16 May 2010


To be quite honest I don’t know if a railway station can die of shame but in Port Elizabeth in South Africa we have one that seems to have done so.

It was a narrow gauge railway line known as the Apple Express and its primary task was to bring apples growing in an area called the Langkloof to the harbour city of Port Elizabeth. The apples are good and they are still being exported but road transport is cheaper and although the rail line continues to function it is mainly a tourist line. The little station was neglected and fell into disuse. It is a classic example of urban decay.

The buildings were broken into, graffiti appeared on the old locomotives, recyclable metal was looted, vagrants lived in railway carriages and the whole place became unsightly. There were protests by railway preservation groups and historical societies. The saddest were the old railway men who had worked in the old station and the workshops; they took pride in their work and the shining locomotives. Luckily a few locos and carriages were preserved and the line lives on for tourism. The rusted locomotives are like gravestones for a passed era.

The station is in a prime area on the road leading to the beachfront. It is on a hill and overlooks the harbour. It got dangerous but still attracted people who love locomotives, some tourists and the curious. A student, newly graduated with a degree in photography, was mugged and lost all his new photographic gear. A casino employee walking past the area late at night was raped and murdered.

Then South Africa won the right to host the FIFA World Cup in 2010. Urban renewal and gentrification is how we are going to present a clean face for the visitors. Bulldozers and work teams have moved in and there is not much left of the station. A few of the buildings have been bricked up and what is left of the locomotives and rolling stock is awaiting removal. There are warning signs for asbestos dust. There is a lot of work to be done before they can build another shopping mall or houses where the station stood (and I hope they don't).

The site overlooks the harbour and is right in front of some fuel storage tanks. The tanks apparently leak and fuel is finding its way into the sea in the harbour. Near the fuel tanks is a massive heap of iron ore that fed by trains coming from the interior. This is loaded onto ships and exported. While the iron ore stands awaiting shipping the wind blows the dust onto the beaches and nearby houses causing black stains. I don’t know what the health effects are.

The World Cup is doing a lot of good. The people of South Africa are excited, not only the rich and well off, but the workers who build the stadiums and the other inhabitants of a football loving country. We are even looking at the aesthetics of our cities which is great, but we need to do so much more….

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