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Quainton News Archive - Quainton News No. 97 - April 2007
An Owner's Representative - Roy Miller
Roy Miller recounts his epic 3-day journey, as Owners Representative, spent on the foot plate of the 25NC from Bethlehem to Durban for transhipment to the UK.
As Curator of the BRC and Secretary of the QRS, I had naturally been closely associated with the negotiations for 25NC. The BRC was also assisting with moving the loco from Southampton to Quainton. During talks with Ken Livermore over details of the move, it transpired that he was having difficulty in finding an Owner's Representative to travel on the locomotive from Bethlehem, the depot in South Africa where the 25NC was shedded, to Durban on the coast where the locomotive would be loaded for shipping to the UK. It was a condition of the movement that an Owner's Representative travelled with the locomotive as it was technically now privately owned. Those members Ken bad contacted either could not afford the fare (having given all their spare cash toward shipping the loco), or could afford it, but could not get the time off for the trip.
As a long-standing member of the North British Locomotive Society, I considered myself an owner (a great admirer of the 25's since my first visit to South Africa). Some more words with Ken and I became the Representative.
South African Airways proved to be the cheapest regular carrier and to my surprise, with a direct flight from London Heathrow. So it was I arrived in Johannesburg after an overnight flight. I arrived ready for a day spent meeting the SAR (Spoornet) people who had made everything possible: Andra Straus and Ian Pretorious of the Johannesburg Railway Museum, and Tommie Marais in charge of special railway movements, who organised the transfer of 3405 from Bethlehem to Durban the following Sunday night.
While with Andra and Ian in the museum, I was tipped off that the Trans Camo would be steam worked from Kimberley to Johannesburg the following day, Saturday. It's booked to arrive at 10:30, but be there by 10:00 was my advice. I was there at 10, then at 10:30 to the second one of the finest sights in 50 years of gricing magnificently glided silently into the station; two 25NC's in absolutely magnificent condition double heading a 21-coach train. I was so overwhelmed and in my haste to take photographs, I forgot to record the numbers, but was later told one was our own locomotive's sister 3404. Next to the locos was a water carrier and generator car. The inevitable small group of boys appeared at the end of the platform and one who bad travelled on the train explained with an obvious air of pride that the train had left Kimberley nearly one hour late the night before but had been banging about approaching Jo' burg in order to arrive dead on time. The two magnificent machines and their water carrier uncoupled and took off for Germiston Depot to be serviced.
I had noticed on the station indicator that the famous Blue Train was due at 11:00 am, so I waited for this. Two beautifully turned out blue electric locomotives double headed an equally immaculate train. Many well heeled folk alighted, to be met by more porters than grace all four London stations put together. I had a good look at what is truly a most elegant train, complete with restaurant cars, lounge bars and wine bars. While I was looking a diesel locomotive slowly departed with the rather run down coaches of the Trans Caroo; it was not the comparison of the two trains that made me look away from the blue elegance, but the comparison of the motive power that had safely conveyed the two trains to their destinations. I would have liked to have travelled on either train, but felt quite justified in leaving the blue electrics and their superb train to board another for a trip down the line to Germiston where the two 25NC's were being serviced.
As many of you will know our chairman, Nick Newport, works for British Airways and visits South Africa more times in a year than I have hot dinners: but by either careful planning, or sheer chance, had arranged to fly to Johannesburg the two weekends our locomotive was moving. We met at my hotel on the Sunday and hired a car for the drive to Bethlehem, a distance of some 350 km.
We arrived in the afternoon and I was introduced to my charge, which had been specially cleaned and put in place of honour at the front of the shed, otherwise filled with diesel and electric locomotives of far less importance. A line of forlorn 25NC's formed a backcloth to the shed where they could only await their inevitable fate. As at every South African depot I have visited, we were made most welcome and little encouragement was needed to have 3405 pulled out of the shed for us to take photographs as it was going to be dark when we departed. A couple of hours were then spent recovering for posterity such items as fire irons and grate levers etc, still laying around the depot yard although steam had ceased some 12 months previously.
One of the conditions for the movement of the locomotive was that the Owner's Representative must be in possession of a third class ticket for the journey. We found the station, an impressive looking facility with six platforms (all electrified) and one forlorn looking set of coaches standing in the up main. We found the booking office which was closed and were advised by a helpful looking official who may or may not have worked for the railway, come back after 6:00 p.m. just before the train departs at 6:30. At the prescribed hour we returned and the office was open. We explained our need and were duly issued with a hand written paper ticket Bethlehem to Durban 3rd class. There was no comment from the booking clerk, who was probably wondering to this day what it was all about, especially as his potential passenger departed in a car. The ticket by the way is now in our Society archives. Nick and I found a local hotel (for Nick) and had something to eat. We also found a reasonable looking cafe. and stocked up with sandwiches and Coca Cola for my journey.
We returned to the Locomotive Depot and were introduced to Roy Raats, a Spoornet diesel fitter from Pietermaritzburg, who had travelled from Durban to accompany the locomotive on its historic journey. Roy was also a keen steam locomotive preservationist and Umgini Railway Society driver. I helped Roy prepare the engine: the coupling rods were still in place, but the connecting rods to the cylinders were laying on the footplate. Most of the locomotive is grease lubricated and we found the depot had carefully attended to this. Mr Lawrence, the Depot Superintendent, arrived and he catalogued the goodies he managed to procure for us, put into the tender lockers before welding the doors shut, an excellent idea in the circumstances.
At 22:30 a pair of 2-5E electric locomotives, numbers 630 and 800, arrived and coupled up to our locomotive. Roy ensured the vacuum brakes on the locomotive were fully operational (the loco and tender are both vacuum braked). The gauge had a broken glass, but faithfully registered both reservoir and line pressure.
I will never forget the look of disappointment on Nick Newport's face as be waved us goodbye on our way to the marshalling yard to pick up our train. After all his hard work he was to be denied the opportunity of riding our locomotive for its last long journey on SA metals. He was still talking to Mr Lawrence and some other railway officials as we left. I am sure they had to constrain him from having a nervous breakdown, or running after us, as we disappeared into the darkness.
It was only a couple of miles or so to our train, which consisted of 1800 tons of mixed traffic in a combination of boxcars and open wagons. There was no brake van or guard on our train. We were marshalled smoke box first behind the two electrics with the train behind. The train number was 5537.
After conferring with the driver and his second man (the latter had walked the length of the train in the company of the yard shunter to check that all was well) we set off at 23:40. Roy and I made ourselves comfortable on the footplate. It was a beautiful starlit night but no moon and very dark. The thing that immediately impressed me was the silence and smooth running of the locomotive. Although the connecting rods were still in place there were, thanks to the roller bearings, no clanking or ringing noises that we associate with the running of steam locomotives. The two electric locomotives gave the occasional flash from their pantographs but in almost complete silence. We sat in the driver's and fireman's seats and could just as easily have been sitting in the comfort of a British Intercity coach. The locomotive ran extremely steadily with none of the bucking and tail wagging associated with the majority of other locomotives I have ridden on, especially 4-6-0s. This was no doubt due to the 4-wheel bogie (or is it still a pony truck?) beneath our firebox.
Roy had arranged with the loco crew to stop after the first 25k or so to check the bearings. I think this was about Annandale in a passing loop. There was no sign of warmth and with a few turns of the mechanical lubricator we were off again. This was one concern we had as the mechanical lubricator was not being driven by the motion, but we had well oiled the slides and the pistons were of course not moving. The roller bearings looked after themselves; what a difference they made to the quietness and smooth running of the locomotive.
As we climbed steadily it began to get quite cold. I was glad I had put on a heavy sweater under my overalls and brought my faithful Donkey Jacket all the way from England. Roy suddenly announced he was going for coffee and disappeared over the side of the engine as if strolling to the buffet car of our Intercity. It was with some relief that I saw the light come on in the rear cab of the second electric locomotive and as we rounded the next bend, to see him bent over the electric cooker which is a standard feature of all SA electric locomotives. Roy had walked along the running plate of 3405, behind the smoke deflector and into the centre door of the electric. Not I suppose such a walk, but in total darkness and with the locomotive travelling at about 40 mph, through so many single bore tunnels, not one which I ventured.
It was a pity in some ways that this most scenic part of our journey was made in darkness; most of the line was single with three track passing places and many tunnels. There was the occasional flash from the pantograph, no doubt when adjustments were made to the controller. Speed was consistent and there were very few brake applications (we had the vacuum gauge), reliance being made on the rheostatic braking of the locomotives. We were both pretty cold by this time, especially our feet, in spite of my two pairs of socks and railway boots and Roy's cups of coffee. I had declined his offer to bring me a cup back from his "dining car", not as I did not want one, but I feared even more for his safety coming back along the running plate carrying my coffee. The altitude must have been quite high. We stopped from time to time to check the bearings and once in a passing loop to attend to the second man's want of nature. It became routine and there was not the slightest sign of warmth from any of the bearings!
It began to get light about 5:00 am, and with the rise of the sun and our drop in altitude, considerably warmer. We were soon approaching Ladysmith, the end of the first part of our journey. It was not properly light by 5:00 am when we pulled into yet another vast marshalling yard and a shunter appeared to uncouple the train behind our tender. The two electric locomotives and 3405 departed for Ladysmith Loco Depot. It was by the time of our arrival in the depot 5:45 am, and when the shift changed at 6:00 am, we became the centre of attraction. It seems that it is necessary to move about the SA railway system quite a lot in order to gain promotion and it was amazing how many railwaymen had worked on 25NCs in the Orange Free State, although visits by the class were very rare in Ladysmith and not at all in Natal, the latter part of our journey. Royal visitors could not have been made more welcome and we were wined and dined in almost every tea brewing point of the quite large Ladysmith Depot, while the reminiscers paid homage to our charge.
We learned soon that our next train was not booked to leave until 15:00, so by the time we had drunk all our tea and had a good look around the heavy overhaul facility for electric locomotives, it was 11:00. One of the people Roy had greeted like a long lost brother was the Ladysmith Breakdown Supervisor. Roy being one of the Pietermarizburg breakdown train foremen had obviously met him no doubt at some mutual train wrecking occasion. It therefore came about that we were invited to have a few hours sleep in the magnificent surroundings of the mess coach of the breakdown train. This vehicle was l920's vintage, all polished mahogany, and apart from two or three compartments that had been converted to a dining area, was in original condition and I would think was polished and cleaned daily. We had four hours luxurious sleep.
At 15:30 three electric locomotives, numbers 800, 1004 and 806, backed onto our engine. We went through the formalities of the brake test and departed at 15:40 for yet another vast marshalling yard. We had done our oiling and greasing in the depot and checked our tender ballast of 9,000 gallons of water, necessary as we were about to pull a train in excess of 2,000 tons and I would think about a mile long. The train was again mixed traffic of box cars and open wagons, some containing sugar but others square blocks of about 2m square solid granite, no doubt destined for the tombstone market.
We were soon underway again, just the loco crew and ourselves, no guard or other trainmen. As there was no sign of our overheating we agreed to stop only as required in normal train running passing loops and crew changes etc. We had the vacuum brake in case we needed it. It was very pleasant to see the countryside in daylight and Roy, who knew the line well, pointed out places of interest.
It soon became dark, I think around Escort. Roy announced he was going to eat and I was invited to the rear cab of electric loco 806 to sample a stew which he had been fondly tending to for the last 50 miles or so. Again the loco was travelling quite fast and there were a lot of single bore tunnels so I declined his kind offer.
Apart from the battered vacuum gauge, the only other gauge on the loco working was the speedometer. Speed was reduced through tunnels and mountainous parts of the route, but on the flat speed was often held at 60 mph for quite long distances. At these speeds the locomotive rode superbly and quietly, the principle noise coming from the wash of the catenary supporting poles as they flashed by. Little stew was spilt and I ate a large lump of Lardy Cake with a cup of coffee Roy had managed to bring along the side of the engine for me.
The locomotive was running perfectly, with no sign of overheating anywhere and it was again becoming quite cold. We decided there was no point in the two of us getting frostbite (a slight exaggeration) so for the remainder of the journey we took it in turns to ride in the loco after stops for various reasons, passing loops etc, about every 50km or so. Roy arranged for me to travel with the driver and assistant in the leading electric when it was his turn on 3405. When it was my turn on the steam locomotive Roy either slept or did more cordon bleu cooking in the cab of the rear electric.
Travelling with the drivers was an experience all of its own, the first novelty was the large headlight which illuminated a surprising distance ahead of the train, nothing like the stopping distance of course but enough to see the sides of cuttings, inside tunnels and point layouts.
I was fed a cup of coffee (the first of many) and given a hot pie by the secondman, a very pleasant and knowledgeable African whose principal duty seemed to be tending the cooker and various culinary delights. The driver, an SA of Italian parentage, as he was pleased to tell me, controlled the long and heavy train magnificently. Very little vacuum braking took place (I had noticed this on 3405). A smooth control of speed was achieved using the control notches of the three locomotives and the rheostatic braking when necessary.
It again became quite mountainous and we had been going through a single bore tunnel with a pronounced curve for some time. The driver said, look out and see if our tail lamp is OK after this one. We looked out of the left hand cab window as we left the tunnel and saw the tail end of our train passing alongside on the opposite side of the ravine. The secondman grinned and said, it would be a long walk if it was not. Oil lamps are still used, normally two tail lamps on a train but no brake van. The red lenses of the lamps are quite large.
I was in the electric when we arrived at Pietermaritzburg in a passing loop alongside quite a large station. The crew were due to change here and I bade my goodbyes and rejoined Roy. After a quick check of the bearings and a few turns of the mechanical lubricator, we both went along to the front of the train only to be told the relief crew had missed their connection and would be in the second train in the opposite direction. This was, of course, Roy's hometown and we made our way to a rather shady refreshment room. Wouldn't have anything to eat if I were you, coffee should be alright. I am going to phone the wife to tell her I shan't be home tonight. I took his advice in eating and imagined the telephone call; it was 2:30 am, to say he would not be home. I suppose the wife of a breakdown train foreman gets used to such things.
A very youthful driver arrived and an even younger assistant and said, We have to take you to the yard out of the way to await the relief crew. The driver was wearing what appeared to be a yachting cap and the assistant no uniform at all. Roy made a point of telling the driver several times about our precious cargo leading the train and he seemed to understand. We all travelled in the electric cab with Roy keeping a wary eye on the driver. After a rather jerky start we arrived safely in yet another vast marshalling yard.
The relief crew soon turned up, a pleasant pair who were so interested in 3405 they were reluctant to take up their positions in the electric locomotive. It was the first time they had seen a 25NC and the first time one had been to this part of Natal (as I kept reminding myself when passing through some of the single bore tunnels).
Roy and I travelled on the footplate for this last part of the journey and we arrived in one of several large marshalling yards in Durban at about 03:30, still very dark. We uncoupled our three electrics and 3405 and made our way to the Umbilo electric depot in Durban, arriving at about 04:00. Roy had noticed a pair of locomotives being made ready to take a freight back to Pietermaritzburg and after a few words with the duty supervisor he bade his farewells to 3405 and myself. I was sorry to see him go, be had been a great companion.
It was still dark and a beautiful starlit night; the temperature at this lower altitude was considerably warmer than it had been in the mountains and was pleasantly warm. At this time in the morning there was nobody much about; our crew from the electric locomotive bad gone to take over another train. I decided to get some sleep, climbed into the vast tender of our locomotive and was soon sound asleep. I awoke at the 6.00 am shift change at the depot to a number of concerned faces looking into the tender. It was now daylight. There was probably good reason for concern; I was by now very dirty, overalls, Donkey Jacket and British grease top, amounted to a heap of old rags in the tender with little movement from within. The locomotive was soon swarming with young locomotive crews peering at every rivet and older men paying homage to memories of their own youth spent on steam locomotive in other parts of South Africa.
I was taken to the Drivers' Mess Room and bad a good wash, several cups of coffee and shared sandwiches from several drivers' lunch boxes. Everyone was really friendly and interested to hear about our locomotive. The Senior Supervisor, Mr Kleynhans, arrived and I found myself sitting in his office drinking more coffee and relating our story to the "white collar" members of the depot staff.
Umbilo is a very large depot and heavy maintenance facility for electric and diesel locomotives. Steam bad long since departed from this part of the rail system and Prestige Steam Locomotives kept in beautifully restored condition for special trains, as in other parts of SA had passed them by. For a whole week Umbilo was to have a prestige locomotive! Outside the main office block of the depot and near the main gate a short spur of track held what we might describe as the General Manager's saloon, a beautifully maintained vehicle used for special journeys for railway officials and crew training. While we were talking, the roar of a diesel loco was heard and the saloon was unceremoniously dragged from its resting place and replaced by 3405. The loco remained here for the rest of its short stay to be admired by everyone entering the depot and in the place of honour.
I was given a lift into Durban by one of Mr Kleynhams's assistants and was registered at the desk of the Holiday Inn by a clerk who did his best to maintain his composure while attending to a still very dirty but happy Owner's Representative, his official job now complete.
I revisited Umbilo several times before we moved the loco down to the docks, to keep an eye on things and on each occasion was given the Royal welcome. The Blue Train Headboard appeared the first night and added greatly to the interest and appearance of the locomotive. Little goodies arrived on the loco or were given to me with each visit.
Nick Newport arrived in Durban Sunday morning and I met him at the airport. We both arrived at the depot at 3:00 am on Monday for the move to the docks, which was made using a diesel locomotive and a flat wagon to carry the official tail lamp and for braking purposes. How the locomotive was loaded and its arrival in England is a separate story - related by Nick.
Text © Quainton Railway Society / Photographs © Quainton Railway Society or referenced photographer
Page Updated: 01 December 2017