The (Slow) Death of a Heritage Railway Line

This year marks the 90th anniversary of the commencement of construction of the heritage railway line in Knysna, South Africa, known as the ‘Outeniqua Choo-Tjoe’. It will be a sad commemoration as the line lies in ruins owing to the indecisiveness of the railway authorities following damage caused by the floods in 2006 and 2007.


Knysna is a small town on the picturesque ‘Garden Route’ of South Africa, located near the southernmost tip of the African continent. One of its claims to fame is that it hosted not one, but two national teams during the 2010 Soccer World Cup, Denmark and France. George, the regional centre nearby, hosted the Japanese team.

The word Knysna derives from the language of the original ‘Khoikhoi’ inhabitants of the southern portion of the country and means either ‘place of wood’ or ‘fern leaves’. The town was developed as a port in the early 1800’s for the export of timber from vast indigenous forests on the nearby mountain slopes.

Outeniqua Choo Tjoe
Outeniqua Choo Tjoe Photo by geoffulls @ flickr

Outeniqua Choo-Tjoe

Construction on a 67km long railway line from George to Knysna commenced in 1924 and the line was officially opened in 1928, spelling the beginning of the end of Knysna as a harbour for ocean-going cargo ships (the harbour was officially closed in 1954). The railway line was designated by its operator Transnet (a State-owned entity) as a Heritage Museum Line in 1991 and handed over to the Transnet Heritage Preservation unit in 1993.

The line carried the last scheduled steam trains in South Africa, collectively called the ‘Outeniqua Choo-Tjoe’ after the mountain range inland of the line, with a mixture of English and Afrikaans vernacular words for a train. The steam trains were an icon in the region and reputedly a popular attraction for steam-buffs from across the globe, carrying some 115 000 passengers annually. Photographs of the steam trains crossing the various bridges along the way were hallmarks of tourism marketing of the region.

Outeniqua Choo Tjoe, South Africa
Outeniqua Choo Tjoe at Knysna. Photo from 2004 by nh53 @ flickr

Flood Damage

In 2006 and 2007 a series of severe weather events struck the southern coast of South Africa, causing flooding that wrought destruction across the region. One of the victims was the ‘Outeniqua Choo-Tjoe’ heritage line.

Causes of the 2006 Floods

The 2006 floods were caused by the combined effects of two cut-off low systems occurring in the first and fourth weeks of August (winter in the southern hemisphere). Rainfall of over 300mm was measured between 1 and 3 August in the George-Knysna region, with the second cut-off low causing 80mm of rain inland on 20 August 2006. The impact of the cut-off lows was amplified by heavy rains during July 2006, which had saturated soils and filled dams, thus increasing run-off during the August events.

Results of the 2006 Flooding

Flooding as a result of the rains caused damage estimated at ZAR509m (±US$47m) in the region and resulted in the Eden District (including George and Knysna) being declared a local disaster area on 15 September 2006. Fortunately no fatalities were reported.

The N2 national road route between George and Knysna partially collapsed along a section known as Dolphin’s Point, and the road was closed from 20 to 29 August 2006, with traffic being re-routed along an old gravel road (the Saasveld Road) further inland, which itself was closed overnight for several days to repair damage caused by heavy traffic volumes. The collapse affected a 50m long section of road and the ground below the collapse was reported to still be moving at 3mm per hour on 5 September 2006. On 29 August, the road was opened to one-way traffic on a stop-go basis, with traffic in one direction waiting approximately 40 minutes while traffic from the other direction was escorted past the collapse. Vehicles of more than 5 tonnes were required to take an alternative route further inland.

The subsidence was actually caused by a slippage of the whole hillside, described in the official disaster management review report as follows:

“These events were typically ‘flows’ instead of falls, in other words highly water-saturated debris, definitely due to the heavy rain, “slipping” on the seaward dipping Kaaimans Group beds, primarily assisted by gravity”.

The slippage also rendered a holiday home below the road unlivable, and, further downslope, resulted in a landslide across the heritage railway-line. The landslide was accompanied by further ground movement, so that the rails were actually bent out of horizontal alignment just short of the iconic curved Kaaimans River Bridge, on which the steam trains were often stopped for photo shoots by tour groups of steam enthusiasts.

At another point, near the small town of Sedgefield, about halfway between George and Knysna, the earth abutments on either side the Swartvlei River bridge were washed away, leaving portions of railway line suspended in mid-air. Several other landslides and mudslides of varying degree added to the damage to the railway line.

Additional Impacts of the 2006 Floods

At the Knysna end of the line, an historic railway carriage, recently purchased for refurbishment, was trapped at the station with no prospect of ever being used unless the railway service was recommenced. The Knysna station precinct had been upgraded in the late 1990’s and early 2000’s as part of the ‘Knysna Quays’ redevelopment project, the development of a marina, hotel, shopping area and associated facilities on land which Transnet had previously used as timber yards. The upgrading included a new water tower and turntable for the steam train, which were no longer of use while the steam train could not reach Knysna.

Insurance issues relating to the possibility of causing further damage to the holiday home and national road route complicated the situation and resulted in little if any repairs being undertaken on the railway line at Dolphin’s Point. (The national road was, however, repaired later in 2006 and 2007 without any further damage to the other properties).

Damage Estimates and Repair Costs

Initial estimates of damage to the rail infrastructure in March 2007 were in the order of R36m (±US$3.3m) in direct losses, with indirect losses to the local economy of R53m (±US$4.9m) per annum. The then provincial Minister of Economic Development anticipated that the line would be operational by June of that year.

This did not materialize, and, as a result of a similar severe weather event in November 2007, which caused more damage to the line, estimates for repair to the line escalated further.

An estimate to repair the line to safe operating conditions, undertaken by Transnet Capital Projects in 2011, indicated the figure to be R250m (±US$23m), including required upgrades to passenger rolling stock and locomotives, in order to satisfy the requirements of the Railway Safety Regulator. In addition, Transnet requires the development of a freight base for the line that will support the ongoing maintenance costs.

Resuscitation Attempts

In an attempt to retain the tourism benefits of the steam train service, Transnet Heritage had commenced operating the train between George and Mossel Bay, to the west, in late April 2007. However this proved uneconomical and the Outeniqua Choo-Tjoe steam train made its last run on 17 September 2010.

The Provincial Government of the Western Cape made application to Transnet in 2010 to take over the train and the line from George to Knysna, but nothing came of this.

Outeniqua Choo-tjoe at Mossel Bay
Outeniqua Choo-tjoe at Mossel Bay Photo by panr @ flickr


Throughout 2011 and 2012, initiatives were launched by the private sector, local municipality and provincial government to revive the iconic Choo-Tjoe, and, at a meeting in February 2013, Transnet officials stated that they were investigating the re-opening of the line between George and Knysna.

However, as the 90th anniversary of the commissioning of that line approaches, no visible progress seems to have been made, and it appears that the effects of the 2006 floods may have killed off a landmark heritage resource for good!

Risk Reduction Africa; IOL; George South Africa; Skyscraper City; Friends of the Choo-Tjoe