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Here In Africa: Live Steam

Columnist Barbara Durlachercame open this article recently and is eager to trace its author.

To read Barbara’s own words please click on http://www.openwriting.com/archives/joburg_days/

Some time ago, as my wife was checking my work for spelling and other errors, she remarked what an exciting and eventful era we were living in. With that in mind, I’d like to list a few things that have been invented since I was born.

FM Stereo radio,
International direct dialling,
Transistor radios and their derivations,
Volkswagon motor car, “The Beetle”
The Beatles,
Rock and Roll,
And the “Rainbow Nation” amongst many others

While all these inventions seem so miraculous, perhaps we were just oblivious to the changing scene and many of them were there all the time. Humans are very inventive and one thing triggers another.

However, my particular interest is steam trains, and I will give you some general information as background to what I have to say.

The standard railway gauge (i.e. the distance between the railway lines) in South Africa is 3ft 6", which is the same as Japan. But Japan can’t use our rolling stock because it seems we have the largest loading gauge in the world, that is to say, height and width above the track, and South African rolling stock cannot pass through Japanese station platforms, tunnels or bridges.

When I was about 10 years old, all the engines at De Doorns (an important rail junction and shunting yard in the Western Cape) in 1941 were of the Mountain type wheel arrangement; that is 4-8-2, (a swivel bogie of 4 small wheels, 8 bigger coupled driving wheels and a trailing swivelled pony truck with 2 small wheels).

There was a pool of about 20 engines for banking purposes; that is, extra engines added to trains to pull the heavy engines to the top of the Hex River Mountain Pass at Matroosberg. The engines of the Class 14CR were very heavy, but had smaller driving wheels which gave the effect of lower gearing.

The mainline engines were mostly Class 23, with an occasional Class 15E and I think some new Class 15F. It is funny how commerce works, as the 23's were made in Germany by Henschell and all the others in the UK by North British Locomotive.

The trains arriving from the south or Cape Town had to be sorted by shunting all bogeyed trucks, that is, eight-wheeled carriages on four axles on two swivellable rigid pairs at each end, to immediately behind the lead engine. After that as a safety measure, came the second or banker engine and then all the non-bogeyed trucks. Two-axle trucks are more likely to be derailed on convoluted compound-bends when being pushed up the pass.

As all passenger coaches are bogeyed, they usually made a double header of it with both engines up front with the banker leading. If the mainline driver wished to lead, the banker went to the rear of the train as it made no difference to traction. From the bottom to the top of the pass it was push/pull all the way. The mainline engines had mechanical stokers so the footplate crew took the train all the way to Touws River, whereas the bankers uncoupled at Matroosberg and went back down the pass without payload.

Going up, the firemen quite literally had heavy work on their hands as they had no mechanical stokers. They would have to shovel about 2 to 3 tonnes of coal per hour for 3 consecutive hours while controlling the water feed, as well as general lookout for signals and the like. Wet weather was hellish due to slip, but the coal burnt better.

Many a time I joined my father on the footplate while shunting operations were being carried out. This was especially good fun on a stormy winter’s night. The huff of power, the gentle cough of a gingery motion, the roar of the fire drawn by rapid draught when a heavy load had to be heaved uphill, the happy hissing of superheated steam escaping from numerous little leaks, the lowing and shuffling of cattle in cattle trucks, the baffled bleating of sleepy sheep, the disgruntled grunting of penned pigs and the lisping whistles of these mechanical mammoths, and sometimes the cacophony of a slip; these and the shimmering sights to be seen, were absolute heaven to a ten year old boy.

The walk to and from home was fraught with hazards. There was the constant movement of trains coming and going, for the country was at war, rail traffic was heavy and the railways were busy. You had to be very careful at all times not to trip over rails, pieces of spilt coal or signals and points control cables and leave yourself immobilised across or near the tracks.

I will never forget the ominous loud clang and rumble that shook the village when two trains collided. The collision was caused when a locomotive and train ploughed into the back of a stationary train. The front half and locomotive of the stationary train were shunting in the goods yard at the time and the reason for the collision was the incorrect setting of the points.

There was another accident where most of the train, including the engine, derailed on the last hairpin bend coming down the pass into the station. The track turned sharply to the left but the engine and half the goods train carried straight on and ploughed down the hillside before rolling over. Strangely, the same driver was involved in both accidents.

The incoming drivers coming down the pass used to code-whistle two miles from home on the other side of the kopje to alert their wives to put the kettle on. This was the signal that they would be home within fifteen minutes after they had handed over to the new crew and signed off at the duty office.

The first neon tubes in the village were installed at the Station Office, banks of two blues and one pink. All the kids came to view this marvel. But that’s a story for another day and it all seems a million years ago now...


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