Emily van Rijswijck
The inimitable Apple Express, the little green train which used to take passengers from Humewood Station near the Port Elizabeth harbour all the way to Loerie on an unforgettably scenic day trip, may soon chug back into the Nelson Mandela Bay Municipality once more.
The line used by the Apple Express is the longest 610mm narrow-gauge route in the world, measuring up at 285km from its start in Port Elizabeth to its final point in Avontuur. The Express’s destination of Loerie lies 72km out of the city.
Weather permitting, the train was pulled by a steam locomotive, usually a Class NG G16 Garratt, and was one of the few remaining narrow-gauge lines still in operation in the world at that time.
The steam engine was only replaced by a diesel engine if the risk of fires was high.
The narrow-gauge Class 91-000 GE UM6B diesel locomotives, designed and built especially for the then South African Railways by US-based General Electric, are the largest 610mm diesel engines in the world.
Train buffs take note
The Mandela Bay Development Agency (MBDA), which is tasked with rejuvenation of parts of the municipality, is about to embark on a financial feasibility study to see if the train, which rolled out for the last time in January 2011, can be viably re-introduced into the economic and tourism mix of the city.
The study will look at different economic scenarios with the aim of showing Transnet, the owner of the railway line, that the train can be financially sustainable, says Pierre Voges, CEO of the MBDA.
"Basically we would like to take the line from Transnet on a concession basis, and in turn we will appoint a concessionaire to operate the services on our behalf," he says.
The MBDA is confident that the line can work again successfully and viably, while according to Voges there is some interest from outside companies which points to private funders with the same view.
Freight, passengers, tourists
The MBDA has already received funding to initiate a new feasibility study to look into three possible economic scenarios.
They involve the reuse of the line between Humewood and Avontuur for hauling all kinds of freight, including citrus, apples and wood by-products; using the line for commuter purposes; and the viability of the line for tourism and leisure.
The potential for real estate development along certain corridors, among them Chelsea and Assegaaibos, will also be investigated as a source of income but will not be considered in the initial stages of any kind of development, Voges adds.
A study conducted in 2007 on behalf of the MBDA concluded that there is potential for the line to become profitable and to provide services and benefits to all the stakeholders along the railway line.
Based on the same three revenue streams, the study found that freight would account for the largest portion of revenue within the first few years of operations, with the tourism and leisure sectors also able to make a profit.
It also found that over time, tourism and leisure revenue will equal that of freight, showing the increasing potential of this revenue source for the area.
Choo-choo no more
The tourism train service was stopped in January 2011 by state-owned Transnet for economic reasons, as the historic narrow gauge line was not considered to be part of the organisation's core business.
At the time the move was bemoaned by local communities dependent on the line as well as the tourism industry, which saw the Apple Express as a product which added considerable value to Port Elizabeth's other tourism attractions, among them the city's many beautiful beaches.
Mike Callaghan, who operates tours in the area, says the Apple Express used to be a highlight for his overseas customers who regularly booked a trip on the quaint little train.
"Besides the fact that it was a day out in spectacular country for overseas visitors, the line crosses over the highest narrow-gauge railway bridge in the world, at 77.4m, when it traverses the Van Stadens River gorge," he says.
Passengers with a head for heights could cross the bridge on foot and board the train on the other side, adding that extra thrill and adventure to an already historic experience, he recalls.
Although the initial urban scenery is unspectacular, the countryside eventually opens up and is dominated by the beautiful Kouga and Baviaanskloof Mountains, the latter a protected area. Baviaanskloof in Dutch refers to baboons, as these rugged mountains are home to large baboon troops and visitors are sure to see or hear their familiar calls.
Another unique feature was the annual Great Train Race, an event in which runners pitted their speed against that of the little train to see who could arrive first in Loerie.
In time, the relay race of 70km became a favourite on the running calendar with company relay teams also using the event as a team builder opportunity.
The last Great Train Race was held in Port Elizabeth in 2004.
History of the Apple Express
Originally called the Pear train (from PE-Avontuur route), sections of the Apple Express started operating in 1903 with the full line opening for traffic by 1907.
Throughout its history, the mainstay of the line was its haulage of freight, with passenger services always taking a secondary role.
The Apple Express was so christened with the establishment of the deciduous fruit industry was established in the Langkloof and apple farmers sent their produce for export to the PE harbour.
Farmers in the rich Gamtoos Valley also made use of the line.
From 1927 the line was used to bring limestone from the Gamtoos quarries to a cement factory in Port Elizabeth with this service continuing until 2000.
The improvement in road infrastructure was the death knell for the Apple train, not only for passengers who started using buses, but also for freight which was increasingly being transported by big trucks.
The last formal passenger service was terminated in 1948 with just limited services provided on freight trains until 1970.
Fortunately for tourists and train enthusiasts, most of the coaching stock survived and from 1965 was used for what became the popular Apple Express tourist train. The train continued operation under the auspices of the PE Apple Express Company until 2011, when it was formally closed as a result of financial constraints.
These same green coaches and the original locomotive could now possibly await a new future, something which many local Eastern Cape inhabitants hope will be sooner rather than later.