The joy of Model Railways

When I was young, model trains was one of the hobbies you wanted to pursue. And, like today, they were overpriced and out of reach of the casual buyer  The dominant player in the South African entry level market was the Italian manufacturer Lima. Somebody in their organisation was astute enough to realise that there was a smallish demand for SAR/SAS items to be sold inside the country.  Lima had a number of sets on the shelves; there was Lima Crick, which was a wind up entry level toy.

Then there were the “Junior” sets which were battery driven from a battery box and which had indifferent quality coaches masquerading as the real thing. I had a “Blue Train” which I seem to recall cost R19 at the time. The locomotives bore no resemblance to anything on the SAR at the time, but then as children we were not as sensitive to accuracy as serious modellers were/are.

And finally there were the “proper” HO gauge trains which ideally one would use as a basis to build up a full size collection from. Lima also produced “N” gauge but I never saw any of these in South Africa up till recently. Acquiring a catalogue was always worth the effort as you could pore over it for hours, wishing that you had one of the many sets displayed inside it.

However, these train sets were expensive, and of course we were in school so none of us had any money! Once I started working I started to collect, first on my list was the Trans Karoo with its lovely 5E-919 and steel bodied 1st and 2nd class saloons, dining saloon and bagvan. The models themselves were primitive, and the traction motor in the 5E was/is a dismal performer.

Traction motor for a Lima 5E

The set above is typical of what was available. This particular set is more of an entry level passenger train as it excludes the 2nd class saloon which you would have gotten with a slightly bigger (and more expensive) set. Interestingly enough, I found an old Christmas shopping guide for 1976, and this particular set cost the princely sum of R37-95!  Unfortunately I could not find out what the average salary was in 1976.

You were able to buy a dummy 5E as well as additional coaches, track sets and buildings off the shelf. A Blue Train was also available, but its coaches were not based on actual Blue Train coaches, although the 5E was blue. There was also a nice suburban train in the original colours of the SAR/SAS


As well as a “Metroblitz” knockoff, which in reality was just a repaint of the 5E and other coaches.

Today these sets are very much desired by collectors, the Metroblitz is especially rare. and quite a number of suburban sets have been repainted in the new Metrorail colours.   Goods trains were also available, and they usually had a class 34 diesel and a very nice rake of goods wagons. If anything the goods wagons were much easier to fake than a steel bodied saloon.  

Particularly coveted was the model of the “V8” Guards Van. This particular wagon was slightly out of scale with the real thing, but it was one of those wagons every collector wanted. Sadly, the real V8’s have all but become extinct from the real South African railway network. 

The big problem with HO gauge is that it takes up space, and my set was mounted on a large piece of chipboard that lived behind my desk. Each time I wanted to play with it I had to do major shuffling around of furniture which became a nuisance and my interest level fell. What I was really after was something smaller, like an “N” gauge set. So, like an idiot I disposed of my collection. Little knowing how desirable it would become so many years later. 

N vs. HO. N gauge in front, HO behind

N vs. HO. N gauge in front, HO behind

Lima 5E in HO Gauge, and 6E in N Gauge

Wind forward 25 years. Lima is no longer available in South Africa, and hasn’t been for years. The second hand market in South African Railway Lima items has grown, and the prices are unrealistic. However, many enterprising modellers have entered the market, creating very detailed SAR/SAS items,  although these are not aimed at the casual hobbyist, but rather the serious collector.
The current owner of the Lima brand is Hornby, and they do not export SAR items to South Africa. All that is available in the toy shops are Hornby OO gauge, and Bachmann sets based on American rolling stock. Specialist model train hobby shops (and there are a few),  have a nice selection of German equipment, and there is always bidorbuy, ebay, or directly importing yourself. Oddly enough American rolling stock and trackwork does have a large following in South Africa, and you have to admit, there are some amazing diesels and steam locos in the line up of American railway equipment.  I sold off my original small N Gauge set many years ago, having been unable to get any new rolling stock for it. My current N gauge ended up in storage as I downscaled due to retrenchment. I was fortunate enough to find the basics of this set very cheaply, and was able to add to it mainly through the second hand market. At one point I even tried to convert it to a digital layout, but fitting the decoders in those small locos was a major problem.

However, I will hang onto the loose odds  of  Lima SAR stuff I have picked up. I have always liked those 1st and 2nd class coaches in spite of their many faults. And 5E-919 is about as close as I will get to having a 6E1.  Its really all about the nostalgia aspect of it as opposed to finding rolling stock for an existing layout. Living in a flat does not make for easy model railroading.

5E-919. Red and Gulf Red versions

5E-919. Red and Gulf Red versions

2nd Class "Cape Town" Saloon

2nd Class “Cape Town” Saloon

1st Class "Johannesburg" Saloon

1st Class “Johannesburg” Saloon

Dining Saloon "Sabie"

Dining Saloon “Sabie”

I too am fortunate that I can still find real vintage coaches to look at, and I have photographs of many of them. There is no doubt that the railways that I knew exists no longer, the wood and leather clerestory coaches are a memory. The steam engines are an endangered species, and even the much loved 6E1 is seeing the end of its long reign. Model trains may be one of the few places left where you can look back on the past and participate in it. 

Unfortunately, the old Transport Museum in Heidelberg shut up shop years ago, although the rolling stock is still there. I was fortunate enough to be allowed to look around the coaches and dining salons and it was heck of a nostalgia trip for me. 

Update: 02/08/2014

While attending a live steam event in Salisbury, I chanced upon a Blue and a Gulf Red 5E-515 as well as a 1st class sub coach and driving trailer. They were still in their boxes and had their original price tags on them. The 5E cost a whopping R19.95, while the 1st class sub coach cost R4.99 and the driving trailer for the sub cost R16.95. The one box was for a 309242 (First class saloon) and it was marked R4.95. If I interpret the price tag correctly these date from 1981. I will not discuss how much I paid for them in UK Pounds, suffice to say I would probably not be able to buy them at that price in South Africa. 


DRW ©  2012-2022. Images recreated 21/03/2016. Updated with more images 13/05/2016

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