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Mossel Bay
3rd Oct 2023
Arts & CultureCommunity & LivingTourism & Travel

Remember Outeniqua Choo Tjoe

Can you believe it’s been 12 years since this steam train ferried tourists and locals for 67 kilometres between Knysna and George, choofing across broad estuaries, rattling through pine plantations and dappled indigenous forest, huffing and puffing alongside cliff edges, and skirting shimmering lakes? It was in August 2006 that the train ground to a halt after serious storms and floods washed away a section of the railway line above Dolphins Point at Kaaimans Pass, just beyond Wilderness, with yet more flood damage inflicted in February 2007 elsewhere on the rails. Then, in July 2017, the infamous Knysna fires relentlessly burned railway sleepers across the Goukamma Valley.

The intention of these images is not to highlight in a derogatory way the deterioration of the train and railway. Rather, to look at the rust and peeling paint with an “artful” gaze. The oxidised and blistered switchgear — little cartoon people leaning drunkenly forward, rigid in rust. Folded and faded signage. Picture icons warning us of speed and puffing engines that no longer run. It all commands a weird fascination, this halt in time. Indeed, it’s taken Herculean efforts from organisations such as Friends of the Rail, willing railway authorities, an independent Dutch support group, crowd-funding, and finally Classic Rail to try to resusitate the much-loved train service.

The Outeniqua Choo Tjoe is presently in the hands of private initiative Classic Rail (their motto: “preserving classic rail in South Africa’s Garden Route & Klein Karoo”), led by development engineer Alan McVitty. To briefly summarise how they got to this point: in February 2016, Classic Rail was awarded a 20-year concession on the George—Knysna line by Transnet Freight Rail. In June bridges across the Knysna Estuary were inspected by bridge engineers; the line between Knysna and Sedgefield was largely intact while sections between Sedgefield and George required major repairs.

Ambitious plans were then announced for a Knysna Dinner Train, opening December 2016, between Knysna Station and Keytersnek, using 100-ton classic Class 32 diesel locomotives, four restored dining carriages and two freight cars converted into open viewing carriages. Knysna Station would have a new restaurant, incorporating the historic Governor General’s Private Saloon, built in 1931.

Over the next two years, a revised business plan was required by Classic Rail; this was accepted by Transnet Freight Rail in January 2018. The 20-year concession still required final approval, however, by Transnet Freight Rail, the Transnet Group board (among others), and finally the Minister of Public Enterprises. In the meanwhile, in late May 2018 Transnet Freight Rail, the Knysna Municipality, and Classic Rail joined forces to clean up and fence off Knysna’s Waste-by-Rail site next to TaitMarine after the four flat-deck rail wagons became a shelter for the homeless.

On 28 October 2018, Transnet was to have celebrated the 90th anniversary of the (re)opening of the original George—Knysna track. Transnet’s financial woes and mismanagement undoubtedly have contributed to the current delays. As the situation stands today, in November 2018 Tau Morwe was appointed as Transnet’s acting group chief executive to replace Siyabonga Gama, following investigations into the purchase of 1,064 locomotives from Gupta-linked Regiments Capital for R54 billion. This heralds, no doubt, a new round of negotiations and approvals for Classic Rail … We wait with bated breath.

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