Commemorating 150 Years

South Africa commemorates 150 years of rail

As published in SA Rail Vol 47 No 3 – October 2009

England embarked on the great railway boom at the start of the nineteenth century, but it took a few years for South Africa to realise the potential of this development.

Despite the Cape of Good Hope being the only part of the sub-continent known to the outside world and civilisation, its knowledge of the hinterland was in its infancy, with the secret of the country’s mineral wealth lying well hidden under the large inland plains where antelope still roamed freely in their thousands, and men were wary of a land of which they had little knowledge.

The first reference to the possible construction of a railway line was probably an article that appeared in the South African Commercial Advertiser on 10 October 1838, while the Great Trek was in full swing. This was followed on 25 October 1845 by the Pictorial Times carrying an article on the benefits of a railway to the Cape Colony, but seemingly few people agreed with the concept, and little progress was made at the time. The good burghers of the Cape were simply not ready yet for this new invention.

During this period the Cape Government preferred to spend its financial resources on road-building and, indeed, some magnificent roads passes were built during this period. These were needed to open up the interior and to break the isolation caused by the ranges that imprisoned the Cape between mountains and sea.

In October 1845 the Cape of Good Hope Western Railway Society was formed in London, with the express purpose of building the first railway line in South Africa. However, this company did very little and the Cape Colony missed out on the opportunity to have the first public railway on African soil. This honour fell to Egypt at the far end of the continent, when the first train ran between Cairo and Alexandria in 1856.

On 21 August 1853 The Cape Town Railway and Dock Company was established, and incorporated in London with a registered capital of £600,000 in 1854. At the second meeting of The Cape Town Railway and Dock Company a proposal was carried to build a railway line in Namaqualand “for the conveyance of copper ore from the newly discovered mines”. However, when it came down to the actual construction, the choice fell instead to a line through the important wine-growing district of the Cape, linking Cape Town and Wellington.

For the construction of this line an engineer with some railway building experience was needed and William George Brounger was sent to the Cape. He had already been involved in building a line in Denmark for the Zeeland Railway, and ultimately he was to become the most famous railway engineer in Southern Africa railway history.

In the Eastern Cape, John Patterson, a former schoolmaster and founder of Standard bank, in 1855, issued a brochure with a map that showed a projected network of hypothetical railways covering Southern Africa. Without any knowledge of his country’s mineral wealth, he produced a map that showed a remarkable resemblance to the network that was to develop during the next century!

Despite the Cape having turned the first sod for a railway line between Cape Town and Wellington on 31 March 1859, Natal had pipped the Cape Colony at the finish line in the race to record this “first’ on 26 June 1860. It was a low-key event that marked the launch of the Cape Colony’s railway service from Cape Town to Eerste River on 13 February 1862. On 1 May 1862 the service was extended to Stellenbosch, with the official opening of the entire line being commemorated on 4 November 1863.

The Wynberg Railway Company was established in 1861 and a new line between Salt River Junction and Wynberg was brought into service on 19 December 1864.

Although the race to open the first railway line had been won by Natal, it was not until 25 January 1867 that a short section of line between Market Square Station and Umgeni Quarry was taken into use, to transport the stone needed for the construction of the harbour. Regular public transport over this section began on 4 April 1867.

For the next few years no progress was made on the construction of railways. That is, until the discovery of diamonds in 1867. This has a profound effect on South Africa and her people, changing not just lives but the boundaries of the individual colonies. Within the next 50 years a unified South Africa emerged.

In 1873 the Cape Government took over the Cape Town Railways and Dock Company and established the Cape Government Railways (CGR). The assets of the Wynberg Railway Company were similarly transferred to government ownership in 1876.

The following railway lines, distance in miles and opening dates are recorded for the early years:

Durban – Point (3 miles) 26 June 1860
Cape Town – Eerste River (34 miles) 13 February 1862
Eerste River – Stellenbosch (14 miles) 1 May 1862
Stellenbosch – Wellington (43 miles) 4 November 1864
Salt River (Junction) – Wynberg (9 miles) 19 December 1864
Durban – Umgeni (5 miles) 4 April 1867

Cape Town Docks – CT Station (11 miles) 11 May 1875
Port Elizabeth – Kommando Kraal (Addo) (50 miles) 26 July 1875
Wellington – Tulbagh Road (48 miles) 1 September 1875
Swartkops – Uitenhage (22 miles) 22 September 1875
Tulbagh Road – Ceres Road (14 miles) 3 November 1875

DURBAN - Tuesday, 26 June 1860. The first official train journey on South African soil commenced when Engineer Henry Jacobs turned on the steam and wheels started to roll on the first public service in South Africa. The first trip, between Market Place and Point took only five minutes, but is forever recorded in the annals of history. Some 800 passengers had the honour of being the first in Southern Africa to travel by train.

Map of the Durban Point line, the first active public railway line in South Africa. The Map was drawn by Bruno Martin in 2005.

Drawing of the Natal by TJ Espitalier and published in the SAR&H Magazine in June 1943. At the time, Espitalier, a draughtsman in the offices of the Chief Mechanical Engineeer, was involved with the recovery of the Natal.

This photograph from the South African Railway Archives shows the Natal at the Durban Point station.


The first steam locomotive to arrive in South Africa, was “Blackie”, which was displayed to the public in Cape Town, while construction of the line, on which it was to run, was still in progress. The “Natal” locomotive arrived in South Africa in Durban after “Blackie”, but the “Natal” was the first steam locomotive in South Africa to haul a public train, albeit on the very short two-mile launch journey between Point Station and Durban Station.

All information on this page is reproduced with the kind permission of SA Rail, official journal of the Railway Society of Southern Africa (RSSA).

"Blackie", one of six ordered for the railway was built by Hawthorns & Co. Leith Engine Works in Scotland. It became practice to give names to different locomotives, and several of those names have come down to us, e.g. "Fire Horse", "Wellington", and "Sir George Grey". Strangely enough there is no trace of any name that this first locomotive may have born, though later in its life it was known as "Blackie". Photograph: Danie van der Merwe