It was with a great deal of interest that we read the article, published by the Gremlin on 22 February 2011, under the banner ‘Choo-Tjoe may become a cycle track’.
The Friends of the Choo-Tjoe (Friends), is a group formed towards the end of last year. This group was originally set up to see if we could save a locomotive from the scrap heap and get it into running order. However at a general meeting attended by residents of Knysna, Sedgefield and the Wilderness, it transpired that the majority of were more concerned with saving the George Knysna line and getting the trains running again. So the emphasis shifted and the Friends focus being aligned with the wishes of the attendees. A small committee was formed and charged with seeing what could be done to offer support wherever possible and practical assistance to anyone who was prepared to run a service.
Meetings have been held with Minister Winde, the Mayor of Knysna, Eleanor Bouw-Spies and the CEO of Knysna Tourism Mr Shaun van Eck, in similar fashion to those which it would seem have been held by representatives of the Garden Route Cycleway Association which is advocating the conversion of the railway servitude into a cycleway.
The outcome of the meetings held by representatives of the Friends with the Mayor and the CEO were very positive; both the Mayor and the CEO expressed their support for the initiative and actions that the Friends were taking to promote the return of the Outeniqua Choo-Tjoe, which both acknowledged, had been a major draw card for Knysna locally and internationally.
The Mayor did however indicate that there were different groups lobbying for their preferred outcome and in this regard suggested that all parties should get together to discuss the pros and cons of each, evaluating the benefit of the respective initiatives to Knysna and the greater community of all areas traversed by the George Knysna railway line. This would allow these initiatives to be ranked and taken forward to the relative authority, be it central Government, The Western Cape Provincial Government or Transnet, on a united front. Recognising the long-term benefit for the region and community she made the offer to co-ordinate a workshop in the near future to facilitate the process.
Nothing of a really practical nature can take place until Province take over the line from Transnet and one can well understand Minister Winde’s frustration at the time this is taking.
We are not however sitting waiting on events. The Friends has purchased, at it’s own expense, an inspection trolley from the Free State and this is now in Knysna being overhauled and made ready against the day when it can be used on the line to assist in the rebuilding and later, for carrying passengers. The ultimate aim is to reinstate the steam service between George and Knysna. This will not happen overnight but it is quite feasible to open in sections from the Knysna end.
As everybody knows, the line closed because of the floods of a few years back. Transnet must have thought it was a gift from the gods as the line, a branch line, did not form part of their core business and was a bit of an embarrassment. Transferring the train service to the George-Mossel Bay line was not the answer. It lacked the appeal of the George-Knysna line. It is understood that only rough assessment of the work required to reinstate the formation has been done, something that will have to be done whether for a railway or a cycleway. Apparently Transnet have an engineering report but have not made this public Desk-top cost estimates based on these rough estimates are bandied around. As a result figures are often quoted to justify the non-reopening of the line which we believe are wildly inaccurate. To the best of our knowledge a detailed costing of the repair has never been done. We will be happy to be proved wrong. Every time one hears talk of the cost of repair of the railway line the figures have increased; increased from what we would ask?
It is right that feasibility studies be conducted however the outcome of such studies must be founded on fact and not on generalisations.
Any studies that are undertaken using public monies must consider and evaluate all options and not be specifically directed to one.
Members of the Friends have been walking sections of the line to see for themselves exactly what damage has been done and are looking to have a proper engineering survey carried out so that a better understanding is obtained of the extent of the work required and what it will cost.
It has to be said that the George-Knysna line, before the flood, was not being as well patronised as it might have been. This could be attributed to a lack of will on the part of Transnet Heritage Foundation and the unreliability of the service. It does not go down well when someone has set aside a day to travel only to find the train has been cancelled.
This could all change if people with the right passion and commitment run the line. The train is more than a business; it is an institution and it should be recognised as such. It has been proved over and over again all around the world that this type of railway can work, and even pay, bringing with it all the benefits of tourism, both local and overseas, to local businesses and to employment in the area. The repair and return of the Outeniqua Choo-Tjoe making use of the infrastructure, for the purpose that it was designed and constructed, will bring greater benefit and provide much more for tourism in the long-term than any other activity. A railway operating in conjunction with cycling is a real possibility, the two can exist each supporting the other.
Bear this in mind: once the rails are lifted, there is almost no chance that they would ever be put back. The lifting of the line and removal of the track and ballast will ensure that a world renowned and proclaimed heritage railway line will be lost forever. When the cycleway starts to crumble, we will be left with nothing!
Since it’s inception, the Friends has been growing weekly (we even have overseas members) and has had nothing but support from local businesses and members of the public. Why not join the Friends and demonstrate your support for the reinstatement of the railway service and return of the Outeniqua Choo-Tjoe. E-mail the Friends at firstname.lastname@example.org .
As responsible citizens, wanting the best for Knysna and the Garden Route region, we look forward to the opportunity to participate in the proposed workshop and establish a direction which works for all.
Friends of the Choo-Tjoe
3 March 2011