History of FOTR
- Category: Our history
"Friends of the Rail -- Almost 25 Years of Trains"
by Nathan Berelowitz
When I think back through the fog of time to the founding of the club, it is fantastic to realize that what started out simply as photographic slide shows and talks, has become a fully-fledged railway operation.
The reason for the formation of "Friends of the Rail" back in 1986 was essentially because it was felt that it was too difficult and time-consuming for Pretoria-based enthusiasts to travel through to Johannesburg to attend the Railway Society of Southern Africa's Reef Branch monthly meetings. At the time there was no real active railway enthusiasts' group in Pretoria, even though we still had plenty of steam at the Capital Park depot and elsewhere in the country. Some six or so fellow enthusiasts became the original founding members. We had support from the then South African Transport Services' (SATS, South African Railways' first new name) steam crews and even from the Germiston guys, who would come across and join us.
FOTR's early meeting venue was the Recreation Club at Berea Park, which was still operated by the "railways" at that stage. Many a talk, slide show and cine-8 movies were shown there. Video was still in its infancy. The club would advertise in the "Pretoria News" and amongst our enthusiasts. And boy, did we have full houses! I wish we still had the visitor's book and that we could see the names of all the folks that have been with us, but unfortunately we mislaid it years ago. Berea Park was used until the railways sold it. Through the good efforts of a member who worked for the Transvaal Museum, we obtained the use of a room there and used those facilities for meetings right until end of 2009 (the museum is currently closed for renovations). FOTR's monthly meetings led to a typewritten news sheet which has become the current formal newsletter.
There was still steam at Capital Park and, only when it was scaled down in the mid 1980s, did we form a "steam team", where we would go down to the depot on weekends and clean up the shunt locomotives used on the Blue Train shunt. There exists a classic photo of the team at work polishing class 15CA number 2850, hard at work with the Brasso!
From the "steam team", came the idea of running trips to Hartbeespoort Dam; simple, as the railways themselves were still operating excursions further on that line to Lovers' Rock. Early trips started with the running of excursion trains, including mixed goods wagons and a parcels van, out to Hartbeespoort Dam, then around Pyramid South, and to Voortrekkerhoogte. Finally, we started hiring passenger coaches from Spoornet (South African Railways' second new name) and running public trains. I must be honest, I do not know how many excursion trains we have run over the years, but there certainly have been plenty!
Marketing was done from my house with a fax machine and a telephone. Fax lists for promotional leaflets were done over weekends and could involve sending 500 or more faxes. We were not in the electronic age yet. That came about, making a huge breakthrough, with the club's first computer and e-mail. What a pleasure to fax from a computer! As FOTR became ever more successful with the trains, the club needed brochures and staff, like coach controllers. Fortunately, given the Spoornet coaches we hired, we initially had the use of their train managers. Destinations ranged from Meerhof, Magaliesburg, Cullinan, Warmbaths and Waterval Boven, to trips up to Voortrekkerhoogte and around the Pretoria complex.
Our locomotives then were the Capital Park based 19Ds 3334 and 2749 "Blou Bull", 15CA 2850, 15F 3075 and later 3094. In those days, steam was still in operation on the Blue Train shunt and we last steamed 2850 in 1994. Although the "steam team" was initially formed to clean the locomotives, we eventually started to repair them and we were soon well-in with the railway folks.
In a major breakthrough for FOTR, after a lot of begging and pleading, we were sent our first locomotive by the Transnet Museum to restore. This was a very rusty class 24, number 3664. Four years later she was ready to run, and her maiden trip was to Babelegi to shunt there. She actually performed on proper revenue-earning services. The first public run soon followed, with an enthusiasts' trip to Magaliesburg for a weekend away. Since then, she has had only two minor incidents and today, after the fitting of new bushes, still runs like a Swiss watch.
Locomotive 19D, number 2650, built in Germany by Krupp in 1937, was rescued from going to scrap metal dealers by two members in a daring "hide it away and it won't be noticed" deal. She was still fresh from the 'shops but was about to be cut up. Seven years of restoration and she is still a fine runner today.
The remaining 19D class locos were relocated from Capital Park to George, where 3334 was converted to an oil burner. Then 3075 was sent to Witbank before ending up at Millsite shed, whilst in another milestone for FOTR, class 15F, number 3094, was sent to FOTR from Springs. She ran very well and was the first steam locomotive to haul a full passenger train over the Beit Bridge into Zimbabwe in 1991 on a steam safari. Number 3094 has recently been withdrawn from FOTR service due to flexible stay problems, and many of her parts have been refitted onto our newly restored 15F, number 3117, which has been doing great service with us since it was put back on the rails in December 2008 after some 17 years of standing.
And so, as the years went on, FOTR grew stronger. Membership grew quite rapidly and we were keeping people in the loop on a regular basis. Our residence at the top shed in Capital Park ended once Rovos Rail settled in there. Rovos kindly relocated us to the bottom section of the shed where the old coal stage and washout boiler room were. Several of our locos are still housed there today, although we now operate our public trains out of our new site and station at the old Hercules goods yard, where we are building our new home.
Required to leave Capital Park, after much searching, in 2006 FOTR took a lease on an old, disused goods loading depot located on the southern side of the TFR Hercules marshalling yards. Equipped with a proper platform and a lovely period goods shed, this has become our new home and passenger departure point. We have called this depot "Hermanstad Station" after the suburb in which it is located to avoid confusion with the nearby Metrorail station. As funds and facilities permit, over time we will be transferring all our stock and operations there. For the moment, Hermanstad still needs lots more facilities which means that we are crying out for donations and help: big or small. So, if you can, please help.
So we go and so we grow. Established for nearly 25 years now, FOTR's name is held high in railway-land, amongst enthusiasts, amongst the public and amongst all the relevant safety bodies (we were amongst the first ten organizations to be given the very first Rail Safety Regulator's Operating Permits). The story of Friends of the Rail will continue well into the future.
So, to keep up to date become one of our friends, join the club, become a member, stay with us and grow with us.