South Africa’s Giants of Steam


On the 31st May 1910, the Union of South Africa was formally established, and brought together the separate colonies:- Cape of Good Hope, Natal, Orange River and Transvaal.  This ‘newly’ created British colony also had a governor general, and six years later, in 1916, legislation was passed to create the unified South African Railways. This included:

  • Central South African Railways,
  • Cape Government Railways, and
  • Natal Government Railways

The first railway was established back in 1845, and over the years expanded across the land, from the Cape, not to Cairo, but into Zimbabwe and Mozambique, opening up the interior of a land rich in minerals, precious metals, especially gold, diamonds and of course coal.


Not all SAR steam giants were in main line service. The S1 series 0-8-0s, built by North BVritish in 1951, were used for shunting – this particular shuntin g giant was captured on Germiston Shed.     Photo: Malcolm Best – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0,

As a government agency, South African Railways and Harbours was responsible for this combined rail network, and it was in that form that rail operations lasted until the 1980s, when ‘Transnet’ arrived in 1990. This was the privatisation of what had been effectively a publicly owned, national rail network, for passengers and freight. After 1990, the ‘Spoornet’ division became responsible for rail freight and main line passenger carrying services.

By the early 1990s, there were just over 100 steam locomotives available for regular main line operation in South Africa, and on 1st April 1992 the Transnet Museum assumed responsibility for all operational and withdrawn steam types. There were a lot of withdrawn steam locomotives, stored across the various regions, from the Transvaal and Orange Free State to the Cape and Natal regions. There were still – in 1994 – regular steam workings across all regions, and the Rovos Steam Safaris that travelled from South Africa across to Mozambique and Zimbabwe.


Amongst the most numerous designs were the Class 24 4-8-4s, 100 of which were built by the North British Loco. Co. in Glasgow.            Photo by Robert Maidment-Wilson, CC BY-SA 3.0,

Many locomotives were sold into industrial use at gold and platinum mines, collieries and other locations, and this included the big Garratt types, the GMA/M class, numerous 4-8-2s of classes 12, 14, 15 and a number of the smaller pacific and 2-8-2 designs.

1994 was a watershed year for South Africa, with the first multi-racial elections, universal suffrage, and the ANC win an electoral victory, with Nelson Mandela as President.

SAR Class GMA:M Beyer Garratt type 4-8-2+2-8-4 steam locomotives Nrs. 4066 & 4101 copy

A pair of specially prepared South African Railways GMA/M class 4-8-2+2-8-4 Beyer-Garratt locomotives at Greyville (Durban) ready to head the Centenary Special train – “Durban – Pietermaritzburg 1880-1980” – 1st December 1980. Nos. 4066 and 4101 were built by Henschel (works number 28695 / 1953) and the North British Locomotive Company (Hyde Park, Glasgow 27693 / 1956) respectively. Photo taken Essenwood, Durban, Kwazulu, Natal. Photo courtesy: Historical Railway Images

Many of South Africa’s steam types survived well into this century, and in 2013, there were still 251 listed as assets. Of these only 1, a 19D Class 4-8-2 No. 2526, built by Borsig in 1937 was privately owned, with the remaining assets under Transnet ownership, although, 10 of these were listed as “missing”, and these included a couple of 15F 4-8-2s, and one of the Class 25 non-condensing 4-8-4s. Of the 251 locomotives, 84 were listed in 2013 as ‘for disposal’ – the majority at Krugersdorp and Queenstown depots.

Interestingly, this same list of Transnet assets included many of the railway’s most well known electric locomotives, including the first Bo-Bo design – the Class 1E – from Metropolitan-Vickers in 1923.

But on the steam front, those giants are still there, and operating, but of course in much smaller numbers, and primarily for tourist, and charter specials. There are a number of organisations that operate these locomotives, including these:

  1. Reefsteamers
  2. Umgeni Steam Railway 
  3. Apple Express 
  4. Atlantic Rail 
  5. Heritage Railway Association of SA 
  6. Steam in Action 
  7. Sandstone Heritage Trust 
  8. Bulawayo Railway Museum 


The descriptions in the PDF file below is an overview of South African Railway’s “Giants of Steam”, which I hope is of interest:


Useful links:

I originally wrote this item for the magazine “Engineering in Miniature” back in the 1980s, and wanted to revisit the matter of South Africa’s steam locomotives.  The magazine is still in full swing, and I envy the skills of the model engineers, who are everywhere producing small – not always that miniature – replicas of the real thing.  Their skills in almost every aspect of engineering practice, and their workshop capabilities are something we can all be proud of.

This is a link to the magazine’s site:

EIM Logo from 1980s


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