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Early Electric Loco History - Les Pivnic

Electric motive power and operations in Southern Africa
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Steve Appleton
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Early Electric Loco History - Les Pivnic

Postby Steve Appleton » 30 Jul 2008, 12:51

I thought it worth reposting this article from the SAR-L, authored by the knowledgable and authoritative SA railway historian, Les Pivnic, to reach FOTR's 'wider' and more public audience.
I thought that the List might be interested in a few anecdotes regarding
the earlier classes of electric loco that served the SAR.

The first series of class 1E's were landed ex Metro-Vickers UK in 1923/4
and erected at Pietermaritzburg Shops. Unit E3 was the first loco in
traffic. E3 was soon joined by sister units and these were initially
used on extensive test trips in 1924 to check performance and train (as
in tutor) drivers who would have come across from steam traction.

The class 1E's as built were rated for a safe maximum speed of 45mph but
three units were later re-geared to allow for a maximum of 55mph to work
fast passenger trains on the Natal main line.

Circa 1934 two class 1E's derailed on an embankment and rolled down the
earthworks ending up in a mess at the bottom. The wrecked parts were
recovered and a decision was taken not to repair them as originally
built. The CME - A G Watson - designed an electric shunting locomotive
with a central steeple cab providing unlimited vision in shunting
operations. The intention was to use these locos at Daimana later
renamed Danskraal at Ladysmith. The bogies of the two wrecked class 1E's
were used on these two new shunting locos that were classified class ES
- nos.E96 and E97. They were later renumbered E500/501. Their
construction was carried out in the Maritzburg Shops. Subsequent
additions to the class ES were built new as shunting locos.

To the casual observer the class 1E and 2E look the same but in actual
fact the two classes had different bodywork. Whereas the 1E's had cabs
that were narrower than the central part that contained the electrical
equipment, the class 2E's had cabs that tapered to the full body width
and slatted ventilation windows. The 1E's had separate slatted
body-side vents for ventilation and glass windows.

The class 2E's spent most of their active lives on the Western Transvaal
System working between Johannesburg and Pretoria. They ended up in Cape
Town on the shunt.

A number of 1E's had their cabs widened to full body width when these
specific locos were reclassified 1ES and used on shunting duties.

After WW2 the System Manager Western Transvaal, requested additional
electric locomotives for use on the Johannesburg - Pretoria main line.
This request materialized in the order for 28 class 3E Co-Co locos with
a maximum safe speed of 65mph. When the 3E's arrived from
Metro-Vickers, they were erected at Maritzburg Shops and the System
Manager Durban immediately asked to try them on the Natal Main Line.
The GM allowed a few of them to be tried out in Natal but they were not
designed for the severe curvature encountered on that line especially
between Cato Ridge and Booth. The few 3E's on that section cracked
their frames and they were repaired and sent to join their sisters in
the Transvaal.

The 3E's soon proved their worth on the Western Transvaal System working
the LM Mails between Johannesburg and Pretoria as well as the Pretoria -
JHB expresses with buffet car. From personal experience on both trains
I can vouch for their speed capabilities! When electrification was
extended to Welverdiend in 1951 they were immediately rostered to work
the Blue Train and trains 202/3 (forerunners of the Trans Karoo) on that
section as well. Here again from personal experience I can recall them
comfortably doing their 65mph with 600 - 700 ton passenger trains. They
were real greyhounds!

The 3E's also had another unusual aspect in that they had built-in
boilers for passenger train steam heating. It was curious to see a
white feather from the safety valves of a 3E - I only saw it once -
steam blowing off from an electric loco!

Most of the 3E's when new were allocated to two sets of enginemen. This
resulted in several of them looking absolutely marvelous - their green
livery and brass-work polished to perfection.

Class 3E no.201 (which I selected for the museum National Collection)
had the distinction of hauling Gen Smuts' funeral train from Irene to
Johannesburg in 1950. Class 1E no.177 had hauled the train from
Pretoria to Irene.

One of 201's regular drivers - Morré Watson - had four brass standards
mounted - one on each corner of the loco's body with turned finials on
each standard. She looked absolute stunning when she drew into platform
1 at the old Johannesburg Station with Smuts' funeral train.

The class 3E's were very quiet units - there were no additional cooling
fans blowing when the locos accelerated and they were powerful enough to
work as single units on most trains.

The class 4E's - 40 of them - were built by NBL with GEC providing the
electrical components. They were designed specifically for the Cape
Western System AND specifically to work through the Hexton Tunnels that
were then already under construction. The tunnelling was stopped by the
Nationalist Government as an economy measure and as is common knowledge,
was only completed many years later. I mention this aspect because the
4E's also cracked their frames on sections like the Hex River Pass where
severe curvature was the order of the day. Here again the units were put
to work on a section like the Hex River Pass with severe curvature for
which they were not designed.

However, let us step back slightly to look at the initial service
provided by these monster locos. When they arrived from the UK they
were also erected at Maritzburg Shops and guess what........ESCOM as
they were known in those days was not ready in the Cape with the high
tension transmission lines to feed the section from Worcester to Touws
River. Sound familiar?!!!!!

The result was that the 4E's went into service in Natal and yes......
they also cracked their bogie frames on the severe curvature! But bear
in mind that they were not intended for Natal in the first place. With
frame strengthening they provided a welcome addition to the motive power
roster in Natal. They worked all the fast passenger trains between
Durban and Volksrust and also double-headed on heavy freights. The dear
old 1E's looked so small when standing near a "Green Mamba" as they were
soon nick-named in the Garden Province. Having entered service between
1952 and 1954, the earlier locos were due to spend about a year in Natal
before finally being transferred to their permanent home in the Cape.
Even on transfer, the Western Transvaal System grabbed a couple of them
for Reef service before the General Manager said - OK chaps, the 4E's
need to go to the Cape. The transfers direct to the Cape from Natal
started in March 1953. Curiously the first loco numerically - E219 - was
the first 4E to arrive at the ERS, Salt River. The final unit no. 247
was the last to arrive on 11 August 1957.

Initially, the 4E's designed for 3000V DC operation had to work to
Bellville under the 1500V catenary. This was a problem until the
Bellville line was converted to 3OOOV in November 1954. This resulted in
class 15F's being retained at Paarden Eiland Loco to work passenger
trains until the 4E's could work at full voltage.

The 4E's with strengthened bogies and modified pony trucks (1-C0-C0-1)
proved their worth on the Cape Western System. It was ironic that by
the time that the Hexton tunnels were eventually completed, the 4E's
were compatible with the old Hex River Pass.

When the 4E's were new they had no "eyebrows" over the driving
compartment windows - these were fitted in the Cape. Loco E219 was
selected for the Museum's National Collection while E258 - the last of
the class - was restored to full working order by the enthusiastic staff
at the ERS Salt River.

When the class 4E's started their great trek to the Cape from Natal, the
System Manager Durban indicated that he needed new electric motive power
for his System. This resulted in the initial order for the class 5E
Series 1 nos. 259 - 318. These 2000 hp locos - 60 of them - were built
to SAR specs by the English Electric Co. Ltd. They marked a return to
the Bo-Bo wheel arrangement which would suit the Natal Main Line. The
bogies which were supplied by Henricot were one-piece steel castings.
The riding quality of the class 5E was firm to put it mildly. The
drivers and assistants soon nick-named them "Balstampers" - I'll leave
the translation to someone else!

They entered service in 1955/6 and soon worked all the fast passenger
trains and heavy freights between Durban and Volksrust. The success of
Series 1 resulted in orders for Series 2 (E319 - E363) in service in
1957/8 and Series 3 (E536 - 590) in service 1958/9. The 3rd Series
entered service on the Western Transvaal System which by that time had
also expanded electric traction far beyond the Reef and Pretoria.

In most situations the 5E's worked in tandem certainly in Natal but in
the Transvaal there were several turns rostered for single units. A
typical example of this was the working of trains 1398/9 - the Rhodesian
Mails - between Johannesburg and Krugersdorp by a single class 5E. A
class GMA would take over the train at Krugersdorp and vice-versa.

I think that the hard-riding qualities of the Henricot bogies must have
filtered through to the electrical engineers very forcibly because the
successor to this class - the 5E1 - had Commonwealth cast bogies fitted
and these gave a much smoother ride.

The first order (Series 1) of class 5E1 actually overlapped the final
order for class 5E's. This is why the loco numbering of the two classes
interlaced each other. The Series 1 5E1's were numbered E364 - E498
which filled the number gap between the Series 2 and Series 3 class

The first series 5E1's were destined to be the final electric locos
completely built in England for the SAR. From Series 2 (E591 - E720)
they were built under license at Union Carriage & Wagon in Nigel,
Transvaal. This was also the final (part) delivery of electric locos in
the beautiful plain green livery. Let me hasten to add that even the
last order from England witnessed a change to the gulf red livery that
became standard in 1961 for all electric locos. In other words part of
the delivery arrived in green and the latter part in gulf red.

The addition of yellow striping had started earlier with the green
livery on electric locos but curiously the final delivery from the UK
arrived without any striping at all - it must have had something to do
with the contract requirements.

The Series 1 5E1's went into service in Natal to augment the class 5E's
that in turn would release the veteran class 1E's for secondary duties
in the Transvaal.

The success of the class 5E1's resulted in another three batches being
ordered from Union Carriage - Series 3 (E721 - E820); Series 4 (E821 -
920) and Series 5 (E921 - 1145).

The class 5E1's had a soft ride that at times could be quite
disconcerting for a casual visitor to the footplate. Entering a sharp
curve they would yaw against the curvature and swing back as the wheel
flanges followed the curve of the track but they were kind to the male

As the years passed by and unlike the earlier classes 3E and 4E that
remained on their home Systems after brief periods on loan, the 5E's and
5E1's were used in Natal, the Western Transvaal, Eastern Transvaal, OFS
and Cape Western Systems. On the latter System sets of 5E's and 5E1's
were at different times, painted in the Blue Train livery for service on
that train. In between Blue Train service they would naturally work
other fast passenger trains like the Orange Express and Trans Karoo.

"To train or not to train, that is the question"

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Stefan Andrzejewski
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Joined: 01 Dec 2008, 17:10
Location: Cape Town

Re: Early Electric Loco History - Les Pivnic

Postby Stefan Andrzejewski » 16 Jan 2009, 16:17

I am the proud owner of the plate for 5E 279. I bought it in George at the Steam Train festival in Sept 1989 I think it was. It is displayed in my bar with all my other railway (South African) memorobilia

User avatar
Nathan Berelowitz
Posts: 2195
Joined: 25 Jan 2007, 14:17
Location: Pretoria, South Africa

Re: Early Electric Loco History - Les Pivnic

Postby Nathan Berelowitz » 18 Jan 2009, 19:28

Very interesting read. Not that I am particularly fond of electric traction except on model train sets, but one has to have respect for them.
I too have a number of electric and diesel plates in my collection. But they hang outside!!

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