The following is a summary of how railways in South Africa developed, by discussing the different persons, companies and events that were instrumental in the creation of the system that is known today as Transnet.

1845 - Cape of Good Hope Western Railway

In 1845 the Chairman of the Cape of Good Hope Western Railway, banker and merchant Mr. Harrison Watson, announced his company's planned railway, stating that "This Railway is calculated to be of immense benefit to this flourishing Colony; and as it is confined to the more populous districts in the neighbourhood of Cape Town, the enterprise is certain to return ample remunerative profits to the shareholders." The reaction towards this notice was, in general, negative and the Attorney General of the Cape Colony, the Hon. William Porter, asked Mr. Harrison Watson not to associate him with a venture of this kind. Eventually the Cape of Good Hope Western Railway did not go ahead with its planned railway.

1860 - Natal Railway Company

The honour of the first running railway in Southern Africa would not befall Cape Town. The first railway line in Southern Africa was laid along the Bluff in Durban, capital of Natal, and was not hauled by a steam locomotive but by oxen. The Natal Railway Company was formed in 1859, and its line from Point into Durban, barely two miles long, was opened on 26 June 1860. The first ever steam locomotive in Natal is today standing in the Main building of Durban station.

1862 - Cape Town Railway and Dock Company

Mr. Lathom Brown was the first Managing Director of this company. By 1857 the company selected Mr. William George Broungert as its first Construction Engineer. After long administrative delays and some interference by other competitors, the contract to build the first railway line in the Cape of Good Hope was awarded to the Cape Town Railway and Dock Company on 6 August 1858.

The first line proposed was from Cape Town to Wellington, a short but important line of 45 miles that would serve the wine-growing districts of the Western Cape. The first sod on the construction of the line was turned on 31 March 1859, and the first trains in the Cape Colony started running on this line on the Cape Town to Eersterivier section in February 1862. The 0-4-2 locomotive used during the construction was also used on the inaugural run when the Wellington line was finally opened in 1865. It was built in 1859 by Hawthorns of Leith, and it is now serving as a station guard on Cape Town station.

1864 - Wynberg Railway Company

This company was formed in 1861 and their endeavor was to build a line from Cape Town to Wynberg, which was opened in December 1864.

1890 - Rand Tram

Because of strong anti-railway sentiments in the Zuid-Afrikaansche Republiek (ZAR, aka Transvaal), railways did not materialise there until much later. The first concession to build a railway was given to Mr. George Pigot Moodie on 26 August 1872. A short route of sixteen miles between the Johannesburg metropolis and the Boksburg coal mines was completed in 1890. It was named Rand Tram, although it was actually a railway in every aspect. This was officially the first working railway line in the Transvaal. It was also extended to Krugersdorp (20 Miles) and from Boksburg on to Springs in that same year.

1892 - The Link-up Begins

By September 1892, the lines of the Cape Government Railways from Port Elizabeth and East London on the east coast of the Cape Colony reached Bloemfontein in the Orange Free State, and both the Bloemfontein and Cape Town lines reached the Transvaal, thus opening three ports to the Rand gold fields.

1894 - Nederlandsche Zuid Afrikaansche Spoorweg Maatschappij

The Nederlandsche Zuid-Afrikaansche Spoorweg Maatschappij (NZASM) was formed on 21 June 1887 and officially received a concession from ZAR President Paul Kruger to build a railway line in the Transvaal from Pretoria to Delagoa Bay (later named Lourenco Marques and since renamed Maputo, in Mozambique). The Volksraad of the Zuid-Afrikaansche Republiek (ZAR) gave the company until 31 December 1894 to complete the construction. On 2 November 1894 this line was officially opened.

1898 - The Link-up Completed

By 16 December 1898 the Natal Government Railways also linked into the railway system. Britain, and more specifically the then Prime Minister of the Cape of Good Hope, Cecil John Rhodes, was anxious to control the whole of Southern Africa, and by then the Cape Government Railways was already extending its reach from Kimberley via Mafeking (now Mafikeng) to Northern Rhodesia (Zambia). This line through the southern part of Bechuanaland (Botswana) and Southern Rhodesia (Zimbabwe) was eventually sold to the Southern Rhodesian government in 1947.

1900 - Imperial Military Railways

After defeating the Afrikaner Republics in the second Anglo-Boer war and renaming the Orange Free State and the Zuid-Afrikaansche Republiek to, respectively, the Orange River Colony and the Transvaal, the Imperial Military Railways was established in 1900 under the supervision of Lieutenant-Colonel Sir Percy Girouard.

1902 - Central South African Railways

The Imperial Military Railways proceeded to assume control of all lines in the Transvaal and Orange River Colony, thereby also absorbing the NZASM, and it eventually became the Central South African Railways (CSAR), still under the control of Lieutenant-Colonel Sir Percy Girouard.

1916 - South African Railways and Harbours

The Union of South Africa was established on 31 May 1910, consisting of the four former colonies, the Cape of Good Hope, Natal, Orange River and Transvaal. As a self-governing state of the British Empire, the Union remained under the formal rule of the British crown, represented in South Africa by a Governor-General. All railways in South Africa finally became a unified state-owned railway system in 1916 when the Central South African Railways, the Cape Government Railways and the Natal Government Railways were all merged by an Act of Parliament. Thus was born the South African Railways and Harbours (SAR&H). Later, when commercial aviation developed, the South African Airways also became a part of this huge land, sea and air transport system.

1981 - South African Transport Services

In 1961 the Union of South Africa ceased being a part of the British Empire when it became the Republic of South Africa. By 1981 government decided that the SAR&H should restructure itself along business lines in order to evolve from a state-owned corporation towards privatisation. Integral to the process was a change in the name and image of the organisation, which would reflect its new mission as a state business enterprise. In April 1981, the railway, harbour, road transport, aviation and pipeline operations became known as South African Transport Services (SATS). At the same time, the enterprise was restructured into units and divisions with strong emphasis on localised management.

During the following decade, SATS consolidated. It identified and established core businesses and discontinued some services inherited from the Union era. A key goal was a reduction in staff. The single largest reduction came about when the South African Railway Police Department was divorced from SATS and absorbed into the South African Police.

1989 - Privatisation

The "Legal Succession to the South African Transport Services Act, 1989" transformed the South African Transport Services from a government department into a public company.

1990 - Transnet

On April 1 1990, after 80 years of government and parliamentary control, SATS received company status. A new company representing a vast transportation network was born, and appropriately named TRANSNET. Transnet Limited is a public company of which the South African Government is the sole shareholder. It is the holding company behind South Africa's largest transport businesses and consists of eight major divisions - Spoornet, the Ports Authority, Port Operations, Freight Dynamics, Petronet, Metrorail, Propnet, Transtel, as well as a number of related and support businesses.

Transnet (Holding Company). The divisions directly under Transnet control are Human Resources, Transnet Housing, the Transmed medical fund, the Pension Fund and Transnet Foundation Trust.

Spoornet. Spoornet, the company's largest transport business, focuses on the transportation of freight, containers and main line passengers by rail.

National Ports Authority. The National Ports Authority focuses on the provision of ports infrastructure and marine related services, the management of all ports activities in a landlord capacity and the regulation of the ports system.

South African Port Operations. South African Port Operations focuses on terminal and cargo operations in strategically segmented, commercially viable business units.

Freightdynamics. Freightdynamics is a road transport business made up of two divisions, freight and container service, and covers a wide range of road transport and related activities.

Petronet. Petronet operates Transnet's liquid petroleum pipeline network and transports petroleum products from the coastal and inland refineries to South Africa's main business centres.

Metrorail. Metrorail is Transnet's commuter rail transport business operating suburban trains in the metropolitan centres of South Africa. Previously a part of Spoornet, this division was repositioned in January 1997 as a separate business unit.

Propnet. Propnet acts as the custodian of all property records for the Transnet Group and also acts as custodian for all surplus property assets not required for core business operations.

Transtel. Transtel serves the telecommunication needs of Transnet nationally, while providing a variety of telecommunication services to clients throughout Africa.

Transwerk. Transwerk is a portfolio of stand-alone businesses involved in engineering activities, and is one of South Africa's leading manufacturers and refurbishers of railway rolling stock. The locomotive business specializes in the general overhaul of AC and DC electric locomotives and Diesels for 1067mm and 1000mm track gauge and is the leading locomotive repair and upgrade facility serving the Southern African Market. These activities are executed in three plants in South Africa in Durban (Bayhead), Pretoria (Koedoespoort) and Bloemfontein. Transwerk's Coach Business refurbishes all types of passenger coaches and allied rolling stock such as guards-vans, motorcar (EMU) wagons and steam-heat-vehicles, mainly for the 1067 mm gauge system.

South African Airways. South African Airways is Africa's leading airline and was a part of the Transnet family until 1 April 1999, when it entered a new era of privatisation and was renamed South African Airways (Pty) Ltd.

Promat. Promat facilitates the procurement and supply chain management functions on behalf of various divisions within Transnet as well as for independent customers.

Transmed. Transmed Medical Fund offers voluntary medical cover to the employees of Transnet.

Visit the Fallen Flags website for pictures of some South African railway equipment, as well as equipment of all the North American railroads and other railways around the world.

Researched and compiled by Christo Kleingeld, General Freight Business Promotions, Spoornet, Cape Town. Edited by Col André Kritzinger (SAAF, Rtd).


Pictorial Times of London, 25 October 1845
A Century of Transport 1860 - 1960, Da Gama Publications
The History of Old Durban by George Russel - 1899 p395
Encyclopaedia Britannica, 1969 edition, vols 19 & 20
http://www.transnet.co.za and other Transnet sites as indicated in the text.


Created on 31 August 2003. Last updated on 20 September 2003.