The International Steam Pages


Case Notes - Steam in Zimbabwe, Part 1
Cab riding on the Northern line, 1984/1986

Terry Case writes about his travels for steam. Further tales will follow from time to time covering more of Australia, India, South Africa, Indonesia and Pakistan.

Click here for the Case Notes Index.


Bulawayo 1984.

Arriving in Bulawayo in late afternoon I thought the town seemed quiet and deserted. Unfortunately the action centred on the hotel I had booked, it was now a disco inferno and bonking shop. Some of the inheritors of the new Zimbabwe were partying as if there might be no tomorrow; rumours of a South African invasion were widespread. I went looking for another hotel that was more conservative in its offerings.
The Zimbabwe Railways made fans welcome, photo permits and cab passes were readily available. 1984 was a quick trip focussed on the “North line” to Victoria Falls. 1986 was the first trip on which I used a video camera.

Mornings at Bulawayo station saw plenty of Garratt action as pilots zipped in and out of the station. On 12th September 1984, 15th 395 a 4-6-4+4-6-4 still displayed the R.R. insignia on its rear unit.

On the same day 14th class 2-6-2+2-6-2s were at work in the station yard.

A morning at Pasipas, 18th October 1986

I had been told the dirt roads at Sawmills were in such poor condition that you should take passengers capable of pushing the car if it got in difficulties, given I was as usual traveling solo and the high cost of car hire in Zimbabwe I decided to try my luck closer to Bulawayo, going as far as Pasipas.

I was on the road by 06.00, in search of the Mail train from Victoria Falls; I first called in at Luveve loop, at 07.00 where I saw smoke in the distance. This turned out to be 20th 737 hauling a long coal train that thundered past me. I had a working timetable thanks to World Steam, which suggested this was train 23, due to arrive at 03.30; subsequent events confirmed this.

I moved on to Pasipas loop, like Luveve this was another isolated location, yet the night passenger stops to take passengers at all these loops, usually there is a village in walking distance. Access was via a heart stopping track that turned into sand and left me wondering if I would be able to get the car back to the main road. I had a long wait the only distraction was a couple of women carrying large loads of grass on their heads for thatching huts. The ground was sprinkled with the dead bodies of large caterpillars, looking like little snakes; the weather was certainly warm enough to be wary of the latter.

The first train actually sounded like a jet aircraft and had me fooled for a while, it turned out to be a 20th that roared through on t/n26 from Bulawayo, incredible noise and all gone within a couple of minutes, although the sound continued well after that.

The next train was also from Bulawayo, this by contrast spent time in the loop before departing, it was train 400, the running in turn to Sawmills. 414 had been freshly out shopped from ZECO and had a NRZ service coach for the ZECO staff, the only other vehicles was a gondola for the soldiers and guards van. I spoke to the black driver who told me they would be here for some time and fell asleep holding a newspaper. Meanwhile a white foreman was supervising the tightening and checking of various coupling rods and fittings. He told me they would be returning with a full load of 1,000 tons, which fitted with this diagram. Armed soldiers still rode all the trains I was to see, although with little or no threats to the railway being apparent by 1986. They must have had an uncomfortable ride in the open freight wagon, no wonder they got out to stretch!

ZECO staff inspect the motion.

After the test train had left it was some time before clag was sighted coming from the Sawmills direction, this proved to be the passenger train running over three hours late. The driver shut off as it drifted into the loop behind 420, no one got off or joined the train, but it did enable me to walk forward for another photograph as the train got underway. This is the passenger train  running over three hours late at Pasipas. The following day it was similarly delayed by the train I was riding

It was time to leave, negotiating the sandy track took time and despite some fast driving on the main road the passenger train remained well ahead of me. Back at Bulawayo station I made some reservations and then walked along the platform to the footbridge, with up to 7 locomotives to be seen in action at one stage, including 16th 601: it was a busy location, considering the few passenger trains on offer.

I had a night footplate ride booked and was at the depot for 18.00, a number of 15th were prepared and ready for the night trains, but it was relatively quiet. I met the crew of 404, the locomotive assigned for train 14 the Victoria Falls Mail, the driver’s surname was Dawlish, the fireman was a young black called Bruce, whilst the third man was seemingly below consideration and was not introduced.

A 15th get a brush down whilst being prepared at Bulawayo depot, on 19th September 1984

The locomotive was moved to the turntable, to be sent to the station bunker first. We had fifteen minutes to spare before departure, the guard came up to report the load and amidst final preparations the chime whistle was blown, startling one passenger who dropped his carton of beer, which frothed on the platform. A minute before departure the fire is raging hot the chime whistle is blown again and we slowly move out passing a black railwayman who has brought his children up the platform to see the locomotive, a new generation looking in awe at a steam locomotive.

There was plenty of room in the cab, despite being cape gauge the 15th is a large locomotive, the driver has two huge metal kit boxes, one for personal materials and the other contains tools and such things as light bulbs for the cab! Certain items were in such short supply and were not left on the locomotive in case of theft; in 1986 light bulbs were scarce. I had brought a video camera but there was no moon and the cab interior was dark, except for when firing occurred. The fireman was thin and no wonder, he had to shovel lengthy rounds quite frequently, the night was quite warm, but that was better than a day trip in the summer heat I was assured!

In the early part of the journey the idea seemed to be to work up to speed and then let any momentum keep the train moving before braking quite hard for the stops, which often appeared to be in the middle of nowhere, with the only source of light being from the signals and the carriage lights. Once underway the regulator was generally set to fully open until the locomotive reached the speed the driver wanted and was then re set to three quarters open, the cut off resulted in some noisy stack talk from the front. Dawlish seemed to judge his location by sound, it was a dark night and there seemed few markers to indicate where we were. He tells me he would be “shit scared to drive one of the high speed trains in Europe”, we are generally running no faster than 70kmph.

Sawmills was as far as I was supposed to ride on the footplate pass and we seemed to arrive all too quickly. After running through the girder bridge the crew prepared their boxes as another steam locomotive could be seen waiting for us, it was a 16th on a coal train and ready to go, but with a Bulawayo crew on board, this was train 19 running late. The crew on 404 restowed their boxes and had a grumble about how late the train they were to take over would be. I was quietly jubilant that I would get a longer ride, but I should have been aware of what had happened to the early morning trains I observed.

The crew now had ten minutes to service the locomotive before departure at 21.26. The fire did not need much attention, it was on a low bed that the fireman had simply been adding too on a little and often basis, the steaming was excellent. The third man is busy topping up the water tank and I have time to stretch my legs, the cab plates show the locomotive to be a 15th, not a 15A as most are designated.

In September 1984 when I rode as a passenger on the train I stepped down at Sawmills and watched the 15th with its cab aglow from the open fire doors and hot ash glowing underneath as the fire was cleaned and water taken. From track level I realized the 15th was a large locomotive and found it surprising it was not fitted with an auto stoker.

Returning to the dining car I joined the off duty staff for another beer. The Indian staff told me they had initially been displaced from working this train following Independence. However the newly promoted African staff had to face fellow Africans who refused to pay for drinks. Indian crews had eventually been returned to work this service and they now said there were now no problems on the North line, but they still faced harassment on trains to Botswana.

The climb out of Sawmills was good with a set of double reverse curves, the locomotive was opened out and full regulator was used to power us out of Sawmills, a trail of smoke hung behind us in the still night air. The moon was now up and it was fairly light, Dawlish told me that this was an area during the rebellion where crews had been attacked.

A couple of loops on and a red light is visible and the crew get ready to change over, the boxes are lined up at the cab door and the driver jokes with the fireman as to whether it will be a 20th and he can have an easy trip, the fireman says he wouldn’t mind another 15th. I was content with the extra mileage and the climb out of Sawmills was excellent. Pulling into the loop though we find it empty but see the diesel liner train drifting towards us and then power by. Dawlish looked ruefully at his watch as the signal facing us turns to green and the third man restows the gear. (In 1984/6 the diesel hauled block coal train that was booked to run express from T.J. was the only regular diesel working on the line).

We were not far from Gwaai (due at 22.37) when we cross, 20th 741, its driver had already filled repair sheets with a long list of defects, the word “blowing” is used against many items; the fireman tells Bruce its not steaming well; all is set for a rough trip back. Dawlish tells me the locomotive is returning to Bulawayo for a washout, Dette is notorious for returning locomotives in a poor state according to him. The only good news is the train has not got a full load; but they expect to collect more load at Sawmills.

Despite the long list of problems the locomotive seemed in reasonable nick on the mostly level gradient to Sawmills and the train moved along at a good rate. The cab layout is a little different than on the 15 class, the regulator is American fashion pull/push whilst the fireman has a large enclosure near his legs containing some of the auto stoker control mechanism and the grate doors have holes in them similar to those on oil burners. Unlike the 15th this locomotive as a speedometer that optimistically lists up to 120kmph - although it does not work. I have the locomotive for the auto stoker near my back and it both makes me uncomfortably warm and sweaty as it is losing a fair bit of steam.

19th October 1986

We were returning to Bulawayo on train 21 with a mixed consist of mostly coal, the booked time at Sawmills is for a twenty five minute stop, 22.15-22.40 instead we arrive at 01.15 and spend ninety minutes here. The fire causes most of the delay, Dawlish blames the previous crew from Dette for not cleaning it properly, claiming with no loco inspectors there the drivers get lazy and do not clean the fires and leave it to the Bulawayo crews, he gets Bruce to throw almost all of it out and rebuild it. Whilst this goes on he tells me of the three years he spent at Dette and tells similar stories about lions delaying trains by bathing in pools beside water columns that I’d heard from the CME. Lions were not the only worry; elephants love water and could cause havoc leaning against water pipes toppling them as well as encountering them on the line, particularly on the Gwaai to Dette stretch.

By now the watering was complete and Bruce had spent the time solidly working on the fire, but Dawlish points out that the work is only at the beginning as he is still working to dislodge the clinker from the old fire and the third man starts to rake it clear as the small ash pit is overflowing and on fire and a hose is used to douse the flames. Bruce is losing a lot of sweat as Dawlish and I sit under the large water tanks, which are full of frogs croaking. He asks Bruce if he is winning and gets a grunt as more work with the long fire irons and the rocking grates goes on; as the frogs at ground level call to the chorus above.
When the fire is rebuilt Dawlish and Bruce leave the third man and myself at the tanks, they rapidly reverse the train and release the locomotive, then draw forward and drop the guard who operates a series of points and after a couple of shunts they draw out a long rake of wagons which bring the load to the maximum. The line back to Bulawayo is almost all upgrade, running time to Bulawayo was three hours fifteen; but not with this locomotive. The first grade out of Sawmills sees us run short of steam and stall.

What follows is a long slow slog as the crew battle to keep the train moving. It is unremitting, the heavy load holding the train back and with few downgrades to take advantage of the pressure steadily falls and the train grinds to a halt. First they build up the water in the boiler; the injectors like the regulator are push/pull operated. When there is sufficient water in the boiler they tackle the fire, Dawlish tries to manipulate the auto stoker, the jets not quite firing to the spots in the fire he wants, there are holes developing in the fire. A metal pick head is shoved into one of the holes in the firehole door to deflect coal from the screw as it turns to an area of the fire that seems starved. The trouble is that when the stoker is in use it loses a lot of steam that turns the footplate into a sauna and reduces the boiler pressure; the driver and fireman are semi protected but I’m getting drowsy and worried by the effects.

Once more it seems to be pitch-black outside and it is hard to see where we are, I am stunned when we crawl into Nyamandhlovu we seemed to have been going for a long time to make so little progress. Dawlish is angry as Control was blaming him for delaying other traffic and Bruce is once more cleaning the fire as water is taken. We were booked for a fifteen minute stop, but again we overstay our time; Dawlish says the crews have been complaining about the coal being supplied as it contains high ash content and the good grade coal is going elsewhere.

Dawlish makes room for me to sit with him, Bruce nods off as we are on the move, it is a battle to stay awake and the misery is not over as the train again grinds to a stop before we make the next loop, more time is lost and Bruce loses more sweat using the firing irons to try and awaken the fire.

We continue and despite the green lights in each loop we seem to stop in most of them to allow the boiler pressure to come round, before once more plodding on, I look up at one stage to hear Dawlish trying to stir up his fireman, “Look at the crack Bruce” he hasn’t a clue what Dawlish is on about, but it’s the old “crack of dawn” jest and sure enough the sun is rising. I manage to get a bit of life back in me by hanging out of the cab, partly to catch the breeze, but also to hear the locomotive slogging away on this full load; inside the cab it's not possible to hear the exhaust when the auto stoker is in action; I think it’s the spray jets that make the most noise.

At Pasipas it is light, but I do not use the video, the crew are dead beat and it would be an insult to show them so tired and defeated. Here the boiler pressure takes more time than before to come back round , as soon as it does we are on the move again struggling to Luveve, but stopping in the section before reaching the loop; the crew have a new calculation, will there be enough water to get us to the yards?

Bruce has had to use the firing irons each time we stop for a blow up and he looks completely knackered, we have been able to see the lights of the city for the last hour and a half, now it is daylight and we yet again have slowed to a crawl. Even though the section out of Luveve is partially downgrade, the boiler pressure dips alarmingly and there is the threat the brakes will come on before we have tackled the final grade that leads to the yards. We stop once more; behind us is a column of smoke as the following train waits at Luveve for us to get out of the section. We wait almost fifteen minutes for the boiler pressure to rise sufficiently for us to re start on the grade. A second column of smoke is now visible, presumably the Mail train at Pasipas; the fireman sees it and looks dolefully at the pressure gauge.

We restart, the bright morning sunshine contrasting with the dull mood in the cab, we crawl past a signal near the yards and glance back to see the following freight racing downgrade behind us to halt not far behind our guard’s van as the train brakes come on again. I am not sure of the reasons, but Dawlish tells me the second train cannot bank us in, possibly because of the grade, I am also not sure why a pilot could not have been sent out to assist. One more try and we almost make it into the sanctuary of the yard, but are stuck at the top of the grade. Bruce made one last effort to stimulate the fire to lift us and we finally chug into the yards, it is 7.30am; it has taken us an extra hour and a half on the scheduled time from Sawmills. The yard shunter cuts us off the train and 749 saunters in alongside us with train no 23 a long coal train from Wankie, due in at 03.30. 

Dawlish arranges with Control for 749 to drag us back to the depot, whilst they are coupling up in the lead a 15th sweeps through the yards with the Mail train at 7.40, some 45 minutes late. The yard was busy with plenty of 14ths on pilot duty and 16th class being prepared for freights as we exited the yards for the depot.

08.00 the timekeeper came out of his office as we rumbled onto the shed turntable, two precious light bulbs are passed in and Dawlish stows another back in his kit, then shovels and firing irons are handed in at the next office and we are pushed on to a disposal road. Dawlish says, “Well you got your moneys worth”, I grin sheepishly; it had been thirteen and a half hours ago that we had left the depot and I thought the ride was not going to be a long one! I am filthy and it takes a fair amount of scrubbing in the staff washroom to make me appear reasonably clean. I am left to ponder the resilience of the crew who will front up to work and prepare an locomotive by 6pm that night.


Rob Dickinson

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