Wednesday, 7 March 2012

Royal Livingstone Express

Only when I arrived in Livingstone did I discover that Bushtracks, a tourism company operating in Zambia, run a steam-hauled evening dining train on Wednesdays and Saturdays in conjunction with the Royal Livingstone Hotel. There's a website here (which I didn't find until afterwards).

Following my visit to Livingstone Railway Museum on 15th February 2012, the Curator of the Museum offered to come to the Victoria Falls Steam Railway yard in Livingstone and make introductions. All the people at the railway were quite charming and a footplate ride that evening was readily offered by the Manager, Ben Costa.

Locomotive 204 (12th Class) at the head of the train.

When I arrived at the station, locomotive 204 was at the head of the train of beautifully-restored coaches. I had a quick look on the footplate of 204 which was not in steam. On the adjacent line, locomotive 156 was "brewing up" and I was introduced to the Driver. I was given a tour of the train which comprised five coaches.

Carriage No.6049 Club Car / Kitchen Car

This houses a small lounge and bar, as well as the kitchen. This can be used as a private venue for pre-dinner drinks for approximately 10 -12 guests. There's also a diesel powered generator for electricity and two air compressors.

Carriage 4821 Chesterfield Dining Car

Luxurious leather seats for 48 guests configured:
6 x 4 seat tables 9 x 2 seat tables 2 x 3 seat tables

Carriage 211 Wembley Dining Car

Seats for 44 guests configured:
7 x 4 tables 8 x 2 tables

Carriage 4101 Lounge Car

The Lounge Car is serviced from the Observation Car Bar by waiters.

Carriage 4933 Observation Car

Bar and Veranda viewing deck.


Locomotive 156 is 10th Class from a batch supplied in 1922-1924 by North British.
Locomotive 204 is 12th Class supplied in 1928 by North British.

Both are imposing tender engines with a 4-8-2 wheel arrangement, two outside cylinders and Walschaerts valve gear. Although both were built by North British in Glasgow, they are rather American in appearance and have bar frames (rather than the plate frames of British engines). The track gauge is only 3 foot 6 inches but a generous loading gauge allows large locomotives.

After looking round the locomotives, I returned to the Royal Livingstone for High Tea and a shower and by 5.00 p.m. I was back at the station for my footplate ride. There was a small shunt required to remove 204 from the train and 'park' it, then 156 was attached to the train. This involved blocking the main road into Livingstone (no gates) but there was little road traffic so a couple of staff could provide fairly informal 'traffic control'. Automatic couplers were provided so coupling was straightforward. The train was vacuum braked but, in common with a number of overseas railways, two vacuum hoses were provided at the end of vehicles, one on each side. The shunter/guard was able to connect the nearest pair of hoses just by reaching in. The pair of hoses on the other side of the train remained on the 'stopper', of course. Then, the passengers arrived in a variety of taxis and were conducted over the foot crossing in front of the engine to join the train by a single set of substantial movable steps (there was no platform).

Locomotive 156 ready to depart with the 'Royal Livingstone Express'.

Only on my return to the U.K. did I find quite a good description of the journey on the AfricanMecca site here which I quote below:-

"The dinner trip incorporates a classic steam expedition with fine dining provided by Sun International's Royal Livingstone Chefs. You will now be able to make the adventure of 15 kilometers of newly refurbished Mulobezi railway line through the heart of the Zambezi River Valley in a most magnificent and romantic steam train. AfricanMecca Clients will be picked up at 5.00 PM from the Royal Livingstone Hotel for the 15 min transfer to the platform. On arrival at the platform there will be a short time available for photographs to be taken and guests will have a safety talk from the train manager. Tickets will be collected to allow guests to board the train and a welcome drink will be served. The train will set off at 5.45 PM, passing through Dambwa Township on its way up the Mulobezi Line. The railway line runs parallel to the Zambezi River and Sunset will be enjoyed while travelling through the Mosi-o-Tunya National Park. A set four course dinner will be served just after 7.00 PM when the train stops for water at the 15 kilometer peg. The locomotive will then back the train up to the run around point, uncouple and move to the front of the train. The train will start its return journey at approximately 8 PM and Dinner will continue to be served while the train is in motion returning to Livingstone. Clients will be transfer back to the hotel by 10:00 PM. The Royal Livingstone Express is made up of five carriages: Two Dining Cars, a Kitchen Car, Lounge Car and an Observation Car with Steam Locomotives 10th Class 156 and 12th class 204 both built by Northern British Locomotive works in the 1930's. Loco 156 was renovated by the famous Wildlife Artist David Sheppard and in 1971 donated to Zambia National Heritage and restored again in 2005. The beautiful Wembley Dining Car was built by the Birmingham Railway Carriage and went on display in London at the British Empire Exhibition in 1924. It was shipped to the Union and entered service on 19th May 1926. In honor of its exhibition duties it was renamed the Wembley. The Steam train will run on the Mulobezi line which runs parallel with the Zambezi River and through the Game Park. The Mulobezi Line was once the largest privately owed railway network in the world set up by Zambezi Sawmills in 1916."

Well, my journey was slightly different but the above gives a good idea of the format. I'd have found the map below useful, as well, but I didn't find it until I got back.

Map of the route. Click on map to enlarge (Copyright Zambia Survey Department).

With the passengers safely aboard, the guard gave the 'Rightaway' at about 5.30 p.m. There was plenty of room in the cab for the driver, fireman, me and two young workers whose function was not immediately apparent although they provided 'traffic control' as we set off across the ungated main road. We carried the single line Train Staff marked 'SIMOONGA TO LIVINGSTONE' and the driver also had a hand-held radio-telephone which was used to communicate with the guard as necessary.

I stood behind the driver looking at the overgrown track ahead. The area was built-up leaving Livingstone and there were lots of people around. The line was unfenced and the many level crossings were, of course, ungated so I was reminded of how strange I found it driving a broad gauge Pacific out of Delhi some years ago with people criss-crossing the line in front of me. The 'Royal Livingstone Express' was going at a fairly sedate pace, so everybody moved out of our way in time and stood watching the train. The presence of an elderly European woman on the footplate caused some friendly amusement, of course.

After about 5km, we stopped at a set of double gates across the railway. This was the entrance to Mosi-o-tunya National Park. The two young men on the footplate climbed down, opened the gates and we continued our journey. The driver pointed out a couple of giraffe browsing happily in the bushes.

I'd been told that they'd been having some problems with lack of adhesion and I'm afraid that 156 started to 'lose her feet'. The young men got off, found some gravel and started 'hand sanding'. The driver suggested that the problem was grass on the railhead. We carried on slowly but again got into difficulty so, this time, the driver got off and sanded the line well ahead of the train. We carried on, left the National Park through another set of gates and came to a run round loop with a siding holding a couple of bogie open wagons where we stopped. The young men on the footplate had brought a chair screw spanner, so I decided that the points were 'spiked' in the normal position. The locomotive ran round its train here (so we didn't follow the AfricanMecca description above) and, when everybody was back on board, we re-started, this time propelling our train to the 'Dinner Stop'. Whilst the passengers had their meal, I was invited to relax in the Observation Car and I was made very welcome by the train staff. The locomotive crew seemed to be having some problems with the electric generator but, eventually, the dual headlight on the tender lit reliably (we were returning tender first). I didn't get the opportunity to return on the footplate but, by then, it was completely dark and had started to rain very heavily. I spent the return journey chatting to the guests, who'd been very impressed with the meal which had been prepared on the train by a Royal Livingstone Chef with Royal Livingstone waiting staff.

My thanks go to everybody who made my visit to the steam railway so enjoyable.

My railway pictures taken on my visit and on the trip up the line on the evening dining train are here.