Germiston-based nonprofit association and steam locomotive operator Reefsteamers Association is undertaking a dual refurbishment project on two mainline steam locomotives to return them to full operation.
The project aims to realign and revive the heritage of steam locomotive operators in South Africa, comprising Reefsteamers, Friends of the Rail and private preservation initiative the Sandstone Heritage Trust. The project has formed a working agreement among these parties that will strengthen them through the pooling of technical resources, personnel training and rationalising spares inventories.
Reefsteamers is the largest operator of mainline steam tourist trains in South Africa, with regular schedules to Irene and Magaliesburg, in Gauteng, besides others. It has a large stable of locomotives, housed at the old Germiston steam locomotive sheds, of which two are currently fully operational.
Reefsteamers engineering director Shaun Ackerman tells Engineering News that discussions about refurbishing the two steam locomotives belonging to Sandstone Heritage Trust began in 2010, with work starting in September this year.
The locomotives include a Class 15F locomotive, named Avril, and an articulated GMA/M-type Garratt-class locomotive. He says the Garratt-class locomotive was perceived as the ‘king of the South African rails’ in its heyday, with a rich history as one of the largest articulated steam locomotives to have served on the South African Railways. The 15F locomotive was originally given by the then GM of South African Railways Dr Anton Moolman to David Shepherd, a well-known wildlife artist, in exchange for a painting he had commissioned of the locomotive. This locomotive is now in the custodianship of the Sandstone Heritage Trust.
Both locomotives have been in operation in recent years, but now require substantial technical upgrades and boiler work to bring them in line with boiler certification and safe operations.
Ackerman tells Engineering News that it is essential for entities like Reefsteamers to receive external funding to maintain the “unique workshop capability” that is necessary to keep these large mainline steam locomotives in operation. “We have great admiration for Sandstone’s narrow gauge operations, with the trust, in turn, maintaining one of the finest narrow- gauge steam locomotive refurbishment facilities in the world at the old steam workshops in Bloemfontein, which is under the care of Lukas Nel. We are delighted that they have entrusted us with this work.”
Reefsteamers will also be responsible for operating these two locomotives in the future, and is confident of future contracts.
The refurbishment contract awarded to Reefsteamers, worth about R780 000, will involve visual and magnetic-particle inspection, nondestructive testing to check for cracks on the boiler tube plates, the replacement of boiler tubes and refurbishment work on other critical steam components, as well as the subsequent replacement and repair of components.
Reefsteamers stipulates that the contract will take 16 months to complete, but Ackerman suggests that the locomotives will be fully commissioned before the contract expires.
“We are preparing Avril with two of Reefsteamers’ locomotives for boiler inspection,” he says.
Upon completion of refurbishment, Ackerman says this locomotive will be the first to undergo several trial phases early in 2016. “Upon certification of the boiler, these trials will first be performed in Reefsteamers’ depot facility and, once satisfactory results have been achieved, a longer run will be undertaken, probably to Centurion.”
The scope of work on Avril requires the replacement of 50 boiler tubes, platework refurbishment and analysis, thickness tests, copper lubricant pipe replacement and cleaning, as well as the refurbishment of the brake ejector for the vacuum brakes and the hydrostatic lubricator for the cylinders. It also includes minor work on other less significant, but ageing components.
Meanwhile, Ackerman tells Engineering News that the contract will also lead to skills development in the field of steam locomotives – an area where skills are scarce and diminishing.
“We currently have a programme with [training institution] African Academy to provide a facility for practical training, as there are few facilities where students can perform practical training of this nature,” he says.
Students from African Academy have been assisting Reefsteamers’ engineers with boiler preparation and the servicing of fittings, besides other related tasks.
Spare Parts Challenge
Ackerman notes that the rationalisation of spares inventories will assist the Sandstone Heritage Trust and Reefsteamers in maintaining their respective steam locomotive fleets.
“We both have a vast inventory of spares that have either been purchased or collected since steam trains were taken out of mainline service; access to these combined inventories will greatly assist in servicing old steam locomotives as parts are difficult to source nowadays.”
Ackerman adds that as quantities of steam locomotive parts diminish, regeneration projects are going to be required to manufacture obsolete steam- specific parts. “In the next ten years, a lot of unique parts are no longer going to be available. Luckily, Reefsteamers has the necessary tools, expertise and equipment to manufacture some of them.”
However, he notes that some of the technical drawings and casting patterns have been destroyed or lost over time, requiring Reefsteamers to undertake the building of identical patterns and the redrawing of component designs.