The Outeniqua Choo-Tjoe and the line running between George and Knysna, offering some of the best scenery in the world as it hugs the coast and traverses indigenous forest vegetation and inland lakes on its 67 kilometre route between the two towns, has been recognised and acknowledged internationally and locally, as a major tourist attraction in the Western Cape and was accordingly granted heritage status by the local authorities and Transnet, the South African railway authority who own and operated the line, in 1991.
The construction of the line was approved in 1922 and work commenced in 1924. The line was completed and brought into service in 1928.
It is now 10 (ten) years since the line was closed
In 2006 floods washed away sections of the railway line and caused a landslide above the line at Dolphin‘s Point on Kaaimans Pass, where a holiday home has been declared unsafe as it is hanging precariously over the line and sea below. In February 2007 the line between George and Knysna sustained further damaged as a result of torrential rains. As a branch line, not falling within the greater Transnet strategy nor a profit generator for Transnet, repair was not a priority; the result is that today February 2016 some 10 years later the situation remains much the same as that following the damage in 2006 and 2007.
In addition after a long period of silence, Transnet revealed towards the end of 2011 that because they had not found an appropriate bidder to take over the train’s operations which following the storm damage and closure of the Knysna line, had been running between George and Mossel Bay, they had no option other than to terminate the Choo-Tjoe service. The discontinuance of the service was also in keeping with the Transnet strategy of shifting away from non-core business.
Following a decision by Transnet, the South African railway authority, to suspend passenger services, the Outeniqua Choo-Tjoe’s licence to transport passengers expired on Friday, 17th September 2010 when the train made its last run as a Transnet asset.
A sad day for what has been a world renowned tourist attraction and heritage line. The line had been declared a preserved line for steam trains in 1991 when the Outeniqua Choo-Tjoe, a subsidiary of the Transnet Heritage Foundation, was formed to operate the steam trains on this line.
Recognising the Iconic status of the line Local Government authorities initiated action for the transfer of the line from Transnet to the Western Cape Provincial Government; a process that, according to the authorities, was well advanced, however, in late October 2010, the Minister of Public Enterprises was replaced, slowing the response from National Government.
The following is an extract from a statement put out by the Ministers office in 2010:
“The Western Cape Minister of Finance, Economic Development and Tourism Alan Winde is confident that the Choo-Tjoe will take to the tracks again soon”. Because the Choo-Tjoe is a major tourist and heritage icon of the Garden Route, Minister Winde is determined to get the train chugging again as soon as possible. “An asset this valuable should not be left to rot. The Provincial Government has applied to Transnet to take over the train and the line from Knysna to George. Because of its special place in the hearts of locals and steam enthusiasts around the globe, we are confident that Transnet is considering our request seriously. We hope to have a response to our application soon”, said Winde. Because it is a national asset, the transfer would have to go through strict Public Finance Management Act regulations. If all requirements are met and the train is transferred, Minister Winde will immediately seek a private operator to run the train in line with its intended purpose, promoting tourism and preserving our rail heritage.”
In January 2011 Minister Winde wrote to the new Public Enterprises Minister, Mr Malusi Gigaba, to request a meeting to discuss the transfer of the Choo-Tjoe to the Western Cape government in an effort to speed up the process.
He said that this was a priority issue that needs to be addressed quickly if we are to preserve the train as a heritage icon. The longer it lies idle, the harder it will be to get it back on the tracks. In addition, the Garden Route has gone through a tourist season without one of its major attractions, leaving many hopeful Choo-Tjoers disappointed.
During March 2012 the Friends decided to engage with Transnet directly in respect of the possible reopening George to Knysna line in an attempt to get the ball rolling.
Transnet had advised that the cost of reopening the line and returning the Outeniqua Choo-Tjoe was of the order of R250 million, finance which Transnet could not allocate to this line unless freight could be sourced to be conveyed between George and Knysna. Freight traffic could support the reopening making this more financially attractive. The Municipalities of George and Knysna had been approached towards the latter part of 2012 to put forward proposals to Transnet in respect of freight opportunities.
A Dutch Group of supporters, who visited South Africa in February 2012 submitted a concept report for the reopening based on their experience with preserved railways in Europe, to Transnet in June 2012. A follow-up meeting was held with Transnet officials on 26 February 2013. At the meeting Transnet stated that they were investigating the reopening of the George to Knysna line which fell within their current strategy of reviewing all branch lines throughout the country. In short this meeting agreed that the reopening of the line needed to be financially viable. The attendees at the meeting also agreed that further discussion was necessary and Transnet stated that another meeting would be held in the next few months to which interested stakeholders would be invited. However, as a result of other initiatives the anticipated meeting was never called and the Dutch group subsequently withdrew from the scene.
Having completed the restoration of the Wickham inspection trolley a request has been submitted to Transnet for permission to have access to part of the line in the vicinity of the Knysna station to allow application to be made to the Rail Safety Regulator for a ‘Test and Commissioning’ safety permit for the trolley. Once this phase had been completed an application to run between Knysna and Belvidere would have been submitted to the Regulator. Unfortunately, the whole line had a prohibition notice on it and to get even a small portion of the line approved for use would have involved the Friends in expense we could not afford. The trolley was subsequently sold to the Diaz Express company in Hartenbos Mossel Bay where it is now in regular use and well maintained
The positioning of the trolley at the Waterfront had drawn a lot of interest, raising public awareness to the plight of the George Knysna railway line and the future of the Outeniqua Choo-Tjoe.
A campaign to demonstrate to the responsible authorities that there was massive public support for the line and the return of the Outeniqua Choo-Tjoe has gathered over 18 000 signatures from the general public over the past few years.
State-owned transport and logistics group Transnet is spending close to R5 billion to revitalize fallow branch lines to upscale government’s grand plans to reinvigorate economic activity in small and rural areas, which are key to economic growth and off-setting rampant unemployment, Transnet’s acting chief group executive Siyabonga Gama said after signing a R30-billion loan agreement with China Development Bank (CDB). Meanwhile, Gama asserts that revitalisation of branch lines is informed by a government strategy which has identified the transport sector as one of the significant drivers of the economy, since transport plays a critical role in enabling mobility and access to economic and social activities. “The Branch Line Network in Transnet Freight Rail constitutes a network of nearly 40% of the route network in Transnet Freight Rail. “This network has been neglected for many years and as a result nearly half of the branch lines network is either closed or has no active services,” Gama admits. Though funding remains the key risk factor in branch lines, Gama highlights that it is generally accepted by Transnet, policy makers and industry that private sector investment will play a pivotal role in restabilising rail. He is convinced that rail should be the backbone on the South African freight logistics industry, given that most industries rely on the efficient movement of freight from origins such as farms, mines and manufacturing plants to destinations within and outside South Africa. “The total branch lines network of +-7 300 kilometres is dispersed nationally and almost half of this network is active and is an integral part of the Transnet Freight Rail Business, in serving its customers as feeder lines into the system and the other half of the branch lines network is closed,” explains Gama. He stresses that branch lines are being revitalised to reinvigorate economic activity in small and rural areas and to continue serving customers in the business units served by these branch lines integral to the Transnet Market Demand Strategy (MDS).”During the past three years of the MDS, more than R400 million was spent to remain operational; the financial needs to therefore upgrade the branch lines is R9, 1 billion to R10 billion per annum” says Gama. He believes that though branch lines were currently a relatively under-utilised part of the country’s transport infrastructure, it is expected that their revitalisation could unlock economic potential of both the country and region.
“Branch Lines remain crucial for economic development, particularly of rural areas and small towns in the country, and to reopen and operate them sustainably requires different strategic, funding and operating models to that of main lines and the remainder of the core profitable network,” notes Gama.
While there is not much to show on the surface a lot of work has and continues to take place on the ground and behind the scenes. In February 2016 following protracted negotiation Classic Rail a private initiative were granted a 20 year concession on the George to Knysna Line by Transnet Freight Rail. In June 2016 the contactor appointed by Classic Rail commenced clearing the line between Keytersnek and Knysna with a view to running a dinner train out of Knysna as a first phase of returning rail service to the line. Once this phase is completed it is envisaged that the line will be reopened through to Sedgefield where it is planned to install a turntable and construct a running workshop. This private initiative is to be commended and hopefully we will see the return of the line to an operational status with the return of the Outeniqua Choo-Tjoe in a relatively short period.
If you are one of the many who would like to see the Outeniqua Choo-Tjoe running again and you are not a member of the Friends now is the time to visit the MEMBERSHIP PAGE and sign up.