South Africans have a steamy love affair with trains. Day trips on some of the country’s remaining active steam trains are so popular that they are often booked up weeks in advance.

Durban has the Umgeni Steam Railway, which departs from the Kloof station on the last Sunday of every month.

Port Elizabeth will be running its Apple Express again from December. The train will depart from Humerail Station and make its way to Loerie Station, about two and a half hours away. During the trip, the steam locomotive will make a temporary stop on Van Stadens, the highest narrow-gauge bridge in the world.

Pretoria has Friends of the Rail (FOTR), which offers day trips to the quaint and cultural town of Cullinan.

Steve Appleton, honorary secretary at FOTR, says there is a wonder in steam trains that draws people.

"Many families come looking for a unique and fun activity. Many children especially have never ridden in a train before, let alone a steam train," he says. "Sadly, due to the importance of freight traffic, steam locomotive haulage is restricted over much of Transnet Freight Rail’s network."

FOTR was formed in 1986. Initial trips ran to a number of locations, including Hartbeespoort Dam, Pyramid South and Voortrekkerhoogte (now Thaba Tshwane). Some went to Meerhof, Magaliesburg, Warmbaths (Bela-Bela) and even as far afield as Waterval Boven in Mpumalanga, says FOTR chairman Nathan Berelowitz.

Theft and vandalism of Transnet rail assets ... is a major national problem. In this case [the Cullinan theft], a 180m section of the rail was stolen, causing the derailment of an FOTR steam locomotive
Steve Appleton

But destination options have been significantly reduced because of difficulties in providing en-route servicing facilities on steam locomotives, as well as the demotion of steam because of freight traffic, says Appleton.

"Day trips to Cullinan form the backbone of our [FOTR’s] services. We are able to travel around most of the Metrorail network and this enables us to provide shorter trips around Tshwane and up to Irene village," he says.

"An ideal and very scenic route would have been the line through the Hartbeespoort valley towards the dam and Magaliesburg. Regrettably this route has been closed for a number of years now and the track has been severely vandalised and stolen."

Even part of the track at Cullinan has been stolen.

Most of the steam engines running in SA are kept going by nonprofit organisations. However, track theft and related infrastructure problems inhibit their ability to preserve this bit of history.

"Theft and vandalism of Transnet rail assets, particularly of disused or little-used branch lines, is a major national problem," says Appleton. "In this case [the Cullinan theft], a 180m section of the rail was stolen, causing the derailment of an FOTR steam locomotive and the closure of the Rayton-Cullinan branch line. No date has been set for its repair. For now, FOTR’s trains terminate at Rayton."

Appleton says buses are now used to transport passengers the final 9km to Cullinan.

"This is far from ideal, being both inconvenient to the passengers and costly for FOTR. Depending on the number of buses needed and the number of round trips made, this translates into a cost of at least R16,000-R20,000 per train trip," he says.

An expensive pleasure

When it comes to long-haul and luxury train trips, steam or otherwise, locals tend to shy away.

Rovos Rail communications manager Brenda Vos says premium train travel is pricey, and not many South Africans are willing to fork out such funds generally, let alone in the current economic climate.

Rovos Rail operates two classic trains of 20 superbly restored coaches, half of which date back to the 1920s, and more than 36 luxurious suites in which to relax.

"Like all five-star hotels, our services come at an equivalent price. The feedback we get from local consumers is that they would rather take the money they would spend on luxury train travel and spend it on an overseas trip such as to Mauritius. Most of our business actually comes from the Scandinavian countries and the US," says Vos.

The company offers short and long trips. Short excursions are limited to travelling between Gauteng and Cape Town, Victoria Falls and Durban. A three-day trip from Pretoria to Cape Town in the base suite costs about R19,000/person. The same ride in the royal suite costs about R38,000.

Longer trips take passengers to Namibia and Tanzania’s Dar es Salaam. The two-week trip from Cape Town to Dar es Salaam will set you back US$12,450. At the current exchange rate, that is more than R160,000.

"Most of our passengers are over the age of 50 and we have had some as old as 95. We find that this kind of travel attracts older people ... retirees ticking items off their bucket lists," says Vos.

Zimbabwe is in the process of reviving its steam trains in an effort to draw tourists and steam enthusiasts to the country. The rail operator there is the only one in the world that still operates Garratt locomotives in their original state.

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