Rhodesia Railways

Rhodesia Railways - driver's view
Rhodesia Railways – driver’s view

Seven years after the Pioneer Column outspanned their ox wagons at Fort Salisbury. Rhodesia’s first rail link with the outside world reached Bulawayo, nearly five hundred kilometres to the west.

Stretching like an umbilical cord across the vast African landscape, the line brought succour to an infant country still struggling to offset the effects of early setbacks. One of these was rinderpest which almost exterminated cattle herds and made draught oxen virtually unobtainable. Transport costs had risen to Rh$400 a tonne and there was no guarantee of delivery. The economy was stagnating and investors were becoming increasingly wary.

Such was the position in 1896 when Rhodes sent for George Pauling, a railway contractor with experience in several countries. Pauling undertook to complete the remaining 644 kilometres of line from Mafeking in the northern Cape to Bulawayo in 400 days.

True to his word he completed the job at a cost of $4 330 a kilometre, to reach Bulawayo in October, 1897.

With characteristic vision, Rhodes had realised the vital importance of a good transport system for Rhodesia’s future. He is quoted as having said: “The railway is my right hand and the telegraph my voice” and when the pioneers entered Rhodesia, his plans for the first railways were already made.

The official opening of the line on 4th November was as celebrated with a banquet for 400 people. Half were dignitaries from all parts of South Africa and from England and when they arrived on four separate trains that day it was the signal for switching on Bulawayo’s first electric lights. The typical Rhodesian hospitality provided included 150 cases of champagne and 100 cases of whisky, 200 turkeys and fresh fish and fruit from South Africa.

*   *   *

The laying of Rhodesia’s early railways ranks as one of the epics of railway construction. The lines ran through a rugged and untamed land, where at times both man and the elements were hostile towards the railway pioneers.

Rhodesia Railways freight train halted in the Amatongas Forest between Beira and Umtali c 1900
Rhodesia Railways freight train halted in the Amatongas Forest between Beira and Umtali c 1900

The Beira-Umtali link was started in 1892 and the 350 kilometres line only completed in 1898. The entire line ran through tropical lowveld in which malaria and floods proved to be a constant hazard. In the first two years sixty percent of the workers died of malaria.

One story has it that every white man had to supply details for his gravestone when he started working on the line. If he lived out his contract he ceremoniously smashed the stone with a hammer.

During the first year of construction, floodwater covered the entire area between the Pungwe and Zambezi rivers. Materials for the line were brought up the river from Beira by lighters towed by steam tugs, the Agnes and the Kimberley. During the floods the Agnes was stranded at a point which turned out to be eleven kilometres from the main stream of the Pungwe when the river had subsided. It was refloated three years later with the aid of a laboriously dug canal and a further spate of flood water.

One of the grimmer stories. probably apocryphal, is that of the lion which killed and devoured one of the construction workers.  His colleagues soon tracked down and shot the lion. In the absence of a body, they decided to give the lion a Christian burial.

Even when Rhodesia was reached, the problems were not over.  As the line neared Umtali, it became evident that it would bypass the town by about 20 kilometres. To get it there, an expensive tunnel would have been required. So Rhodes decided it would be cheaper to move Umtali to the rail than to divert the rail.

The inhabitants were given the choice of compensation for their existing premises or of receiving similar premises in the new town. They voted for moving the town and this was done in 1897.

Near-world records were set up by those early construction engineers. On one occasion a French engineer visited the working party with Sir Charles Metcalfe. The Frenchman estimated that about three-quarters of a kilometre could be laid in one day.

Sir Charles spoke to the engineer in charge who passed the word to his men and on a given signal they started track-laying.  It took them 20 minutes to lay 0,4 kilometres of track and by the end of the day – 11 hours later they had laid 9 kilometres. In those days the track was laid directly on the ground and the ballast added later, a much quicker process than that used today.

The bridge across the Victoria Falls was built according to Rhodes’ wish that the spray from the Falls would mist the windows of the train as it passed over the bridge. The first calculations for the bridge were carried out by Sir Ralph Freeman who was later to design the Sydney Harbour Bridge. 126 metres above the water with a span of 205 metres, the Falls bridge was completed in eighteen months.

By the turn of the century work on new lines had begun. Bulawayo and Salisbury were linked in 1902 and two years later the railways were connected with the Victoria Falls. About this time the time-tables offered return circular outings from any South African port to any station in Rhodesia, including Beira and return for $50.

During the next ten years new branch-lines were extended to meet the ever increasing demand for mining and farming centres.

Rhodesia Railways train sketch
Rhodesia Railways train from the 1930s

In the mid-twenties, as a result of new development, the railways Road Motor Service was introduced to link small outlying communities. These huge articulated lorries carrying both freight and passengers are still a feature of the remote areas today.

The burgeoning of Rhodesia’s economy in the post-war years led to the building of a third outlet to the sea. In 1955 a new line was laid from Bannockburn in the Midlands to Malvernia on the Moçambique border to connect with Lourenço Marques. Less than ten years later, to keep pace with the vast agricultural developments in the south-eastern
Lowveld, another branch line 100 kilometres long and necessitating the building of Rhodesia’s longest railway bridge (410 metres) brought Chiredzi, Rhodesia’s newest town, on to the new sea outlet.

20th Class Garrett locomotive leaving Mpopoma near Bulawayo
20th Class Garrett locomotive leaving Mpopoma near Bulawayo

But this was still not enough.  Another rail-link has been built, this time with Beitbridge in the south. Meanwhile, the call is for more and more rolling stock, more and more locomotives. Steam has given way to diesel-electric over some hauls, but the steam sections are amongst the most modern in the world today. To ensure efficiency, the most up-to-date control systems have been installed in the huge marshalling yards at the main centres of Bulawayo and  Salisbury and new equipment is planned to meet the heavy demands for exporting Rhodesia’s minerals and other export products to the coast.

In a developing country much of the freight is either primary produce or unprocessed raw materials. With relatively few exceptions these are bulky and take up a large volume of space in relation to their value. Such goods are unable to carry a high tariff especially if they have to be transported over long distances as is frequently the case in Rhodesia.
High freight costs may decide whether or not such good can be exported economically. Rhodesia Railways has tailored its tariff policy on this basis which has formed one of the cornerstones of Rhodesia’s continued prosperity.

Modern dining car on Rhodesia Railways
Modern dining car on Rhodesia Railways

And although the modern tourist usually travels by air or road, today’s passenger and dining cars, built by the railways in their Bulawayo workshops, offer every facility for the comfort and convenience of those who prefer to see Rhodesia the leisurely way.


Rhodesia Railways - schematic map showing construction of lines
Rhodesia Railways – schematic map showing construction dates of lines
Rhodesia Railways System Map Sept 1975
Rhodesia Railways System Map Sept 1975

Rhodesia Railways Timetables and Fares – September 1975

Page text by Gerald Cubitt 1972.