Age of steam ends on world's busiest narrow-gauge line
Saga of the Apple Express - Evening Post - November 24, 1973

EXACTLY 70 years after the first tiny trains started running on Port Elizabeth's "Apple Express"  railway, powerful diesel loco- motives have been introduced to modernise what is probably the busiest and most useful narrow gauge line in the world. 
 What is the history of this line and how did it come to be laid on a gauge of only two feet (0,6 metres) ?
In Act No 40 of 1899, the Government of the Cape provided 445 000 for the construction of a railway from Port Elizabeth to Avontuur, 178 route miles (290 kilometres),  working  on  a basis  of
2 500 per mile.

A "Kalahari" (class NG 15) locomotive crosses the Van Stadens Gorge bridge with a Saturday morning "excursion special". This is the highest narrow-gauge bridge in the world and the highest carrying a railway in South Africa.


One of the main savings effected through the laying of narrow-gauge railways is the ability to have curves

of much sharper radius than would otherwise be possible: witness the virtual right-angle bends on the Avontuur line, such as that immediately west of the Van Staden's Bridge today.
Financial problems beset the construction work.
Present-day Port Elizabeth ratepayers will be amused to hear that the expenditure of 2 500 per mile voted by Parliament soon rose to 3 800. necessitating a further Act to ratify the excess.
It was not until May 1902, that tracklaying proper commenced, because neither rails nor sleepers had arrived in the interim.
In Station Street, adjacent to the main broad-gauge Port Elizabeth station, a miniature platform was built for the narrow-gauge trains.

After New Year, 1903, trains started running to the banks of the Van Stadens Gorge, passenger traffic being confined mainly to sightseers travelling at the weekends.
The construction of the steel bridge across the Van Stadens Gorge was no mean undertaking in 1901. Still the highest narrow-gauge bridge in the world and the highest carrying any railway in South Africa, the deck is 77 metres above the river.
The bridge across the Gamtoos River was of timber, with a total length of 1466 metres. This was replaced later by a steel bridge.
The railway was opened to Humansdorp on November 1, 1905.
It was operated as a separate undertaking from the South African Railways proper. The Superintendent was J. R. Moore, who was virtually independent, being responsible only to the General Manager.
Mr Moore subsequently became General Manager of the South African Railways.
In a public timetable which appeared early in 1906, weekend excursions were advertised, and return trips offered for the price of a single ticket.
These trains left Port Elizabeth at lpm on Saturday, arriving in Humansdorp at 7.30pm.
The return journey started at 9am on Sunday but included a 4 hour stop at Gamtoos Station, from where a passenger launch took sightseers for a 21 kilometre journey down the river to its mouth.
For those who decided to stay over for the week, the Cape Government Railways supplied boats and tents.
Afternoon tea was served at Thornhill Station both on the outward and inward journeys.
Other personal activities during the lengthy journeys had to be timed for these stops, because it was not until 1916 that toilet facilities were introduced on the trains!
Trains were officially restricted to 20 kilometres an hour in those days (40 kilometres per hour is the official limit now), but the outrageous speed of 22,5 kilometres an hour was permissible if it was necessary to make up time, provided that this could be done safely.
Early in 1907, the terminus station at Avontuur was officially opened.

At a meeting held. in December, 1905, the residents of Walmer authorised the Town Council to negotiate for the building of a railway to connect them with Port Elizabeth.
And so on December 15, 1906, a branch line was opened from Valley
Junction (opposite today's airport,

running by way of what is 2nd Avenue
today, Villiers Road, 5th Avenue and Water Road to a terminus at 14th Avenue.
At the end of the line, two sleepers were chained to the track to discourage locomotives from proceeding further.

Tickets similar to those used on buses were issued on the Walmer train, books of coupon tickets being sold to regular commuters.
To maintain a schedule calling for the journey to be completed in 30 minutes, the maximum speed had to be worked up to 40 kilometres an hour.
Twenty-two trains, ran to Walmer every day, but the number of passengers was insufficient to cover operating costs and this the Municipality of Walmer had to make good.
The Hankey branch of the narrow gauge from Gamtoos Station was opened to a terminus at Patensie in April, 1914.
Until the branch railway to Hankey was finished, goods were brought down the Gamtoos River to the station by launch.
There was a proposal at one time for extending the Hankey line to Andrieskraal, which would have involved the only, narrow-gauge tunnel in South Africa, but this extension did not materialise.
So much produce was coming down the line by 1917 that there was insufficient rolling stock, and narrow-gauge trucks were brought down from South West Africa to assist.
In December, 1912, the railways settled matters with Walmer by accepting a lump sum of f700 and thereafter relieving the ratepayers of the obligation to make good the operating losses.
This was an unfortunate move, because with the introduction of a bus service between Walmer and Port Elizabeth in 1925, patronage of the trains fell off very seriously.
The Walmer branch showed a loss of 1382 in 1926-27 and on November 26, 1928, the trains stopped running.
The engines were scrapped and the coaches sent to South West Africa (more closely connected with Port Elizabeth than is generally known!).

 

In 1920, the first Garratt locomotive was put to work on the Avontuur line.
The Garratt is a design especially suited to this type of operation, as it is able to bend in two places within its own length.
It has two separate sets of cylinders and driving wheels, with a larger-than-usual boiler slung between. The result gave nearly double the hauling capacity of the ordinary single, engine, but only needed the same number of men to work it.
Many other Garratts followed, and with them came a new design of driver's seat one which could be swung out from the cab, so that the men could actually ride on the outside of their locomotives, which was a considerable blessing in hot weather.
In 1927, a 20-kilometre branch line, privately owned, was laid from Chelsea to the new works of the Eastern Province Cement Company, south of New Brighton.
Limestone for the cement works was brought down from Patensie in

South African Railway trains to Chelsea, where the cement company's own locomotive took over the load.
Patensie's limestone ran out - in 1934.
New quarries came into use near Loerie Station, -to which point the stone is transferred to this day by an aerial cableway.
Until passenger services ; were substituted by buses shortly after the war, there was a special medical service along the Avontuur railway, the doctor having a special coach attached to an ordinary train between Port Elizabeth and Humansdorp on Fridays, and between Humansdorp and Avontuur on Mondays.
He attended to the families of railway staff members who served at outlying points.
Several trains were scheduled to make special stops at gangers' cottages, to take their children to and from school.

 Eventually the fruit and other traffic generated by the Avontuur railway became too vast for it to handle.
The enormous expense which would have been involved in paying for a broad gauge railway could not be justified, however, and so road transport vehicles have been used to augment what is probably one of the most intensively trafficked narrow-gauge railways in the world.
Between January and June, the "fruit season"-an endless succession of trains runs up and down the line, every available vehicle and locomotive being pressed into service.
In 1960, the narrow-gauge in South West Africa came to an end, all its trackwork having been replaced with a broad-gauge railway.
Once again, the Avontuur line benefited by gaining a wide variety of trucks and coaches, including unique sleeping cars in which the berths were arranged to lie,, along the length of the vehicle, and even one dining saloon.
Unfortunately, the curves were too sharp for these vehicles, which were scrapped.

From South West, the Avontuur line also gained a number of locomotives which have become known locally as the "Kalaharis".
A few years ago, following efforts by the Port Elizabeth Publicity Association through Director- Cynthia van der Mescht, occasional passenger trains were revived between Humewood Road and Loerie.
When the mainline coaches took on a new and brighter livery of maroon and grey, the tiny Avontuur coaches followed suit.
Because of the intensity of traffic during the fruit season, the special passenger trains to Loerie are operated only during July to January and then only, at present, if a minimum of 100 passengers is forthcoming.
Railway enthusiasts still come to Port Elizabeth from all over the world, to see what is one of the longest narrow-gauge railways still in existence, but also to see a collection of steam locomotives, both broad - and narrow-gauge, of, a variety which cannot be seen anywhere else.
Although the coming of the diesels will change this, it will still be a railway with a unique character, performing useful work.