Protest angers officials and throws spotlight on closed heritage line

By Geoff Courtney

An enthusiast’s novel protest that involved him running a home-made steam-powered trolley on a world-famous heritage line has reignited a fierce debate about the future of the route, which was operated by British-built steam locomotives for much of its service and subsequent heritage life until its closure nearly a decade ago.

Andries Keyser drove his contraption over a stretch of the Knysna to George line in South Africa’s Western Cape, to the delight of locals who want to see the world-famous route reopened, but to the anger of officials who stepped in to stop his actions.

The 42-mile railway, named the Outeniqua Choo-Tjoe after nearby mountains, was popular with tourists after it became a heritage line in 1992, at which time it carried 40,000 passengers a year.

Mixed reception: Class 24 No. 3627 simmers at George station in South Africa’s Western Cape with a mixed passenger and freight train in February 1990, two years before the line to Knysna became a heritage railway. The 100-strong class of 2-8-4s was built for South African Railways by North British Locomotive Company in 1949-50, and one, No. 3675, was the 2000th locomotive built by the Glasgow manufacturer for SAR. Another member of the class, No. 3668, was a regular on the Knysna-George line and is now on display at a Transport Museum in George. KEN LIVERMORE

A decade later this had risen to 115,000, many of them British visitors who loved the steam and the stunning scenery, but in August 2006 it was severely damaged by heavy flooding, leaving sections of the track covered by landslides and other parts suspended mid-air due to the ground beneath being washed away.

The line’s owner and operator, state-owned Transnet Freight Rail, who faced a repair bill of about £10 million, closed the line and switched its trains onto another route, from George to Mossel Bay, a distance of 32 miles. However, the following year Transnet announced that the heritage train was not part of its core business and launched a tender process to dispose of it to a new operator.

That failed, and in August 2010, following the withdrawal of trains between George and Mossel Bay, Transnet formally announced the cessation of the line, and politicians became involved due to the loss of this major tourist attraction. Alan Winde, minister of economic opportunities for the Western Cape Government, spoke during a visit to Knysna of his resolve to revive the service to George, but this was countered by Brian Molefe, then the chief executive officer of Transet, who said funds were not available for repairs.

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