History of Railways in South Africa

An important part of the country’s transportation infrastructure is rail travel in South Africa. Trains connect all major cities in South Africa, and the country’s railway system is the most advanced in Africa. The South African rail industry is owned by the South African government.

In 1859, a small locomotive ran from Cape Town to Wellington was the first railway system in the country. On 26 June 1860, the Natal Railway Company opened a 3.2-kilometer (2-mile) passenger service between Durban and Harbour Point.

A 72-kilometre (45-mile) line, with a track gauge of 1,435 millimeters (4 ft 8+12 in), linking Cape Town to Wellington had been constructed in 1859, but construction delays meant that passenger service on the first section of the line to the Eerste River but was later inaugurated on 13 February 1862.

History of Railways in South Africa

It was not until 1872, when the Cape Government Railways was formed, that the construction of the Cape railway system began to grow rapidly.

There are two major railway lines in the north, one from Pretoria to Lourenço Marques in the Portuguese East Africa Colony, and one from Pretoria to Johannesburg, which was built by the South African Railway Company.

Cecil Rhodes was the driving force behind later railway development. His original vision was for a great Cape-Cairo railway linking all British territories in Africa. As a capitalist, Rhodes accepted that the plan to reach Lake Tanganyika had no economic justification when little gold was found in Mashonaland in Southern Rhodesia.

Those railroads built by private companies without government assistance need a sufficient amount of high-value traffic to recoup the costs of their constructions. But Rhodesia’s early economic growth was fueled largely by agricultural products, it was unable to provide this traffic.

Rather than being built by private companies, the British government built the majority of the early railroads in Africa. The majority of companies were unable to invest in such infrastructure because of the need to raise capital and produce dividends.

At first, BSAC received funding from South African companies such as Consolidated Gold Fields and De Beers, in which the Rhodesian company played a dominant role. It also benefited from the wealth that was amassed prior to Rhodes’ demise. By October 1897, the Mafeking-to-Bulawayo railway had been completed. 1904 saw the arrival of the first Zambesi train in Victoria Falls, driven by two women.

In 1898, a national “link-up” was created, creating a national transportation network. After a decade and a half, the network was largely completed. Rhodes’ dream of building a rail system from the “Cape to Cairo” was never realized.

In 1906, there was a rail network in place.

Railway lines in South Africa were merged in 1910 when four provinces were merged to form the modern state of South Africa. Government agency SAR & H is responsible for the country’s rail system.

As early as the 1920s, the Glencoe to Pietermaritzburg route was electrified with the construction of Colenso Power Station and the introduction of the South African Class 1E.

The transport industry was reorganized in the 1980s. Because it wasn’t a direct government agency, Transnet was created to be more of a government-owned corporation based on a business model. Transport company Transnet Freight Rail (formerly Spoornet) manages South Africa’s rail network. No plans exist to end government ownership of the national rail network, but some small portions of the rail system have been privatized recently.

South Africa’s rail system

Transnet Freight Rail and PRASA are the two public companies that operate the freight and commuter services, respectively. As the largest division of the State-Owned Company (SOC) Transnet, which is responsible for rail, ports, and pipelines, Transnet Freight Rail is the largest division of the SOC.

Intercity and long-distance travel are separated in the commuters’ network. In Gauteng, the Western Cape, KwaZulu-Natal and Eastern Cape, it transports up to 2 million passengers per day. Shosholoza Meyl’s long-distance routes served Johannesburg, Cape Town, Durban, Port Elizabeth, and East London. On the other hand, the Railway Safety Regulator has suspended all Shosholoza Meyl train operations indefinitely following a fatal train collision in Horizon View, west of Johannesburg, on 12 February 2020.

It runs from Cape Town to Pretoria and is considered a popular tourist attraction in South Africa. Ten years in a row, it was crowned Africa’s most luxurious train and the world’s most luxurious train at the World Travel Awards. However, Transnet Freight Rail operates the Blue Train.

Passenger long-distance travel has declined in South Africa as a result of the country’s expanding highway system. A large number of people continue to use rail for their daily commute, but only half of the country’s 36,000 km of track is fully utilized, and about 35% of the nation’s track has no or very little activity.

As a result, Transnet is shifting its focus from passengers to freight in order to keep its rail system profitable. Between Johannesburg and Durban, a high-speed rail line has been proposed.


In South Africa, almost all railways use a 1,067 mm (3 ft 6 in) Cape gauge rail gauge. There are several mountainous regions in the United States, so this route was chosen to reduce construction costs. 1 435 millimeters (4 ft 8+12 inches) is the length of the Gautrain rapid transit railway (standard gauge).

Numerous 2-foot narrow-gauge railways were built in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.

The AAR coupler, developed in the United States at the end of the 19th century, connects South African trains. However, while South Africa has long been ahead of Europe in coupling systems, the country has lagged behind in braking systems; most trains still use vacuum braking in South Africa. As a result, the transition to air brakes has begun.

In South Africa, between 50% and 80% of the rail lines are electrified. For different types of trains, different voltages are used.

Since the 1920s, the majority of electrified trains run on 3000 V DC (overhead). Overhead heavy-duty lines (which require more sleepers per kilometer) have been using higher voltages (25 kV AC and—less frequently—50 kV AC) since the 1980s.