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An Apple Express History

 

The Apple Express dates from May 1965 after a request from the Port Elizabeth Historical society to operate the train on a day trip to Loerie. The first trip was so over-subscribed that another train had to be run the following week. This proved that the people of Port Elizabeth needed to get away from the city life to relax and enjoy themselves. The Apple Express gave them the chance to do it, and has been doing so for almost 50 years.

The Apple Express has also played an important role in preserving a valuable part of South Africa’s rich rail history, with the Port Elizabeth-Avontuur narrow gauge lines internationally recognised and regarded as one of the

Top 10 narrow gauge lines in the world.

The PE-Avontuur Narrow Gauge Line– A brief history

This narrow gauge line was authorised in 1899 and construction commenced in 1902, reaching the Avontuur late in 1906. The line was built to connect the scenic Langkloof with its fruit growing industry to the port of Port Elizabeth. The official opening of the line was in 1907, with a main line track length of 284km (177 miles) from Port Elizabeth to Avontuur. The 30km branch line from Gamtoos Junction to Patensie was completed on April 3, 1914 to serve this rich irrigation area.

The establishment of the deciduous fruit industry in the Langkloof, and the use of the Narrow Gauge to transport fruit to the cooling sheds in the Port Elizabeth harbour for export, led to the popular name for the narrow gauge, namely APPLE EXPRESS.

In the early days, there was a suburban train service on the narrow gauge from Port Elizabeth station via Humewood Road to Walmer, withthe Walmer branch diverging from the main line at Valley Junction near the present crematorium. This service ceased in 1928.

Chelsea Quarry

Until the mid-twenties, the harbour had been an open roadstead, with the vessels to be discharged lying in a mile offshore, with lighters (towed by steam tugs) plying between the ships and the three jetties. The “North Jetty” was used purely for the landing of passengers andtheir baggage; the “South Jetty” and the “Don Pedro Jetty” were used for goods discharged and loading.

The fishing boats that plied their trade from Algoa Bay used the Don Pedro Jetty, and it was from the end of this pier that the new breakwaterwas constructed. A mile-long breakwater – strong enough to withstand the heavy seas brought in by the south-east gales – called for manytons of stone, which were hauled in by the stone trains that ran over the two-foot rails from Chelsea Quarries.These quarries were operated by convict labour and in order to house the workers, the Department of Prisons constructed a prison nearby.The building material for the prison was taken to the site by Narrow Gauge trains, and during the construction of the breakwater, nearly 350tons were hauled.

By 1931, the harbour was protected by the new breakwater, the prisons of Chelsea were emptied of their occupants, and the haulage ofbroken stone over the Narrow Gauge ceased.

Van Staden’s River Gorge

The Van Staden’s rail bridge is the second highest railway bridge in South Africa, and the highest narrow gauge bridge in the world.

Construction was completed in 1905. The bridge is 156m long, 77m high, contains 1 112 cubic metres of concrete, and 574 tons of steel.

The year 2007 sees 100 years of operations on the two-foot gauge railway from Humewood Road in Port Elizabeth to Avontuur.

Infrastructure

Over the years a number of improvements and deviations have been constructed. Initially these were concerned with replacing temporary bridges and culverts with more permanent structures, and thereafter with reducing curvature and improving gradients on certain sections.

The biggest change came about in the mid-1930s, when a large section of the Patensie Branch – between Centerton (near Hankey) and Patensie – had to be re-routed due to ongoing problems with washaways where the line ran along the banks of the Gamtoos River. This forced a relocation along a different alignment, via a circuitous route, that involved a significant climb and then a torturous descent back onto the original alignment near Gonnakop. Following the development of the limestone quarries around Patensie, in the 1920s, a private siding was constructed from the Eastern Province Cement Company’s Works at New Brighton, Port Elizabeth, to meet with the Port Elizabeth–Avontuur line at Chelsea (22.6km from Port Elizabeth).

During the early-1960s, further improvements were made at various stations along the line to allow for the operation of the Class NG15 locomotives – ex the Tsumeb Railway in South West Africa (now Namibia). Turning triangles were constructed at Van Staden’s, Humansdorp, Louterwater, Misgund and Avontuur and a new turntable installed at Assegaaibos.

The last major improvement came with the introduction of diesel traction, in the mid-1970s, and the whole line was progressively upgraded to cater for the heavier loads of the Class 91 units. Initially only the section between Port Elizabeth and Loerie was done, followed by the sections to Humansdorp and Assegaaibos.

The upgrading of the remainder of the railway line in the Langkloof was only completed in the mid-1980s. The upgrade of the Patensie Branch was done with rails recovered from the defunct Eastern Province Cement private siding – the old rail from the Patensie Branch was given to Sandstone Estates in Ficksburg, Free State, in an exchange deal. Hand-in-hand with the upgrading of the track was the widening of the cuttings along the right-of-way to cater for the increased width of the Class 91 diesel locomotives.

Permanent way

The permanent way itself has been systematically improved over the years, with the whole line (except for some sidings) being laid with 60lb rail. Allthe rail used was second-hand, having been recovered from standard gauge secondary lines as these were upgraded.

Sleepers remain a combination of hardwood, pressed steel and latterly concrete, with rail laid in standard lengths – there is no Continuously Welded Rail (CWR) on the narrow gauge and all turnouts (points) are hand-operated by tumbler throws.

Originally the line was economically constructed with sand or under ballast, but this has been replaced with standard crushed stone ballast. There are no ballast quarries on the narrow gauge system and so all ballast is imported, via the standard gauge, with transfer taking place at Humewood Road in Port Elizabeth where standard gauge wagons are emptied into a hopper and then discharged into narrow gauge wagons on a line at a lower level.

Stations

When the line was originally constructed a number of stations were built and these were staffed, dealing with both passengers and freight, as well as providing operating control.

In the early days there were manned stations at Humewood Road (Port Elizabeth), Thornhill, Loerie, Humansdorp, Assegaaibos, Joubertina, Louterwater and Avontuur. Later this was expanded to Patensie, Gamtoos, Chelsea and Misgund. Chelsea was purely for operational purposes.

The original buildings were generally of timber and corrugated galvanised iron construction, with a pitched roof and covered stoep (verandah). The stations with surviving buildings constructed in this fashion include Sunnyside, Thornhill, Melon (between Loerie and Gamtoos), Billson, Humansdorp, Assegaaibos, Two Streams, Louterwater, Misgund, Haarlem and Avontuur. However, these are no longer used for railway purposes.

In the 1960s and 1970s many of the original buildings, including Humansdorp, Loerie and Patensie, were demolished and replaced with modern face-brick structures. While most stations, even the unmanned ones, had freight loading facilities, often in the form of a goods shed on a short raised platform and a cattle dock. Goods sheds were also of timber and corrugated galvanised iron construction, with pitched roofs and sliding doors and of these a number have survived, with an example to be found at Thornhill. Many of these facilities were expanded by the addition of covered loading facilities, formed out of a steel frame using redundant rails bent to shape and with a corrugated galvanised iron roof.

During the 1960s, with the introduction of the block tablet train control system, little face-brick with concrete roof buildings were built at each siding for the control apparatus. In recent years, with the withdrawal of the passenger service and LCL freight, the use of these facilities has fallen away and the introduction of radio control for train operations has eliminated the manned stations.

Operational Facilities

The main locomotive depot has always been at Humewood Road and the steam locomotive depot there remained in use until the mid-1980s, thereafter being used by the Apple Express until 2005. The facilities at Humewood Road Steam depot were removed in 2010 due to being abandoned and badly vandalized. The historic buildings on site were mothballed for future redevelopment.

In the early year,s locomotive sub-sheds were established at Humansdorp and Assegaaibos and later on at Patensie while servicing facilities were provided at Loerie and Avontuur. En-route watering and ash dumping facilities were installed at a number of points along the line, viz.:

Watertank (between Progress and St Albans)

Van Staden’s Station

Kabeljouwsrivier

Howley

Watertank (between Kammiebos and Kompanjiesdrif)

Louterwater

Watertank (between Haarlem and Siesta)

There was no water at Avontuur. In later years, additional ash dumping points were installed at most stations and passing sidings.

Humewood Road steam depot had a maintenance workshop, with drop pits, and could undertake most routine maintenance and running repairs although all heavy overhauls and major maintenance on locomotives was always done at the Uitenhage Railway Workshops, and locomotives were transported to and from Uitenhage piggy-backed on specially-adapted flat cars on the standard gauge lines. With the introduction of the Class 91 diesel locomotives, in 1972, a new purpose-built service and maintenance depot was constructed in the disused quarry adjacent to the line between Humerail and Humewood and this depot did all servicing and overhauls on the diesel fleet. Currently the heritage steam fleet, operated by Apple Express Rail NPC, also utilises the diesel depot. During the 1960s a substantial new steam locomotive depot, with turntable and coaling stage, was constructed at Assegaaibos, all is still in place if rather overgrown now.

Maintenance

Maintenance of the right-of-way was originally done with section gangs, under the control of Section Foremen based at strategic points along the line, with each ganger being responsible for his particular section, which he patrolled every day. Each section ganger had his little trolley that was used to transport tools, etc. In later years, as was the practice elsewhere on the South African Railway system, maintenance was centralised out of Assegaaibos, Humansdorp and Port Elizabeth. Eventually everything became centralised in Port Elizabeth. Transport was then by road, except on sections of the line between Gamtoos Junction and Hankey where there is restricted access and small hand trolleys are still used.

At present there is one motorised inspection trolley available for on-line inspections. Also as a result of changing policies and priorities within Transnet, and the fact that the narrow gauge is not seen as a core line, has seen no real maintenance along the line. The severe flooding in 2005/6 has not helped the situation and in late 2006 the Patensie Branch was blocked with fallen trees near Patensie and the line to the Langkloof was out of operation beyond Assegaaibos, due to severe flood damage to the line between Assegaaibos and Heights. Subsequent flooding in November 2011 has exacerbated this damage as well as contribute to flood damage on two new sections of the line – at the Port Elizabeth International Airport and Walmer Township.

Motive power

All traffic on the line was hauled by steam locomotives, from the opening of the first section in 1902 until the arrival of the first diesel locomotives in 1972. When the twenty Class 91 locomotives – GE Bo-BoDE type UM6B, makers 38603-22 of 1973, road numbers 91 001-20 – were introduced, their first priority was the haulage of the limestone traffic from Loerie to Chelsea for the EP Cement Company.

Thereafter, the diesels were introduced between Humewood Road and Humansdorp. Once the line to Assegaaibos had been upgraded the diesels took over all workings between Humewood Road and Assegaaibos, with workings beyond Assegaaibos to Joubertina, Louterwater and Avontuur continuing to be steam-hauled. This situation lasted between 1974 and 1984. As time went on the continued upgrading of the line allowed the Class 91 diesels to penetrate further up the Langkloof, until they could workall the way through to Avontuur – although throughout this period the Patensie Branch line was still steam-worked, with the locomotives being based at Loerie and working through from there.

After 1984, changing traffic patterns meant that the diesel fleet could handle most of the remaining traffic and two years later even the Patensie branch went over to diesel haulage – mainly due to a shortage of operational steam locomotives and a surplus of diesel locomotives.

Following the closure of the limestone quarries, near Loerie, and the cessation of stone trains in 2002, there was surplus of motive power and then one class 91 had been converted to 3’6” gauge, which was put to duty shunting in Port Elizabeth and is now located at the Swartkops depot. Class 91 No 91-014 was written-off in an accident some years ago. A number of Class 91 locomotives have been sold to the private sector and currently there are only ten in the TFR fleet, which includes the centenary train power, Class 91 No 91-001 – the only blue Class 91. This locomotive has now engine, but tis reportedly scheduled to be relocated to the Outeniqua Museum at George for preservation.

Train Control

From the outset the PE-Avontuur line has never been signalled and was originally worked by timetable and train order. In the 1920s wooden staff working was introduced on certain sections and a telephone system was installed, between the manned stations along the line.

As the line became busier, during the period after the Second World War, train control became a problem and the decision was taken to introduce the “Van Schoor” automatic token system. This meant that each crossing point – at a manned station or unmanned station or interloop (crossing point) – had to have the equipment installed. At the stations the equipment was generally installed in the existing buildings, but at the unmanned stations and interloops new small red facebrick buildings (with flat concrete roofs) were constructed. Each facility had two “Van Schoor” machines – one for each token section. The introduction of this system meant that under normal operating conditions trains had to stop at every token station to exchange tablets. Although the flexibility and operational safety improved the running times did not, due to the time allowances for the token stops. The only exception to this system was the Patensie Branch, which was operated with a wooden staff system between Gamtoos junction and Patensie.

During the 1960s and 1970s the line was extremely busy, especially in the fruit season when many special trains were run – timetables showing up to 48 trains a day. During the early 1990s the Port Elizabeth Municipality considered the construction of a new 11,000 volt overhead power line, to serve the expanding western suburbs of Port Elizabeth, and this was to run parallel to the line adjacent to the rail reserve from near Theescombe right down to between Lorraine and Bogfarm. Spoornet (as Transnet was then known) was concerned that induction from the power line would interfere with the control signals and telecommunications systems running in the rail reserve and came to an agreement with the Municipality that they would not object to the power line if the Municipality assisted them with the introduction of a new radio control system, which would replace the “Van Schoor” system. Thus a radio order control system was introduced, which was extended to cover the whole line and the Patensie Branch. The new system allowed for much greater flexibility as intermediate stops could be eliminated. The old “Van Schoor” system was abandoned, and the buildings allowed to decay. At some stations the derelict equipment is still in place.

Passenger traffic

Other than the suburban service between Port Elizabeth and Walmer, which lasted until 1928, passenger traffic has always been of secondary importance on the narrow gauge. Normally first, second and third-class accommodation was attached to certain goods trains. Officially, passenger traffic was terminated in 1948, when a road motor service was introduced to the Langkloof. However, third-class accommodation was still provided on the daily “all stations” pick-up train and this served the intermediate stops, which often did not have road access.

This service continued until the late 1970s when operating procedures were changed and guards vans removed, thus leaving no staff on the train to handle tickets, and the remaining passenger traffic finally ceased.

Fortunately, most of the coaching stock has survived and from 1965 has been utilised for the operation of the Apple Express tourist train.

Freight traffic

Goods and freight traffic has been the lifeblood of the line throughout its existence. In the early years it served as a conduit for farmers in the Langkloof and Gamtoos Valley, to get their products to market and also for supplies to be brought in to these areas.

The existence of the railways was an essential part of the dramatic growth in the development of fruit farming, in both the Langkloof and Gamtoos Valley. Large fruit grower co-operatives were developed at Louterwater and Misgund in the Langkloof and at Patensie and these were linked to the railway, and fruit was hauled by rail to the harbour at Port Elizabeth. All this traffic was seasonal, but the peak was from May to September and in later years the Langkloof was extremely busy, with both steam and diesel-hauled trains handling the traffic.

Unfortunately in the mid-1980s this traffic went over to road haulage. The other major traffic was the limestone from the quarries near Loerie to EP Cement Company (EPCC – later PPC) factory at New Brighton in Port Elizabeth. The initial quarries were near Patensie, but in the early-1930s a new quarry was developed near Loerie, with the Limestone being transported by aerial cableway from the quarry to the large loading facility at Loerie.

From Loerie the stone was hauled in open wagons to Chelsea, where it was handed over to the EPCC for haulage on the private siding (branch line) to New Brighton. This service continued until the closure of the quarries in 2003.

In recent years, after the loss of the fruit traffic, there was a surplus of motive power and when the time came for PPC to replace their locomotives, agreement was reached with Spoornet for them to operate the whole line from Chelsea to New Brighton – this simplified operations considerably and the diesel locomotives used between New Brighton and Loerie were sub-shedded at New Brighton.

Following the loss of the stone traffic the major remaining traffic was cut timber, which originated at a number of points along the line, but mostly at Assegaaibos. The other bulk commodity was containerised cement that was shipped from Port Elizabeth to Humansdorp.

Over the last 30 years there have been some interesting developments regarding the handling of freight on the PE–Avontuur narrow gauge line, which has allowed it to survive longer than the other narrow gauge systems in South Africa.

Firstly, the introduction of the C-series heavy-duty gondola wagons for the limestone traffic, which were designed for unloading in a rotary tippler at EPCC. Hand-in-hand with this was the introduction of the Willison knuckle coupler instead of the Norwegian hook normally used. Next came the specialised insulated covered wagons for the conveyance of the apple traffic – these however did not last long due to the change, over to road haulage. Many of these wagons were later modified by the addition of extension plates to widen them to handle palletised citrus fruit – these wagons had their sides removed and roll-down tarpaulins installed.

The general introduction of containers initially was a problem, but specialised fleet wagons were introduced that allowed 6-metre containers to be transported. The introduction of 12-metre high cube containers for the shipping of export fruit has caused a problem that has not been resolved yet, although experimental wagons were constructed to handle these.

To handle the increased timber traffic miniature ST wagons have been built. All freight traffic movement on the line ceased in February 2011, after being generally limited to one train a week –between Port Elizabeth and Assegaaibos – since 2009.

The PE-Avontuur Railway Line currently faces some of the biggest challenges in its more than 100-year history. There is a way forward.