The Alfred County Railway was a two foot gauge line from Port Shepstone to Harding in KwaZulu Natal. Running for slightly less than a hundred years, it closed for good about five years or so ago after several attempts to revive its fortunes by way of tourism as well as a better freight service. In its later years it was known as the Banana Express. In the midst of all this, there were legal issues – not only that a violent storm knocked out an important part of the line’s infrastructure. After that calamitous event it seems there was no longer any chance of restoring the line. These days the route has substantially disappeared either by being built over or by way of new roads constructed upon its course.
This article isn’t some comprehensive do on this once famous South African two foot line, certainly not in terms of history or rail operation, but rather more a homage. I remember the Alfred County Railway as I stayed in the area for sometime and we often saw the first sections of railway that led out of Port Shepstone, as well as some of the other locations where it crossed the main roads as we headed on day trips out towards the west. One of these locations would have been Paddock station which was conveniently en route to some of the popular tourist attractions in the area such as the Oribi Gorge. Alas during my entire stay in South Africa, almost no photographs were taken, I think it was just five altogether! In those days I had little interest in photography. I did take a little bit of movies with a film camera that was given to me, but it was not to any great extent. Sadly as a result of that early disinterest in photography I missed so much railway history both in the UK and abroad!
Armed with what I remember of the line itself plus an examination of what can be seen on Google Streets I’ve put together this hopefully interesting look at what remains of the Alfred County Railway. What surprises me is the amount of development that’s ensued in this part of KwaZulu Natal during recent years, making this short survey rather more difficult because the line’s former course is obliterated.
Map of the Alfred County Railway from Port Shepstone to Harding. The Donnybrook Line is to the north in the same locality but not shown. Source: Wikipedia
Some of the locomotives from the Alfred County Railway are now in use on the Welsh Highland Railway. Very sadly the last Garratts to use the line were controversially scrapped at Paddock station in 2017. There were four of these and they were cut up on site.
South African Class NG G16A no.87. Used on the Alfred County from 1937 to 1968. I took this pic of it at Caernarfon shortly after it had begun service on the Welsh Highland line.
Part one: The coastal route – Port Shepstone to Shelly Beach
As is generally known the line began at Port Shepstone, however it ventured a little further north to yards alongside the Mzimkhuulu river to serve a mill. I wont dwell on this however the coming of the main line to Port Shepstone has seen its course altered, as the line used to cross the river via a course further inland but it was improved in the fifties to create a more direct route straight across the mouth of the river. The new railway bridge opened on 24th April 1959 and this is why we see a bit of main line heading west along the river bank – for that is in fact part of the older alignment. That in turn explains why the Alfred County Railway also heads in that direction.
We start with this view at the southern end of the Mzimkhuulu river where the main line and R102 road, both having shared the bridge over the river itself into Port Shepstone itself, they now separate and the railway continues towards the station. As explained earlier this area at one time used to be full of railway lines and yards, with a number heading off west along the river’s banks. This included the Alfred Country railway’s tracks, and some of this was mixed gauge too. Today there’s little left of that former layout. Google Streets
Looking from the R102 there’s this small overbridge and the main line can be seen heading west along rusty tracks. This was the former alignment that headed west before crossing the river itself some distance further upstream. Google Streets
Looking the other way this October 2010 view shows some dual gauge track as well as a siding. This is the furthest extremity the Alfred County railway came in its later years and a view as seen on Google Streets
View from the bridge heading towards the lighthouse showing the same tracks and the river bridge itself. Google Streets
The view the other way is of the station itself. The tracks are rusty (there’s just one locomotive and van) there’s been no services of any sort to Port Shepstone for many years, there was a short lived attempt sometime back to revive services but that soon folded. This view from March 2020 is interesting as it shows a stop board for the Alfred County Railway warning of the need to obtain permission before crossing the main railway line. Google Streets
There’s a good few pictures of the the ACR at Port Shepstone including maps and dual gauge track sections at RMWeb
Overview of the station area in 2010. Google Streets. The Harding line can be seen threading its way round the seaward side of the station before splitting into two tracks. It must be pointed out the new Port Shepstone station which opened in 1959 never had a dedicated platform for the Alfred Country railway as that was by then solely a freight operation. Google Streets
A sort of ‘before and after!’ This is a 2017 view with a new board in place, telling us this is now the Port Shepstone shunting yard. What’s more important is the line has been dewired. The OHLE infrastructure is still in place but no wires shows a complete change in the line’s fortunes. There’s an occasional diesel service, these are in fact the freight trains from the nearby Simuma branch which get sorted before onward transit. The Harding tracks still remain in this view. Google Streets
This 2021 view shows the shell of the former locomotive sheds. This was dual gauge for both SAR (now Transnet) and the Alfred County Railway. Google Streets
This March 2010 view shows some of the rolling stock including passenger carriages, and a couple of two foot gauge Garratts. Not a terribly great view but the best I could find as the view is somewhat pixelated. It seems by this date the locomotive shed was already falling into disrepair. Google Streets
Again a 2010 view. I chose this because at least once can see how far south the main state railway’s tracks come. The Harding line is also evident and clearly its not in use. A short section of the Alfred County Railway was indeed in use further inland as part of another abortive attempt to revive the line and it was known as the ‘Hamba Wehelie Express.’ Google Streets
If one looks at the latest Google Street view of that crossing area shown above, it will be seen the main line’s OHLE has been dewired too! Also it will be seen the Harding tracks have also been taken up except for that bit in the roadway itself. South of the station the tracks still remain but the alignment is very much overgrown.
One can follow the road alongside (this is 3rd Street) but there’s little to see until the Banana Express station is reached. This station was the terminus for passenger services in the line’s last years, since there was no access to the main line platforms at Port Shepstone station itself. This bright blue painted station was a later addition, being built possibly in the late seventies/early eighties to support a passenger service, and was known as Port Shepstone Beach.
The Banana Express station with its distinctive bright blue colour is easily seen in this view. Google Streets
A 2014 view of the Banana Express station with its distinctive blue colours and Banana Express branding! Google Streets
A view from 2017 showing ‘Banana Express’ clearly on the footbridge. Google Streets
Here’s a good sidelong view of the former station here on Google Streets! The next couple of pictures are a view of the station when it was in use for passenger services along the line. These were initially as far as Paddock, but later retrenched to a short section of line as far as Shelly Beach. The opening and closing of these different stages of abortive attempts to revive the line are a bit complex. It seems the issue revolved around legal use of the line with Spoornet (the precessor to Transnet) claiming ‘a lease did not exist’ and further the line’s ‘actions and activities have been illegal and unlawful.’
Anyhow, here’s those couple of pictures of when the line was in use at Port Shepstone Beach.
Port Shepstone Beach station in December 1990. Source: You Tube
Close up of the ‘Banana Express’ bridge. Source: You Tube
North Road runs alongside the railway for a fair distance but there’s nothing to see as the line was up high on an embankment. However the crossing towards the main road is visible. Google Streets
The bridge over the Boboyi river. Clearly there was a siding here on the north side of the bridge as the pointwork can still be seen in this view. Google Streets
Volunteers doing clearance work around the Boboyi bridge possibly 2004. Source: Patons County Narrow Gauge Railway
Another view of the Boboyi bridge. Its the only substantial river crossing that remains on the line. Google Streets
The next visible location on Google Streets which is at Cooper Drive, shows no tracks but it can just be discerned where these once ran. Google Streets
Beyond here is Olso Beach, although there seems to be no means of seeing that site on Google Streets. After that there what was a major crossing over the Zotsha river. That bridge is no longer extant. One can make out where it was on this Google Aerial view. Part of the railway bridge can be seen for example in this view from the nearby main road crossing. The next picture shows the bridge when it was in use. The structure collapsed during storms in 2008 and this event signalled the end of the Alfred County Railway.
The bridge as it was with a view of the Banana Express crossing the Zotsha River. Source: Patons County Narrow Gauge Railway
Aerial view of the bridge in 1999. The route of the railway is visible through Shelly Beach to the south. Near the top of the picture the line turns inwards towards Harding. Source: South African Estuary Information System
The line is difficult to follow through Shelly Beach however it passed nearly along the beach itself, and then between the various properties about here before turning sharply inland. The main road, the R102 at least sports a bridge that once spanned the line to Harding and I certainly remember the line as it swept round inland as we often passed this way. Google Streets
The extremity of the line at Shelly Beach was the site of another terminus when the line was relegated to operating from Banana Express station to here and it seems that station was known simply as Beach Terminus. The entire line is a complex story of different bits being in use at different times during its final couple of decades, and I’m not even sure exactly when the last trains ran, so I wont go into that.
In terms of that bridge at Shelly Beach, it seems to me all the river bridges and road over bridges on the Alfred Country Railway (as well as some stations) were rebuilt in the late forties or during the fifties at the same time the main line from Durban to Port Shepstone was upgraded. This was during the years after World War Two when steel was in short supply – and another reason why so much concrete was used for this particular work. We will see more examples of these concrete bridges further inland.