Alfred County Railway

From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia
  (Redirected from Banana Express)
Jump to navigation Jump to search

Alfred County Railway
LocaleSouth Africa
TerminusPort Shepstone to Harding, KwaZulu-Natal
Commercial operations
Original gauge2 ft (610 mm)
Preserved operations
Owned byTransnet
Length122 kilometres (76 mi)
Preserved gauge2 ft (610 mm)
Commercial history
Preservation history
3 December 1987Transnet and PS&ACR sign lease agreement
April 1988PS&ACR freight services start
15 June 2004Transnet terminates PS&ACR lease
14 December 2004PCNGR contracted to run Banana Express
September 2005Transnet auctions excess stock, including NGG16's to WHR
December 2005Last running of Banana Express
20 April 2006Transnet terminates PCNGR lease
18 June 2008Storm wrecks bridges along Hibicus Coast
Alfred County Railway
122 kilometres (76 mi) Harding
75 kilometres (47 mi) Nqabeni
59 kilometres (37 mi) Izingolweni
39 kilometres (24 mi) Paddock
13 kilometres (8.1 mi) Izotsha
0 kilometres (0 mi) Port Shepstone

Alfred County Railway is an abandoned 2 ft (610 mm) narrow gauge railway in South Africa, which runs from the southern transport hub of Port Shepstone on the Indian Ocean, via Izotsha and Paddock for 122 kilometres (76 mi) to Harding, KwaZulu-Natal.


South Africa, rich in natural resources and fertile lands, has many areas that are ideal for agricultural production. However, the steep mountainous terrain between the resource rich areas in the high veld and the coastal ports presented a transport challenge.

Before well maintained and reliable access roads had been developed, narrow gauge railways were used extensively by South African farmers to move produce from their large farms to central sorting and packing points on their own land. As a result, entrepreneurial business people created linking railways to transport the produce from the sorting and packing points to the coastal ports. Their choice of gauge was determined by the gauge that was being used in each local area and varied between the early 1 ft 11 12 in (597 mm) to the later Cape gauge of 1,067 mm (3 ft 6 in).

Original operations[edit]

Map of Alfred County Railway

Designed as part of the Natal Government Railways' (NGR) project to transport sugar cane and bananas grown in the agricultural Harding district to Port Shepstone, the NGR commissioned Stoke-on-Trent based Kerr Stuart to build seven Class NG4 4-6-2T tank locomotives, based on the 1907 Class NG3 4-6-2T.[1]

The route of the Alfred County Railway had some curves of 45 metres (147.6 ft), but with gradients of up to 3 in 100 / 3% (ruling grade of 1 in 37 / 2.7% for 20 miles or 32 kilometres after leaving the coast [2]), the NG4s and their replacements were often double-headed to haul the diverse freight traffic of wood, sugar cane and bananas to Port Shepstone. The line's management decided against purchasing more powerful articulated Garratt locomotives, because their longer wheelbase would make access to the sugar cane fields more difficult.

From the mid-1970s, steam was replaced by Class 91-000 diesel-electric locomotives on the SAR's longer routes, which were more powerful. Also, being shorter in chassis length, these diesel-electric locomotives were able to access the growers' farms. Therefore, the SAR decided to transfer the NG G13 and NG G16 Garratts to the Alfred County Railway in Natal.

Due to underinvestment, the Alfred County Railway became increasingly unreliable, and was closed to operations by the SAR in 1986.

Port Shepstone and Alfred County Railway[edit]

As South Africa's farmers re-entered the global markets in the late 1980s, the quality of produce going to markets became increasingly important. As handling is a key issue in the retail quality of bananas in particular, the farmers were in favour of reviving the Alfred County Railway, to reduce the amount of handling from banana plantation to port.

To raise funds and reduce government expenditure, the Government of South Africa announced it would gradually put into private hands its huge state-owned corporations, including the state electricity corporation, Eskom, and SA Transport Services which owned SAR. The Alfred County Railway was hence chosen as the pilot railway privatisation project.

In reality, SAR/Transnet still owned the line, infrastructure and the stock as a nationally strategic asset; while the new Port Shepstone and Alfred County Railway (PSACR) was granted an operational and maintenance lease for a period of 199 years. The company inherited 25 steam locomotives - of which only one, an NG G16, was operational - plus rolling stock. The company announced a business plan expected to win back lucrative business from farmers and timber growers. In March 1988, the PSACR raised funds by offering 1.8 million shares for sale at one rand each.[3]

Class NG G16A[edit]

Class NG G16A 141 & 155 on the climb from Bongwana to Nqabeni, circa 1992

As part of their development to keep the railway competitive, the PSACR upgraded two of their existing Class NG G16 locomotives. The engineers incorporated developments proposed by L.D. Porta, including GPCS, Lempor exhaust, an improved spark arrestor, lightweight multi-ring articulated piston valves, improved valve events and improved mechanical lubrication. Two locomotives were modified: No. 141 in 1989 and No. 155 in 1990, and reclassified to Class NG G16A. In comparative testing No. 141 gave a fuel saving of 25% compared to a standard SAR Class NG G16 Garratt, and was easily maintained in regular service.[4]

Demise to road transport[edit]

Initially, the venture lost money heavily, but after making profits from year three, the venture decided to try to return to an all-steam powered railway. The tourism based passenger train, the Banana Express, had always been steam powered, while the advantages of power and a short wheelbase meant that PSACR decided to lease SAR 91 Class diesels to provide hauling for commercial freight services.[5]

The revived PSACR became Spoornet’s second largest customer at Port Shepstone. This was driven by the operations of Kulu Lime and the Natal Portland Cement, plus pulpwood, poplar logs (for matchwood), creosoted telegraph poles, and manufactured wooden items from Harding. North bound inland traffic was general cargo for the farmers, such as maize, fertilizer, salt, cement, farm implements and water tanks and small parcels. The company also revived the Banana Express.[6]

In 1991 Spoornet acquired one-million shares in PSACR, equivalent to a 28% shareholding, which gave users greater confidence in the PSACR service. The "Narrow Arrow" piggyback train was introduced for supply to the Port Shepstone pulp mill, where an entire train of 26 narrow gauge wagons was ramped onto a Spoornet train consisting of 13 wagons, having flexible connecting bridges. This eliminated the trans-shipping of timber at Port Shepstone and reduced transfer time from 14 hours to two hours. A further endeavour was the "Timbertainer," an intermodal system where pulpwood could be loaded into an open container at a plantation and taken through to the mill. Plans were in place for a similar initiative for sugar cane shipments.[6]

However, by the mid-1990s the effects of transport deregulation began to impact of the profitability of the PSACR as larger, often overloaded, road trucks becoming ever more competitive. Although Spoornet made representations to the government, transport regulations were further relaxed to allow a higher gross vehicle mass (GVM) of 56 tonnes (55 long tons; 62 short tons), a higher axle load from 8.2 and 9.0 long tons (8.3 and 9.1 t), together with a 5% overload tolerance: the highest heavy vehicle mass with unlimited access to the roads of any country in the world.

As a result, Spoornet began to lose general freight traffic, and PSACR's reliance on trans-shipment increased transport times and costs.[6] The railway began a gradual decline, eventually failing in 2001 when it lost the key Port Shepstone "Narrow Arrow" wood pulping contract, due to unreliability problems resulting from labour relation issues at Spoornet.[6]

Suspending freight operations, the line continued to operate the Banana Express, but accumulated huge debts to Spoornet. As a result of these increasing debts, Transnet decided to legally force the venture into bankruptcy in 2004.[7][8][9]

Banana Express[edit]

After the termination of the PSACR lease, Patons Country Narrow Gauge Railway (PCNGR) was granted a temporary permit to continue running the Banana Express, from Port Shepstone to Paddock. The company had three locomotives available to it: NGG16 Nos.151 and 127; plus an ex-sugar estate 0-4-0T, SAR NG UVE2.[5]

With a 6-hour journey totally devoted to tourism and enabling access to local attractions and businesses,[10] it again became very popular with tourists because of both the scenery and the access to local businesses.

Before reaching Shelley Beach the railway traversed several river bridges along the Hibiscus Coast. The train then veered inland and chugged up through banana plantations and cane fields towards Izotsha, passed through lush sub-tropical native forests and rondavel-dotted hillsides, before stopping in Paddock for lunch and then the direct return journey.

Although PCNGR had proposals to reopen the line to Harding,[11] in December 2005 Transnet shut the Banana Express, after they decreed a lease did not exist between SAR and PCNGR.[12]

On 18 June 2008 a huge storm hit the coast, which resulted in large amounts of flash flooding. This damaged many of the railway's bridges along the Hibiscus Coast so that they were considered to be beyond economic repair, and washed most of the Izotsha rail bridges away.[13]

Several steam locomotives and several carriages that were used on the Banana Express are stored at Paddock

Hamba Wehelle Express

In 2015 a short section of the railway line - between Paddock and Plains - was in use and a limited tourist service was being provided using a light weight carriage and an industrial Hunslet diesel locomotive

The service is known as the Hamba Wehelle Express (or Humba Weheli Express) and was operated in conjunction with the Gorgez View Bed and Breakfast/Conference Centre/Coffee Shop at Paddock however by 2016 the service was suspended

See also[edit]


  1. ^ "South African Railways Class NG4 4-6-2T". Sandstone Estates. 12 September 2006. Archived from the original on 2 July 2007. Retrieved 10 July 2009.
  2. ^
  3. ^ "South Africa Rail Offering". New York Times. 28 March 1988. Retrieved 10 July 2009.
  4. ^ "girdlestone". Retrieved 10 July 2009.
  5. ^ a b "Archived copy". Archived from the original on 7 June 2011. Retrieved 11 July 2009.CS1 maint: Archived copy as title (link)
  6. ^ a b c d "Alfred County Railway two years on (1990)". Railroad Association of South Africa. July 1990. Archived from the original on 26 September 2007. Retrieved 10 July 2009.
  7. ^ "Steam in Africa 2008". Archived from the original on 7 June 2011. Retrieved 11 July 2009.
  8. ^ "Archived copy". Archived from the original on 27 September 2007. Retrieved 11 July 2009.CS1 maint: Archived copy as title (link)
  9. ^
  10. ^ "Banana Express tour". Sandstone Estates. Archived from the original on 28 August 2005. Retrieved 10 July 2009.
  11. ^ "Banana Express". Archived from the original on 16 January 2010. Retrieved 10 July 2009.
  12. ^ "Archived copy". Archived from the original on 4 April 2005. Retrieved 11 July 2009.CS1 maint: Archived copy as title (link)
  13. ^ "Banana Express". Retrieved 10 July 2009.

External links[edit]