In 2012 I wrote a piece about traveling by bus, and it was quite a jolt remembering all of those trips I made as a youngster, but I really wanted to do a similar one about going by train, and here is the first part (warts and all).
There were two types of train travel in my day, the first being suburban, and the other mainline (aka “the holiday train”). Bear in mind that my experiences fall roughly between 1963-1989, this is not a comprehensive history of rail travel in South Africa.
The Bethlehem Train.
My grandparents lived in Bethlehem and occasionally we would pack our goodies and catch the train to Bethlehem. I do not know whether it was completely by steam, it is possible that part of the journey was behind electric traction and then somewhere along the line we would be attached to the steam engine which would take us to that city in the OFS. Bethlehem was not been electrified in those days so a steamer was the only way to get there. The coaches were balconies mostly, beautiful wood and leather furnished with a unique smell that tended to remain with the senses just waiting to leap out at you the moment you stepped into a wooden coach again. They were also painted in Imperial Brown and I was fortunate enough to find a very good example (1st/2nd class D-15 mainline passenger saloon 1044.) at the defunct Heidelberg Transport Museum .
We traveled 2nd Class and I seem to recall that the upholstery was green leather (as opposed to blue used in 1st Class). The coaches also had a crossover in the middle, and once we had left Johannesburg the “Bedding Boy” would take our order for bedding and he would later come to make up the bunks in our compartment. The ticket examiner would also pay everybody a visit and double check that everybody was where they should be. I don’t recall whether there was a dining saloon on the train, but we always had a packed hamper of food for the trip to scoff along the way. That could include sandwiches, fruit, boiled eggs and the flask of coffee or tea.
The compartments all had a fold down table that covered the stainless steel basin set up between the windows. There were wooden shutters that were raised by pulling on a leather strap and the top bunks folded down from the compartment wall. My brother and I always had those top bunks while my parents took the lower ones. I always remembered that some of the coaches had thick black leather straps that rang across the roof of the compartment as well as a small reading lamp in each corner. The coaches were of the clerestory type and they had vents in the ceiling that wound open when you turned a small handle. I don’t really know how successful these were, but I do know that travelling down to Bethlehem in Winter was a cold trip. The coaches all had radiators in them, and these would have been supplied by a steam heater wagon behind the traction. I do not know if the steam engine would have needed one of these though because steam was in abundance. The radiators only had two settings and as a result you were either freezing or in a sauna.
The beds would be made up by the “bedding boy” and they would be warm and the sheets would be crisp and the bed was very comfy, although I could never sleep on a train, there were just too many distractions. At night the train took on a life of its own. In those days the rails were not all welded and the trip would have the all pervading clickety-clack of wheels going over the joints, and of course the steamer would be making stack talk way up front, there was also the sound of sliding doors moving back and forth and the ticket examiner rattling his key in the slot of a door to check the tickets or remind somebody that theirs was the next stop. There was also the creak of the woodwork as it moved with the motion of the train, I suspect staff were also busy during the night because in the mornings the corridor would be clean and the toilets would be as clean as a public facility could be. I think that the poor bedding boy may have had that included in his duties, irrespective though, the trains were something to be proud of.
One of the thrills of the trip was sticking your head out of the window and looking for the loco in front, late at night you could often see the orange glow from the steam engine up front as she powered into the night, the smell of smoke and steam would be unforgettable, and of course once you came back into the compartment your parents would give you an earful because the fresh beds now had specks of soot all over them, and you were invariably covered in soot too.
Fortunately there was warmish water on tap although that strange steel basin with its odd taps and small plug hole was an adventure on its own. Before bedtime all us males would be chased from the compartment while my mother changed into her nightdress. Banished to the corridor we would peer out into the darkness, nary a light would be shining outside and the sleeping countryside was probably oblivious to the creation passing by. Trains were a regular occurrence back then, they went almost everywhere and these old balconies were becoming rare as they were slowly withdrawn from service.
The toilet was at the end of the corridors and it too had a unique smell about it, not to mention that odd noise when you pressed the foot pedal to flush the loo. The small trapdoor would open and everybody held it for just a bit longer so that you could see the track beneath (although whether we actually did is debatable), but as a child you really hoped to see the sleepers rushing by. There was no drinking water in the basins, that was available from a big blue plastic bottle at either end of the coach. When you filled your cup from the small silver tap it would make a “bloop” noise as the water was displaced. Then mum would head off to the loo and the three of us would change into our PJ’s and we would clamber up into the bunks and try to sleep
This would not happen.
When the train pulled into a station the comforting noises would stop, to be overtaken by those outside the sleeping train. A lot of people would travel by train so there were passengers boarding and doors slamming as well as the occasional safety valve lifting up in the front. Naturally everybody was shouting at everybody else and it sounded as if people were dropping boxes of plates just outside the compartment. Then the loco would blow its whistle and you would feel the initial tug, then a slow acceleration as the train once again started to move and then the first rail joint, and the second, the noise increasing as we picked up speed. If you were unfortunate something under the coach would squeak or rattle and you would just have to grin and bear it.
As the morning came closer it would be time to get up and usually we would be kicked out of bed quite early, Mum would head off to the loo and we would change and then we would swap places and be banished to the corridor and loo once again.
The train would then start winding down towards Reitz, and I was told that the train did a large circle to get to Reitz, and we would watch this from the corridor, along with other males who had been banished to the corridor.
Eventually we would be allowed back into our compartment and would dump all the bedding on the top bunks and be able to re-use the seats once again. Somewhere along the line a steward would have brought coffee if there had been coffee making facilities on board, or the remnants of last nights tea from the thermos would be shared between the four of us. The light outside would be improving and the little SAR Bokkie engraved on the window would look benevolently down on us as this fine example of the proud SAR neared its destination.
My grandfather worked as a guard at Bethlehem, and he would be waiting for us when we arrived at the station. He knew everybody there and would exchange greetings as he strode down the platform, resplendent in a suit. He always dressed up in a suit, and his only concession to comfort would be when he removed his jacket and took off his hat. We would pile out and head off the platform to the house. Our train was rapidly emptying behind us, the steam engine would be huffing and steaming at the front and we would leave it behind until our return trip. At the back the guards van was being emptied of its cargo too, mail, packages and all manner of assorted bits and pieces that were often moved by rail. Bethlehem was a busy station back then, it had its own steam loco, and most of my family worked there. When electrification came along the loco was almost redundant, and the staff got cut back. Then they stopped the passenger trains and the station became a ghost station, with empty platforms and a slowly decaying building.
I went back there in 2011, and could not believe that this once busy station had become an empty shell. The death of the railways in that town was a disaster, because employment plummeted and the town was literally cut off, dependent on lumbering trucks that would disturb the silence as they passed through. Bethlehem was always known as a one horse town, now it was a no horse town. I was fortunate to find a scrap of 8mm film that had a bit of footage from those days and had it converted, All that was missing was the smell of wood and leather, steam and smoke.
When our visit was over we would duplicate the train trip, only this time in the other direction, and probably the last part of the trip would have involved an electric unit as steam had been banished from Park Station. I know I always hated that return trip because I had to leave that beautiful train behind. If we were lucky we would be able to ride in one of the newer coaches, although they weren’t really new as they had been superseded themselves. The balconies would fade into memory, and eventually they would be completely replaced by other wood and leather creations, very similar to the 2nd class E13 sleeper that I saw at SANRASM.
That coach had the leather and wood smell about it, and when I explored it I was amazed at how much of it was as I remembered. The last time I would travel on a wood and leather coach like this would be in 1980 when I traveled on one to Potch to do my national service, but that’s another story for another time.
Part 2: In which we travel on the Trans-Natal.
We seemed to go to Durban every 7 years, and we stayed at the “Coogee Beach Hotel” which was if I recall in Gillespie Street. The overnight train trip (aka “The Holiday Train”) was part of the holiday, and about 6 weeks before we were due to leave my father would go to Park Station to book our compartment on the Trans-Natal. It was a very formal occasional too, the bookings for main line trains was run almost like a travel agent, and you bought the tickets as well as bedding tickets and meal tickets there. Then the long wait which would involve endless imagination, careful choice of clothing and end of year exams. Eventually the big day would arrive and one fine day in December we would pack the red samsonite suitcases and head off to Park Station and down to the main line platforms where we would eagerly wait for the pair of red electric units bringing in the train.
The concourse at Park Station was somewhat of a cathedral with its high ceiling, polished floors and islands leading down to the platforms. It was also segregated and in later years I got to know it reasonably well. I revisited it in 2012, and posted about that on my blog.
The first thing we had to do was check the passenger plan on the board at the platform, this would indicate which coach and which compartment your family was placed in. the coaches had a spring clip outside the windows of each compartment or coupe, and a small tag would be affixed to that clip with the passengers names on them. My father was never one for being late so invariably we stood around for hours waiting for the train to arrive. Eventually the electric units would come through, big red heavy machines that made a wonderful noise that is still characteristic of the 6E’s today.
Sadly the wonderful wooden coaches had been replaced by the all new Formica clad oval roof saloons on these “crack” mainline trains so part of the fun was gone.
The train would be packed during the holiday season and people would throng the platform and windows, waiting until the departure bells rang and the units suddenly turned on the blowers as they started to inch forward out of Park Station. Some of the images I am using are of a trip I took with Reefsteamers in 2010 when we passed through Park Station en route for Magaliesburg.
We never ate in the dining saloon of the train, but always had a huge hamper of sandwiches, boiled eggs, tea and fruit to munch on. Invariably we were hungry immediately after leaving Johannesburg. Then the ticket examiner would call, and then the bedding boy who would take orders for beds in preparation for making the beds in the traditional blue SAR blankets and starched sheets. A steward would also come around and take orders for the dining saloon. At Germiston they would shunt on coaches from Pretoria and we would be able to watch the steam engines in action. In 1986 during my last trip on the Trans-Natal the shunt would be done by the steam pilot loco of Germiston, class 12AR “Susan”, who is still around and used by Reefsteamers. Then the blowers would start up and the train would start to move, nary a jerk would be felt and it usually felt as if the platform was leaving the train instead of the other way around.
The journey would formally commence and we would trundle towards Durban. After or during our packed supper the beds would be made up by the bedding boy, and that meant that the bench seats were no longer available to sit on, but we would still lean out of the windows watching the scenery go past. Sleep did not feature in our plans, after all we only did this every 7 years and only had 7 days to do it all in.
Eventually my parents would pack us all off to bed, first banishing us to the corridor while she changed. My brother and I always in the upper bunks. Alas, sleep never came to me on those trips and it would be a long night of listening to the unique noises of a train and feel the swaying motion as we journeyed to Natal.
The modern coaches were very close in design to the wooden coaches although the clerestory roof was gone and the woodwork had been replaced by easy to clean Formica, although the leather seats were still there. The difference between 2nd and first class was that in 2nd class 6 bunks could be made up whereas in 1st only 4 were, and the leather was blue and there was a shower in the first class coaches.
The strange basin was still the same, as was the steam radiator and of course the blue water bottle which stood at the end of the corridors still dispensed water from a silver tap. There were also 3rd class coaches which were mostly sitters, and of course strictly segregated from the rest of the train.
Once again sleep would evade us and the night would drag on, the Trans-Natal was an express so did not stop at each and every station, so occasionally the outside light that shone through the steel shutters would change as we hurtled through a station. Every now and then a sliding door would open as somebody headed off to the loo down the passage, and occasionally the units in front would sound their horns. We were safe in those trains, we knew the driver and his assistant were awake and secretly I really wanted to be a train driver driving the units, although I ended up in the Telecommunications Department instead.
The next morning would see us meandering down the long hills of Natal, calling at some of the sleepy stations along the way. Marionhill was very memorable because the train seemingly stopped in the middle of nowhere, and heaps of African children would throng around the train hoping that people would throw coins or sweets for them. Then we would slowly pull away again and continue on our journey to Pietermaritzburg with its circular platform and strange unfamiliar steelwork. It was a very pretty station, and nothing like the concrete monoliths in Durban and Johannesburg.
Then we were off once again on the final downhill stretch to Durban, by now the air felt very different, a touch of humidity and heat? those trains were not air conditioned and opening a window was the best way to keep cool. The holiday feel was in the air. The cuttings and greenery started to give way to houses and industry and soon we were wending our way into Durban Station. I think I only went into the new station in 1986, our other arrivals may have been at the old station. Our holiday had begun!.
There are at least 3 reels of 8mm footage from our Durban holidays that have survived. Unfortunately though, they are random and don’t seem to have any real theme. Just a family, on their holidays. Actually its more about 2 boys on their holidays with the occasional shot of my father in them. That means my mother must have been playing cameraperson. There is one image that came out which I am particularly fond of, and which I would love to have as a still image.
Naturally there are no images of the train trip itself, but then film was an expensive commodity and while I do recall taking photographs one year, they were never developed and the film was lost forever.
Those seven days flew by in 2 days, and eventually we would be dropped off at the station by my uncle and board the train for the trip back to Johannesburg. It too was a identical trip, except for one odd thing which always confused me. In the morning it always felt as if we were heading in the wrong direction, instead of going towards Johannesburg it felt as if we were heading back to Durban. I always secretly hoped that this was the case, but it never was. Arriving at Park Station was an anti-climax. It did not feel good to be at home, although none of us missed the heat and humidity. The only real thing we brought back was sunburn, sand in strange places and a bottle of sea water for the maid. It was really time to start counting off another 7 years on the calendar. But first it was Back to School!
The last time I caught the Trans-Natal was in 1986, I had resigned from Transnet (as the SAR was now known) and had a weeks holiday. I traveled 1st class on my annual free pass and it was almost exactly as I remembered it from my childhood, the only difference was that I ate breakfast in the dining saloon. It was also the last time I traveled on a mainline train in South Africa.
Reefsteamers operated two sets of original ex SAR coachsets in their original livery. They have saloons and sitters and the experience is very good for nostalgia sake. Unfortunately Reefsteamers ceased trading in 2019.
Train travel as part of the holiday was fun when you were young, although I do not know how my parents coped with us in that compartment, fortunately the trips were only overnighters. We never went on the Blue train, or even the Trans-Karoo, so those experiences are not in my field of knowledge. I did use the train when I was doing my national service, traveling from Johannesburg to Bloemfontein, Kimberly and Jan Kemp Dorp. That one involved a change at Warrenton and a 4 hour wait for the Mafeking train with its steam loco in front. I wish I had paid more attention to those trips but then we were more interested in getting home to civvy street. I also saw a troop train leave Johannesburg bound for the border, and it was a very memorable occasion, long lines of uniformed soldiers waving as the train pulled out of the station, the noise and emotion were very tangible, and very sad too. Those days are gone. The railways that I knew no longer exists, it has moved on, but whether it has improved I cannot say as I have never traveled with Shosholoza Meyl, I believe that it is still fun, it is just slightly different.
I spotted a report in the Business Insider that was advertising the return of Shosholoza Meyl after the suspension of it’s licence in following a fatal collision with a goods train near Horizon View on 12 February 2020. The report also quoted the following prices:
Economy class ticket between Johannesburg and East London – R300, tourist class – R480.
Economy between Johannesburg and Durban – R170, tourist class – R360.
Economy between Johannesburg and Komatipoort – R190, tourist class – R270.
Economy between Johannesburg and Musina – R190, tourist class – R310.
Economy between Johannesburg and Queenstown – R240, tourist class – R400.
Economy between Johannesburg and Port Elizabeth – R320, tourist class – R500
Economy between Johannesburg and Cape Town – R440, tourist class – R690
Special credit must go to Reefsteamers who managed to maintain their fleet of nostalgia which helped me so much to recapture some of my lost memories. SAR Menus courtesy of Brian Bunyard.
© DRW. 2014-2022. Created 24/08/2014. Images recreated and posts merged 19/04/2016