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Capturing sleepers and chasing dreams

Wednesday, 14 August 2013

Capturing sleepers and chasing dreams
Chasing trains and shooting them is not your normal run of the mill hobby but then nor is author John Cornell, who almost paid for his life pursuing his past-time.

“I was chasing a train, traveling on a railway service road and the road made an unexpected right angle turn across the tracks,” Mr Cornell said, explaining that it was an unmarked crossing. “Before I knew it I was on the tracks with the train screeching as it tried to brake. My friend said we must jump. He jumped but I was stuck in the car and so the train smashed into my car and squashed it as it pushed it across the tracks,” Mr Cornell said, adding that he was lucky that the train had managed to slow down enough, otherwise things could have been far worse for him.

“I have always been fascinated by trains,” said Mr Cornell, who has his Ph.D in Nuclear Physics. “It is in the genes. My grandfather, John William Cornell, was a Signalman(like his father), then a Station Master and finally Vice District Controller on the LMS railway,” Mr Cornell explained.

According to Mr Cornell, his father was interested in model railways and he can remember spending hours with his dad building a huge model railway layout, with individual sleepers and brass rails all laid by hand.

At Rondebosch Boy’s High Mr Cornell developed an interest in photography and Physics and later, while studying Physics at UCT, he became the Chairman and Life Member of the Photographic and Film Association. 

Between getting married, raising a daughter and pursuing his career as a Nuclear Physicist, Mr Cornell had little time for his hobbies but during the eighties he once again picked up his passions for trains and photography in a pastime that combined them both - photographing steam trains.

“Funnily enough, I don’t really enjoy traveling on the trains themselves,” Mr Cornell said, “but I love chasing them by car and then taking photos of them,” he explained, saying that he used three different lenses to capture his images, a 28mm wide angle lens, a 200mm zoom lens and a standard 55mm lens.

Mr Cornell said that there is a rich history around steam train travel in South Africa. “Cinders from the burning coal in the steam train would set farm land alight and farmers would sue the then Transnet. Transnet eventually converted many of their trains to oil burning steam trains. They would still get claims though from unknowing farmers who would set their own land alight,” Mr Cornell said.

Mr Cornell has documented these stories and many others in his limited edition book, “Steaming into the 21st Century: Photographing Steam Trains in South Africa.” “The sad fact is that many of these locomotives may never run again, and many of the railway lines featured in the book are now closed and abandoned,” Mr Cornell said. “Many of the photographs record scenes which will never be repeated and are now a part of the glorious history of steam trains in South Africa.”

To find out more about steam trains in South Africa and or the book, contact Mr Cornell at dr.jc.cornell@gmail.com

Words and images by Clinton Wittstock
Freelance writer and photographer
Article appeared in the Constantiaberg Bulletin

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