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Trans Karoo express traversing the Hex River vineyards.

This week its the 30th anniversary of what was initially Africa’s longest railway tunnel and certainly its the second longest narrow gauge tunnel in the world, just coming behind the Furka base tunnel in Switzerland. The Hex tunnel is 8 and a third miles long (13.5km) and was officially opened on 27th November 1989.

Why 3′ 6″ gauge?

The main line between Johannesburg and Cape Town is just under a thousand miles long (its more if one counts the trip from Pretoria) and has always been considered one of the major rail journeys in the world. More so because its entirely on a narrow gauge railway! Indeed some of the world’s major long distance rail journeys and premier trains are none other than those on the narrow gauge and its clear there is an added element the standard gauge hasn’t got!

The trains themselves are practically full sized standard gauge stock riding on a narrower gauge yet the difference in ride really isn’t any less. The gauge of 3 feet six inches doesn’t mean its of any less substance than standard gauge. Its just as capable of the same heavy loads and same long freight trains – the narrow gauge in fact enables trains to tackle the far more difficult mountainous routes with greater ease.

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Trans Karoo with a pair of newly painted Class 6E1 locomotives at Johannesburg station in 1995. Source: Flickr

One of those difficult routes in question existed on the main line to Cape Town. Until 1989 trains had to negotiate the notorious Hex River Pass. The old line was superseded by the construction of a new line and a series of tunnels which created a much shorter route and more gently graded route through the mountains and it opened in November 1989.

The railway through the pass opened in 1876 and was one of the more gruelling sections of railway in South Africa. Whats more its this which ultimately decided much of Southern Africa should have a narrow gauge railway system. Originally standard gauge had been used but when it came to the sinuous curves required to traverse the Hex River pass it was decided upon narrow gauge as it would allow much tighter bends to be used, a feat any standard gauge railway simply would have not managed.

This narrow gauge standard became known as ‘Cape gauge’ and it became widely used across much of Africa, ultimately enabling what constitutes the world’s largest narrow gauge railway system.

For example the Natal railway of 1860 was initially built to the standard gauge. Yet in order to traverse the spectacular Drakensberg mountains above Pietermaritzburg (where the line employs a series of sinuous reverse bends) the line too had to be converted to the narrow gauge.

The three foot six inch gauge isnt any slouch terms of speed either. Standard gauge is of course easier for this there’s no doubt about that. Trains can go along at a good speed and its said the narrow gauge steam engine drivers often tried to show their older and more study locomotives could outpace even the modern 1950s/60s electric engines by showing their locomotives could do seventy five miles per hour or more! The predecessor for the modern Gautrain fast standard rail line between Johannesburg and Pretoria was known as MetroBlitz and the narrow gauge expresses reached 100 miles per hour!

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Young admirers posing by the 100 mile per hour MetroBlitz train. It was apparently one of those trains that didn’t impose a racial separation policy. The catch however was one of affordability.

In fact the republic’s railways holds the world’s fastest narrow gauge speed records and this is something the native government celebrates as part of its proud railway heritage which includes the Blue Train. In a series of experiments its trains reached an amazing 245kmh/152mph and thats not too far off the magic 186 miles per hour Eurostar and the TGV do. This video shows that high speed run and the MetroBlitz 100mph services.

Some of the world’s heaviest trains can indeed be found in South Africa using the 3′ 6″ gauge. These are 41,500 tonne trains totalling over two miles in length! That’s a total of 375 wagons in each train!

Most trains however go along at a leisurely pace. Much higher speeds are generally these days authorised only when there’s very late running and only on the more straighter sections of line.

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In the days when the wires only went as far as Klerksdorp, a pair of 5Es is seen at Johannesburg on the Trans Karoo in 1962. Its a nice photograph – however it was taken when apartheid was in full force and only white people could become engine drivers on the country’s premier express trains. Source: DRISA

The route from Johannesburg to Cape Town

Some of the country’s best known long distance trains ply this route, including the Blue Train, the Shosholoza Meyl and the Premier Train. Former expresses include the Trans Karoo and the Union expresses.

The lines from Johannesburg to De Aar are double tracked and do pass through areas that are heavily industrialised (gold mines and processing plants for example) whilst there’s also a good number of depressed areas such as Soweto – largely a product of the white supremacist regime that once ruled the country. Other places en route there’s Kimberley where the Blue Train stops for a half day and its passengers embark on a tour of the famous diamond mine.

From De Aar, because of the difficult nature of the route therein, the lines are often single track with intervening double tracked sections where these have been possible. Operationally its harder to maintain good timings and a reliable service south of De Aar, and one of the bottlenecks was of course the Hex River Pass.

The difficult nature of the line through the Hex River pass has always been a problem and despite some re-grading of the route profile and easing of curves, the worst bits of the railway around Tunnel and Osplaas simply could not be upgraded other than by electrifying the line and introducing a fleet of powerful electric locomotives.

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Map of the route from Trans Karoo rail brochure.

For a long time there had been plans for eliminating the Hex River Pass railway completely by way of a tunnel system – and several abortive starts were made before it was brought into reality during the 1980s.

An important aspect of the new lines and tunnels was that it would both cut transit time and increase reliability, which has happened to an extent – though not completely because of the numerous lengthy single track sections from De Aar as far as Wellington. This means although there are more passing places and additional sections of double track trains can still get very considerably delayed. That’s because the route between De Aar and Cape Town is around 740km of mostly single track railway!

There has been work done in the last few decades to provide additional double track sections across the Karoo, however there are still many long sections of single track. Its only at Wellington where trains can get a real chance to regain any lost time and its not a lot because there’s just 72 km of double track from Wellington to Cape Town.

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Shosholoza Meyl at De Aar en route to Cape Town. For many years this was the furthest electric locomotives could travel from Johannesburg. It was either diesel or steam across the Karoo until that section was electrified in 1984. Source: Twitter

The section across the Karoo is considerably straightforward but there are also bits that have steep gradients and sharp curves because of the lie of the land. A major work done in between the 1931 built deviation and the 1946 improvement work done further south at the Hex River Pass was the straightening out of a number of sharp curves and grades around Biesiespoort during 1941.

Until the section from De Aar to Beaufort West could be electrified it meant the southern network and the northern network of electrified network were totally separate systems. Through electrification has helped to contribute towards transit times and reduce delays when these occur. The older lines are electrified at 3000 volt dc, however the wires between De Aar and Beaufort West are the more modern 25 kv standard.

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South African Class 25NC 4-8-4 near Beaufort West in 1995. This was one of the classic motive power that worked across the Karoo. Source: Flickr

Beyond Beaufort West the line continues to be a mix of valleys and mountains with very long single line sections. Eventually Matjiesfontein is reached and the Blue Train especially makes a lengthy stop at this historic location.

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At Matjiesfontein, 195 miles from Cape Town. Source: Twitter

The town has only one street yet has a tour bus! The railway station itself is said to be the prettiest on the entire route between Johannesburg and Cape Town. That is probably true, with the exception of Kimberley.

Beyond Matjiesfontein the line gets more interesting. There’s mountains, vineyards and green valleys and the Hex River Pass is the start of that section through the Western Cape. Most of the tourist pictures of the Blue Train or the Shosholoza Meyl depicts the trains somewhere along this section of line because its invariably the more pretty part of the journey.

The Hex River Tunnels

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The 1931 built deviation on the left, still tracked for part of the way in the 1990s. Source: You Tube

After the next major stop at Touws Rivier, the line passes through the halt at Kleinstraat and this is where things get interesting for its here the different stages of rail routes through the Hex River pass commenced.

The most recent deviation (1930s) at the top of the Hex River Pass diverges to the left taking a shorter and less steeply graded route towards Matroosberg whilst the older alignment soon leaves to the right to take a circuitous route therein. These screencaps are taken from the near six hour long driver’s eye view of the line between Matjiesfontein and Cape Town.

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Just beyond this the route of the original 1879 line deviates to the right and takes a longer, more steeply graded, route towards Matroosberg. Source: You Tube

Meanwhile straight ahead on the main line itself is the 8 mile long (13.5km) Hex River tunnel itself. Its approached by a cutting which forms part of the continual descent towards the Hex River valley. The tunnel isn’t that deep at first but is soon burrowing under the mountain in the distance.

The new line has a ruling gradient of 1 in 60. The old line in comparison had a ruling gradient of 1 in 44.

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The line drops into a substantial cutting and then enters the 8 mile long tunnel. Source: You Tube

What the 1989 built line does is it descends down a cutting before entering the tunnel itself as the above and below pictures shows. After eight miles of tunnel the line emerges directly into the Hex River valley.

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Entering the Hex River tunnel. Source: You Tube

There are four tunnels built as part of the Hex River scheme and the longest of these is Hex River tunnel number four. Its what one could call a base tunnel, although its not exactly that. The tunnel itself is single tracked however in the middle there’s a passing loop called Hexton.

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The loop in the middle of the tunnel known as Hexton. Source: You Tube

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Nearing the south western end of the Hex River tunnel. Source: You Tube

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Out of the tunnel and into the Hex River valley. Source: You Tube

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This is Hex River tunnel no.3. Source: You Tube

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Hex River tunnel no.2. The route of the old Hex River pass railway route can be seen on the hillside above. Source: You Tube

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Hex River tunnel no1. The tunnel on the right was for a temporary link to the old line. Despite being out of use now, it could easily be utilised for doubling of the line. Source: You Tube

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De Doorns station. The old Hex River pass railway came in from the right. The former alignment is now mostly built upon. Source: You Tube

The 13.5km Hex River tunnel wasn’t easy to build. Despite assertions the geological conditions were quite promising for the route, the actual ground conditions proved to be somewhat different. The worse problems were found at Hexton where the loop is. This delayed the tunnel’s completion considerably. Ultimately none of the parties (the transport authority nor the contractors) were satisfied with how things turned out. This resulted in a complex court case and substantial claims which can be seen here.

A this point it seems prudent to include a map to explain how things are in relation to each other – and that from Wikipedia is used.

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The Hex River Pass rail routes. The 1989 tunnels are generally known as the Hexton tunnel system. Source: Wikipedia

The old Hex River Pass railway and its history

As earlier noted the Hex River Pass was a substantial obstacle to building a railway line and it resulted in the Cape gauge of 3′ 6″. Then the lines were upgraded and the curves were eased. Despite the shortcomings in terms of capacity and usability the Hex River Pass line was indeed a spectacular stretch of railway with considerably steep gradients and sections of line clinging to the mountainsides.

The route wasn’t like those in Switzerland, Peru or Ecuador where far more dramatic lines can be found. But let’s not forget its the reason why narrow gauge exists across so much of Africa. After closure the line was indeed important and spectacular enough to have its redundant rails retained and thus become a historic railway route where tourists could amble along slowly enjoying the spectacular scenery.

As the 20th century progressed and more heavier rail traffic being neccessary, the old railway alignment was not seen as fit for purpose. Some improvements had been undertaken and another of these was the building of a new tunnel at Triangle to accept larger locomotives. However there was a limit to what could be done. Tunnelling was the only solution.

The next pictures are scenes on the R318 road near Matroosberg where it passes both of the former Hex River railway alignments. The pictures are from Google.

The first looks westwards. The original 1879 line can be seen on the left, whilst the newer 1930s line is on the right in a cutting at a much lower level.

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The convergence of the two railway routes at Matroosberg.

The next looks in the other direction and the deep and narrow cutting the 1930s line traverses through is clearly seen. The original 1879 line is on the right and its climbing towards the line’s original summit just a short distance away.

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The two different rail aligments as seen on Google. Matroosberg station itself is just over the brow of the hill.

The tunnel scheme was originally proposed in 1946 but was deferred soon after some initial construction due to cost. One tunnel was partially built and then abandoned. The existing railway was instead improved by way of yet more work to ease the gradients and severe curves. However the worse sections around Osplaas could not be upgraded because there was no room for it. Electrification was the next logical step thus allowing even more heavier trains to use the pass.

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The old station sign at Matroosberg. Height is 3148 feet and distance is 144 miles to Cape Town. Source: Secret Adventurer

Matroosberg is at a height which is getting towards that of Table Mountain. What this means is Cape Town station lies at the base of the mountain itself – yet just over four hours later the train would be at a height almost comparable with the famous mountain itself!

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Here once stood Matroosberg station. The rails are part of the tourist line from Osplaas. Source: Matroosbergstasie

The Hex Valley is apparent in the distance and the mountain summits are high enough to become considerably snow clad in the winter. The Matroosberg mountains are a noted winter resort offering skiing and other snow bound activities.

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Trans-Karoo express near the top of the pass in 1970. The train is approaching Matroosberg station – the worst of the Hex River gradients would now be behind the train. Source: Flickr

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An early view of the line looking in the direction of Tunnel. The photographer’s location would be at about where the 1914 accident occurred. Source: DRISA

The steep gradients and sharp bends hereabouts were the scene of a major accident. This occurred in 1914 and the sign below explains the history of this. The stone monument mentioned is adjacent to the old railway line.

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The Kaffrarian Rifles memorial to the 1914 rail accident. Source: Facebook

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The aftermath of the 1914 runaway troop train with track gangs working to repair the line. Source: DRISA

Some sources have suggested the Hex River Pass railway wasn’t dramatic in any way but unless one has been on it and seen the route itself and the severe gradients the trains had to encounter, its difficult to know just from looking at pictures!

In terms of statistics the line had to scale a considerable height in order to traverse the Hex River pass, a climb of well over 1500 feet in 15 miles. The actual stats equates to a rise of 162 feet every mile.

One source suggested the Gotthard Railway was more considerable and yes its a brilliant construction one cannot argue about that. I should know as I have written about it! Nevertheless the Gotthard line achieves an ascent of 2785 feet in 29 miles. In comparison the Hex River line achieved better. In half the distance achieved by the Gotthard the Hex line has climbed almost two thirds of that total.

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The line through the Hex River pass in its early days, probably just after opening. Source: Project Gutenberg

De Doorns station is 477m above sea level (1570ft) and the old rail distance from here to Matroosberg was 26km. The summit level, just beyond Matroosberg, was at 973m (3192 feet.) In 26km (or just over 15 miles) the railway had to climb 496m (or 1628 feet) which is of course substantial for a main line railway. The actual distance between the two locations is 16km (or ten miles.)

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Different view of the same location. The line’s stiff gradient is obvious. Source: Railway Wonders of the World

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The Hex River route looking towards De Doorns and Worcester. The line can also be seen on the far left traversing the steep slopes en route to Osplaas. Source: DRISA

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Map I did of the Hex pass showing the important locations on the railway.

Tunnel sidings was an addition to the line to increase capacity. It wasn’t a loop but rather a set of sidings where freight trains could take refuge and allow expresses to pass. These of course had to reverse in or reverse out of the sidings in order to continue their journey. The nominal station here was at a height of 2654 feet above sea level.

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Class 5E1 on the Trans Karoo express passing Tunnel sidings whilst a freight train in the charge of a pair of Class 4Es waits to begin the descent towards De Doorns. The gradients are clearly obvious here. Source: Flickr

Trains heading south were faced with a sheer descent it was only through many reverse curves and steep gradients that any line was even built through here. There are other lines around the world of course with a more torturous profile, but the Hex was still quite a remarkable achievement.

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Old and new Hex River tunnels at Triangle (1946.) The old tunnel had been the first to be built in Southern Africa, opening in 1876. Source: DRISA

Even with electrification some of the trains, especially the freights, needed as many as four locomotives just to be able to traverse the Hex River Pass. Passenger trains usually managed with just two locomotives.

The only locomotives that could pull fully laden express trains up the pass single handed were the SAR Beyer Garratts GMA class. Locomotive 4072 demonstrated this feat admirably during a series of railtours to celebrate the famous rail pass before it closed to traffic for good.

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Steam train descending from Triangle towards Osplaas. Source: DRISA

The electrification of the main line from Cape Town to Beaufort West on the southwestern edge of the Karoo was an essential project because of the Hex River Pass. Electric power would manage the stiff gradients better. For this purpose a dedicated class of electric locomotive, the 4E, was built and the first examples were at work in 1953.

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Picture showing how steeply graded the line was at Osplaas. Its formation can be seen on the far right. The higher part of it (the poles carrying power lines) can be seen on the slopes above on the left. Source: Flickr

I have been on the Trans Karoo express and took a film taken from the back of our train near this point shown above. The film depicts the train’s electric locomotives way ahead ascending the line much higher up on the other side of the kloof.

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The Trans Karoo express brochure & journey itinerary that I had as part of my journey.

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Johannnesburg bound train ascending the Hex River Pass line just above Osplaas Dam. Source: Flickr

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Early days electrification photograph of a 4E on a descending train at Osplaas. Source: DRISA

This gruelling climb and its tortuous curves is a reason why tunnels were planned as early as the 1940s. Two short tunnels and a new section of line were built and opened however the bigger part of the journey, right across the summit and down into the Hex River valley itself, was not to be reaslied until the 1980s when work began to build what was then Africa’s longest railway tunnel.

The classic line was left in situ and soon became a tourist venture. Visitors were given trips up the old line from Osplaas towards Matroosberg. This the Hexpas Ecotrek, has stopped for a few years and seems there are no longer any tourist trains up the pass. The previous agreements with Transnet (who are the transit authority and thus own the old railway alignment) has expired and a new lease on the line is currently being sought. The trails alongside the railway are however open to walkers and bikers and is known as the Two Tunnels Trails.

Continuation of the journey to Cape Town

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Taken during an opportune moment, this is a Shosholoza Meyl train that’s just emerged from the Hex River tunnel no.4’s western portal. Source: Twitter

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The Blue Train at Salbar on the approach to the Hex River tunnel. Source: Imagine Rail Journeys

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The Blue train at Salbar in 2016. Its left Hex River tunnel no.3 and is heading towards Hex River tunnel no.4. Source: Flickr

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The Union Limited bound for Cape Town by the Hex river, with a mail-plane apparently flying by. This is at Sandhills to the south west of De Doorns. The plane was operated by the railway company! Source: Railway Wonders of the World

The above picture however was a photoshop! The original picture is shown below:

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Train at Sandhills. The scene has changed beyond recognition due to the railway being doubled tracked to about here as well as the N1 main road built to parallel the line. Source: DRISA

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Nice shot of the Blue Train among the vineyards of the Hex River valley. Source: Travel Marvel

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A great pic of South African Class 25NC 4-8-4 no. 3501 near Wolseley heading towards the Hex River valley. Source: Flickr

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Tulbagh Kloof. This is a Shosholoza Meyl for Johannesburg. Source: Flickr

Tulbagh Kloof, a bit further down the line is a far more dramatic rendition of the section through Sandhills. Its sited about midway on the line between Wolseley and Wellington. The gorge is much narrower and more sinuous and its a popular location for rail publicity photographs.

The Cape vineyards are a popular tourist destination. As well as pretty mountain scenery and road passes with great views, there’s the wine of course! Not only that there are historic places too, the area has a lot of links to the country’s early 17th century French Hugenot settlers, especially around Franschhoek.

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The northbound Blue Train at Paarl with orange locomotives substituted. The Blue Train’s own dedicated locomotives depends on stock availability. Source: Twitter

The 20E locomotives as shown in the picture above, have dual voltage capability and thus are able to work the entire route between Pretoria and Cape Town on the system’s older 3000v dc and the more modern 25k ac wires.

If one watches the excellent videos by Piet Conradie largely based around the activities at Brackenfell station, it will be seen the Blue Train regularly depends on the variants of locomotive from the 14E, 18E and 20E classes despite there being a fleet of dedicated blue liveried 20E locomotives.

Paarl is one of the last major stops en route to Cape Town for its mostly suburbia the rest of the way and there are many local stopping trains to be seen. Table Mountain becomes visible although it is fairly distant.

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There are many modern commuter trains too in the Cape Town area. Some are extremely overloaded. Source: Flickr

The downsides of the very busy Cape Town rail network (similarly Johannnesburg, Pretoria, Durban) is people regularly have to cling to the outside of their trains. Not only that numerous people use the railway as a public footway and drivers have to be on the constant alert for people walking along the tracks. Its said there’s a fatality in the Cape Town area almost every other day which results from people just walking the tracks. This video is very sobering when one sees the conditions that have to be endured.

There are numerous freight trains operating in the Western Cape area and it is enlightening to see the various industries (unlike the UK) still use rail to transport much stuff. Some of the freight trains are very long ones.

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Train laden with granite block at the Bellville freight yard near Cape Town. Source: Web Archive

At Bellstar Junction the train from Johannesburg/Pretoria leaves the main line and takes the local suburban route via Avondale into Cape Town (that’s even though the main route is shorter and more direct.) There is a good reason for this – it means the long distance trains can reach their dedicated platforms at Cape Town station without having to negotiate their way through the very busy and complex station approaches.

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The 1085m high Table Mountain as seen from the train. Source: Flickr

The final approach to Cape Town is of course hugely signified by the enormous presence of Table Mountain. Its a fantastic sight however in terms of the world’s mountains its quite small actually – its the same height as Snowdon in Wales!

Its not to say the mountain is anything but. Far from it. Its stupendous because it commands a huge prominence and that is why Table Mountain’s often seen as a wonder of the natural world, which it is of course. The flat summit gives it more visual impact than a mere peak generally would. The ascent by cable car from Kloof Nek (or the walking route via the rear of the mountain) is exhilarating and the views over the bay are fantastic. The road leading up to the cable car terminus is one of the oldest roads in South Africa, having been originally been built in 1848 as a military lookout road.

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The end of the line from Johannesburg at Cape Town. These two platforms serve the Blue Train and ROVOS Rail trains as well as the former Trans Karoo express. Source: Twitter

Further pictures many excellent can be seen on these fascinating pages – Soul of a Railway – its clearly one of the best rail sites I have seen. It details the history of the country’s railways with lots of high quality pictures. The Hex River Pass pictures (as well as the line from Wellington to Touws River) is here.