On And Off The Rails (Part 2)

September 14, 2009

January 1972……still in the Rhodesia Railways Mechanical Workshops, Bulawayo

First Mission: Wagon Shop

The Wagon Shop was exactly what the named implied.  It was where one would find all types of wagons in various stages of construction or destruction, depending on the activity taking place.   Any wagon that needed repairs of any description including complete rebuilds from the frame upwards came to the Wagon Shop.  Some of the ones that arrived were in advanced stages of decomposition due to either plain wear and tear, high-speed shunting operations by overzealous locomotive drivers, and in extreme cases; collisions, derailments and/or terrorist action.  Clearly some of them would never hear the clickety-clack of the rails again.  In most cases things could be put right with the correct application of brute force and profanity…..but there were of course the instances where they were so bent and twisted that they were scrapped for being beyond help of any kind and sent to the graveyard.

It is important to remember that at that time there were heavy sanctions imposed on Rhodesia so the scrapping of a wagon was considered a very serious decision to make.  Apparently a person needed superhuman powers of perception and outstanding academic qualifications to make such decisions.  This person was known as the Charge-Hand…..  basically because he was in charge of all the hands that fixed the wagons and he knew what our grubby fat fingers, big heavy tools, and heating torches could and couldn’t do.  I remember him quite well.  A pleasant person most of the time as I recall.  Unfortunately he used to lose it when under pressure and this seriously impacted on his personality.  I used to watch him walking around with a piece of chalk in his hand, writing all kinds of messages for us to read on the side of the newly arrived wagons, detailing its fate……repair, strip, rebuild, cut.  And when he was in a particularly foul mood, probably for not getting his leg over the night before, he even wrote the dreaded “scrap” word……gleefully grinning whilst condemning the mute subject of his frustration to the knackers yard…….a shadowy, sinister place that was always cold, damp and dripping.  There seemed to be a sadness about the wagons that were laid to rest there……the wicked wind whipping and whistling through their lopsided frames.

I would like to describe two specific types of wagons that remain vivid in my memory.  None of my reasons for remembering them are good.

Refrigerator Wagons:

Refrigerator wagons are used to keep meat carcasses and other perishables cold in transit.  Obvious you might say.  However you need to bear in mind that if the cooling unit breaks down between Wankie and Bulawayo in mid-summer, a refrigerator truck quickly becomes a microwave oven and whatever you were trying to keep cold rapidly begins to decompose into an array of unpleasant odours, strange, slippery, evil coloured liquids, and sodden cardboard boxes that fall apart when lifted, thus spilling their now vile contents all over the show.

It is important to understand at this point that when a cooling unit breaks down the whole refrigerator truck would be sent for repairs so that the entire wagon could have a quick service.  I dont need to tell you where they came to…..but I will anyway…….the Wagon Shop.

If you have never had the good fortune of being the first person to open one of these wagons after it has been standing in the sun for a few days,  it is going to be quite hard even for me to describe the sickening stench of rotting beef, pork, or lamb that has turned green, blue, and yellow, and has strange pus-like secretions leaking out of the various orifices that such animals have.  I do not think I need to elaborate further at this stage as any normal person reading this should have gotten the idea by now.

Try to visualise the following:

Refrigerator wagon comes in for repairs……the first thing that happens is that it gets stripped down.

One of my tasks as a Plater-Welder apprentice was to cut things up with extremely high temperature flames using a combination of oxygen and acetylene gasses.  I used to enjoy doing this eversomuch.   The problem here was that these trucks had a double skin with insulation in the middle of the inner and outer layers.  This insulation was highly inflammable……do you get the picture?  A really horrible yellow smoke, that was also toxic, was produced when this insulation caught fire.  Secondly, when pieces of rotten meat and old dried blood inside the wagon came into contact with a 3000 degree Celsius flame they naturally began to cook….right in front of my face……..burning rotten meat smell is very different from burning fresh meat smell.  So there was none of this tummy rumbling, mouth watering Sunday afternoon barbecue/braaivleis aromas wafting about….none of that at all.

Cattle Wagons:

Cattle Wagons have the opposite job to Refrigerator Wagons.  They also look different.

The main functional difference is that one type (Refrigerator) carries dead animals that sway gently on their stainless steel butcher hooks according to the camber of the tracks and appear to be taking part in some kind of synchronised swimming exercise.  The other (Cattle) carries live, snorting, snotty, dribbling, very pissed-off bovines, who probably know that they are on Death Row, so also try to get their last hump in on the way.  Live cattle also void their bowels and bladders in these Wagons.  Which is the root cause of my bad memories of them.  Basically the same reason as the Refrigerator wagons…..3000 degree flame in contact with dried or wet soggy cow-dung and urine…….you have the picture and are hopefully imagining the aroma……not like marijuana at all.  I have forgotten to mention these wagons were mostly made from wood…..flame+wood=fire=burns to body parts.

There were times when I thought that being in the Wagon Shop was punishment for some long forgotten sin.  I was to find out quite soon that there were far worse tasks than cutting up rotten meat, being gassed by flaming toxic insulation, and slipping on fresh, smouldering cow-dung.

And I was also to discover very quickly, the two things that scared the living daylights out of me.

Rhodesia Railways short cattle wagon

Rhodesia Railways short cattle wagon

Example of a Refrigerator Truck (not Rhodesia Railways)

Example of a Refrigerator Truck (not Rhodesia Railways)

7 Responses to “On And Off The Rails (Part 2)”

  1. Jayne said

    Good Blog

  2. Dan Michell said

    This is a brilliant piece of recent history. I was researching my father’s arrival to S. Rhodesia and looking for B&W photos of trains and locos, and stumbled upon this blog.

  3. Jennifer J Upton said


    This a brilliant blog; plus a social comment of the times

  4. mike andrews coppersmith. said

    takes me back to my life on Rhodesia railways from 1961.to late 1977 in .workshops and later .steam running shed and the many call ups I worked with joe le roux s brother steve.

    • fatfox9 said

      Thanks for this Mike. Do you remember Jack Crilly (Welder). He was my Journeyman….also Brian Kelly, Ronny Everton, and Vic Bower who was South African

  5. mike andrews coppersmith. said

    yes I remember vic bower ronny everton and brian Kelly do you .remember any of coppersmiths in the next door workshop .? long time back in time

    • fatfox9 said

      I seem to remember an appy there who was tall with red hair. When you say next door workshop do you mean next to the welding shop? I spent most of my time in the wagon shop and erecting shop.

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