Monday 28 February 2011

Puffing along what must be one of the most scenic rail routes in the world – the rail line between Muizenberg and Simon’s Town – the 1947 steam locomotive of the Atlantic Rail with its 6 red-brown carriages dating from 1937 yesterday drew the crowds. Families waved from the beaches while motorists pulled to the side to capture the festive spectacle on their cameras. The joyful passengers were treated to the sight of the windwhipped Indian Ocean on one side, while on the other the spectacular  mountains of the Table Mountain National Park loomed, lined in Kalk Bay and St James with the gracious homes of a stately era when steam trains serviced the southern peninsula with far greater regularity.

What is it about a steam engine that fascinates? Is it the steely powerful bulk of the locomotive, or its onomatopoeic chuffing and tooting? Its ability to conjure up childhood memories or its evocation of nostalgia for things of the past? Or all of this rolled into one? Whatever the stimulus, the fascination was obvious on yesterday’s delightful excursion from Cape Town station to Simon’s Town and back.

Partners Ian Pretorious and Greg Smith, sharing an enormous passion for trains and steam engines, established  Atlantic Rail  with the purpose of combining the fun of a steam train ride with the preservation of these old and lovely engines. They would like to run the train regularly throughout the year to promote tourism in the Western Cape and also our railway heritage. The company now operates the only steam train in the region. Atlantic Rail is currently under registration as a section 21 company and will be not for profit. Any surplus will be used for preserving further items of steam heritage. Essentially the company is run by steam train enthusiasts.

Friends of  Atlantic Rail volunteers, numbering between 20 and 30, assist over weekends with the cleaning and servicing of the engines and carriages. Chairman of the Friends is Brett Radloff of Sun Valley, who happily celebrated his 24th birthday stoking the engine on yesterday’s excursion, which also celebrated the re-opening of the railway line between Simon’s Town and Fish Hoek, closed in 2010 when heavy storms caused structural damage to it.

His passion fed by family trips on the Outeniqua Choo-Choo, the Apple Express, the Spier train and the Pug train in Epping, all unfortunately no longer running, Brett, like the other volunteers I spoke to, has been passionate about trains since being knee-high.  In the young train enthusiast’s toy box, I discovered, you will find books and tapes with titles such as “Thomas the Train Engine”, model train sets, toy trains, train posters, train tickets …Toys like the boys grow bigger and now weekends are spent polishing, cleaning, fixing and servicing the real thing. Gail Brewer from Bergvliet, wife of rail enthusiast and volunteer Patrick, said that since her husband joined the team, it was the “end of (her) life as (she) knew it!” His life once revolving around snoek fishing, Patrick now opts to spend his weekends at the Cape Town Station helping to restore the steam train to its former glory.

David Hopley is a volunteer who comes all the way from Chatsworth near Malmesbury to spend his weekends working on the train. A fascinating man, David lives beside the railway line to Saldanha Bay and the sound of the long long trains on this line is “music to (his) ears”. The spirit of the volunteers is infectious – I like my fellow passengers felt light of heart and a childlike joy…transported.

From Ian I learnt some of the facts about the steam train – that it takes about 4 tons of high quality coal for one trip from Cape Town to Simon’s Town and back. That the fire in the engine is started at 8pm and by 4am the next morning the train is ready to run. That the carriages are made out of teak, much of it handcrafted. That the Red Devil steam locomotive standing at Cape Town station used 30% less coal than other steam engines, but that it was “too light on its feet” and took a while before the wheels gained traction on the tracks. Each volunteer has a wealth of knowledge about steam trains and huge enthusiasm to share it.

Perhaps you are passionate about steam trains and their preservation? If so, why not offer your skills and services as a Friends of Atlantic Rail volunteer.  Operating the steam train service is very expensive and Ian and Greg of Atlantic Rail  would appreciate any assistance to keep the train on the line that the public is able to give. You will meet a delightful group of people! For more info about the activities of the Friends see

At the end of the line, Simon’s Town warrants a long visit. With several fascinating museums – the Simon’s Town Museum, the Naval Museum and the Heritage Museum – quaint architecture, old churches and the Noorul Islam Mosque, the picturesque yacht harbour, boat and kayaking trips, fascinating shops and art galleries and numerous pleasant restaurants providing the visitor with a wide choice of cuisines, the two and a half hours before the train chugs back to Cape Town might not be long enough- and a return visit might be a must!

A round trip on the steam train costs R220 per adult and R110 for children aged 3 to 12.
Booking is essential. Email mailto:// or phone 021 556 1012 (office hours) to make your reservation. The next train excursion is on the 27 March 2011. If a sufficient number of people want to get onto train in the Lakeside area an arrangement might be made  with Metro Rail to make a stop there for their convenience.

For more details of upcoming excursions see