Rail transport in South Africa

Rail transport in South Africa is an important element of the country's transport infrastructure. All major cities are connected by rail, and South Africa's railway system is the most highly developed in Africa.[1] The South African rail industry is publicly owned.

A Metrorail train pulling out of Kalk Bay station in Cape Town


Rail network in 1892

The first railway was from Cape Town to Wellington and was worked by a small locomotive in 1859. The first passenger carrying service was a small line of about 3.2 kilometres (2 mi) built by the Natal Railway Company, linking the town of Durban with Harbour Point, opened on 26 June 1860.[2] Cape Town had already started building a 72-kilometre (45 mi) line, track gauge 1,435 mm (4 ft 8 12 in), linking Cape Town to Wellington in 1859 but was hampered by delays and could only begin passenger service to the first section of the line to the Eerste River on 13 February 1862. However Cape railway construction began a massive expansion, after the formation in 1872 of the Cape Government Railways.[3]

In the north, in the independent South African Republic, railway construction was done by the Netherlands-South African Railway Company (NZASM), which constructed two major lines: one from Pretoria to Lourenço Marques in Portuguese East Africa Colony, and a shorter line connecting Pretoria to Johannesburg. A national "link-up" was established in 1898, creating a national transport network.[4] This national network was largely completed by 1910.[1] Though railway lines were also being extended outside of South Africa, as far north as Northern Rhodesia (present-day Zambia),[5] the vision of Cecil John Rhodes, to have a rail system that would run from the "Cape to Cairo", would never materialise.

Rail network in 1906

Upon the merger of four provinces to establish the modern state of South Africa in 1910, the railway lines across the country were also merged. South African Railways and Harbours (SAR & H) was the government agency responsible for, amongst other things, the country's rail system.

Electrification of the railways began in the 1920s with the building of the Colenso Power Station for the Glencoe to Pietermaritzburg route and the introduction of the South African Class 1E.[6]

During the 1980s, the transport industry was reorganised. Instead of being a direct government agency, it was modelled along business lines into a government-owned corporation called Transnet. Transnet Freight Rail (until recently known as Spoornet) is the division of Transnet that runs the rail system.[7] Though there are no plans to end government-ownership of the national rail network, some small portions of the rail system have recently been privatised.[8]


The rail network of South Africa

Transnet (and previously Spoornet and its predecessor) became famous for its luxury rail lines, most notably the Blue Train, which runs from Cape Town to Pretoria. The Blue Train has frequently been named the best luxury train line in the world, and the 1,806 kilometres (1,122 mi) run is a popular tourist attraction for South Africa.[8]

With the increasing coverage provided by the nation's highway system, long-distance passenger travel has declined in South Africa. While many commuters still use rail for their daily commute, nationally, only half of the nation's 36,000 kilometres (22,000 mi) of track is being fully utilised, and some 35% of the nation's track carries no activity or very low activity.[1] Accordingly, Transnet is moving towards an emphasis on freight, rather than passengers, to keep the rail system profitable.

For a look at the South African transport network, including the railways, view this map from the United Nations.

A high-speed rail link has been proposed, between Johannesburg and Durban.[9]



Nearly all railways in South Africa use a 1,067 mm (3 ft 6 in) Cape gauge track.[10][11][12] This was selected in the 19th century to reduce the cost of building track across and through the mountains found in several parts of the country.[8] The Gautrain rapid transit railway uses 1,435 mm (4 ft 8 12 in) (standard gauge).

During the late 19th century and the early 20th century numerous 2-foot narrow gauge railways were constructed.

South African trains connect through the AAR coupler, developed in the United States at the end of the 19th century. Remarkably, though South Africa has long been ahead of Europe in coupling systems, it has lagged behind most of the world in its braking system; most trains in South Africa continue to use vacuum braking. However, the conversion to air brakes has finally commenced.

Between 50% to 80% of the rail lines in South Africa are electrified.[8] Different voltages are used for different types of trains. Most electrified trains run 3000 V DC (overhead); this is used primarily for commuter lines, and has been in use since the 1920s. During the 1980s, higher voltages (25 kV AC and—much less frequently—50 kV AC (both overhead) have been used for heavy duty lines (which also require more sleepers per kilometer) primarily used for the transport of iron ore.

Rolling stockEdit

South Africa uses a variety of rolling stock from a number of manufacturers.

In 1957 Union Carriage & Wagon was founded in Nigel for local production of rolling stock.[13]

Accidents and incidentsEdit

Rail systems in nearby countriesEdit

The following countries mostly use 1,067 mm (3 ft 6 in) gauge and are mostly connected together. Countries beyond those listed are of other gauges.

Further readingEdit

  • The South African Railways – History, Scope and Organisation. South African Railways Public Relations Department. June 1947.
  • Bullock, Richard (November 2009). AICD Background Paper 17 – Off Track: Sub-Saharan African Railways (PDF). Washington, DC: The International Bank for Reconstruction and Development / The World Bank.

See alsoEdit


  1. ^ a b c South Africa – ICOMOS World Report on Monuments and Sites in Danger 2002: Heritage @ Risk
  2. ^ Talbot, Frederick Arthur Ambrose. Railway wonders of the world. Cassell and Company. p. 606.
  3. ^ Burman, Jose (1984), Early Railways at the Cape, Cape Town: Human & Rousseau, ISBN 0-7981-1760-5
  4. ^ SAR & Transnet History
  5. ^ SA Railway History Archived 5 March 2008 at the Wayback Machine
  6. ^ "South African Railways Power Plant". Electric Railway Journal. 60 (24): 914. 9 December 1922. Retrieved 15 September 2010.
  7. ^ Spoornet history
  8. ^ a b c d South Africa :: Railways and roads – Britannica Online Encyclopedia
  9. ^ "Railway Gazette: Ambitious plans will still need funding". Retrieved 19 September 2010.
  10. ^ "Freight Rail International Joint Ventures". Transnet – Freight Rail. Archived from the original on 26 November 2009.
  11. ^ "Rail Engineering Wheels Business". Transnet – Rail Engineering. Archived from the original on 6 October 2008.
  12. ^ "Railway Transportation in South Africa" (PDF). Global View. Archived from the original (PDF) on 29 December 2009.
  13. ^ "History". Union Carriage & Wagon. Retrieved 2 July 2011.
  14. ^ "Train crash death toll false, say police". Independent Online. Retrieved 18 November 2006.

External linksEdit

External images
  The South African Railways "History, Scope and Organisation (1947)"
  The Cape Town Foreshore Plan (1947)
  Meet the South African Railways (1975)
  Meet the South African Railways (1979)
  A collection of SAR&H Publicity and Travel Department photographs