Keeping steam on the rails
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It’s full steam ahead for the Umgeni Steam Railway that will be running the popular Inchanga Choo Choo at the end of this month
The railway dedicated to preserving the passion of the steam era is run entirely by volunteers who maintain and operate the trains as well as the museum and archives. These engineers, artisans, craftsmen and enthusiasts ‒ many retired and from all walks of life ‒ meet at the Inchanga railway sheds every Thursday to fix and restore and keep the glory of steam alive. The Independent on Saturday spent a morning with them.
At 79, Gerald Hall is the oldest member of the group. I disturb him from fitting the neat copper plumbing to a toilet being installed in the old conductor’s cabin of a restored coach that’s ready to go into service. It’s a space no bigger than an aircraft toilet.
His whole life he’s had an interest in “things mechanical” from model engineering to the “full-size stuff”. He worked for 33 years at Durban’s Engen Refinery mainly in what he calls reverse engineering. He can make a part or find a solution for anything. He’s been a member for six years and relishes his Thursdays spent at Inchanga, mainly working on the coaches. “At my age, you don’t want to be humping steel,” he says.
An added bonus is he can work in both imperial and metric ‒ useful when dealing with rolling stock that’s more than 100 years old.
He’s happy to take me around.
The men are currently working on two major projects. They are retubing Maureen, a 1912 3BR, whose pipes and tubes ‒ old and new ‒ lie on the ground outside the shed. They’re also restoring two coaches, a 1926 kitchen car 269 and matching dining car, which were recently bought on auction.
The railway has six locomotives. It’s engine room is Wesley, a Class 19D locomotive, which is used for the monthly excursions and was built by Borsig Locomotiv Werke, Hennigsdorf, in 1938. The coaches’ “birthdates” vary – some are from 1908, most from the 1930s and the youngest was built in 1953. The oldest locomotive is the 1892 Umbilo.
Wesley runs with Maureen’s 1915 Stephenson Saddletank complete with a trailing wheel for stability. The saddletank stores extra water for the boiler, with some having both water and coal storage. Just the 100km round trip from Kloof to Inchanga and back takes nine tons of coal and 6 000 litres of water.
Hall tells me that Inchanga was the halfway point on the old line and was a key water stop on route where trains could fill up. “It took quite a long time to get from Durban to Pietermaritzburg then. The passengers could also get out for a toilet stop,” he says.
The railway runs on a 3ft, 6 inch (1 067mm) gauge heritage line that follows part of the route from the original Durban to Pietermaritzburg mainline which opened in 1880, and traverses some of the steepest railway gradients in South Africa. The trip includes a 53-metre-long tunnel at Drummond, built in 1878.
In the 1930s, Hall says, the line was rerouted from Pinetown. The Umgeni Steam Railway maintains the old line between Kloof and Inchanga, spending half a million rands a year just repairing the track. Every time the train runs an inspection trolley trawls the line to check that it’s safe. “And lockdown has cancelled a whole lot of trains,” Hall says.
The urgency to get Maureen back in service is that she has greater pulling power, and can take an extra coaches ‒ five instead of Wesley’s four.
It’s a long story. The grand dame’s innards were shot. Local manufacturers didn’t have the right dies for the cradle, so this was ordered but then that manufacturer went into liquidation. And so they made their own machine to make the tubes but now the ends have to be swaged (forged to be narrower at the one end). “But we hope to have Maureen on the rails soon,” says Hall.
Hall tells how after every operational weekend he has to fix at least three or four windows. The malthoid roofing of the carriages also has to be replaced regularly. “We have to rebuild the entire window. We save old teak from carriages we can’t restore. We refurbish as closely as possible. It’s old tech that still works well.”
Terry Cowan, who’s been at the workshop for 10 years, comes from a computing background, but is happy to work with anything electronic or mechanical. He’s just finished rebuilding the motor on an inspection trolley although the trolley still needs to be repainted.
Working at a lathe is Chris Brown. He’s a member of the MG Car Club who popped in one Thursday “to see what was happening”.
“I do everything big and everything heavy,” he says. “I love it because it’s something different every week.”
For Clem Robins, the Thursday work party is also a “social thing”. “We enjoy some away time,” he says.
And after a hard morning welding, and sanding, and cutting, and fixing, the group lights the fire and braais some wors. They tuck into wors rolls, and just as in any office setting, chairman Marc Bouchier has had a birthday recently, so there’s cake all round.
Bouchier is excited that things are opening up again. “We are sad not to have been able to offer a holiday outing for families in July,” he said.
“We were just beginning to pick up momentum after a long hard lockdown of the trains not running, but obviously we abide by government outlines. The health, safety and well-being of our customers and volunteers is of paramount importance.”
The Inchanga Choo Choo runs on the final weekend of the month, September 25 and 26, leaving Kloof Station at 8.30am and 12.30pm. It’s a three-hour round trip from Stokers to Inchanga Station and back. There is a pop-up market and food fair at Inchanga, and one can visit the Railway Museum and model railway exhibition.
The Independent on Saturday