Our Fleet

THE LOCOMOTIVES

There’s a story behind each loco, its procurement and restoration, and they all have their own distinctive character and charm. 

The oldest engine in the stable is also the smallest and still sees occasional use. It is one of the oldest mainline working locos in the world. The Class 6, 439 TIFFANY, was built by Dubs & Co. of  Scotland in 1894 for the Cape Government Railway. It has a 4-6-0 wheel arrangement, weighs 76 tons and has a Belpaire firebox-type boiler, which is more efficient than the original round-top fireboxes.

TIFFANY was used for shunting in later years and, on being withdrawn from service, was cosmetically restored and placed as a monument on Winburg Station in the Free State. Rohan spotted her on his travels and was drawn to her classic steam-loco lines; he purchased her in 1987. Dunns Locomotive in Witbank undertook the initial task of returning her to the rails and, with the original Rovos Rail workshops being close by, Rovos staff undertook the painstaking refurbishment. It was the first loco to be painted in the now familiar Rovos green – an automotive paint, thus its excellent finish.

Rovos had three 19D locos; they were South African Railways (SAR) general-purpose locos that were suitable for all but the most lightly laid lines, therefore they were widespread throughout the system. A total of 235 were built by five independent builders in eight separate batches between 1937 and 1948. Weighing in at 132 tons, they were the final development of the 19 series and nicknamed ‘Dollies’ after its derivation.

All three locos were equipped with high-capacity Vanderbilt or ‘torpedo’ tenders originally fitted to the 1948 North British batch. These contain more coal and water than the Borsig-built locos and greatly increase the working range. They were very popular and a number were sold to industrial users following their SAR careers. In addition, the Rhodesian Railways purchased 21 from Henschel; six were built for the Benguela Railway and six for industrial users, two in Zambia and four in Rhodesia.

2702 BIANCA, built by Borsig in 1938, was the first Class 19D loco acquired in 1986 from Loewenthal’s Scrap Metal. Dunns was commissioned to return the workhorse to running condition and Rovos staff completed cosmetic improvements, including a superb paint job, making it a beautiful sight. 2701 BRENDA was one of a batch of 40 built by Borsig of Germany in 1937. After withdrawal from service she was sold to Chick’s Scrap Metal and bought by Rovos while staged at Volksrust in Natal. She was restored at the Witbank workshops in 1988. Both ran through until 2014 when they were scrapped.

Rohan had had his eye on 3360 SHAUN since he first saw it standing on the scrap line at Witbank way back in 1986. It was one of a batch of 50 built by the North British Locomotive Company (NBL) in Scotland in 1948 and Rohan purchased it in December 1986. The engine was overhauled by Rovos and sent to Dunns for restoration.

Also in the collection are five 25NC locos, which were the final mainline tender engines built for SAR and were some of the most modern in the world. They were built by Henschel of Germany and the NBL between 1953 and 1954. With a weight of 225 tons, they are truly giants of steam. Ninety were built as Class 25 condensing locos where exhaust steam was returned to the tender and cooled back to water, which was useful on the dry sections through the Karoo. Fifty mechanically similar examples were built without the condensing system and classified as 25NCs. However, the condensing equipment proved expensive to maintain and following the introduction of electric and diesel units on the 25’s major routes, they were converted to 25NCs. These locos can be recognised by the long, low semi-circular water tank on the tender, colloquially known as a ‘worshund’ or ‘sausage dog’; the original 25NC has the more normal-looking ’box’ tender. The converted tenders have proved to be very useful in ensuring the maximum possible range although they do nothing for the aesthetics of the locos.

3484 MARJORIE was built by the NBL in 1953 as a 25, later being converted to a 25NC, and worked on heavy haulage, finishing her service at Warrenton. One of a large number of the class dumped at the old depot, 3484 was one of three bought by Rovos and hauled to Capital Park. She was restored as an oil-burning loco with extensive rebuilding required to bring her back into working order, which increased the loco’s potential range to 1 400kms before needing to refuel – more than four times the coal-burning loco range. She re-entered active service when a bottle of Champagne was cracked over her ‘bows’ by Rohan’s mother, Marjorie, in 1999. After 15 years of stirling service she was scrapped in Pretoria.

3442 ANTHEA was built by Henschel in 1953 as a 25NC and worked on heavy haulage, also finishing her service life at Warrenton. She was restored as a coal-burning loco and re-entered traffic in 2007. Her first revenue-earning trip was a steam safari to Victoria Falls; quite a baptism of fire.

3533 KING ZOG, built by the NBL in 1954 as a 25, was later converted to a 25NC and worked on heavy haulage, finishing his service in Kimberley. The restoration project was straightforward and by dint of hard work, KING ZOG was commissioned into service in 2008. Traditionally, 3533 was named after a Vos family member, in this case Rohan’s faithful Dalmatian, Zog.

A small band of enthusiastic men undertake the strenuous work of driving these steaming monoliths. Many youngsters have dreamed of becoming engine drivers, enticed by the power and glamour of handling gleaming steam locos on the front of a long train. Getting to that exalted position requires many years of hard graft, working through from a loco cleaner to a stoker before becoming a driver on shunting and local trains.

The use of steam locos has become increasingly difficult over the past few years as more water and coaling facilities have been scrapped along the lines. Sadly those days of countrywide steam are behind us and trains are now hauled by efficient yet unspectacular diesel or electric units.

DIESEL AND ELECTRIC LOCOMOTIVES

Additional locos have been acquired to provide traction insurance for the future.

In March 2009, Rovos Rail purchased nine electric locos, three of which have been restored to working order, the remainder forming a strategic reserve of spare parts. They have been acquired to provide future insurance and will be well suited for the load of the trains on the electrified routes to Cape Town and Durban.

The locos were part of the final batch of 255 Class 5E1 locos, built between 1966 and 1969 by Union Carriage & Wagon Company of Nigel, Transvaal. Electrical equipment was supplied by AEI and English Electric.

Numbering 690 in total, the Class 5E1s were general workhorses, both for freight and passenger traffic, for many years. The last to be withdrawn from service, which included the locos purchased by Rovos Rail, were deemed surplus to requirements and were thus in relatively good condition and could be returned to traffic with relatively low cost implications.

In 2014, Rovos Rail purchased six surplus diesel locos from Aurizon, a major Australian rail operator. They were shipped from Perth to Durban and then by rail to Pretoria in January 2015.

Five of the locos were of the DD Class, built by Clyde Engineering in Australia between 1970 and 1972. They were originally Queensland Rail’s 2100 Class. These 2200hp locos were originally used on coal trains in Queensland before being displaced by electrification. Ten of the class were sold to FCAB, a private railway operating in the northern provinces of Chile. In 2007/8, five locos were stripped down and rebuilt and sent to Perth for general freight operations, there becoming the DD Class. In 2013 they were withdrawn from service in working order, with the exception of one loco that had sustained damage after an engine compartment fire.

The sixth was D Class 1562, one of five originally built for the West Australian Government Railways by Clyde Engineering in Australia in 1971 for bauxite traffic, and is similar to the DD Class with some minor variations. This loco had major work carried out on it just before withdrawal from service and is thus in good condition. Two of the class were sold to Tasmania Railways and were in use there until recently, and one was sold to FCAB in Chile and also survived. The fifth loco was scrapped in 2010.

THE COACHES

Over the years, more vintage coaches have been added to the Rovos fleet, now one of the biggest private collections in the world. 

The first Rovos coaches were purchased from private owners or, in various stages of disrepair, from SAR. With wooden bodies on steel underframes, they ranged in vintage from 1911 to 1956 and comprised dining cars, sleeping cars, private saloons, staff and baggage vans and other types.

Private saloon 15063 was the first coach ever purchased by Rohan. It was one of a large batch built in 1942 and used to transport and accommodate various railway officials around the railway system. 15063 served as the Rovos office at the V&A Waterfront in Cape Town for many years, but after the company took out a lease on prestige premises at Cape Town Station, it was returned to Rovos Rail Station in Pretoria as part of the museum display.

Over the years, vintage coaches have been gradually added to the Rovos fleet, which is now one of the biggest private collections in the world. Most passengers are under the impression that they are as originally built. It’s a tribute to the quality of the workmanship that these old coaches – none of them in good condition when acquired – could be remodelled so extensively without affecting the character and atmosphere of the original design.

THE RESTORATION

Before assessing the work required to make coaches rail-worthy, their body shells are stripped and any damage or corrosion is properly repaired. The interiors are stripped of everything that is not required (which sometimes is everything) and the work schedules are planned to modify them to their new configuration. The underframes and running gear are then examined and while some of the equipment is fit for re-use, much of it isn’t, for instance the batteries, chargers and steam heat radiators. Because of strict safety criteria, components such as wheels, couplers and brake equipment are also thoroughly checked.

After that the exterior is prepared, broken windows and louvres are replaced and all the piping for plumbing, air conditioning, and so on, is installed. Next is the electric cabling, which is placed with couplers at the end of each coach so that the train can be remarshalled as required.

The underframes are then thoroughly cleaned and undercarriage air-conditioning heat-exchanger units are fitted, as are all the necessary tanks (2 000 litres of fresh water is carried under each coach).

The interior design is an art form in itself, with particular attention given to space maximisation. They are carefully stripped and cleaned with the basic shell completed before work begins on the finer touches. Floors are laid and new panelling and essentials, such as toilets, showers, plumbing, beds, safes, air-conditioning units and other fittings, are installed. The work is time consuming and expensive as it is conducted to a high standard.

THE SUITES

In the early stages, it was intended to have varying types of accommodation, some of which would have retained typical SAR-type communal ablution and toilet facilities. After further consideration, this idea was dropped, so all the suites – Royal, Deluxe and Pullman – have en-suite bathrooms.

It was originally thought that the open-balcony coaches (built between 1912 and 1928) would be the mainstay of the train because they’d encourage passengers to stand outside and watch the world go by. To the disappointment of many, the coaches actually proved less popular than the later closed-vestibule type as people were fearful of crossing from one coach to another and the slipstream did nothing for the ladies’ coiffures. The corridors were narrower than the later types and, in the middle of the coach, crossed from one side to the other. This latter feature prevented optimum-space use, so only two of the carriages were restored, both as opulent Royal Suite carriages.

The first was 749 – a first-class balcony coach built in 1919 in Birmingham, England. After withdrawal from SAR service in 1975, the coach became a holiday home in Mpumalanga. All the interior panelling from one end was stripped out but luckily it was found in an outbuilding on the property. When the coach was put into place, it was fixed on a concrete base and surrounded by trees, so getting it to the nearest railway line proved to be a huge logistical problem. A road had to be created as the collection vehicle had a low bed, was obviously very long and could not negotiate corners on farm roads. To preserve his nervous system, Rohan sent his one and only railwayman at the time, Stoffel van der Berg, armed with a camera to oversee the 5km transfer. In 2014, coach 749 and its twin 1601 (1928) were sold to a guesthouse in Mossel Bay.

With one exception, the wooden sleeping cars are all of the same basic SAR design produced from the early 1930s until 1956. Most were acquired from the railways and were generally in poor body condition, although the chassis and mechanical components were sound. The interiors were stripped and three Deluxe Suites installed, and, as in the balcony-coach refits, the maximum number of original components was used. Many of the coaches have a small staff compartment at one end, so there is always someone on hand to be of assistance when required. These vehicles formed the backbone of the early fleet.

In 1994, it was decided to go with steel carriages for the train’s new sleeping cars. The old Edwardian Train had done well but, with the advent of the Victoria Falls route in January 1994, it was averaging 15 000kms a month. It was too much to ask of the grand old lady, so it is now used for charters.

Built in the 1970s by the Union Carriage and Wagon Company in Nigel near Springs, 38 coaches were purchased from the railways in late 1994. They are of a uniform shape and body-shell design with panelling configuring the interior in various arrangements. They have proved ideal to increase the fleet as they lend themselves to a variety of conversions and have been rebuilt as lounge, kitchen, sleeper and staff cars.

In 2006, Rohan gave fresh meaning to an historic term – Pullman – with his introduction of a third accommodation level. From the time George Mortimer Pullman founded the Pullman Palace Car Company in 1867, the name ‘Pullman’ has been synonymous with luxury trains. From the USA to Great Britain to Europe, these cars have graced the rails carrying passengers on the finest trains. Operations of the company ceased in the USA, leases were terminated in 1968 and the remaining assets auctioned in Chicago in 1970. The Rovos coaches have, in Pullman fashion, beds that fold down from the wall to become seating during the day, but unlike many other Pullman cars they retain the Rovos hallmark of a private shower and toilet facility.

DINING CARS

In the early 1920s the chief mechanical engineer of the railways, Mr D A Hendrie, signed off plans for the first in a series of A-22 twin diners, aptly nicknamed the Hendrie Twins. These cars served all the top trains but after the advent of newer types in the
1930s they were gradually relegated to lesser trains and eventually withdrawn in 1980 after 55 years or so of faithful service. The dining saloons were characterised by seven pairs of carved roof-supporting pillars and arches, which created a Victorian atmosphere, and the dedicated kitchen car it ran with could house the pantry, staff and catering equipment.

The first batch of 13 entered traffic in 1924, and Rovos Rail has a number in its fleet. A couple to note include 195 SHANGANI purchased from a scrap yard in Johannesburg in 1986. Her severely dilapidated condition required 18 months of painstaking restoration and included replacing three of the carved teak pillars, which had been stolen. SHANGANI ran on the inaugural trip in April 1989. Tragically she was destroyed in a fire at the Rovos Rail headquarters one dismal night in May 2008.

Arguably the most famous dining car in South Africa is 211 WEMBLEY, which entered traffic in 1926 after being exhibited at the British Empire exhibition from 1924 to 1925 where she carried its original name of UMHLATUZI. It was rebuilt in the Rovos workshops in 2011 and sold to Bushtracks in Zambia for use on their excursion train.

In 1936, SAR introduced the A-28/29 series of dining cars. This was a big step forward from the A-22s as the new series had fly-up, fixed seats, large picture windows with ventilators above and no pillars, giving clean modern lines to the interior and exterior. The first batch of four entered traffic in 1936 and Rovos Rail has two of these in the fleet.

1940 saw another major advancement by SAR when the first A-33 dining car entered service, followed the next year by its sister the A-34. These were built in England and started service in 1940. Being all-steel vehicles with flush sides, a monitor-style roof and full air conditioning, no expense was spared to finish these cars to the highest degree of excellence, but the interior was particularly spartan.

231 ZAMBESI was sold at a public auction in Braamfontein and put into use as a restaurant inside a shopping centre. Her kitchen car, AA-34 286, was sold to Rovos Rail at the same auction. ‘I didn’t have the money to buy both,’ says Rohan wistfully. He did eventually acquire ZAMBESI in 1999 where she was extracted with difficulty from the centre and returned to service in 2000. During restoration, the ceiling was improved with extensive use of wooden trimmings while button-leather seats added opulence. It was fitting that they were reunited several years later and can now be configured into their original pairing.

KITCHEN CARS

The first kitchen car, 252, was one of the AA-23s originally matched with the A-22s. However, initially paired with the 197 LETABA, it needed considerable restoration and the narrow width of the interior wasn’t suitable for an efficient kitchen. Fortunately, Rohan came across the AA-34 286 at the Braamfontein auction; it is one of the oldest catering vehicles in front-line regular service around the world.

As the kitchen cars are fashioned from some of the 1970s steel-sided passenger sleeper coaches, the rebuild is quite time-consuming. Kitchens are by nature hot places to work and have to function at full efficiency during a journey, a task not made easy by the confined space, but lessons have been learnt along the way; they have electricity and gas appliances, which enable the staff to provide food of exceptional standards despite cramped conditions.

OBSERVATION CARS

The observation cars were originally A-28 dining cars built to drawings by Mr W Day. Permission was granted by the railways to run Rovos Rail’s observation cars at the back of the trains, enabling the enlargement of the windows and the construction of unique open-air balconies. As part of the rebuild, the coaches had all their fly-up seats and fixed tables removed on one side while retaining them on the other. Custom-built wingback chairs and comfortable sofas replaced the removed seats and tables.

In 2005, when more vehicles were sought for conversion to observation cars, there were no more A-28s available. Instead, 237 MAZOE, an A-31 built in 1942, was purchased. It was visually different because of the semi-elliptical roof that was in place of the clerestory roof fitted to the SAR mainline stock previously. Reportedly, the roof style was much stronger and cheaper to manufacture and maintain than the earlier type and also gave a more modern appearance, but the interior layout was similar.

LOUNGE CARS

Expansion plans in 1995 saw the classic trains move from 42 to 72 guests, making a second lounge car a necessity. 3215, 8337 and 3293 were originally modern steel-sided sleeper cars; they were stripped and refurbished to create comfortable non-smoking lounge cars (placed in the middle of the trains) with deep sofas and wingback chairs, where guests nodding off for an afternoon snooze is a common sight. They are used as lecture rooms on the bigger journeys and also house a small but impressive gift shop, of which Rohan’s wife Anthea is the talented curator.

THE TRAIN TODAY

Rovos Rail operates four trains of these superbly restored and converted coaches, which accommodate up to 72 passengers in style and comfort. Each train has a lounge car, a unique glass-ended, open-balcony observation car, a smoking club lounge and one or two dining cars – either a 1920s period piece with romantic teak pillars or a more modern 1930s example with large, traditional windows offering guests a panoramic view of the passing landscape. A remarkable achievement in 2013 was the construction of three pillared dining cars using the shells of steel second-class sleepers.

The sleeper coaches are the last word in luxury. Each suite accommodates two people with the option of twin or double beds and a lounge area. They all have en-suite bathrooms in which original fittings are combined with the modern technology of hot showers, hair dryers and shaver plugs. Spacious and elegant, the Royal Suites measure 16m2 and even come with a Victorian claw-foot bathtub, which makes bathtime a memorable occasion. The Deluxe Suites measure approximately 10m2 and the Pullman Suites, which are 7m2 in size, include the identical bathroom to that of the Deluxe.

All the suites are air conditioned yet the windows can be opened allowing in the sights, sounds and scents of Africa; there are few, if any, luxury trains in the world with this special feature. This, coupled with opulence and personal service as well as a selection of Rovos Rail locos, makes this a truly unique opportunity to sample long-distance travel.

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