On 2 January 1980 I started to work for what was then known as “South African Transport Services”, it was only for 2 weeks though as I departed shortly thereafter for my 2 year sojourn in the SADF. But, being a member of SATS, I was now entitled to all the privileges that went with working for a bloated organisation that was responsible for moving large amounts of people in various states of comfort or discomfort. I was employed as an “apprentice telecommunication electrician” in the Telecoms department, my depot being on Johannesburg Station in what was then the telecoms building. The theory was that we would do our practical training there until we qualified and would then be posted to the depot as a fully qualified artisan. The Telecoms building was part of the North Station complex and had a large South African coat of arms on it. Access was gained through a lift tower on an island just outside where the plinthed steam loco was.
The building housed a 10000 line electro-mechanical exchange as well as a telex exchange that served the many railway and SAA offices that were scattered around Johannesburg city. The local section I eventually ended up working at had offices in 22 buildings. There were also dedicated technicians at Airways Centre, Union Square and Paul Kruger Building. Between when I qualified and when I came out of the army I learnt a lot about the interior of the station, but never really viewed it as a place of interest.
Many of the offices were old dingy spaces, and the concourse was a cold impersonal place that we used to catch trains from. The best part about catching a train was when you caught a main line train at platform 15, 16 or 17, but that only happened on rare occasions.
The image above is interesting because parts of the concourse have not been built and the platforms not been decked over, neither has the steam engine been plinthed outside the North Station Building. I do know that by 1972 the engine was in place so this image pre-dates 1972. Rissik Street runs past the station as the western boundary with the South Station Building entrance facing Eloff Street. Wolmarans Street formed the northern boundary of the station precinct, and Wanderers the eastern boundary.
Rotunda and Airways Centre were on the opposite side of Rissik. These were home to South African Airways and Rotunda was also the main booking area. Towards the end of my days at SATS they also acquired Airways Centre which was on the corner of Wolmarans and Rissik.
The main “entrance” to the station was at South Station building, which was somewhat of an odd building, its original use no longer in context with what it was at the time. Part of the original Park Station was a wedding cake of glass and steel that can still be seen in Newtown.
The original vision of the architect was of a grandiose structure festooned with themes depicting animals and transportation, but the finished structure really ended up as being somewhat of a tired hodge podge instead. Granted, it may have been a different story when the original station existed. But from 1955 till 1959 a whole new platform and station complex was built which rerouted lines and must have caused havoc. The end result was what I grew up with, and which is still a close approximation of what can be seen today. Strict segregation was in force and the “European” concourse was generally a very quiet spot except during rush hour when hordes of white passengers descended onto the islands that led down to the platforms. The general hubbub being punctuated by the voice of the heavily accented announcer who would breathless announce: “dietreinopplatform5isdietreinnaflorida“. The “Non-European” concourse must have been chaotic all the time, with thousands of Africans trying to catch their overcrowded 3rd class suburbans to Soweto and environs. These trains departed mainly from Platform 1 and 2, and were sometimes overflowing with humanity in transit.
The main “European” concourse hall was a large open space punctuated by the islands for the platforms and a “restaurant” on a small mezzanine that had a spiral staircase situated in a wishing well, leading up to it. “Pie gravy and chips” being a house speciality.
Of course, being the “old South Africa” the whole station would literally die as the country stopped work at 1pm on a Saturday. The only people to be seen were those who came into town to visit the bioscope, catch a train or who may have been working weekend shifts. The irony is that the biggest user of some of the trains were railways workers and we got our tickets cheap.
The station precinct also was home to Tippet Building, and the Systems Managers Offices, as well as Railway Police, “Taal Bureau”, Stores and many other minor departments and their offices. All manner of functionality could be found if you knew were to look amongst the many hidden nooks and crannies.
There are portions of the station today that have not changed in years and a recent discovery of old travel and advertising posters in an unused tunnel makes me wonder how much is still sitting there waiting to be found.
Between the Systems Managers offices and South Station Building is a courtyard that now houses a KFC as well as an office of the police. In my day the display cases were often used to showcase exhibits that were used in recruiting potential employers to work for SATS. There was also a pedestrian subway that crossed under De Villiers Street and came out next to what is now “Attwell Gardens”, a park that is now used by the many children that live in the area. The subway is boarded shut and an informal market is now found at its exit.
The one interesting artefact we found was one of the station clocks that had been manufactured in 1870 and removed from the original station in 1933 and re-erected in 1958. There were 2 sets of these clocks, but the one on the corner of Rissik and De Villiers is gone. These clocks, like all the clocks on the station, would have been controlled from the master clock in the exchange in the telecoms building.
The original station building (pre-1955) was the work of Gordon Leith and Gerard Moerdyk, and the foundation stone was laid on 11 December 1928. The ornamental facade and original South Station building still survives today, but the facade seems lost, and the three closed entrances lend this long structure a desolate look.
If you could go in through this entrance you would find a staircase that leads downwards into what used to be the old concourse that connected to the original 1930’s station.
The modernisation of the station rendered this area obsolete, and it became the home of the Museum, Tea Room and Blue Room. This area is beautiful in spite of its emptiness and feel of abandonment.
When I was young and we had time to kill we would come down here and stare at the contents of the museum. There was something exotic about this area, it had an otherness that was quite different to the feel of the station.
The Museum used to be on the right of the staircase and the tea room on the left with a preserved heritage locomotive sitting in the area between the two fountains. This locomotive, the Emil Kessler, was the original locomotive that ran as the “Rand Tram” between Johannesburg and Boksburg from 1890 until it was withdrawn in 1903.
The area of the lower concourse is devoid of anything except dust and shafts of sunlight that penetrate the gloom. The tea room with its blue and white tiles is empty, as is the museum and the bar and toilets.
It is a fascinating area to explore, but a space that realistically would be very difficult to re-open given the change in demographics of the station
The problem with this particular building is that you could demolish it and nobody would really notice. It’s original use has been superseded a long time ago, and many of the offices could easily be accommodated in other station buildings. My memory of the offices here was of cramped “government issue” styled rooms with poor ventilation and lighting, occupied by rude clerks and minor functionaries.
Bidding this almost Moorish area a farewell, we headed back to the concourse, and from there homewards. Photography is not allowed inside the concourse, although you would struggle to find signage that tells you this if you entered from the parking lot. Today the platform islands are gone, the old ticket office no longer exists, and the train departure board stands empty. There more people here now, and there is quite a buzz. The old CNA still stands where it did when I was young, but the wishing well is gone, and there is a new mezzanine level around the sides. The former main line booking hall is no longer there, and today people queue for inter city buses or to travel on the Shosoloza Meyl or Premier Klasse. The old steam loco that used to be plinthed outside the telecoms building was removed to the Outeniqua Transport Museum and the whole outside parking was finally decked over.
The former “non European” concourse now houses the Metrorail concourse and it is no longer segregated.
On the other side of the Rissik Street Bridge, the old Rotunda stands empty and silent. Today it is easier to book a flight on-line.
Close to the old Telecoms building is the Gautrain station, and the Reya Vaya stop is within walking distance of the old station and Gautrain. The old gulf red and quaker grey trains are all gone, repainted yellow and grey and many are still in service under a new guise, but a shade of their former selves.
Mainline trains still leave from here, but the service is a shade of its former self too, although some of the original coaches are still in service, as are the 6E electric units.
I left SATS in 1986, and made 3 more trips by train from Park Station, my last probably around 1988. The station is not quite the way I last saw it, it is the same station, just different.
The tour was organised by Past Experiences who operate walking tours in and around the city.
Don’t even get me started on station clocks…. When I qualified as a telecoms sparky one of my duties were the station clocks on Germiston Station, these were stepped by means of a pulse every 30 seconds that originated from the master clock in the exchange. Each platform had a double faced one, usually close to the stairs (this is 1985 btw), every morning when I arrived from Johannesburg by train I used to check the clock against my watch to see if it was running fast or slow, and when I went to the depot would check 2 faces of the tower clock on the station building.
If the platform clocks were loosing or gaining I would then have to grab a ladder and a battery and climb up to that clock and disconnect it from the cable and manually step it until it was right and then reconnect it. I have no idea how old the clocks were, but they were definitely not the latest model. If you tried to step the clock with the cable connected you could then upset the other clocks. Unfortunately the wiring on Germiston station was covered in soot from the many steam locos that plied up and down in it. (Susan my favourite steam engine included). And, the wires had been disconnected and reconnected so many times they were becoming perilously short.
The tower clock was a different ballgame, this was situated in a tower on top of the roof and was accessed via a trapdoor that led down a rickety ladder into a passage below. If my memory serves me right there was one mechanism that drove all 4 faces via a gearbox. But setting the time was another story altogether. Theoretically they should all have been showing the same time, but because of wear and tear in the hands and shafts, as the minute hand rose from 6 -12 the face would loose time, and as the hands fell between 12 and 6 the face would gain time (it’s called gravity). Each face was more prone to this than the other and we tried our best to find a way to prevent the hands from doing it but the whole mechanism was worn. You could also cheat a bit by physically moving a hand to try make the time more accurate but this could only be done from outside the tower. If we removed the hands or one face needed to be removed we then had to climb onto the station roof and blank that face off. There was a rusty iron ladder on the one side that gave us access to the ledge around the tower and a rusty chain that was to prevent us falling off. That crummy clock was one of my bugbears because the tech supervisor used to catch the train too and would check the clocks when he arrived and I would get a call logged to go sort them out.
You can see the white painted external ladder and the chains in the photograph below, you can also see the faces are showing different times. Sigh. All my hard graft for nothing.
I was also responsible for the departure bells, and rewiring the main line platform with new bells, cables and bellpushes was the last job I did at SATS. I recall wading through 6 inches of soot on the roofs of the buildings to access the cables. We had a .22 powered Hilti gun that we had to use to mount some of the equipment with and had to notify the railway police (aka Stasie Blompotte) that we were going to use it, otherwise they would have thought somebody was letting off a firearm.
I also used to be responsible for the Signal Post Telephones (SPT’s) between the rails as well as the battery chargers in the signal cabins (4 cabins in Germiston) as well as the foot switch alarms in the ticket offices and all the phones in the whole railway area that was part of Germiston. I also used to maintain the intercom system and the cables and speakers associated with it. Blimey, I worked much harder then than I do now.
By the time I left SATS in 1986 they were looking at replacing the platform clocks with digital ones, but I don’t know if that ever happened. Although, the clocks I saw on the platform in 2010 looked very much like the ones I used to set back in 1985/6. Looking at the infrastructure today, after last seeing it in 1986, I can just imagine what Barney (seriously nasty Tech Supt in the Johannesburg Telecoms Depot) would have said about the current state of affairs. Probably rolling in his grave.
Coming back from the West Rand one Saturday, I was in the area of Witpoortjie Station, and on that day my favourite steam engine was returning from her day trip to Magaliesberg. I decided to see whether I could catch her coming through the station on her way back to Germiston. That short video may be seen on my youtube channel.
On my way out of the station I found a plaque that very few people know exists.
This plaque ties into the geological formation and area commonly known as the Witwatersrand(Ridge of White Water)
Witpoortjie is one of those small sleepy stations that exist serving a dwindling number of train commuters on a train system that is no longer in tune with demand. This is probably its only claim to fame.
Not too far from here are the mining areas of the West Rand as well as Confidence Reef.However, very few people are really aware of this tiny bit of information that is relevant to understanding more about the geology of Johannesburg.