Alfred County Railway #2

Alfred County Railway #2

Its three years since the publication of the first part of the Alfred County Railway feature. As detailed at the time a second part had in fact been prepared however there was a lot of missing gaps in terms of coverage of the section inland to Harding. Getting coverage as far as Izingolweni wasn’t too much of a problem however beyond there is when it became really difficult to source any images or even work out where the line went. Hence at the time it was felt there wasn’t enough to go on in terms of a detailed exploration of the former route to Harding. Since, a little more material has been sourced and it is with this the second part of the feature, or in fact as it now stands, two further parts of of the feature can be completed.

The railway’s history in brief

In terms of the railway’s history there isnt much to be had either, however a few more details too have been discovered. The original plans for the line covered what would be quite a long route (not the longest in South Africa for the two foot gauge Avontuur line has the world record with a length of 177 miles or 285km) into the mountainous interior west of Port Shepstone.

The Alfred County Railway (ACR) from the Natal Descriptive Guide 1911. Murchison didn’t get a station the nearest was at Bomela. Evidently the above was written before the route of the line was changed to run further south. Internet Archive.

In its original format as a Cape Gauge line, the railway would extend as far as the Ingeli (Ngele) mountains and Harding would be about three quarters of the distance along the route. The route was surveyed in about 1899. The Ingeli mountains were noted for a fine quality of timber and the range formed the western boundary of Alfred County. Some early documentation describes the venture as the Port Shepstone and Ingeli Poort Railway. The first part of the line was in fact built to Cape Gauge (3′ 6″). There’s no doubt that section along the coast was a fairly easy one to do. However construction on the rest of the line saw its route re-surveyed and established as a two foot gauge system. The original Cape Gauge section was then converted to match the rest of the line.

The route between Port Shepstone and Ingeli Poort. Umhlangeni is a name that’s no longer extant. Map based on an old one produced by Natal Railways.

Alfred Country Railway (ACR) train at Port Shepstone in the line’s early days. DRISA (Digital Railway Images of South Africa).

In the event the westernmost terminus at Ingeli Poort was dropped in favour of Harding. As it stood the line opened in stages – Paddock by 1911 whilst Izingolweni was reached in 1915. The full line to Harding, a total length of 122km, opened in 1917. The question of where Ingeli Poort was is a bit of a puzzle. There’s very little reference to the location. It was probably a non-location inspired by the railway in terms of attaining a railhead at the foot of the Ingeli mountains. Certainly its not the present Ingeli, about 15 miles (23km) south east of Harding. Rather it seems it was somewhere about where the present Ingeli Forest resort is. Thus the railway would have served the vast forests sited between Harding and the Ingeli mountains. Harding as the terminus instead proved quite sufficient for it became the railhead for that vast forest, and timber from those forests was the railway’s main carrier right through its working life.

South African Railways - SAR Class NG G13 2-6-2+2-6-2 Garratt type steam locomotive Nr. 58 (Hanomag Locomotive Works, Hannover 1927)

Brand new SAR Class NG G13 No.58 for the ACR at Hanomag works, Hannover, Germany, in 1927. Flickr.

As detailed in the first part of this feature its not too many years since the line closed. In 2004 Spoornet (these days known as Transnet) sought to claim 3.5 million Rand which it said the ACR owed. Spoornet sought to end the line’s operations with immediate effect. The ‘last ever’ Banana Express ran from Port Shepstone Beach station to Izotsha on 25th July 2004. (Its featured on You Tube). Beyond that time, sporadic trips were undertaken often after much wrangling with Spoornet.

Part of a statement issued in August 2004 detailing Spoornet’s move to suspend operations on the ACR.

In 2006 a further legal dispute exploded when it was claimed the line’s operators did not have a lease to run train on the railway. In the meantime a huge calamity arose, this being a violent storm in June 2008 which destroyed many of the line’s bridges including the substantial bridge across the Zotsha River near Shelly Beach. After that the railway continued as an isolated operation between Plains and Paddock but that soon fell by the wayside and the last trains on that had run during 2018. The once famous Banana Express between Port Shepstone and Paddock is a distant memory now.

Much to the chagrin of those who had high hopes for some form of operation (even in a heritage sense) the remnants of the ACR which included locomotives, carriages and various other stock rotted away and the highly venerated Garratt locomotives which were in a very poor state were cut up on site. Narrow Gauge World published an article in 2017 highlighting the fact the very last ACR Garratt on the site had been cut up. Despite the ACR’s revival and the renewed freight operations, much work was also done to improve the efficiency of the services and carry even more traffic by way of employing a new design of wagon which could carry wider loads. Yet it just seems the odds were totally stacked against the railway. Of course, as things stand these days, there’s very little chance any part of the railway could hope to see a heritage operation of any sort.

When the line was taken over by private enterprise (this being a mix of enthusiasts and entrepreneurs – ironically Spoornet had a partial interest too) it was clearly a successful operation. Its a shame the odds were against its continuation. Twitter/X.

Despite the line’s demise some parts of the railway are still extant here on Google Streets, such as this road crossing. However many of those crossings have now gone because the roads have all been widened, upgraded and many of the villages have expanded considerably. The line often ran next to the roads such as the length of track at Paddock as well as Paddock station itself – both of which are still extant but in splendid isolation. This was the last bit of line used commercially from Port Shepstone, the rest of it having fallen by the wayside earlier in the 1990s. Where roads have been widened that has meant sweeping the railway’s course away too. Oslo Beach station near Port Shepstone with its ‘Banana Express’ seen clearly on the station’s footbridge is perhaps the most enduring reminder of the Alfred County Railway and its subsequent but short lived heritage steam operations.

The Durban-Port Shepstone line is severed by this bridge collapse at Illovo Beach. Twitter/X. There’s also a picture of the collapsed bridge on Google Streets.

In terms of railways to Port Shepstone, the main line from Durban (the South Coast line) too is no longer in use. That is except the first part out of Durban which remains electrified and in use as far as Doonside station. Previously the route beyond Kelso had been de-electrified and a skeleton freight service beyond there to Port Shepstone was maintained using diesels – that was the situation when the first part of this feature was written in 2021. Since then, as the above picture shows, there has been a major bridge collapse at Illovo. This occurred in April 2022 and no services operates beyond Doonside. There are proposals to rebuild the bridge. A tender was issued by Transnet but so far no positive signs that a rebuild of the bridge is on the way.

As mentioned in the 2021 post , some of the ACR Garratts are now on the Welsh Highland Railway whilst some of other locomotives can be found on the Sandstone Railway at Ficksburg near Bethlehem, South Africa. A few Garratts remained at Paddock however all of those have now been controversially scrapped.

Alfred County Railway - The Alfred County Railway

Map of the Alfred County Railway from Port Shepstone to Harding. Wikipedia.

Part one covered the coastal stretch from Port Shepstone to Shelley Beach.

Part two – Izotsha to Paddock

NGG16 142 heads away from the coast towards Izotsha with a freight to Harding. 1981. Facebook.

Bridge on the R61 near Izotsha Memorial park with the coast clearly evident. Google Streets.

This was once a popular stretch of the line by Izotsha church which made for picturesque photographs. If one turns the street view round the other way the tracks can be seen continuing towards the village itself. Google Streets.

Izotsha bound train passing the village church during the line’s last years. Youtube.

This view was taken in 2010 and shows some remaining track plus the recently filled in crossing over the main road that marks the section into Izotsha station. Google Streets.

Izotsha station was on the west side of the crossing. This scene is in the last years of the line. Note the coca-cola sign! Youtube.

The west side of the Izotsha station crossing. Some track remains as does a bit of platform. The coca cola sign has evidently outlived the railway, not only that its been upgraded too! 2010. Google Streets. In the latest 2023 Google Street view, there’s absolutely no trace of the railway at that point!

Inland empties at Izotsha

Izotsha in 1989 with NGG16 no.140 on a train bound for Harding. This was the second year of operation under the new regime. Diesels soon took over the trains to/from Harding whilst the Garratts operated only as far as Paddock. Flickr.

Two decades later operations were limited to the section between Port Shepstone and Izotsha as a largely heritage service. Even this shorter run soon fell by the wayside due to disputes between the ACR and Spoornet and has been mentioned earlier the last services ran in the summer of 2006.

SAR/ACR, Izotsha, South Africa, 1995

 No. 155 and 156 take on water at Izotsha. Flickr.

Izotsha circa 2004. The Banana Express has just arrived from Port Shepstone Beach. This was the last year services operated to Paddock. Internet Archive.

As can be seen from this picture, the track layout had been rationalised and the operation was almost entirely passenger focused. This in turn caused the ACR to establish Port Shepstone Beach station (aka the Banana Express station) because Spoornet wouldn’t let the ACR’s passenger trains run into Port Shepstone main line station. If it was a mixed train these had to first drop their passengers at Port Shepstone Beach before continuing to Port Shepstone itself.

Track remnants and the site of a crossing at Bhethani (Kulania). 2010. In the 2023 view just a tiny trace of the former crossing remains. Google Streets. In another view the stop signs either side of the crossing can be seen. Google Streets.

Nyandezulu. This panorama is merged from two separate views. Remains of the track can be seen crossing from left to right. To the left the line leads to the coast. To the right the line leads up the valley towards Hell Gate in the direction of Bomela. Google Streets. In the most recent 2023 scenes a house has now been built upon part of the alignment even though rails are still extant. Clearly no-one expects a railway to run here anymore!

One can see how the line traversed the upper part of this valley at Nyandezulu. The ACR’s track can be seen passing from bottom left through a crossing and then make turn to head up the valley. Google Streets.

SAR/ACR, Hell's Gate, South Africa, 1995

155 and 156 at Hell’s Gate near Nyandezulu. Flickr.

This is where Bomela station was sited. The railway alignment is now a dirt track. What seems to be part of the station, an outbuilding perhaps, can be seen. Google Streets.

A bit of track can be seen here on a low embankment behind these trees north of Bombela. This view is from 2023. Google Streets.

From here the line heads across country towards Nsimbini, Renken and Plains hence there’s no more street views until the latter is reached.

NG15 and NGG16 with a wide load timber train near Renken. May 1991. These wide load trains were an innovation at the time. DRISA (Digital Railway Images of South Africa).

Totally overgrown Renken station 2023. Facebook.

Running west along the N2 near Plains. At this time possibly the tracks were in use for a short heritage operation. Google Streets.

The famed Banana Express at Paddock. The water tower still exists. Patons County Narrow Gauge Railway

ACR 2ft guage 2-8-2 NG15 146 on the Banana Express Mixed ready to depart Paddock Station back to Port Shepstone.

In 1994 NG15 146 is seen with the Banana Express about to depart for Port Shepstone. Flickr.

One of the reasons for having an operation centered on Paddock was firstly the extent of the sidings and station which made for a good preservation scene. Not only that the area was popular with tourists who were heading to or from the nearby Oribi gorge. The gorge is a sort of Grand Canyon with unusual flora and fauna. Its up to 400m deep and as much as 5km wide and is considered a jewel in this part of KwaZulu-Natal. There are souvenir shops/cafes along this stretch of the N2 highway, thus a historic rail operation was no doubt going to compliment the area in terms of tourism.

Carriages at Paddock in 2015. The railway was hanging on by a thread with one carriage and a small Hunslet diesel and that didn’t last long. Facebook.

The local press did a lengthy article with pictures on the railway’s status at the time, which involved a section operational between Paddock and Plains. See South Coast Herald. There’s controversy however because judging from other Facebook comments, much of the railway’s stock has since been scrapped and there’s no possibility of any restoration of any sort.

Narrow Gauge World did an article in 2017 detailing the scrapping of the last ACR Garratt at Paddock so there’s little doubt there’s no locomotives left. It seems there was some activity in 2018 as this Facebook post shows. The Gorgez View cafe website at the time explained there were no operations because the lease to the station site was being renewed.

August 2023. Paddock station still exists. Evidently they’ve done some clearance since Google’s camera car last passed by! Google Streets.

Besides the station buildings being visible from the N2, its nameboard is too! The track is also visible. Google’s camera (or software) didn’t stitch the images together correctly (as is sometimes the case) hence this was adjusted accordingly. Google Streets.

Judging from what Google Aerial shows, there’s absolutely no track at all in the area now, save for just these short sections of two foot gauge rail that are sited along the station platform area. Even the former extent of rail operations to Plains just over 3 km to the north east, there’s absolutely no sign of any track at all. There’s three road crossings in that stretch and one of the show any rails. There’s a fourth crossing just east of Paddock but its some distance away from the main road. There does appear to be rails here (Google Streets) but its not much use evidently as there’s none elsewhere bar the station site.

In another location altogether a bit more to the east, there are sidings and what appear to be several items of rolling stock. The site (as seen on Google) has been discussed elsewhere (see here at Blogspot) and it was here much of the line’s locomotive and rolling stock were stored. Interestingly its said there were narrow gauge Garratts here as opposed to the popular notion everything had been scrapped. Anyhow as someone mentioned on one of the two foot gauge Facebook sites, Paddock was effectively a completely isolated site with no hope of extending any sort of rail operations.

Blast from the past! This is Paddock station in the line’s early days with maize waiting for dispatch to Port Shepstone. The small house with large awning on the left still exists as the main station building. DRISA (Digital Railway Images of South Africa).

Continued in part three.