own particular sphere. However, although the class 15CA certainly has a little lower tractive force, it is a more versatile engine as far as the Union is concerned.

If the question of taking economical loads is given the prominence it should have, then the 18th class is very much to be preferred to the 12A class, as it is a far superior engine in every way, and would reduce the number of trains on the Witbank-Germiston section taking full loads by 20%.”

After comments regarding the problems with the class 19A’s, he concluded that a discussion between all the role players “would be useful in regard to the selection of various types of engines for the new engine programme.”

However, despite the comments above and no doubt due to other shortcomings [some of which are referred to in the caption to the picture], no further Class 18 locomotives were ordered.

7. Class 18* was designed by Henschel in accordance with specifications provided by CME Collins.  They had a 19-ton axleload and exerted more than 60,000 lbs starting tractive effort. Nevertheless, in spite of being constructed by one of the all-time most competent and reliable of locomotive manufactures, they were a huge disappointment.  The reasons are many and complex, not least being that Col Collins was not a career locomotive man yet stubbornly insisted upon design features such as Gresley conjugated gear, an outdated cylinder design and lightweight motion and rods, all of which contributed to what turned out to be an uneconomical high-maintenance machine. The cylinder design was perhaps the most perplexing as Henschel would have been abreast of contemporary valve events and settings practice and advised SAR accordingly.  Failure of the tried-and-trusted Krauss-Helmholtz flexible wheelbase arrangement to perform as expected was also a major issue as this caused excessive tyre wear and the Chief Civil Engineer became prejudiced against it, claiming increased rail wear.

The failure of the class 18s had far-reaching and expensive consequences for SAR.  It resulted in a prejudice against ten-coupled locomotives that lasted until the end of steam. 

* The Prussian cross-shaped token was made of thin metal plate and painted bright red to warn that fitters were busy on the engine and that it may not be moved.

The Operating Department had problems and looked to the CME for solutions. This example is mentioned here because of its link to the Witbank line.

On 11 September 1933, the GM Mr T H Watermeyer wrote to the CME, Mr A G Watson, referring to an extract from the weekly letter dated 2 September 1933, submitted by the Acting System Manager, Johannesburg:

“The question of engine power is at present under correspondence in connection with the new programme and full recommendations are being submitted to your office. An important matter I would like earnest consideration given to is the provision of large engines to convey South and West of Germiston a load equal to that arriving off the Witbank and Breyten sections. The incoming loads from Witbank average 1,450 tons whilst those West and South are 900/1000 and 1,250 respectively. Every train therefore, including those conveying traffic for other Systems, has to be reduced adding to the yard difficulties considerably. If we had a few engines at Germiston capable of taking 1,450 tons South or West the loads of up to 5 trains a day could run through by the engines only being changed. It is unfortunate that as in the case of the Witbank section a train is made up and after travelling 80 miles has to be put into a busy yard and broken up.”

How those Operating Officers would have enjoyed today's modern traction.

There is no doubt that widespread application of ten-coupled locomotives would have eased the SAR's operating difficulties considerably, starting with Hendrie's business-like combustion-chambered design, discussion drawings for which had been prepared as early as 1914 but possibly due to the intervention of the first World War, was never built.  Thanks to Leith Paxton for allowing the use of his fine drawing.

The proposed Class 22, a massive 2-10-4 designed by CME Mr Watson for the coal trains was also never built but would have handled 2,200 ton loads on the Witbank line. 

On 5 July, 1951, the General Manager wrote to the CME and CCE under the title “INCREASED LOADS CLASSES 15CA AND 12A/12AR LOCOMOTIVES WITBANK-ANGELO AND VANDYKSDRIF-OGIES” as follows [please note that in order to avoid confusion with Bruno's maps, station names have been adapted to conform with those in use in later years]:

The System Manager, Johannesburg, has requested the System Manager, Pretoria, to carry out load tests over the abovementioned sections to determine the loads that may be hauled by class 15CA and 12A/12AR locomotives.

Subjoined is a letter addressed to the System Manager, Johannesburg, by the System Manager, Pretoria, copy to this office, and I shall be pleased to have your comments in regard to the proposals:-

“Tests have again been undertaken, as requested, between Witbank - Angelo, Vandyksdrif - Ogies and Ogies - Witbank under the supervision of my Acting Locomotive Superintendent and the following loads may be conveyed forthwith by classes 12A/12AR and 15CA locomotives:-

















Ogies-Witbank Oogies-Vandyksdrif Vandyksdrif-Ogies






Trains commencing from Oosbank are to be assisted out of the marshalling yard.

The loads for the class 15CA locomotives i.e. 1450/100 as proposed by you for the Vandyksdrif-Ogies section were found to be too heavy.” [Vandyksdrif is on the Broodsnyersplaas branch]

8. The 15CAs, a 100% Baldwin design, were everything they were purported to be, and more.

The CME’s office only responded on 19 October, 1951 with:

“From the data available in this office, it would appear that the locomotives concerned are capable of hauling satisfactorily the loads laid down in your letter of 5 July 1951. The classes 15CA, 12A and 12AR locomotives will however not be able to maintain the running times recommended for class 15F locomotives in my report 4/25/171 reference 4/22678.TW. of 27 August, 1951.

Little information regarding the Van Dyksdrif – Ogies section is available in this office, as no tests have been conducted over that section by my staff, and no small scale section of the road is available. It is believed, however, that the ruling gradient over this section is 1/100 compensated, from which it appears that the loads laid down in your letter are satisfactory.”

On 4 May 1953 the General Manager issued a directive regarding the reallocation of motive power consequent upon the placing in service of new steam and electric locomotives.  The allocation of locomotives to the Germiston-Witbank line at the time was: eight in total of 4-8-2 class 15A and 4-6-2 class 16; 41 of 4-8-2 class 15F (which included the 8 class 15F’s based at Witbank which worked to Germiston); two 4-8-2 class 12.

9. In the Witbank line's last decade of steam haulage, 15Fs predominated (but GMAMs helped out before the end, see below).  The late Dr Ransome Wallis's fine study shows the 15F in its original format with only two large Ross pop valves at an angle either side of the boiler centre-line, rather ugly flanged chimney and without smoke deflectors.

It needs to be mentioned that this did not mean that one would find all these locomotives operating on the line at any one time or that specific numbers were allocated to a line. It was left to the discretion of the System’s operating department to use the locomotives on any route as was deemed best for the available traffic bearing in mind route availability.

On 15 March 1956, a similar letter was issued regarding the engine power position on the various Systems as at 20 January 1956. Unfortunately the allocation was not done per route as in the letter of 1953 and only gave totals per System. However, mention is made of a proposal to allocate temporarily 30 of the 65 4-8-2+2-8-4 GMA/M Garratts being procured for the Western Transvaal System to Witbank-Germiston during the transition period from steam to electric working. This in turn would release 30 class 15Fs for the OFS, 13 of which were required for increases in traffic and 17 required to replace 17 class 23’s required for increases in traffic on the Cape Northern System.

In a letter dated 27 August 1956 the Chief Mechanical Engineer, Johannesburg in writing to the General Manager regarding the allocation of the 65 Class GMA/M locomotives, while justifying why two of the class GMA/M’s should not be allocated to the Natal North Coast Line, commented “presumably it has already been determined that the class GMA/M, if it is operated on the Natal North Coast, will not encounter track and loop length difficulties having regard to its length (plus water tank) or starting signal and clearance marker problems when taking water? In this connection your attention is drawn to correspondence from your own office having regard to difficulties in the latter respect at Delmas, on the Witbank section, which have not yet been solved satisfactorily.”

10. A block-load of coal leaving Kendal behind one of the brand-new GMAMs introduced in 1956 to supplement existing motive power.  As Peter Stow mentions above, this was an interim measure preparatory to electrification of the Witbank line.  Initially, and as an indication of the prevailing desperate motive-power situation, they were run through from Witbank to Kroonstad (210 miles), a diagram that ended abruptly with the arrival of SAR's first road diesels, the DE1s, in mid-1958. The whistle boards were for a rather dangerous level crossing, since closed, on the curve approaching the station and which served the railway houses to the right in the picture.

In a letter dated 24 October 1956, the General Manager in writing to the CME, Johannesburg, stated “in regard to the final allocation of the new class GMA/M locomotives I have to inform you that a redistribution of locomotive power is now being planned in six monthly periods for the next four years and this will be published to all concerned as soon as it has been completed. Initially the GMA/M class engines on order will be employed on the Western Transvaal System releasing class 15F engines for strengthening the power on other Systems.

As electrification schemes on the Western Transvaal System are completed and electric units on order come into service further class 15F engines will be transferred so that the allocation of class GMA/M engines to other Systems will not commence until towards the end of 1958 or early in 1959. In the meantime, they will be used on the Witbank, Houtkop, Grootvlei, Klerksdorp and Kroonstad sections.”

On 1 November, 1957, a revised engine power programme was issued and therein it was mentioned that 60 class 5E locomotives were planned to be allocated to the Witbank section when electrification was to be completed in October, 1960. During the period October to December, 1960 the locomotives thus released were to be transferred as follows: 6 class 15F to the Cape Eastern System, 20 class GMAM to Natal and 10 class GMAM to the Eastern Transvaal System.

On 7 September 1961 the General Manager asked the CME, Johannesburg, amongst others, “if arrangements could be made for twelve class 32 diesel locomotives (six sets) to be despatched from Germiston in time to arrive at De Aar during the last week in September, 1961. These diesel locomotives are for use between De Aar and Beaufort West.” This quantity was later reduced to 10 (5 sets) of which 4 were to be continually in service and the fifth set functioning as relief to permit the return of each set fortnightly to Germiston for maintenance attention.

This was done to release 6 class 25 condensing locomotives from Beaufort West for Beaconsfield. The letter continued: “The twelve class 32 locomotives will work between De Aar and Beaufort West for approximately three months and towards the end of December 1961 they must be returned to Germiston to work on the Witbank electrified section to enable the Western Transvaal System to release 12 class 5E locomotives during early January 1962 for the Touwsrivier – Beaufort West section.”

There was a further chain reaction with the Cape Western System to transfer a further 14 class 25 condensing locomotives to Beaconsfield, the Cape Northern System releasing 18 class 23 to Bloemfontein, releasing 18 class 15F to Germiston for use on the Germiston-Volksrust section thus releasing class 31 diesel locomotives to work on the Witbank/Reef electrified sections thereby releasing a further number of class 5E electric locomotives for the Touwsrivier – Beaufort West section. The actual number involved was to be advised later. Clearly it was important to place electric locomotives on the Touwsrivier – Beaufort West section as quickly as possible, probably because of the water issues and the redeployment of the class 25 condensing steam locomotives operating there.

By December 1961 the plan was changed and although the eighteen class 23 locomotives were still to go to Bloemfontein, 8 class 15F’s were to be sent from Bloemfontein to Bethlehem to release 8 class 15AR’s for the Cape Eastern, thus releasing 2 class 12AR’s each for De Aar, Beaconsfield and Vandyksdrif (The transfer to Vandyksdrif was later cancelled-see below). Two class 15F were to go to from Vandyksdrif to Volksrust as well as four 15F’s from Bloemfontein to Volksrust.

This latter plan was amended again on 20 January 1962 and as it no longer affected the Germiston-Witbank line it is not detailed here.


Bibliography: “Steam Locomotives of the South African Railways” Volume 1 and 2 by D.F. Holland

Reports of the General Manager of the SAR

Various Files from the Office of the Chief Mechanical Engineer, South African Railways, housed in the South African National Archives in Pretoria.

Photographs of all this steam activity are few and far between. I for one, preferred to visit other lines for photography where one could see passenger and goods trains.  I seldom visited the Witbank line but did go there on the odd occasion.

For this reason Charlie and I took a decision (in this instance) to overlook our basic cut-off point for SoAR which is 1990 – the end of the SAR/SATS era.  

Fortunately, two friends have come to the rescue in providing post-SAR/SATS-era photos to add to my earlier images for this chapter of SoAR!  They are Eugene Armer and Peter Stow – two well-known and accomplished photographers of trains in South Africa.

Their beautiful images are a credit not only to themselves but also to SoAR!  Thanks to both of you for your fine contributions which follow this introduction.

I am also indebted to Peter Micenko for his highly informative technical contribution to the Introduction to this segment of SoAR – thanks Peter!




by Peter Micenko


This chapter describes what was one of SAR’s most important lines from a revenue, strategic and economic point of view, tapping as it did (and still does to a significant extent) the energy resources of the nation. It is still one of Transnet's most important revenue generators.

Until the mid 1970’s most coal was consumed domestically by the Pretoria-Witwatersrand-Vereeniging industrial complex, local and provincial electric power stations countrywide, bunkering of the maritime industry (in earlier years) and of course the SAR, either directly in its locomotives or via power stations and overhead catenaries.

Although initially linked to Johannesburg by the NZASM’s 1894 route to Lourenco Marques via Pretoria, the direct route from the Witbank coal fields to the mines of the Witwatersrand had to wait until 1906. The original Rand Tram followed the contours of the land via Rangeview to Apex, from where a branch took off due eastwards to Welgedag, then north eastwards to Witbank via Delmas and Ogies. The branch from Ogies to van Dyksdrift and Broodsnyersplaas was only constructed in 1950 and the branch from Delmas to the Hawerklip mine as late as 1965. The disused passenger platforms between Apex and Welgedag are explained by the timetables of the 1960’s which show not only morning and afternoon Witbank trains being routed this way but also some shorter workings to Delmas. Only later were Witbank passenger trains routed through Springs - the link being constructed in 1952. Ogies to Broodsnyersplaas trains provided passenger accommodation on goods trains which even after linking into the Coal Line was still referred to as “the branch”.

In addition to these two branches, numerous private sidings linked the coal mines to this important SAR trunk line.

11. An unidentified 15F drifts down-grade near Sundra with a block-load of coal heading for the Reef in the early 1950s.  Germiston provided the bulk of the steam power on this line which had a ruling gradient of 1 in 100.  The 12As were regularly working loads of 1650 tons on this line while 15Fs were given loads of 1400 tons but ran at higher speed which in turn resulted in more tonnage being moved in shorter time.


·        PROFILE

If we begin our journey like most passenger trains, in Johannesburg at 5725 feet elevation, the line generally falls to the original Rand Tram junction at Apex, 20 miles from Johannesburg and elevation 5385 feet, continuing to fall through Deep Levels, Modrea at 5360 feet, North Shaft, Dersley and Geduld at 28 miles and 5386 feet elevation before reaching a low point just before Welgedag. Leaving Welgedag 31 miles from Johannesburg and elevation 5370 feet the line passes between several large shunting yards that make up the Welgedag complex. A small loco depot with manual coaling stage being to the right. The line then swings in a large arc to pass the appropriately named “Piesang Werf” (Banana Yard) before heading generally north east. After Sundra, 5512 feet elevation and 36 miles, the line descends to 5472 feet at the small town of Eloff, 39 miles. The route then follows a generally straight alignment where it crests a low ridge before dropping down to 5255 feet at the substantial town and agricultural center of Delmas, 44 miles from Johannesburg. More generally tangential alignment on easy grades until the Bronkhorstspruit is crossed and a little elevation is gained by Dryden, 5289 feet and 51 miles from Johannesburg. The line then drops gently to Argent 5219 feet from where there is a further descent to the Wilgerivier bridge before climbing into Arbor station 62 miles from Johannesburg and 5122 feet elevation. Thus it can be seen that from the Wilgerivier crossing, westbound loaded coal trains faced continuous uphill towards the Witwatersrand. Continuing north-eastwards, the next station is Kendal at 67 miles and 5244 feet before arriving at the large township of Ogies, 73 miles and 5361 feet. The line then reaches a high point at Minnaar 77 miles and 5368 feet before descending gently to Blackhill, 83 miles and 5326 feet elevation, crossing the Regional boundary into Witbank at 89 miles from Johannesburg and 5322 feet elevation.

In 1946 a branch was built which ran from Ogies south eastwards to the new coal mining areas of Saaiwater, Kromklip, Bezuidenhoutsrus and Vandyksdrif.

12. Highest point on the line, Minnaar Station, 77 miles from Johannesburg was close to Ogies – the junction to Broodsnyersplaas. This station had a separate signal cabin at the far end of the platform. Here again, the telephone booth and porter’s barrow. No doubt, there would have been a bicycle nearby too! Note the concrete bases for electrification masts.


The Witbank line was always a strategic and busy mineral line but it also had significant passenger and general goods traffic with some of the most productive cereal lands in the vicinity. The original single track of 1906 was duplicated throughout in several phases between 1915 and 1938 with triple tracking of certain sections in 1956 to improve capacity, notably between Arbor and Argent where the Up line was duplicated to ease capacity bottlenecks resulting from the effect of long adverse grades on loaded coal trains. In addition a major stream is crossed which requires the line to descend from Arbor through a series of curves to cross the Wilgerivier before a long arduous climb to Argent Station. A further very long operating section faced coal trains out of Delmas and this section too was tripled for the westbound or Up climb of 217 feet in 5 miles to Eloff. All these are clearly illustrated on Bruno's superb map. As the 1950s drew to a close the entire route was electrified and brought up to N1 standard which prior to the Heavy Haul lines was the strongest track structure available. It consisted of 115lb/yard (57 kg/m) rails on timber (later concrete) sleepers with full depth ballast profile. 

13. By the time John made this picture of a chunky pair of 10Es on Down empties in the early 1990s, the Witbank line had graduated to 60kg/m rail, concrete sleepers with Pandrol fastenings at 1444/km and a substantial ballast bed laid down at 1,200 cubic metres/km.  Spoornet could have spent a bit more on controlling the khakibos though.

Transport of coal in side or bottom discharge wagons led to a lot of coal fouling of the ballast particularly with the shaking and impacts that occurred when negotiating point work. Until ballast cleaning was mechanized in the late 1970’s the District Engineer at Springs employed 3 mobile gangs of 100 each, each fully engaged in digging out the ballast cribs, hand sifting (with ballast forks) and reinstating the ballast profile. This was a major employment operation that kept large numbers of itinerants busy and also led to the shallow cuttings that tended to follow the railway from the coal fields to the Reef! During the 1970s an amusing incident (with hindsight!) occurred on an inspection trip by the Regional Engineer when his trolley was stopped near Modrea to observe some manual ballast cleaning in action. This area is quite wet with a large vlei and some locals were busy at the water’s edge catching fish. The Regional Engineer was so engrossed in observing this unusual activity and the skill with which they were scooping up quite large catfish, that it took him a while to realise that the tools they were using were railway ballast forks and these were his employees!

14. On one of the tripled sections referred to above, a class 15F and a class GMAM, both with coal drags, steaming hard to get to the next station first.  The next station might only be able to admit one train at a time and the loco crews were determined to be first in unless they were looking for overtime (my money is on the 15F!)

·        TRACK & BRIDGES

A quick check with Bruno’s maps shows that the route is aligned slightly to the north of the ridge followed by the “Springs Eastward” railway and as a result the watercourses that it crosses are more substantial. Several significant bridges were needed that influenced alignment and subsequent operating patterns. The first, just east of Delmas is where the line crosses two separate streams forming the headwaters of the Bronkhorstspruit. A more substantial bridge is over the Wilgerivier between Arbor and Argent. The latter also has a curvaceous approach which had two major impacts (literally) in the 1990’s. The triple-track mainline between Arbor and Argent crossed the Wilgespruit on three parallel large-span steel truss bridges which were completely destroyed in the first incident. A case of “paper” beating “scissors”. These were replaced by a multispan double track reinforced concrete bridge. The double track reinforced concrete replacement bridges were damaged in a similar incident in 2000. After the first incident the “Up slow” line was left as two unconnected long storage sidings. The demurrage system introduced earlier had dramatically improved wagon turnaround times plus the abilities of multiple electric units reduced the need for a duplicated Up line.

15. Classes 12AR No 1535+15CA No 2054 crossing one of the ill-fated steel trusses over the Wilge River near Argent on 26 November 1983.  Destruction of the three trusses by the derailment referred to by Peter Micenko and Alistair Christison (see next paragraph) was complete so a concrete replacement using the original 1906 masonry abutments (see photo 35) was built for the Up and Down mains only - the third track bridge was not re-instated.  

We are indebted to Transport Consultant Alistair Christison for this account of the derailment:

"From about 1984 onwards Railways ran a daily train from Sappi Ngodwana to Durban Maydon wharf routed via Geduld to drop off wagons and then carrying on down the Natcor. 

We asked for this train to be called the Red Arrow and at one stage the new sliding hood wagons (well, converts anyway) were all named after lighthouses around the world since the product was going for export. 

It was regrettably this train which derailed one day on the Wilge River bridge westbound. 

Wagon 13 of a 38 wagon vacuum set suffered a broken axle on the approach to the bridge and the chassis slewed across the track sufficiently so that it no longer was able to pass through the truss bridge—which it promptly demolished. 

Wagons 1 to 12 and the locos came to a very sudden stop—so much so that all of them decanted newsprint rolls sideways all over both tracks and the veld. 

Wagons 14 to 38 piled into the wreckage on the bridge and took out both of the other bridges and the wagons plus contents and bridge bits all fell into the Wilge river. 

Unfortunately the last 6 wagons were tankers containing a foul liquid called Black Liquor which has a habit of de-oxygenating water—so to avoid pollution downstream it became necessary to temporarily dam the river just downstream of the bridge. 

All returned to normal about 4 days later."

In a later derailment - also in the nineties (!) the original masonary abutments were also destroyed and were replaced by concrete ones.

There were no major bridges on the Hawerklip line as the route paralleled the Witbank main for several miles until all lines crossed a low bridge where the Hawerklip branch turned south and climbed the eastern side of the valley forming the headwaters of the Bronkhorstspruit. The Hawerklip line was laid with the original duo-block concrete sleepers - piles of these can be seen in various photos throughout the chapters of Soul of a Railway. Later the second generation monoblock concrete sleepers were adopted on more heavily trafficked lines. SAR was one of the leading concrete sleepered railways, with most N1 lines re-laid by the late 1970’s and duo blocks still in good condition being cascaded to lesser lines.

The branch from Vandyksdrift to Blinkpan was built in 1956 and remained steel sleepered with jointed track until the new deep cutting through the hill to the east of the station was constructed. Once that deviation was completed and linked into the existing double track heavy duty alignment at Blinkpan, the local perway gangs were able to sleep better at night - the old curvaceous steel-sleepered track being a notorious derailment section. A few deep valleys are crossed, the first at Bezuidenhoutsrus where the railway crosses aptly named Steenkoolspruit - originally by the traditional curvaceous approach and multiple steel girder spans but more recently by the third line on a straight alignment with a high prestressed-concrete bridge. After Bezuidenhoutsrus there is another significant bridge before Vandyksdrif. Originally this consisted of multispan plate girders like Bezuidenhoutsrus but more recently both have been replaced by modern concrete structures looking more like a motorway intersection on the M2 than a railway.


I am indebted to Harry Ostrofsky for confirming my observations and clarifying details on this important and remunerative route. Thank you Harry, your assistance is very much appreciated. The following are observations made in the 1970’s and 1980’s and no doubt, applied earlier as well:

Starting firstly with the easy bit. Springs - Welgedag was originally a single line worked with van Schoor train tokens. There was a crossing loop at Payneville that used van Schoor crossing tokens. Later it was converted to non-token operation when Welgedag CTC came into being.

The Dunswart-Apex-Welgedag-Blackhill- Witbank section was double tracked early in its history. For the purpose of describing the trains working, occasional mention will be made of Witbank although the system boundary was just east of Blackhill.

After double track was introduced from 1915 and with manned stations all the way on the Dunswart- Apex-Welgedag- Ogies – Blackhill- Witbank line, the method of train control was SAR's version of Tyer's Double Line Absolute Lock & Block. On longer sections where headway was a problem, the blocks were split with an intermediate colour-light signal. It was called "auxiliary block". Eventually most of the lock-and-block sections were converted to axle-counter-block as well as the auxiliary-block sections.

The branch from Ogies to Broodsnyersplaas in Harry’s early days was double track to Vandyksdrif using Lock & Block. My observations from early 1982 were that the Ogies-Vandyksdrif section was CTC worked from Ogies and had bi-directional colour light signalling. This was much to the benefit of our track tamping as track access was dramatically facilitated.

Welgedag – Blackhill – Witbank was double track and the CTC at Ogies was originally introduced to control from Kendal (excl) to Minnaar (excl) and Saaiwater (excl) while the coal line was being built. The plan was to control from Ogies to Broodsnyersplaas (incl) as this was the end of the Western Transvaal System/Southern Transvaal Region. The CTC was later extended to Witbank (excl). Only in the Transnet era was Sundra - Kendal added to Ogies CTC.

The original single track alignment around the hill east of Vandyksdrift (on the Broodsnyersplaas branch) was controlled using van Schoor train token. When the line was doubled the lock and block was extended and later when the Coal line came into use, it was put onto Ogies CTC.

To complicate things, Welgedag had a CTC control centre at the station. Ogies had a CTC centre for working the double track line to Saaiwater and onwards to Vandyksdrift. Here Van Schoor took over for the single track bottleneck around the mountain where CTC took over again at Blinkpan and Broodsnyerplaas. This latter section from Blinkpan eastwards being double track to modern standards.

The Hawerklip branch from Delmas was operated with a wooden staff. Neither of us can recall if paper tickets were used with the wooden staff. Today this line is worked with Track Warrant Control (TWC) from Sentrarand as there is a junction on this line to a newer coal mine and the traffic has increased.

This all illustrates that around this area it was possible to see most of the SAR’s different train control methods in just a few hours.


Although the Witbank line was a major mineral and goods conveyor it did carry several daily passenger trains each way. Not as frequent as Les experienced on the Vereeniging line but still full, convenient passenger trains. The branch to VanDyksdrift also had a reasonable passenger service although at times only with “accommodation provided on goods trains”. It did connect quite well, especially on weekends, with the Johannesburg - Witbank passenger trains.

·        WELGEDAG

Welgedag was a very large marshalling yard complex on the city, or client, end of the route from the Coal Fields. Its main function was to make up rakes of empty wagons for dispatch to the various mines (or more correctly, to the numerous private siding exchange yards that were such a feature of the mine end of this part of the network). Similarly but to a lesser extent, general goods traffic was rearranged for various destinations. The result was much heavy shunting that kept many of Springs depot's engines busy. Also of note was the daily water train which took domestic water from Welgedag to the various stations such as Minnaar and Blackhill. The latter may seem strange but the coal fields, despite being located in one of the better rainfall areas of the country, actually had few supplies of potable water and regional water reticulation was still a long way off in the 1980’s. Even in the 1980’s on an otherwise very busy electrified line, this was a steam turn.

16. As described by Peter, steam continued to have a role in the activities of the Witbank line until deep into the '80s - albeit much reduced.  One had to be really tuned in to catch any of these erratically-timed haulers but as you can see, the effort was worthwhile.  This was a Welgedag-Geduld hauler using Springs 15F No 2950 on 21 November 1987.

·        SAAIWATER

Saaiwater was Welgedag’s counterpart but in the reverse direction. Loaded coal wagons from the various mines from Blackhill to Broodsnyersplaas were made up into block loads in this yard. A third leg in the fork at Ogies enabled trains from Blackhill and Minnaar to run direct into Saaiwater. Prior to the eastward flow of export coal in the mid 70’s these loaded trains were dispatched westwards, to various locations throughout South Africa. 


Even in the 1980’s this station had a sub-shed with a half dozen engines for shunting the various station yards in the vicinity. The shed was located above the station as well as the Douglas mine exchange sidings which were perched on a hillside with the single track, 80lb/yard rail on steel sleepers mainline, snaking around the hillside - the whole line carrying approximately 30 Million gross tonnes (MGT) of traffic per annum but referred to as “The branch”. Vandyksdrif is notable even today as one of the few places with an electrified mainline crossing another double track electrified main line on a bridge and the two railway lines both spanning a river. The “third line” has a rail-over-rail-over-river bridge just to the west of the station. The water-treatment plant for the steam locomotives also provided potable water for the township, most of which was connected to railways. Vandyksdrift supported many railway families whose houses formed a reasonable-sized township. Such railway towns were very much a characteristic of railways when the railways and mines were the only organizations capable of creating civic infrastructure in such remote locations.

17. Although the Welgedag-Blackhill-Witbank section and its branches were electrified by 1961, steam continued to potter around on haulers and shunts for almost another 30 years, as John's photo of rather grotty 15Fs at the Vandyksdrif sub-shed, taken on 23 April 1988, testifies.  

One of the best things about "Soul of A Railway" is the contributions it draws from its readers.  No sooner had Alistair given us the lowdown on the Wilge River derailment than Mike Carter sent this: "The photograph of Vandyksdrif sub-shed brings back memories. During the time I fired at Springs we had to swap the engines there when they were due for a washout. In those days (1973 -74) classes 12R, 12A & 12AR were stationed there.

On one Saturday afternoon we arrived at Vandyksdrif to find that the crew of the engine we were due to return with had thrown out the fire and had gone home! Luckily the boiler was still warm, we rounded up some wood & waste and got the fire going again. Turned around in 90 minutes. Those were the days!" 


When the new coal export line was constructed in the early 1970’s it started from the end of Vandyksdrif's elderly branch line to Broodsnyersplaas and continued as a new build with modern alignment, formation and track standards to Ermelo, Vryheid and Richards Bay. It was soon found that after nearly a century of traffic the existing historical network in the coal fields was not capable of handling the increased axle loads and train sizes, so new track was constructed, generally paralleling the old double track from Blackhill westwards to Ogies and then south eastward to Broodsnyersplaas (the Regional boundary with Eastern Transvaal/Coal Line). This was built in accordance with modern geotechnical knowledge and soil mechanics design to better sustain the tonnages and loads the new line was expected to carry. In the process the existing and inadequate steel-sleepered alignments at Bezuidenhoutsrus (a huge double track horse shoe to cross a major stream) and Vandyksdrif (a sharply curved single track horseshoe around a ridge) were eliminated. They were bypassed by straight deviations - the former with a large concrete bridge and the latter through a deep cutting. A tunnel was proposed at Vandyksdrif, but it would have locked up too much mineable coal at a time before long-wall mining under operating railways had become common practice. In the process many mines linked directly into the new “Third Line” and 100-wagon unit coal trains ran into most mines, especially those equipped with modern high-speed load-outs and balloon tracks.

This little aside is marginally outside the scope of SoaR and is mentioned mainly for thoroughness and to indicate the changes in traffic directions that took place when export coal became the significant revenue generator. Focus was removed almost entirely from internal business - branch lines, private sidings and the small customer, to heavy-haul and the export coal and ore business. It could be argued that this was a mixed blessing, both for South Africa's railways and its economy.

Although liquid fuel and conveyor-belt technology for feeding power stations direct from the mines have taken over for internal consumption, and a large proportion of the Nation’s income comes from export coal, this chapter covers an area not generally frequented by latter-day railway enthusiasts and which deserves recognition as the source of an energy supply that contributed so significantly to the development of South Africa.

Just how strategic this region is is shown by the graves on the platform at Ogies of soldiers killed during the Anglo-Boer War, six years before the railway reached Ogies!  Perhaps an interesting research project for local historians.

18. The amount of coal hauled by steam peaked at 25 million net tons/annum during 1957.  After that steam's involvement declined as the new diesels elbowed in at first, followed by electrification of the Witbank line, completed in 1961.  Here is one of the SAR’s best photos, taken at Kendal.  A 15F departs with a block-load of coal for the Reef while another train-load with a double-header up front takes on water (note the standard Fairbanks-Morse fast-watering column). Never-ending action on this busy line!

19. This was old Blackhill Station which I photographed in the early 1950s – 83 miles from Johannesburg, the boundary of System 7 and of our chapter. Note the typical furniture that would be found on any rural SAR station in those days – a couple of bicycles for the foremen to run Van Schoor tablets out to a driver; the porter’s barrow and a Post Office public telephone booth in cream and red livery.

Many years ago I was sitting in the Running Shed Foreman’s office in Braamfontein Loco enjoying a cup of tea laced with condensed milk and he related a humorous story to me that had a direct bearing on Blackhill Station. It appears that the driver of the Johannesburg-bound local passenger train got the right-o-way from his guard and steamed out of Witbank.  He noticed that the train was dragging and he thought that when he got to Blackhill he would have a chat with the guard.  At Blackhill the station foreman had his red flag out and he stopped his loco right next to the station looking quizzically at the foreman who had a wry smile on his face!  "What's the problem?" asked the driver.  The foreman replied "where is your train!!"  The driver whipped around and looked back – NO TRAIN!!  When he coupled up at Witbank, the coupling was obviously not checked and he departed minus his train thus breaking the vacuum-hose connection which would have applied the tender brakes.  Although his “load” was dragging – it wasn’t there.  Somebody’s face was very red – his mate the fireman who hadn’t checked the coupling properly if at all.  The driver was given a tablet to work all the way back to Witbank to fetch his train – he was NOT impressed!  I can just imagine the language used on that footplate – it would be unprintable here!

From this point onwards we will move on from a general history of the line and work our way in a roughly geographical order back towards Welgedag.  NB: where the photographer has followed a particular train we will reverse direction temporarily.

20. The Witbank – Welgedag section was electrified in 1961 and a steam paradise that had been largely unrecorded photographically was gone! In 1966 I was visiting the area and near Blackhill I caught this unusual shot of a 2M EMU set running towards Witbank with four motor coaches – the leading one being a parcels van. The pantographs were up high at this spot because of a level crossing just behind me.

21. A trio of 6E1s (one dead) departing from Minnaar on 6 August 1992 - still in original livery two years into the Spoornet era and looking as if they hadn't been cleaned since the name change.  The front two units were E1895 and E1504.

22. On 29 July 1989, on the eve of the demise of the short-lived and ill-fated SA Transport Services (SATS), this lash-up of four nice new class 10Es were working a westbound freight through Ogies.

23. The Witbank line was one of the last double track main lines in South Africa to have semaphore signalled stations, between Delmas and Ogies. Early in 2006, work began to convert this section to bi-directional colour light CTC. Although Delmas did not have semaphores, it did have cabin-controlled colour lights with a stand-alone signal cabin at the west end of the station. Delmas was the first to go, followed by Dryden, Argent, Arbor, Kendal and then Ogies. On 5th January 2007 I took this shot of the lever frame and track diagram at Kendal station, which was still fully operational at the time. By the end of 2007 the semaphores were gone and the signalling equipment removed. As soon as the station became unmanned, the vandalism began and today Kendal has succumbed to the same fate as so many other stations around the country.

24. Between November 1979 and October 1984, SARTravel operated a number of "Steam Safari" tours on circular routes around the country. On 26 November 1983, the final day of one of these tours was spent travelling from Nelspruit to Johannesburg. At Witbank class 12AR 1535 "Susan" and class 15CA 2054 "Joanita" coupled on for the last steam section to Germiston, via Ogies, Delmas and Springs. The train is seen here at Kendal, ready to depart after stopping to take water at the column used by shunt locomotives based at Witbank shed.

25. Kendal had an island platform and, as was typical SAR practice, the signal cabin was on the platform in the main station building, in this case facing south on to the Up (westbound) track. This photograph of the station was taken on 1 May 2007 during the transition from semaphore signalling to CTC colour lights and, for as long as the semaphores were still operational, the station was kept in reasonably good condition (compare this scene with that depicted in the 1950s SAR photo 18 above). A footbridge connected the island platform to the public access road on the north side of the tracks. In the foreground are the Down main and Down loops. Behind the station buildings are the large rail-connected grain silos, but in all my visits to Kendal I have never seen any grain traffic originating here. 

Eskom's Kendal power station is clearly visible on the right. It has six units, each producing 686MW. Construction began in July 1982, with its last unit coming into operation in 1993. Kendal is currently the largest coal-fired power station in South Africa (according to the Eskom website) and holds several Eskom performance records. In this picture, four series one class 18E's (18 126, 18 028, 18 207 & 18 122) are heading west through the station with a heavy train of 60 type CCR wagons loaded with coal. The 1st and 4th units in the consist have the old style double sided pantographs, while the 2nd and 3rd units have the newer single arm pantographs.

26. Class 38-014 and three sisters operating in diesel mode pass Kendal's home signals westbound with a load of coal. These locomotives have performed extremely well given that they were originally designed for shunting and hauler work.

27. The same train passes Arbor's home signals. The advantage of semaphore signals is that you could see when a train was expected irrespective of where you were standing.

28. This train was by now down to a walking pace as it entered Argent station owing to the fact that the class 38s are less powerful in diesel mode and the 1:100 gradient had taken its toll. Note the tall home signal mast to the east of the station, no doubt allowing drivers to slow their trains at an earlier point should the signal be at danger, hoping that the signal would clear before the train came to a standstill on the 1:100 gradient.

29. Having chased the ugly-duckling (but effective, according to Peter Stow) class 38s from Kendal to Argent we now make our way back to pick up the geographical thread at Arbor where shortly after sunrise on 28 March 2009 three class 6E1's led by E1579, came through the station on a westbound block load of coal. This was two years after the semaphore signals here were replaced with colour lights (CTC) and the station closed. The old signal cabin on the platform, surrounded by palisade fencing, is visible just to the right of the leading unit.

30. On 10 September 2005 a flock of sheep began crossing the tracks at Arbor as the train appeared at the far end of the station, with the last one jumping clear just in time (visible below the second coach), or there would have been blood on the tracks! 

The train is Transnet's 16-coach Phelophepa (loosely translating into English as "good, clean health") and is passing the Up starter signal at Arbor, heading west on a repositioning move from Burgersfort on the Belfast - Lydenburg - Steelpoort line, to Delmas. The units are first series class 18E's, 18 149 and 18 048 in Spoornet blue livery, which have worked the train from Belfast.

31. In 1982, class 6E 1194 is seen winding its way back to the main line as it departs from Arbor. Behind the locomotive is a timber bodied type D-32 composite 1st and 2nd class main-line saloon on Day bogies followed by a 2nd class steel coach of type E-16 on 7'-6" Commonwealth bogies. Passenger Services tried to have at least one main line saloon on these semi-long distance passenger trains to allow breast-feeding mothers some privacy. Very considerate, don't you think?

32. The transition from semaphore signalling to colour light CTC started at Dryden in July 2006. Delmas was also upgraded at the same time, but this was from local cabin-controlled colour lights to CTC.  Next to follow after Dryden was Argent, then Arbor, Kendal and Ogies. 

On 3 February 2007, the colour lights were in the process of being installed at Arbor, when this heavy coal train led by 6E1 E1302 and three unidentified sisters, passed the new signals at the west end of the station with thunderclouds gathering overhead. The Down home signal on the left, pulled off for an approaching eastbound, was a favourite prop for photos at this location. The leading locomotive is fresh out of shops and wearing the Spoornet orange livery.

33. On 11 April 2009 this pair of class 6E1's in Spoornet orange livery, E1235 & E1230, were approaching Arbor station with eastbound empty timber wagons ("ribbetjiestrokke" in Afrikaans at its most descriptive), most likely returning to Nelspruit to fetch another load of pitprops.  Note the different pantographs on the two locomotives. A sprinkling of cosmos flowers remain trackside, after being in full bloom two weeks earlier. 

34. Class 18E 18 518 in the new Transnet Freight Rail livery (introduced in 2009), heads up four sisters in Spoornet blue working an eastbound train of coal empties at Arbor. The end of summer on the highveld is signalled by the cosmos flowers in bloom on either side of the tracks. 20 March 2010.

35.Train crews refer to them as "broodblikke" (breadbins)..... Transnet Freight Rail's Class 10E/10E1/10E2 Co-Co 3 000 volt DC heavy-haul freight locomotives. Four eastbound 10E1s, still sporting predecessor Spoornet's blue livery, are seen sweeping around the curve into Arbor station, running on the westbound "Up" track on bi-directional CTC and hauling 100 empty high capacity coal wagons to the mines around Witbank. The rear of the train can be seen behind the small tree to the left of the lead locomotive. 9 April 2012.

36. On a beautiful autumn afternoon, two Class 10E1's from the second order are seen just west of Arbor station, crossing the Wilge River with coal empties returning to the mines around Witbank. The first unit is 10 060, in the new Transnet Freight Rail livery, while the second is 10 076, still in predecessor Spoornet's blue livery. These are Ermelo-based locomotives which generally are much cleaner than the Class 18E's that also frequent this line. 9 April 2012.  This was the bridge, formerly consisting of steel through trusses (see photo 15 above), that was destroyed by a major derailment in the early 1990s.  Later in the same decade, another derailment destroyed the stone masonry abutments that had been in place since CSAR days.

37. By the time this picture was taken in 1983 between Arbor and Argent, the stubs of the third line, which had been built in 1956, were being used to store type B and DZ open bogie wagons near the coalfields in the summer months. Here the daily westbound afternoon passenger train from Witbank passes these wagons which stretch back as far as the eye can see, around the succession of sweeping curves on 1-in-100 compensated away from the Wilge River.  The locomotive is Class 6E1 No 1578 and this is the same train that appears in photos 40 and 55, please see those captions for details of the train and its coaching stock.

38. Not even the new TFR livery can help to improve the looks of the 'ugly duckling' class 38 electro-diesel. Here we see 38 007 teamed up with 38 041 in Spoornet blue and 38 038 in Spoornet orange, westbound through Argent station with a coal train made up of type ASJ wagons, headed for the Arcelor Mittal steel plant at Vanderbijlpark. 23 March 2013.

39. In 2006 the Blue Train operated a two day charter for Softline Technology from Pretoria to Waterval Boven. The return journey was routed via Ogies and Welgedag to Sentrarand and then back to Pretoria. On Thursday, 23 November 2006 the train made a very rare appearance on the Witbank line, seen here running through Argent station, behind two GM (EMD) type GT26MC class 34 diesels, 34-652 in Spoornet blue livery and 34-814 in Spoornet orange. 34-652 and 34-651 (also blue) were regularly paired for special Blue Train workings, but on this occasion 34-814 was deputising for 34-651. 

The original cool room is still on the far platform, just to the right of the lead loco - this was where the milk cans would have been stored in the days of the stopping passenger train. Also note the palisade security fencing erected around the cabin on the Down platform, as I recall this was done when the colour lights were installed.  

40. In early 1983 class 6E1 No 1578 heads 87840-up, the 15h15 from Witbank to Johannesburg, seen here departing from Argent - the same train as in photos 37 and 55.  Scheduled arrival time in Johannesburg was 19H10. This was the return working of 78821-down which left Johannesburg at 08h15. Note the dwarf shunting signals in the foreground.

41. Also in 1982 class 6E1 No 1588 heads west past the outer home and distant signals of Argent station with a special main line passenger train.

42. The same 87840-up as in photo 31 is seen leaving Argent. On this day there was only one suburban coach in the consist. The "fireman" is looking back for the second right away.

43. The same Steam Safari featured in photo 24 in full flight up the grade out of Argent station heading towards Dryden. The road bridge in the background is at the west end of Argent station. It should be noted that 1535 is now in the care of Reefsteamers at Germiston and continues to haul passenger trains, 31 years later!

44. Wading through the cosmos..... On 3 April 2004 a grubby pair of 5E1's (E937 leading E903) in very faded SAR red livery but without their original brass numberplates that had probably been stolen, were working a short mixed freight eastbound near Argent. The consist was seven grain wagons, five phosphoric acid tankers and one hopper wagon carrying petalite.

45. As a typical highveld afternoon thunderstorm looms overhead, four 18E's in blue Spoornet livery (18 114, 18 121, 18 145 & 18 032) are heading west between Argent and Dryden with a long coal train. 20 March 2010.

46. Between Dryden and Argent, this trio of 6E1's is moving away from the camera as they run light loco towards Ogies, passing a westbound mixed freight on the adjacent track. The blue 6E1 (E1585) is one of only a handful that were painted in this particular colour for Spoornet, which was different to the colour applied to the Blue Train locomotives. The other two 6E1s are E1335 and E 1415. 20 March 2010.

47.  As early autumn storm clouds build up in the background, a quartet of class 10E's in Spoornet orange and blue liveries (led by 10E1 No 10 164), is heading east through Argent with a 100-wagon coal train, running westbound on the Down line (one of the big advantages of CTC).  The grain silos at Argent can be seen behind the train. 2 April 2011. 

48. Racing ahead of the storm, an up block load of coal between Argent and Dryden with class 6E1s Nos 1364+1583 in the garish Spoornet orange.

49. During the cosmos season on 9 April 2005 at Dryden, two nicely cleaned 5E1's on an eastbound freight were passing the home signal for the westbound track with a block load of type AZJ hoppers. Loco's were E905 & E879 - the latter having "Kroonstad" painted in white above the numberplate to indicate its allocation to that depot.  The load may have been petalite.

50. In June 2006 the Railway Touring Company from the UK chartered a Rovos Rail train to do a tour around South Africa. The tour included the Witbank line as part of a circular route that took the train through Nelspruit and the Lowveld, then back up the escarpment from Tzaneen. On 19 June Sandstone's GMAM No 4079 "Lindy Lou", on loan to Rovos Rail at the time, was blasting past the "Down" starter signals at Dryden.

51. In my opinion, the least attractive of all SAR/Spoornet/Transnet Freight Rail's modern traction are the Class 38 electro-diesels, basically, a long low box with a cab stuck on one end. Three of these ugly ducklings are seen heading east through Dryden on a sunny winter morning, operating in electric mode under 3,000V DC catenary. The train is on the Up (westbound) track, passing the colour light starter signals which replaced the semaphores in 2006.  23 July 2011

52. In 2006 Spoornet took the decision to no longer allow any private charter passenger trains to operate. On Saturday, 11th November 2006 the last private charter train for overseas tour operator Penquin Tours ran as empty coaching stock from Nelspruit to Braamfontein yard in Johannesburg. The 18-coach train is seen here passing the east end of Dryden station, with two 6E1's up front - E1593 in SAR red livery and E1503 in Spoornet orange.  Note the different pantographs on the loco's. Photographers Eugene Armer and Peter Stow debated whether it was preferable to have the SAR red unit on the front, as opposed to the much cleaner orange unit behind! The almost uniform consist of blue-and-grey Main Line Passenger Services stock was broken up by a lounge car in the (then) new Shosholoza Meyl livery and a dining car from the Conference Train. In July 2006, work began on the replacement of semaphore signalling between Delmas and Ogies and by the time this photo was taken, Dryden station had already been closed and the semaphore signals replaced by CTC colour lights.

53. On 8 April 2006, with the cosmos in full bloom, a single 6E1 No E1879 in original SAR livery was passing Dryden on a Down eastbound freight of 40 empty type CALJ wagons returning to the Witbank coalfields. The train is passing the Up outer home and distant signal.

54. Four class 18E's from series one, led by 18 035, heading east through Dryden on a block load of coal empties, returning to the mines around Witbank.  There is a level crossing at this end of the station, hence the pantographs being close to full stretch. 23 May 2009.

55. Further west the same train featured in photos 37 and 40 is seen departing from Dryden past the outer home and distant signals. The leading and third timber bodied coaches are first class of type L-32 while the second coach is a recently overhauled second class steel coach of type O-38 built by the Gloucester Carriage and Wagon Company, being one of thirty placed in service between September 1950 and June 1951. The sixth coach is a type S-45, one of 57 third class steel side door suburban coaches of the same family as the type O-38 and L-44, placed in service between July 1949 and  June 1950.

56. On 28 July 1991 I went out with Ginger Miller to photograph the “Brush with Steam” special that was being worked over the Witbank line by Germiston-based 15F No 3040 “Tamaryn”. Here she is in action on the 1-in-100 grade west of Delmas.  Note the three-road section – I don’t think a coal train would have stood a chance against Tamaryn in getting to Delmas first - 3040 was performing beautifully!

57. As the "Brush with Steam" went by I grabbed a shot of its dining car, No 219 PROTEA in a dark brown livery which was unusual because the rest of the train was in the correct Imperial Brown colour scheme. A great pity that today, thanks to the total absence of concern for past history, she lies derelict and vandalised beyond repair in Cape Town.  

An obscure irony is present here.  The tall stalks are an invasive weed which the Boers were quick to dub "khakibos" as it was inadvertently imported from Argentina by the British along with the fodder for their war horses during the conflict of 1899 -1902.  Railway reserves throughout the highveld are plagued with this nuisance which produces a particularly pesky seed (dubbed blackjacks by railwaymen and railway photographers) that is sharp, with a one-way grain that enables it to work through the cloth of your socks and trousers and pricks like hell.

The irony of course is that this unwanted reminder of our past history is still flourishing while the supremely elegant Protea has been allowed to perish.

Just before the semaphores disappeared from the Witbank line forever Peter chased this freight from Dryden to Kendal.  In order to preserve his sequence we'll now follow this goods back in an easterly direction:

58. On Wednesday 3 August 2005 class 6E1's 1279 and 1678 head east through Dryden on a typical cold Highveld winter's morning with a general load including petrol tankers.

59. The same train passes the tall home signal at Argent.

60. The same train approaching Kendal's outer home and distant signals.

61. On Wednesday 3 August 2005 class 6E1's 1583 and 1628 are eastbound out of Argent. Note the third line has now been lifted and a stop block is in position.

62. The same train approaching Arbor's home signals.

63. On Wednesday 3 August 2005 class 6E1's 1279 and 1678 head east past the massive grain silos at Kendal.

64. Winter is not the most colourful time of the year to photograph trains on the Highveld but here the same train passes the lonely distant signal to the east of Kendal. 

Now we'll kiss this train good-bye and head back to Delmas where it's all happening:

65. Early in 2006 work began on converting the Sundra - Delmas - Ogies section of the Witbank line from manual signalling to bi-directional colour light CTC. This meant that semaphore signals at Dryden, Argent, Arbor, Kendal and Ogies would gradually disappear as each station was completed. The work began at Sundra and then progressed to Delmas station, which was signalled with manually operated colour lights, controlled from the signal cabin at the west end of the station platforms. The photo was taken on 18th March 2006, from the farm road level crossing at the West end of the station. A single class 6E1 No E1315, looking rather worse for wear in Spoornet orange livery, is heading towards Welgedag and passing under the new signal gantry, with the frames for the route indicators silhouetted against the sky. Clearly visible in this photograph is the third track referred to in Peter Micenko's introduction to this chapter, added between Delmas and Eloff to create extra line capacity for loaded westbound trains. In the background, two westbound freights await their turn to follow.

We'll finish this chapter on a high note with three photos from the steam days:

66. After the coal drag (photo 11) had passed me at Sundra I was surprised by the appearance of a mixed goods with a 15F at the head end and another 15F in the consist!  As the second F passed by, I realised what had happened – the 2nd F had lost a connecting rod and eccentric as shown in the next photo. Presumably the connecting rod had broken.

67. Here is the ailing girl out of steam and minus her right-hand connecting rod and eccentric. If you look closely at her valve-motion you will see that the driver has her well notched-up.  I wonder why he didn’t put her into mid-gear.

68. On 25 February 1984 an RSSA tour with No 2054 class 15CA in charge of 15 well-laden coaches approaches the new bridge under the link between the Natal and Free State main lines and Sentrarand. The train is on the line from Alliance to Welgedag, built in 1911 as a relief to the main Witbank line via Geduld.  The brand new track curving sharply away to the left joins up with the link to SAR's biggest and most embarrassing white elephant - Sentrarand Marshalling yard. 

That's all for now folks.  Our next chapter will be about the Kraaifontein-Malmesbury-Bitterfontein line including the branch to Saldanha Bay.  Meanwhile we wish you all merry Christmas and a happy and healthy 2015.  Thank you for bearing with us and especially for your kind comments.