Did you know that the station at Kenilworth was originally a simple shed and that not everyone thought that a railway line to Wynberg was a necessity? Here’s a little history of the line, the trains and the stations.

Did you know that the station at Kenilworth was originally a simple shed and that not everyone thought that a railway line to Wynberg was a necessity? Here’s a little history of the line, the trains and the stations.

A brief history of the railway line

It was Cutting’s omnibus service that brought the railway to Wynberg. The thought of a railroad at the Cape filled the long-suffering inhabitants of Cape Town’s Southern Suburbs with hope – if to Wellington, why not to Wynberg? However, the problems of running a railway through the loose sand dunes of the southern Cape Flats were too horrible to contemplate and what was just as important was the cost of tickets – every single passenger to Cape Town from the Boland would have to pay for travelling the extra kilometres of deviation and would go on paying forever. Nor did everyone consider a line to Wynberg a necessity. Engineer, Captain Pilkington, gave evidence that such a line would cost £66 000 and “was of no commercial value”. He also stated that 35 omnibuses carried 1 000 people per day and that there was no pressing call for a faster service. Obviously, Captain Pilkington was not a regular customer of Cutting’s omnibus!

Despite Captain Pilkington’s thoughts, Parliament passed the Wynberg Railway Act in 1861, incorporating another company to run it, being The Cape Town Railway and Dock Company. To cut a long story short (one involving negotiations, arguments and harsh words in Parliament), the Wynberg Railway opened for regular public traffic on 19 December 1864. The line was 10 kilometres in length and skirted the base of the mountain while crossing many streams, making the culverts and bridges many and costly.

The railway stations

While there were stations at Mowbray, Rondebosch, Newlands, Claremont and Wynberg, there were only “stopping places” at Observatory Road (now Observatory), Lower Mowbray (now Rosebank) and Mortimerville (now Kenilworth). The stopping places had simple ‘sheds’ and if the Engineer of the Wynberg Railway Company, a Mr Marcus Smith, had had his way, this would’ve been the case for the stations too!

However, the Cape Town Railway and Dock Company considered the provision of proper station buildings to be necessary and it therefore agreed that these would be built by the Wynberg Railway Company before February 1865 and only when they and the sheds at the stopping places were complete would the Cape Town Railway and Dock Company be liable to start paying rent for the line. Marcus Smith obviously had a low regard for the passengers who would use the Wynberg line, for not only was he reluctant to provide station buildings, but he even said that he would prefer to spend the £6 700 (estimated cost) on converting some goods wagons into second- and third-class carriages. However, notwithstanding his reluctance, the five stations and three sheds and gatekeepers’ lodges for the sixty-one level crossings on the line were built by the Wynberg Railway Company.

Unlike the temporary wood and iron construction of the Cape Town station at that time, the stations on the Wynberg railway were all well-built, using brick and cement with some care as to their appearance. A characteristic of these stations were the rounded tops to windows and entrances, a feature which has unfortunately disappeared in many instances over the years as the buildings have been modified to meet operating requirements. However, with the exception of Rondebosch (which has been altered beyond recognition) all the buildings, including Kenilworth, still retain their original distinctive Cape Regency style, which is a tribute to the Mr Marcus Smith and the contractors, Mesrs Langford & Poppin.

In the 1860s, a Penny Post operated between Cape Town and the nearby towns and villages and it was therefore common practice for the post offices to be situated on the railway station premises, with Kenilworth being one such station to have a post office.

“The public have at length been gratified by the opening of the Wynberg Railway. The residents along the Wynberg road, instead of being driven in grotesque caravans through eight miles of dust and wind, were brought pleasantly into town in the short space of half an hour. The morning was particularly fine, and the train was welcomed at every station with smiling faces and waving banners. The motion of the carriages was remarkably easy and pleasant and the increased oscillation of the train on the Cape Town side of the Salt River station very apparent. The whole work does great credit to the Engineer, Mr Marcus Smith.” - Excerpt from the Cape Argus

From steam to electric traction

All suburban passenger trains in the Peninsular were originally hauled by steam locomotives, but when passenger journeys exceeded the 20 million mark in 1922, it became necessary to switch from steam to electric traction. The tracks, especially to Simon’s Town (along which the Kenilworth station is situated) were already carrying their maximum capacity, so during 1927 and 1928 the Simon’s Town section became electrified, along with substituting electric signalling between Cape Town and Wynberg for the mechanical signalling. As a matter of interest, with the advent of the Second World War in 1939, suburban passenger journeys showed spectacular increases, with the number of passenger journeys increasing from 44 million to 77 million between 1938 and 1946!

“I remember when the electric trains came into being. I must have been about 10 years old and our teacher used to get very cross with us children as every time a train came past the school as we’d all run to the window to look at this marvellous creation!” – William Neumann

Many who live in the area or use Kenilworth Road on a regular basis, are probably aware that the Kenilworth Station booms are not working and have not been working for a while. Not only is this dangerous, it’s also causing headaches for those who have to live with screeching brakes and even verbal abuse. We shed some light on the situation. Read more here.

At the same time, many residents have very fond memories of Kenilworth Station. Read their memories as they reminisce about it being clean and safe and how the immaculate trains ran on time.