[GUEST BLOG] Sweat, Grease and Steam Trains

At school I was laughed at for wanting to complete Matric and be a train driver, as I was often seen doing homework alongside the railway line as the steam-hauled passenger train from Lourenco Marques came racing past.

09 July 2017

When it comes to trains, there was no railway interest from my forefathers at all. So, how I got to love trains is possibly having been born in Rhodesia at the time. We rode the steam-hauled trains from there to my grandparents in South Africa quite regularly.

The electric train set was obligatory as a child, with the fascination of trains on tracks.

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Nathan and driver Clifford Petzer standing in front of their regular locomotive number 3127 at Capital Park station.

As I grew older, I got more interested and started taking photos at the various steam locomotive depots around the country due to my parents being transferred for work. During school holidays I would take train photos at the locomotive depots and along the line side. Naturally, seeing the huge engines draw in alongside the platforms, watching the swishing hissing machine pass by and seeing the wonderful array of shiny brass inside the cab, was so fascinating to me that I wanted to be there!

At school I was laughed at for wanting to complete Matric and be a train driver, as I was often seen doing homework alongside the railway line as the steam-hauled passenger train from Lourenco Marques came racing past.

My compulsory military service in the Airforce at Pietersburg was adjacent to the railway between Tzaneen and Messina, so whilst standing guard duty with my dog I would hear the trains blasting away on their journeys.

Service finished and I joined the South African Railways as a Fireman (stoker) at Pietersburg and worked on trains to Tzaneen and across the border to Zimbabwe at Beit Bridge. I loved the sweat, smell, grease and grime and soot and cinders… To be in control of a huge machine - working goods, traffic or passenger trains.

I transferred to Witbank depot firing the fast passenger trains to Pretoria and finally ended up in Pretoria at Capital Park shed where I had a regular locomotive class 15F - number 3127. Oh, how we cleaned and polished and loved her! I resigned to get married in 1982, but the call of steam was great and as a hobby I started the club Friends of the Rail in Pretoria.

I joined an early preservation group, The South African National Railway and Steam Museum, but sadly the group is no longer operational.

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Nathan and Clifford in the cabin of their beloved train number 3127.

We would look after the sole remaining steam working locomotive used to shunt the Blue Train until steam was fully withdrawn and we started operating trains for the public using railways coaches and the preserved steam trains.

The interest from the public was overwhelming, so we ran more trains. Then, finally the railway museum sent a locomotive to us to get restored and four years later we did it. And today, 3664 JO-ANNA still serves us and the public with pride.

For ten years I was one of the photo organisers on the Union Limited trains that the museum operated on fourteen-day steam safaries around the country for overseas tourists.

On the Zimbabwe trains we had often in excess of 130 passengers for the two weeks and many were regular supporters of the trains, coming out each year especially for these trips.

I  initiated  the opportunity for private persons to be trained as Firemen at the Railway College in Kooedoespoort, Pretoria and we did the full course, qualifying as Firemen. Later, we did the steam drivers exam which we redo annually - as a refresher.

Trains will always be a fascination, what with the visible workings of the motion; and the sounds and smells. Not just memories of bygone days, but a future fascination to be enjoyed by all. To enjoy a journey on rail with the rocking and swaying motion and the smudges of smoke passing the windows is so great – a part of the experience that foreign tourists spend fortunes to experience.

Besides the tourist interest there is scope for job creation and skills development. Fitters, painters, lathe operators, marketing and advertising skills are all necessary to keep steam alive. Steam trains will never die, but the interest and willingness to be involved hands-on is the vital factor for survival.

Written by: Nathan Berelowitz, Friends of the Rail