PATONS COUNTRY RAILWAY TAKES OVER THE BANANA EXPRESS
The Banana Express has been closed down by Spoornet on
Thursday 20 April 2006 on the grounds that " a lease does not exist".
Patons have been running the Banana Express since 14 December 2004.
Press release from Tourism and Patons Country
We were very concerned and disappointed last
week Thursday when we heard from the operator of the Banana Express
that they had been instructed to cease operating the BANANA EXPRESS by 5pm
the same day. Whatever the reason may be, the Tourist Industry sincerely
hopes that the powers to be will in great haste do everything that they can
to once again, put our train BACK ON TRACK.
The BANANA EXPRESS is without any doubt one of
the most sought after tourist attractions on the SOUTH COAST and in the
province of KwaZulu-Natal. Between 50 to 80% of tourists walking into
our local Tourist Centres make enquiries about this SOUTH COAST ICON.
Children, mothers, fathers, grandparents and the rest of the family become
very excited when they are told about this little narrow gauge steam train,
which has brought so much pleasure to millions of tourists from all over the
world. Last December alone, close to 10 000 tourists enjoyed this
remarkable experience, many International tour operators have produced
itineraries which included the BANANA EXPRESS, International photographic
tours have been organised, negotiations are underway for a 50 million U S
dollar movie to be made about the train, and worst of all, people will loose
The South Coast is on an ongoing basis looking
for and developing more tourist attractions, we cannot afford to loose any
of them. Rail Tourism has become one of South Africa's BIG 5
attractions, and we ALL need to ensure that we don't loose any part of it.
To the people of the SOUTH, this is a BIG blow
which we cannot accept.
On the 20 April at 9-00 am Patons received
a letter from Woodhead Bigby and Irving Spoornet's attorneys stating " We have been
instructed to demand from you as we hereby do that you provide our
offices with a written undertaking to cease operating on the /assets by
close of buisiness, tomorrow, 20 april 2006, failing which we have been
instructed to move eviction proceedings in the appropriate form."
Spoornet does not have an agreement or lease
with the municipalities or with Patons and Spoornet " contends that our
actions and activities have been illegal and unlawful"
In December Patons received a similar leter
but since the leter did not demand that we cease operating and pointed out
that Patons did not have a lease and were operating at their own risk and
peril, Patons replied that
they would only cease operating on written demand to do so from the
municipality or Spoornet.
Patons duley notified Spoornet's attorneys in
the afternoon of 20 April 2006 that we would
cease operating the Banana express. Patons then had the unpleasant task of
terminating the employment for 35 members of staff, suspending its brick
making black empowerment programme, its steam fitter, driver, and
fireman training programme and notifying over 108 passengers who had so far
booked for the Saturday train that the train would no longer be running.
Article in the Weekend Witness:
End of the train line?
•Sat, 22 Apr 2006
By Derek Alberts
THE unexpected closure of two steam train routes in KwaZulu-Natal has rung
alarm bells for the future of the rail tourism industry.
On Thursday the narrow-gauge Banana Express on the south coast was closed and
last week the Inchanga Choo-Choo was shut down.
The closures have caused outrage in the tourism industry and the steam train
fraternity, and is also fuelling rumours as to the possible reasons.
“Is the sudden closure of the operations part of an agenda by Spoornet to
derail steam tourism in KwaZulu-Natal, or is it this precursor to the lifting
of tracks to be used elsewhere?” asked an irate steam enthusiast.
Of immediate concern to the tourism industry on the south coast is the impact
of the closure of the Banana Express.
Speaking in his capacity as the chairman of Hibiscus Tourism, Lood Boshoff
said the Banana Express is rapidly evolving into an institution that attracts
thousands of tourists every year. “The closure cannot be tolerated as it
affects not only the south coast in general, but also individual tourism
establishments that benefit from the train,” he said.
The official reason for the Shongweni closure is that new sleepers are needed
for a section of the track, while the absence of a formal lease is cited for
the Banana Express halt.
Pundits point out that the problems can be easily rectified, but that Spoornet
has adopted a seemingly intractable position. They also point out that
volunteer teams regularly undertake repairs and maintenance to tracks, mostly
at the expense of rail enthusiasts. “It will be so easy to sort out these
concerns if the relevant Spoornet officials were interested in making rail
tourism work,” a well-known member of the steam fraternity said.
Julian Pereira, CEO of the Paton Country Railways, a Section 21 company that
operates the Paton Express at Ixopo, Eshayamoya Express at Creighton, and the
Banana Express, said the closures are temporary setbacks in efforts to
establish a viably rail tourism industry in the province.
“We believe there is no reason not to sort out the problems, and we are
committed to working out a solution,” he said.
Pereira said the sidelining of the Banana Express is threatening 35 direct
jobs and will also affect a further 2 000 indirectly supported jobs.
“The train brings an estimated 30 000 visitors to different attractions on
the south coast, most of which benefit from the spin-off, and it is this
ripple effect we’re worried about,” he said.
Ironically, 197 overseas passengers made the last journey of the Banana
Express to underline the potential for rail tourism in KZN. “There are 180
different railway systems in the UK that last year attracted nine million
visitors, and we believe we’ll be able to compete in that market,” he
On the cards are eight distinct but connected rail routes, with
Pietermaritzburg the centrifugal hub, criss-crossing the province. They
include the four initiatives currently operating, including the Banana
Express, as well as projected routes to Greytown, Kokstad, Matatiele and
The potential of the rail project is well understood in government with the
Department of Trade and Industry making available a R560 000 Gijima grant to
Paton Country Railways. “We’ve managed to unlock about R10 million in
secondary spending through the grant that has boosted the local economy
substantially,” said Pereira. Part of the beneficiation include the training
of professional steam locomotive minders and tradesmen.
Time Table and booking
In a ground breaking deal PCNGR has taken over the running of
the Banana Express in Port Shepstone. The operation will run to Izotsha and will
be from the middle of December to end of January.
The lease may be extended on a month to month basis after this
period. PCNGR began working on the track at the begining of December before a
deal was struck It was felt that it is important to clear the track and spray
the vegetation as some time would be needed for the weeds to die. This was
undertaken at risk with no guarantee that the line would be leased out and
funding supplied by the Ugu and Hibiscus municipalities.
Repairs had to be made to the track and rail crossing some of
the bridges replaced. Ex ACR staff have been employed to carry out the work. The
track was inspected by Spoornet and declared fit to run trains and on December
11 after 4 months the Banana Express ran again. This brought much needed relief
to the tourism sector and staff which had missed the previous holiday season.
The Ugu District and Hibiscus municipalities provided the funds to repair and
spray the track between Port Shepstone and Izotsha.
Money was also made available to repair the track between
Izotsha and Paddock
and application has been made to access these funds and carry out the work
lease period has been extended to the end of March.
The sad demise of the Banana Express - no one really cares
It is sad to know that preservationists and people generally care so little
about our Heritage that they will allow the Banana Express to die. Despite
promises and undertakings that the Banana Express would continue running nothing
is happening. And slowly more line is stolen, more wagons cut up until one day
its too late and this tremendous asset and opportunity to bring wealth to the
impoverished areas between Port Shepstone and Harding will be lost. The poorest
of poor will suffer so that the wealthy fat cats become more wealthy. That is
what is really sad and not the condition of the yard at Port Shepstone or
the weed growth along the track nor the corroded track and rotten sleepers.
World class start of the journey
|Breath taking no one should be denied this experience
||There are few operators other than Alfred County Railway and
Patons Country Railway who are able to put an operation such as this together.
The track is well ballasted
|There is very little wrong with the track
||Bringing wealth to the rural interior. At Izotsha. the
Banana Express links with 4 different attractions
Track and sidings neat and tidy
|The train brings people to the heart of the rural
population. Who has the right to deny the community this?
Track well-maintained and very safe.
|Banana Express traveling through Sugar Cane Lands
An NGG16 on one of its many trips to Paddock bringing
tourists to one of the many experiences
|The busy loco shed at Port Shepstone where skills are
transferred to locals
|Much restoration work remains to be carried out here
||Two NGG 16's - Double header on their way to Paddok