A “Through” Carriage

We would leave PMB, every year in early December, at around 22h22, if the train was on time: My parents and we four tired and excited kids. My parents’ first step on arriving at the station (usually via “Springbok Taxi”, a Ford, a Dodge, or a Chev) was to check what coach we were booked in. It would be a coach number and a letter for the compartment. There were six bunks in second class, so that was what we expected. It didn’t always work out that way. One trip, it turned out 2nd class was booked up, so the reservations people had made a plan. We four kids had a first class compartment to ourselves, right next to a coupe with two bunks for my parents. That was wildly exciting!

My parents would come away from the reservation board with the coach number and a compartment letter. In the earliest days, the coach number would be four to six digits. Later, the system changed, and each coach had a number plate with only one or two digits, number sequentially from the locomotive rearwards to the guard’s van. My dad always had a pencil, and the details would be scribbled on the back of his cigarette (50 Rembrandt van Rijn) box. Important as those details were, there was another item that was way more important: it was reflected in the “booking board” along with the others, but the awkward thing was that it was often “wrong”. So, what one looked out for as the train pulled in was the city name in a little glass window high up on “our” coach. If our destination was Noupoort (sometimes we took another route, for Hanover Road Station), that was on the Port Elizabeth line, and what we wanted (First Prize) was to see “Port Elizabeth” in that little glass window.

“Through” Carriage

That would mean we had a “through” coach. If so, we could relax, because that meant we did not need to leave the coach at Bloemfontein, loading all of our luggage onto the platform, and then wait for four hours until the PE train crawled into the Bloemfontein main line berth, and then scramble to get it all loaded again, before the train nosed its way south.. It meant we could leave everything in our compartment.

It also meant that we were confined to the coach, in the sidings somewhere, for hours, until the coach was shunted onto the PE train. Back then, before Kazerne Yard was built in Johannesburg, the yard at Bloemfontein Station was the largest marshalling yard on the continent of Africa. The shunting movements that went into “making a train up” were mysterisous, and we would find ourselves shunted from one end of the yards to the other, several times, before the train eased into the platform before departing. We had seen other families, over the years, disembark from a coach, walk over multipile lines to the station platform, to go “to town”, only to return to the yard and find their coach “gone”. At least once, a family “missed” the PE train, because they were still trudging along miles of track looking for it, when it was actually in platform One, ready to go.

So, a “through” coach was an easy life. When we didn’t get one, the consolation prize was that we could leave all our luggage at the staion (there was a special room for that, you would get a ticket, and come back for it later), and head “up town”. For the four of us, that meant our dad would take us to Hofmeyr Square to watch the fountains. They were amazing: lamps were submerged in the water, and colours of the fountain would change at regular intervals. We were always spellbound at the sight. The other part of the trip was to get an “ice cream soda” at the Rendezvous Cafe. Later, those got to be called “floats”.

Lost in the marshalling yards

Murphy is everywhere. On one trip, we sat quietly,sudo /etc/init.d/nscd restart far too quietly as things turned out, in the marshalling yards, for three hours or more, until my dad smelled a rat, and headed for the Station Master. There, he found out that the PE train had already left! The Station Master, a portly man, was apoplectic at the discovery, and I doubt that my dad went easy on him. An ugly bout of shouiting and ill humour followed. “Threw” my dad said “not THROUGH”. The Statinon Master made at least one sweaty trip to our carriage “miles away” (as my dad shouted) in the marshalling yards, and had a torrid recepton from every passenger in the carriage. There were a couple of tearful old ladies in one compartment, who recovered enough to vocally maul him quite savagely.


In the end, the Station Master made a plan. He made up a “special” train. We were hitched onto to it, and we were thrilled, when it glided into the main line platform, to see that it consisted of only eight carriages. That was about half the usual load. This was going to be a fast train! The shunting locomotive left us, in the berth on platform One, and watched breathlessly, curious to see what class of locomotive would pull us.


My dad labelled locomotives as “pullers” or “flyers”. Pullers were what train spotters know as “Mountain” class engines, with 8 driving wheels. Flyers had 6 driving wheels. We got a “Flyer” that night. Not just any flyer. I would have been glad of a 16DA “wide firebox”, but what we got was the high-stepping greyhound to beat them all, a 16E, the only locomotive on Cape Gauge with driving wheels measuring six feet in diamater.

Pi D

My mother in her later life travelled on the Drakensberg Express. It was once a Blue Train consist, but was repainted in a pastel green livery, and plied between Durban and Johannesburg. She would board in PMB. It was an overnight trip to Johanneburg, very comfortable. The Drakensberg Express also ran to Cape Town, as seen here, headed by a class 16E, possibly the same locomotive that pulled us from Bloemfontein to Noupoort. There were only ever four of them built. At top speed, those six foot driving wheels revolved eight times per second. School maths tells that, at that speed, it was covering 150 (3.14 x 6 x 8) feet per second, or 102 mph, or 164 kph. Eight revolutions per second is extremely fast on Cape Gauge, hairy and unstable, and I think for most of our fastest stretches we travelled with the driving wheels at 6 revs per second. That’s 102 kph, and way too fast for my dad, who thought that anything over 45 mph was the utmost danger for car travel. I can still see him standing, swaying in the compartment, hanging on to the green leather straps. He said in later years he really feared we would derail! We kids, just thought it was lovely! In the YouTube clip, at around 2.17, through Heuningneskloof, it is exceeding 6 revs per second, and you can see how it swayed over the points. That is about how our ride went. I guess it is doing 110 kph at that point, but it could even have been 120 kph. In this video, the locomotive is seen without smoke deflectors. Usually, they were fitted. In this clip, its sibling is seen with smoke deflectors.

We departed Bloemfontein around 01h00, two hours late. The Station Master (no man was ever again that glad to be rid of my father) assured him that there were no trains to cross and none in our way. It would be a non-stop run to Noupoort.

It was. I still remember sliding all over my bunk, and hearing the constant blast of the locomotive with its strange Doppler effect in and out of cuttings. Things slowed for the hills on either side of the Orange River, but otherwise it was a truly mad dash all the way. Our Grandad waited only a half hour after the PE train had left, having been told by Noupoort Station Master that he would find us on the later train.