Memories of steam trains

Earthbound Misfit has been putting up a regular series of steam engine video clips on her blog every Friday.  I’ve enjoyed them, and they’ve brought back many memories for me.  You see, in South Africa steam engines were in everyday use on the railways until the early 1990’s, and still are for a few private tourist companies such as Rovos Rail.  I’ve traveled countless thousands of miles behind steam locomotives, from Cape Town to Johannesburg and back on the Trans Karoo Express, from George to Oudtshoorn and back over the magnificent Montagu Pass, and on the coastal light rail between George and Knysna (the so-called ‘Outeniqua Choo Tjoe‘, sadly now defunct).  There’s nothing like moving slowly up a steep mountain pass, head out of the window of one’s compartment, smelling the coal smoke wafting back from the locomotive (thick and heavy as one passed through frequent short tunnels), and wiping the ashes and coal smut from one’s hair and off one’s face, leaving black streaks by the time one got to the end of the journey.

I thought I’d put up a few video clips to illustrate South African steam locomotives and the trains they pulled.  I recommend watching all of them in full-screen mode.  (There’s a large selection on YouTube if you’d like to see more.)  To begin, here’s a look at ‘The Great South African Steam Festival‘, when many of the last surviving steam engines were put to work in a final celebration before they were retired, to be replaced by diesel locomotives.

A series of DVD’s was issued in 2009 under the collective title ‘Steam in South Africa‘.  Here’s a promotional video clip showing excerpts from each of them.

Here’s a South African Railways Class 25NC locomotive hauling freight in 1985.  These were very impressive engines, typically hauling passenger trains (including the Trans Karoo Express mentioned above) at an average speed of over 60 mph, and heavy freight trains not much slower than that.  (If that doesn’t sound impressive, remember that South African railways are narrow-gauge, where high speeds are correspondingly more difficult.)

Here’s the most powerful Garratt-type locomotive class ever built, the South African Railways Class GL.  It’s on an excursion for photographers, so it makes a pass, reverses back down the railroad, then makes a second pass for their benefit.  You can clearly see the unique Garratt design, with a single set of boilers driving two steam engines, one in front of and one behind them.

Finally, here’s the beloved ‘Outeniqua Choo Tjoe’ tourist special, run each day between George and Knysna and back again along the coastal route.  I’ve traveled aboard it many times.  It’s sadly defunct now, South African Railways having refused to make the investment required to keep it running.  Steam train lovers all over the world mourned its passing, as it was one of the most scenic and interesting rail journeys in the world.  Of particular interest is the turntable you’ll see from 0m. 18s. through 1m. 16s., which turned the engine around at the end of the line so it could make the return trip.

I hope you enjoyed these ‘blasts from the past’.  I can still smell the smoke in my nostrils . . .


EDITED TO ADD:  I’ve written a follow-up post to this one, giving more details about Garratt-type locomotives and the Montagu Pass, with more videos.


  1. Peter,

    Stumbled across a video last night of Union Pacific Big Boy 4014 starting the move to Cheyenne for a three to five year restoration. A UP Big Boy running on coal and steam.

    Be still my beating heart.

    My earliest memory of steam and coal is when my father took me to Strasburg Railroad in Pennsylvania. Might have been the very late 50's or very early 60's.

    Spent my active Navy time in steam enginerooms, not coal burning thank you!

    When you are out this way my wife and I will get you out to Strasburg for a great train day.

    John in Philly

  2. Agreed: if you are anywhere near Southeast PA, you must ride the Strasburg. I've ridden most of the "tourist" shortlines in the Northeast at some point during my not-so-long life, and IMO the Strasburg is by far the best.

  3. I remember seeing a picture book about South African railways. The tender on the 2nd engine in the first video reminded me of one that had a condenser for recovering water. Could that be?

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