Rail transport in South Africa
Rail transport in South Africa is the most important element of the country's transport infrastructure. All major cities are connected by rail, and South Africa's railway system is the most highly developed in Africa. The South African rail industry is publicly owned.
The first track for steam-powered locomotives was a line of about 3.2 kilometres (2 mi) by the Natal Railway Company, linking the town of Durban with Harbour Point, opened on 26 June 1860. Cape Town had already started building a 72-kilometre (45 mi) line, track gauge 1,435 mm (4 ft 8 1⁄2 in), linking Cape Town to Wellington in 1859 but was hampered by delays and could only open the first section of the line to the Eerste River on 13 February 1862. However Cape railway construction began a massive expansion, after the formation in 1872 of the Cape Government Railways.
In the north, in the independent South African Republic, railway construction was done by the Netherlands-South African Railway Company (NZASM), which constructed two major lines: one from Pretoria to Lourenço Marques in Portuguese East Africa Colony, and a shorter line connecting Pretoria to Johannesburg. A national "link-up" was established in 1898, creating a national transport network. This national network was largely completed by 1910. Though railway lines were also being extended outside of South Africa, as far north as Northern Rhodesia (present-day Zambia), the vision of Cecil John Rhodes, to have a rail system that would run from the "Cape to Cairo", would never materialise.
Upon the merger of four provinces to establish the modern state of South Africa in 1910, the railway lines across the country were also merged. South African Railways and Harbours (SAR & H) was the government agency responsible for, amongst other things, the country's rail system.
During the 1980s, the transport industry was reorganised. Instead of being a direct government agency, it was modelled along business lines into a government-owned corporation called Transnet. Transnet Freight Rail (until recently known as Spoornet) is the division of Transnet that runs the rail system. Though there are no plans to end government-ownership of the national rail network, some small portions of the rail system have recently been privatised.
Transnet (and previously Spoornet and its predecessor) became famous for its luxury rail lines, most notably the Blue Train, which runs from Cape Town to Johannesburg. The Blue Line has frequently been named the best luxury train line in the world, and the 1,600 kilometres (990 mi) run is a popular tourist attraction for South Africa.
With the increasing coverage provided by the nation's highway system, long-distance passenger travel has declined in South Africa. While many commuters still use rail for their daily commute, nationally, only half of the nation's 20,000 kilometres (12,000 mi) of track is being fully utilised, and some 35% of the nation's track carries no activity or very low activity. Accordingly, Transnet is moving towards an emphasis on freight, rather than passengers, to keep the rail system profitable.
For a look at the South African transport network, including the railways, view this map from the United Nations.
Nearly all railways in South Africa use a 1,070 mm (3 ft 6 in) narrow gauge track (Cape gauge). This was selected in the 19th century to reduce the cost of building track across and through the mountains found in several parts of the country. The Gautrain rapid transit railway uses 1,435 mm (4 ft 8 1⁄2 in) (standard gauge). Ultimately, the hope is that the conversion to standard gauge will also enhance rail's potential as a freight carrier.
During the late 19th century and the early 20th century numerous 2-foot narrow gauge railways were constructed.
South African trains connect through the AAR coupler, developed in the United States at the end of the 19th century. Remarkably, though South Africa has long been ahead of Europe in coupling systems, it has lagged behind most of the world in its braking system; most trains in South Africa continue to use vacuum braking. However, the conversion to air brakes has finally commenced.
Between 50% to 80% of the rail lines in South Africa are electrified. Different voltages are used for different types of trains. Most electrified trains run 3000 V DC (overhead); this is used primarily for commuter lines, and has been in use since the 1920s. During the 1980s, higher voltages (25 kV AC and—much less frequently—50 kV AC (both overhead) have been used for heavy duty lines (also more sleepers per kilometre), primarily in the transport of iron ore.
South Africa uses a variety of rolling stock from a number of manufacturers.
Accidents and incidents
- 19 February 1896, a freight train loaded with eight trucks of dynamite was struck by a shunter while unloading. The resulting Braamfontein Explosion was one of the largest artificial non-nuclear explosions in history, killing more than 70 people, and injuring over 200.
- 2 February 2002, 24 people die in the 2002 Charlotte's Dale train collision
- 26 October 2005, 2005 Deelfontein train collision, head-on collision between the Blue Train and the Trans Karoo
- 13 November 2006, Faure level crossing accident, 19 people were killed at a level crossing near Somerset West when a metrorail train collided with a truck carrying farm workers.
- 21 April 2010, 3 crew died in the Pretoria runaway of a Rovos Rail train
- 25 August 2010, Blackheath level crossing accident, 10 children died as a result of a level crossing crash between a Metrorail commuter train and a minibus taxi.
- 13 July 2012. Hectorspruit level crossing accident, at least 25 people were killed at a level crossing near Hectorspruit, Mpumalanga, when a coal train collided with a truck carrying farm workers.
- Saturday, 18 July 2015. Two commuter trains collided and overturned in Johannesburg.200 people were injured.
Rail systems in nearby countries
The following countries mostly use 1,067 mm (3 ft 6 in) gauge and are mostly connected together. Countries beyond those listed are of other gauges.
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- Two foot gauge railways in South Africa
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- Cape gauge
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