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In 1985, I needed a break from Jozi. The Karoo was calling again. “Time” I thought “to do some work on Toverberg Indaba. A change is as good as a holiday.

I booked by phone, and was lucky to get a seat on the next morning Port Elizabeth Express, called “Delagoa Blitz”. It was my first time on that train, all the more exciting because it was a new service, and it slashed 9 hours off the previous Spoornet trip time to what was then PE.

I slipped onto the train peraps 20 minutes before departure scheduled for 8am. It was a novel experience. A uniformed man greeted me in my coach, checked my ticket, and said

Colesberg. Seat 17A, window seat”,

He checked my luggage tickets, took the baggage, and packed it in a rack next to one of two doors on each side of the coach. Back at my seat, he asked if everything was alright, and passed me a breakfast menu. Shortly after passing Germistion, as the voice on the train’s public address said

Greetings passengers, we are passing through Union Station, current speed 130 kph, next stop Meyerton

he brought my order: flask of black coffee, fruit salad starter, and Eggs Benedict.

Enjoy. We are due in Bloemfontein at 11h55, Colesberg at 14h00. I will prepare your luggage for Colesberg shortly before arrival. Please present yourself ready to alight from the train as we approach. We stop for two mintues only”.

This was good. I had planned to take the evening 18h00 departure, but that would have meant Maeder Osler would need to pick me up from Colesberg station at midnight. Much better for him to drive the 30 minutes from the farrm just after a post lunch nap.

Soon after Meyerton, we flashed through Koppies Station at 160 kph. This seemed to be the train's cruising speed on straight sections, and about half an hour after that we stopped in Sasolburg and Vanderbijlpark in quick succession. The countryside flashed by and we pulled into Kroonstad at 09h35. My seat was very comfortable, an airline style recliner. I had dozed off after breakfast, and could hardly believe the Kroonstad signs as we pulled into the platform. There was one scheduled stop between there and Bloem, at Glenn, where some students, surely studying agriculture at the agricultural college, disembarked, joshing one another. Sound proofing with closed doors in transit was eerily efficient. However, with the doors opened for them, as they got out, I heard one say

Jislaaik, 'rapsie oor drie ure, en hier is ons”.

We stopped at Brandfort at 11h20, after which the train quickly reeled off the rermaining distance to Bloemfontein at 160 khp. A lunch menu was brought, followed by my order, served up as we hurtled along within sight of Reddersburg. Edenburg, Trompsburg, and Springfontein followed in quick succession. The pace slackened a little as we got into the hills before Orange River. We gonged our way across the bridge at Norvals Pont, and braked fiercely into Colesberg platform perhaps 15 minutes after. The attendant had pulled my luggage out, parking it next to the door as we approached. He called me, hefted my small suitcase onto the platform, collected my luggage tickets, and hopped back on the train with a cheery

“Have a good day”.

as the train accelrated out toward Noupoort.

Maeder was waiting on the platform. We discussed the rain, the “boerdery”, the usual things to catch up on, and then drove to the Law Clinic house and got onto the business at hand, putting the current issue of “Toverberg Indaba” to bed. I was to sleep in a bed made up for there. In another room was the PC, a trusty IBM clone, on which all the files, in WordPerfect 5.1 format, were stored.

Maeder went through a few files with me, and I rested for a while before getting stuck in.

It could have happened!

Anyone reading the above, and who has travelled on a main line train in the last few years will know, that the aforegoing is bulldust. It remains true that I worked on Toverberg Indaba, and that I got there by train, but on the usual leisurely one.

SAR, by repurposing Metroblitz as a mainline train, could quite easily been first in the world with a quick passenger train service on a Cape Gauge main line. They HAD the Cape Gauge world speed record at 254 kph. It HAD done jhb to Bloem in 3 hrs 51 minutes, averaging 108 kph. Then, it’s like they said

“Well, boys, we did it. We got the record, and we can to Bloem easily in under four hours.”

And, then, they went back to sleep.

It took another 14 years for a quickish Cape Gauge train to come along, and Australia was where it happened.

Queensland Rail Tilt Trains (Cape Gauge)

For a comparison to the Metroblitz test trip from Jhb to Bloem, Queensland Rail Tilt Trains do a similar distance at an average speed of 78 kph, 30 kph slower than Metroblitz from Johannesburg to Bloemfontein.

Tilting does not actually help a train corner faster, it is used to prevent passenger panic. Without it, passengers tend to slide vigorously sideways on their seats. Tilting plants them in their seats better, prevents beverage bottles from falling over on tables, and feels more natural in corners. The technology adds expensive complexity to a train. Metroblitz relied instead only on Mr Herber Scheffel’s clever newly patented bogies, so cornering was a little dramatic!

The Queensland Rail tilt trains are completely under computer control for every metre of the track, basically a train “auto-pilot”, controlling not only the cornering speed, but also the degree of tilt. The tighter the corner, the sharper the tilt, to a maximum of five degrees from vertical. That makes it even more remarkable that Metroblitz covered the Jhb to Bloem section completely under the control of its driver. He must have had minimal experience at those speeds, suggesting that Herbert Scheffel’s bogie design is superior.

Own Goal

South African Railways scored an own goal here. Their objections to reworking Metroblitz for main line were not trivial: expenditure on that kind of infrastructure is never so, but hindsight tells us (what us railfans knew in the first place) that it was money we could not afford NOT to spend, and was way less than laying new Standard Gauge. The chief concern mentioned was level crossings. This seems daft now. The fear was that accidents would result from people unused to the higher speeds. So what? We know now that people get used to everything, and however one looks at it, that is rather easy to overcome.

Signalling would have been another consideration. From a train driver’s standpoint, some signals would have needed different placement for timely high speed visibility. So what? That was also no mystery. Just relocate the blankety blank signals! Livestock on the line? Too bad! Shouoldn’t be there! Back in the day, SAR repudiated claims out of hand: I know, I once processed hundreds of them. They paid very few out.

We will wait for another twenty years for quickish intercity train travel. When it comes it will be Standard Gauge, following the Gautrain pattern, and it will be much better for that, on its own track, unhindered by goods. But we could have had dramatically quicker inter-city for a generation already without spending an arm and a leg, if someone had displayed the political will of Mbazima Shilowa, then Premier of Gauteng, and the foresight and leadership of Gautrain CEO Jack van der Merwe, Gautrain was, and is still sometimes said to be a “vanity project”. Funny that - is that why, long before lockdown, it was set to expand to Mamelodi, Lanseria and Soweto?

Chicken or Beef?

If only the bosses and engineers some go, we would by now be able to go from Jozi to EL in in 9 hrs, to Gqeberha in 11 hrs, Musina and Maputo in 6 hrs, and Cape Town in 16 hours. Carriages would be updated minimally to include USB and 15amp plug points, with public address and intrenet connectivity as was done with both Shosholoza Meyl and Premier Classe coaches. Catering would be airline style.

Breakfast in Jozi, lunch in Colesberg. Sigh.

Maybe, we will revert to the “Meyl” on the train, since our airlines are gone. Oh Wait. So has the post office.