Port Elizabeth of Yore: Narrow Gauge Walmer Branch Line

Today nothing remains of this railway line which wended its way through the sylvan town of Walmer in the early twentieth century. Not even a memory, the sound of the whistle or the smell of the coal fired engine which traversed the arboreal streets such as Villiers and Water Road all the way to the municipal boundary at 14th Avenue recalls this miniature train. 

Main picture: Narrow gauge train leaving the Main Station in Port Elizabeth 

 Why Narrow Gauge?

Technically all South African railways are narrow gauge. As the definition of narrow gauge is any railway gauge less than the Standard Gauge of George Stephenson being 4’-8½” or 1435 mm, the Cape Gauge of 3’-6” or 1067 mm is de jure narrow gauge. However South Africa’s loading gauge is the same as that of Britain and allows for the movement of heavy loads and hence in the South African context a narrow gauge is something less than Cape Gauge.

WG Bagnall CGR 4 6 2T of 1908 used on Walmer Branch Line

Narrow gauge lines became popular worldwide at the end of the nineteenth century, when the initial boom in railway building was over and all the major cities and ports had been linked. Small towns and less prosperous communities realized that without a railway they would increasingly fall behind and therefore clamoured for a railway connection. As the capital could not be raised to build to main line standards, cheaper ways had to be found and the narrow gauge railway, despite the inconvenience of a break of gauge, was seen as a cost effective solution. In fact, it was only the transhipment of goods that posed a problem, as passengers would usually change trains at a branch-line junction station anyway.

Narrow gauge Walmer Branch

The big plus factor for the narrow gauge was its ability to follow a curving alignment enabling it to hug the contours of the countryside. In so doing it reduced to a minimum the amount of expensive earthworks needed. Furthermore, since everything was on a smaller scale the initial cost of rails, engines, carriages and wagons was a lot less. 

Conception

The idea on a railway line to serve the remote Langkloof had been mooted prior to the Anglo-Boer War. The fact that a railway line had been laid through the commonage just south of the nascent town of Walmer, evoked a response. A Mr. Mackay took up the cudgels on behalf of the town. What he proposed what a connection between the two towns by means of a Branch Line. On the basis of his glib overgenerous estimate of 15,000 passengers per week, a public meeting held on 13th December 1905, authorised the Town Council to enter into negotiations regarding the possibility of a line connecting the two towns.

Murray’s lofty idealism did not match his mathematical ability. With a population of just 884 whites and 1,266 coloureds, the number of residents either working or shopping in the CBD of its larger sibling town, would be a fraction of this estimate.

Wiser heads prevailed at the Railways Department when the accountants applied their logic to the passenger projections. Instead of haggling over the projections, in their sagacity they insisted that the Town Council provide them with an indemnity against loss in the operation.

The basis of the projections for railway usage by the Town Clerk was based upon 2,410 persons crossing the Walmer-Port Elizabeth boundary every day. Even though this is more in line with Mackay’s figures, it is still only two thirds of his estimate. Regardless of this fact, a modicum of conservatism would have suggested that not all of these persons would use the facility either due to cost, destination or for other miscellaneous reasons. A Mr More in the Railways Department provided a more conservative estimate of only 1,200 daily passengers to the General Manager. On the basis of his less sanguine view, he suggested that a service of ten trips per day would suffice.

The train travelling through town

The train travelling through town

Though More spoke of locomotives and coaches when scheduling the costs, the original proposals had been for the use of “self-contained units”. From the minutes of a meeting in More’s office on the 22nd February 1906, they spoke of “the arrival of the motors” which suggests that the original intention was to import petrol-engined vehicles.

Whatever the original intentions were, after the accountants and admin staff had made their recommendations, the execution was handed over to the Engineers. As the Cape Government Railways was staffed by men deeply imbued with and emotionally connected with steam locomotives, whatever the intentions of the accountants were, the engineers received their beloved steam locomotives.

At a second meeting with the ratepayers of Walmer, held on 26th February 1906, a resolution was passed permitting the Town Council to provide a guarantee of interest at 4% on the capital cost of the line. In addition, they also agreed to guarantee payment for any losses incurred on running the line. Finally, they would guarantee interest on the cost of all betterments and additional capital expenditure after the line had commenced operation.

In accordance with these resolutions, the Municipality of Walmer placed the matter before the Cape Parliament. In due course, the Parliament assented in the form of Act No. 18 of 1906. This Act was known as the “Walmer Municipal Guarantee Act, 1906”  authorised the Municipality of Walmer to conclude a Contract of Guarantee with the Government “in connection with the Construction, Equipping, Working and Maintaining of a certain line of Railway.” Furthermore, the Act provided for interest at 4% on the capital cost of the line for a period of ten years from the opening of the line. This agreement was finally concluded on the 15th December 1906.

Narrow gauge terminal at the Main Port Elizabeth Station

Narrow gauge terminal at the Main Port Elizabeth Station

Route

In order to cut costs, this line would be a branch line in every sense of the word. The trains on this line would use the rails of the Avontuur Railway for the first 2 ¾ miles or 4.45 kilometres, diverging at a location known as Valley Junction just south of First Avenue. This junction was simplicity personified. It was merely a pair of points with the usual locked lever out in the bush. The Branch Line swung north east entering the town itself in 2nd Avenue. Since the town was laid out in a rigid grid pattern, the line would switch alternatively switch directions from east-west to a north-south as it made it way first along Villiers Road and then 5th Avenue and then finally along Water Road all the way to 14th Avenue. Like all fixed routes, the trick in servicing the largest area lies in the route. In this case, the track along Water Road disadvantaged the passengers residing in the five roads south of Water Road. It would have been preferable if the track had swung west into Fordyce instead of Water making the distance to the railway line equidistance to all those commuters.

Walmer Branch Line train at the Port Elizabeth station

The word “road” in that bygone age in Walmer was a misnomer for the “dirt” road stretched between the walls of the plots on either side. Inside of laying the rails at the median of the theoretical road, the track ran under the trees. Train shelters were prosaic affairs comprising a three sided screen with hard-packed cinders as floors and equally hard wooden benches. The stops were identified on the ticket by the name of the road or the number of the avenue, only one stop had a formal name, “Armstrong’s Corner.” Once Eight Avenue had been crossed, Water Road ceased to exist as a road. From there onwards, it was little more than a track and a wandering footpath. Due to the undulating nature of the existing roadway, the Agreement had taken this into account in not requiring the level of the track to match that of the road.

An engine pulling a short train of three passenger coaches through leafy Walmer

An engine pulling a short train of three passenger coaches through leafy Walmer

Construction and operation

The costs of 5.6 kilometres line were as follows:

  • Surveying £74  16s  0d
  • Materials  £2369
  • Labour      £1377

Power was supplied by two 4-6-2T locomotives which each hauled three coaches. Each combination of engine with its three coaches only operated on alternate weeks.

Since segregation was the official policy on all trains operating in the Cape at that time, this regulation was applied to the Walmer Branch Line as well. Segregation was not merely based upon the race of the commuter but also by the standard of the coach. Accordingly, 1st class coaches were provided for whites and 3rd class for the blacks. In order to cater for wealthy non-white passengers, a portion of the 3rd class carriage was set aside for 1st class non-white commuters. 

Walmer local departing from the Main Station in 1910

Walmer local departing from the Main Station in 1910

In order to simplify accounting, it was decided to adopt the procedure employed on the tramways whereby tickets were not available for broken journeys and were valid for the day of issue only. In order to accommodate the regular traveller, books of tickets were available at the main booking office of the Port Elizabeth Station.

The journey from the Station to its terminus at Fourteenth Avenue was no more than 6 miles 20 chains or slightly over ten kilometres. This journey took thirty minutes and included ten stops and in certain cases, eleven, when a stop was made at Fleming Street. Despite the service offering twenty-two trains per day, the number of passengers using the service did not meet the expectations resulting in the Walmer Municipality having to make good the shortfall.

Bagnall engine used on Walmer Branch Line

Even though a goods service was offered on the line, without sidings and being a single track throughout its entire length, the working of truck load goods traffic must have proved to be remarkably difficult.

Swansong

Competition would come in many different guises apart from foot slogging for the impecunious. Even factors such as timing or distance to the closest stop affected its usage.  One such competitor was the tram service of the South End Line of the Port Elizabeth Tramways Company albeit that its terminus was at First Avenue. Maybe it was not the fare itself was attracted rail passengers, as the two were identical, but more the fact that the rail service took thirteen minutes longer than the tram service. In some cases the timing of the trip also had an effect on its usage.

Narrow gauge engine

Narrow gauge engine

Another competitor in the form of the Tin Lizzie, as the Model T Ford was colloquially known, and the Chevvie was on the ascendant. It would ultimately be the dead knell of all public transport but more immediately public transport using immutable routes. Initially an even greater threat arose: the bus. Unlike tram and train, it was not confined to a specific route but could adjust its route to reflect changes in demand. The initial service was offered by an entrepreneur, a certain Mr Carelse, who inaugurated a service in 1925. By the mid 1920s, only the section of Walmer between First and Sixth Avenue was well-populated and the rest of the journey being mainly open veldt. In order to skim the cream for his service, he catered only for the area up to Sixth Avenue by running only as far as Fifth Avenue.

Providentially, the Walmer Municipality had made a payment of £700 in December 1912 indemnifying themselves against losses incurred on the service. Shortly this foresight would pay huge dividends.

An early 1900s family poses with train guards and the driver where the Apple Express puffed through young Walmer along the PE-Avontuur railway

The use of the more flexible road service culminated in reduced patronage of the train service. The Railways retaliated by reducing their fares to match that of the bus service but were unable to eliminate the addition time taken of thirteen minutes.

From 1919 onwards, the train service had run at a profit but by the year ended 31st March 1924, a negative trend was observable.

March 1924 = Profit of £1751

March 1925 = Profit of £828

March 1926 = Loss of £1382

To indicate how precipitous the decline had been, the decline in passenger usage told the whole story:

Passenger for period July to September:

  • 1924 = 77,579
  • 1926 = 37,984
  • 1927 = 35,000
  • 1928 = 27,982

The S.A.R. was left with little option. They publically announced that the service would be discontinued as from 26th November 1928 but they would not leave meekly. They resolved to fight fire with fire. Their weapon of choice would be five Thorneycroft buses of type XB. However first the paperwork had to be done. The uplifting of the Branch Line  and the purchase of the buses required Parliamentary approval. This came in the form of the Railway Routes Adjustment Act No 1028.

Cover of 24 Inches Apart

On the assigned date, instead of the puffing Bagnall meeting them at their stop, it was a Thorneycroft bus. The SAR did take the opportunity to revise the routes according to the density and even extended it to Fairview and Emerald Hill. Soon the fickle public switched allegiances yet again, preferring to patronise the newer, smarter, shinier buses of SAR.

The train service which had operated for 22 years from December 1906 to November 1928 was no more. All that was left was demolition. The materials for the rails which had cost £2,368 in 1906 realised only £578. This sum covered the cost of its removal amounting to £335. Engine NG33 was scrapped immediately and NG34 suffered the same fate in Uitenhage in March 1929. This fate would not befall the coaches.. Some of the balcony coaches were used on the Otavi Branch Line while the others including the specials were used on the Avontuur Line.

Never again would the residents of Walmer be awakened or disturbed by the five minute warning whistle of the Branch Line train again.

En passant: Size of Port Elizabeth

Whilst running a half marathon [21 kilometres] on a Saturday morning not long ago, I had an epiphany. Port Elizabeth is an extremely compact town. The length of the Walmer Branch Line from the Main Railway Station in Strand Street to the terminus at 14th Avenue, Walmer is only slightly over 10 kilometres. That means that the train journey was equivalent to half of my run. Yet for the past 27 years, I have not only run on a half marathon on a Saturday but also on a Sunday. That means that for approximately 50 weeks of the year, I ran a minimum of four times the length of this railway track.

 

When I resided in Port Elizabeth in my youth, I would have considered it far whereas places such as Uitenhage would have been on the other side of the world. In retrospect, the Walmer Branch Line is merely a short journey.

Sources

24 Inches Apart by Sydney Moir

Early Railways at the Cape by Jose Burman

Steam in Africa by A.E. Durrant, C.P. Lewis A.A. Jorgensen.

Interlude on the Narrow Gauge: http://www.theheritageportal.co.za/article/interlude-narrow-gauge


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