The development of passenger and rail freight transport in Mpumalanga began with the construction of the first railway line between Maputo (Lourenco Marques) and Pretoria, opened between 1891 and 1894. The first branch line, constructed from Kaapmuiden to Barberton, was opened in 1896 to serve the developing gold fields in the area.
A 176 km section of the important Johannesburg - Durban main line, opened in 1895, falls within present-day Mpumalanga while the important secondary main line, running from Springs to Bethal, was opened in 1905. A 151 km portion of this 198 km line falls within Mpumalanga's borders, although the original section from Estancia to Breyten has been uplifted since the line now uses the Davel to Ermelo section of the Richards Bay coal line.
The arterial route from Machadodorp to Breyten and Ermelo was opened in 1908, linking with the Springs line. This was later extended to Piet Retief and Vryheid, an important coal producing area in the early years. Another arterial route, running from Komatipoort to Tzaneen and Soekmekaar began its life as a private railway running northwards to the Murchison Gold Fields. First mooted in the early 1890's and named the Selati Railway, its construction was filled with business intrigue which ultimately delayed its completion. Absorbed into the State-owned SAR in 1910, it was extended north to Tzaneen in 1912, and to Soekmekaar, forming a junction with the Pretoria - Messina line in 1915.
The next important branch was constructed from Belfast to Lydenburg in 1910. This was later extended to Steelpoort in 1924 to exploit the important chrome deposits in the area. 1913 saw the opening of the Nelspruit - Sabie branch, later extended to Graskop and Plaston to serve the expanding forestry industry. Another similar branch was opened to Lothair in 1925. This branch has been the subject of many discussions over the years to link Swaziland with South Africa.
An agricultural branch opened from Derwent to Stoffberg in 1929 was later extended to Roossenekal in 1960 to serve a major iron ore deposit. The coal mining industry in the Witbank area depended on rail transport from the earliest years. First developed along the Ogies - Witbank axis, new development took place resulting in the construction of a branch from Ogies to Broodsnyersplaas, opened from 1946 to 1950. This branch later was extended to Ermelo during the mid 1970's as part of the Richards Bay Coal line project. A new line from Wonderfontein to Broodsnyersplaas was constructed as part of the project. Another short branch runs from Delmas to Hawerklip to service a coal mine.
The most recent railway developments in Mpumalanga began with the deviation of the original Selati Railway from Komatipoort to Kaapmuiden, thus bypassing the Kruger Park. During 1986 a new line was opened from Kaapmuiden to the Swaziland border to complete a through route to Richards Bay which is used in particular for magnetite, phosphate rock and chemical traffic from Phalaborwa for export at Richards Bay.
The remaining railway lines in Mpumalanga branch off the Gauteng - Durban main line. The first runs from Balfour North to Grootvlei and Bethlehem, while the second runs from Firham (south of Standerton) to a terminus at Vrede. Both lines provide interprovincial services.
A recent development is the plan by ESKOM to construct a Heavy Haul railway line from near Ermelo to the Majuba Power Station at Palmford. Rail currently moves some 7.4 million tons of coal traffic from the coal fields via Welgedag and Balfour North but the new direct route will reduce the distance by over 50% and it is expected that 12 million tons that move by road will come to rail. Another associated development is the plan to construct a new Heavy Haul line from near Lepahale to connect with the Coal line in the neighbourhood of Wonderfontein. This could increase export coal traffic to Richards Bay by a significant amount.
Early train on Komatipoort - Petoria line
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