A Gricer's Guide To The Railways of South Africa

By Luke Ripley (including photographs)


South Africa has an extensive railway network consisting of some 21,303 route-km of 1067 mm (3' 6") "Cape" gauge line, and 314 route-km of 610 mm (2' 0") narrow gauge line. Electrification has been piecemeal, resulting in seven isolated electrified networks, operating on three different voltages, totalling: 5916 km at 3 kV dc, 2286 km at 25 kV ac, 861 km at 50 kV ac, and 15 km at dual 3 kV dc / 25 kV ac. The system (except for a few short lines which have been privatised) is operated by Spoornet, a division of Transnet Ltd, a profit- centred public company formed when the former South African Transport Services (SATS), of which South African Railways (SAR) was a part, was restructured in 1990. Spoornet is responsible for the commercial railway freight and passenger businesses, while the heavily subsidised suburban passenger operations have become the responsibility of the South African Rail Commuter Corporation (SARCC), which is entirely outside the Transnet group.


Spoornet is predominantly a freight railway. Traffic, which in 1992 amounted to 89,248 million ton-km, is dominated by the ever- increasing volumes of export coal and iron-ore on Spoornet's two heavy- haul lines, which now generate around 30% of Spoornet's total revenue. The Richard's Bay Coal Line is now moving nearly 60 million tonnes annually, using 200- wagon trains of 20,800 gross tonnes. The 861 km Sishen - Saldanha line, purpose-built in the mid- 1970's for the export of iron-ore, uses 210-wagon trains of 22,300 gross tonnes; these are Africa's heaviest trains. Each train is 2.2 km long, and is hauled by three class 9E (50 kV ac) locos. On the rest of the network, a considerable quantity of block freight and container traffic is handled, but general goods traffic has been in decline for several years due to intense road competition. There is a strong case for suggesting that road hauliers are not paying the full costs of their infrastructure (and other externalities), and that this is shifting traffic from rail to road, against the interests of economic efficiency (sounds familiar, doesn't it?).

Mainline  Passenger

Long-distance passenger services are operated by Spoornet's Main Line Passenger Services division (MLPS). These have never been a very profitable part of Spoornet's business, and suffered badly in the run- up to the "commercialisation" of SATS in the late 1980's. Widespread withdrawals took place in a bid to reduce losses, with many routes losing their passenger service altogether. Revenue from the remaining services now amounts to only about 2% of Spoornet's total revenue. More recently, however, there has been a marked resurgence in demand, and MLPS has been cautiously reinstating services to take advantage of this.

Spoornet's 'Komati' now runs through to/from Maputo three times a week. It is seen here awaiting departure from the Mozambique border station of Ressano Garcia on 31st May 1995, behind one of CFM's GE U20Cs, No. D61.

The flagship train is, of course, the world-famous Blue Train. This continues to run (at a price!) on its traditional route between Cape Town and Pretoria, although there are now occasional trips to the Eastern Transvaal and Victoria Falls as well. For the ordinary passenger (and the travelling basher), the principal trains are the dozen or so "Name Trains", which run between major cities, and, in some cases, across the border to Zimbabwe and Mozambique. Most run once-daily, and all involve an overnight journey (two nights in the case of the Trans Oranje, between Cape Town and Durban). There are also a number of secondary trains, which run mainly at weekends (out on Friday night, back on Sunday night).

MLPS provides three classes of accommodation: 1st class, which has 4-berth compartments and 2-berth compartments; 2nd class, which has 6-berth compartments and 3-berth compartments; 3rd class, which consists mainly of seating in open coaches. In 1st and 2nd class, the seats convert to sleeping berths for overnight travel, and bedding is provided at a nominal additional charge. Most "Name Trains" have a restaurant car, offering very reasonably-priced meals, for use by passengers in 1st or 2nd class. Advance booking is essential in order to be assured of being able to travel in 1st or 2nd class on a particular train, although the train manager can allocate spare berths to un-booked passengers. Fares are very reasonable: the 1st class fare for the 1600 km between Pretoria and Cape Town on the Trans Karoo, for example, is R255 (about £45); return fares are double. Train formations are generally lengthy, with 18 or 19 coach loads being very common, but the traditional SAR red and grey livery has now largely given way to a new blue and white scheme. There are few opportunities for sustained high-speed running, but if you thought the days of loco-hauled, vacuum- braked, and (in winter) steam-heated express passenger trains were over, think again!

Suburban Passenger

Suburban services are the responsibility of the South African Rail Commuter Corporation (SARCC). SARCC now has ownership of all its rolling stock, while ownership of fixed infrastructure (track, etc) used jointly by SARCC and Spoornet services has been divided between SARCC and Transnet according to which is deemed to be the principal user. The day-to-day operation of the service is carried out by Metro, a division of Spoornet, under contract to SARCC.

Suburban services are operated (under the "Metro" name) in five metropolitan areas: around Johannesburg, Pretoria, Cape Town, Durban, Port Elizabeth and East London, the first three having quite extensive networks. Most of these lines are electrified at 3 kV dc, and are operated almost exclusively by the ubiquitous, and ageing, class 5M2 and 5M2A EMU's. The 5M2's were supplied by Metro- Cammell between 1958 and 1960, while the 5M2A's are later builds to the same design, built locally by Union Carriage & Wagon over the period 1961-85. Altogether there are over 4500 cars in service, and these are made up in virtually random formations of up to 14 cars, as required. The new yellow and grey Metro livery is gradually replacing the old SAR red and grey, but it is still quite unusual to see an entire train in the same livery. The Cape system also has a small fleet of more modern Japanese- built EMU's, and there are a small number of loco- hauled workings over non- electrified routes (or those electrified at other than 3 kV dc).

Vintage EMUs and semaphores: A 5M2A set in SAR livery forms the 16.55 Cape Town - Strand on 14th March 1995, seen here near Somerset West

SARCC faces a severe problem with fare evasion; it is estimated that up to 25% of its passengers travel without tickets, and this is a problem which is being urgently addressed. Overall, only about 30% of costs are recovered from revenue, with the rest (around R 1.2 billion) being met by subsidy from central government. In line with the new government's policy to improve public transport, SARCC is currently investigating proposals for many new lines and services.


Steam traction is no longer in general use on Spoornet lines. However, Transnet has established a Heritage Foundation (THF) which now owns and maintains all steam locomotives remaining in railway service. In addition, the George- Knysna line (a highly scenic 67 km coastal branch line) has been declared a "museum line". Although the line still carries commercial freight traffic, all trains are normally worked by THF steam locos based at Voorbaai, and two daily trains each way run as mixed trains, for the benefit of tourists (and gricers). THF also runs regular weekend steam excursions from Johannesburg to Magaliesburg (as does SANRASM, the South African National Railway and Steam Museum), and the Union Limited steam tours from Cape Town. In addition, steam still sees regular main line passenger service: the Trans Karoo is generally double-headed by a pair of 25NC 4-8-4s from Johannesburg to Klerksdorp (186 km) FO, returning SO. There are various other preservation groups around the country. Kimberley-based "Steamnet 2000" operates occasional steam-hauled freights over the Kimberley - De Aar "Steel Kyalami", on the "plandampf" principle; Pretoria-based "Friends of the Rail" runs steam- hauled weekend excursions and enthusiast specials; the Umgeni Steam Railway operates from two sites (Hilton and Pinetown) on the old Natal main line.

Steam & Safaris' "Drekensberg Farewell" tour departs from Franschhoek behind class 19D 4-8-2 no....

Narrow Gauge

The 122 km, 2' 0" gauge, Port Shepstone - Harding line is now owned and operated by the Alfred County Railway (ACR), sometimes affectionately referred to as the Alan (Jorgenson) & Charlie (Lewis) Railway, after its two enthusiastic directors. The railway owns a number of steam locos, although most are stored, and most traffic (predominantly timber) is now worked by two leased Spoornet class 91 diesels. Steam is normally only used on the Banana Express tourist trains from Port Shepstone: ThSuO (WSX in high season) to Izotsha (13 km), and WSO to Paddock (39 km), although Paddock trains usually run as "mixeds", providing the rare sight of steam hauling revenue- earning freight.

The ACR has also been running the Apple Express steam-hauled tourist trains on the Port Elizabeth narrow gauge system, after Spoornet had ceased to operate them, and had expressed an interest in taking over the freight operations too. Union opposition and financial difficulties have forced ACR to withdraw, but the Apple Express Society continues to operate weekend trips from Port Elizabeth to Thornhill (53 km), with occasional longer trips.

ACR is busy overhauling a couple of its narrow gauge Garratts, which have been sold to the Festiniog Railway, for use on the welsh Highland Railway. March 1996 will see a deputation from the FR visiting South Africa to inspect their locos, and ride behind them over the ACR; a special trip with the Apple Express is also being arranged to cover the entire Port Elizabeth narrow gauge system over 5 days, including all 284 km of the "main line" to Avontuur.

Author's Note

It is hoped that some of the operations mentioned briefly above might form the subject of future Eagle articles, but in the meantime, if anyone is planning to visit southern Africa, and would like more information/advice, by all means contact me (via the editor, or e-mail lripley@csir.co.za), and I'll be happy to help. I can also recommend David Forsyth's South African Rail Enthusiast's Web site (http://www.ru.ac.za/departments/iwr/staff/daf/sartrain.html).

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