Commercial Farmers' Union of Zimbabwe

Commercial Farmers' Union of Zimbabwe

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Pivotal regional rail system is in the doldrums

Pivotal regional rail system is in the doldrums

Written by John Batwell
Monday, 18 April 2011 20:50

John Batwell reviews Zimbabwe’s strategic rail system in Southern Africa 30 
years after independence……

Three decades ago, the fledgling Southern African independent state of 
Zimbabwe inherited
from its “colonial masters” one of the continent’s finest railway systems – 
once a vitally
important, seamless and well-greased rail corridor contributory to the 
economic well-being of
the whole region. Sadly, just over 30 years later economic mismanagement of 
Zimbabwe by the
ruling  ZANU-PF government has crippled its numerous parastatals including 
the almost 2 800km
National Railways of Zimbabwe (NRZ) system.
In latter years, the brain drain from the NRZ compounded by strike action 
for foreign
exchange remuneration owing to the collapsed local currency prompted the 
pulling in of
retired staff. The overt opulence of NRZ senior management driving brand new 
4 x 4
vehicles also prompted industrial response. In a country that laid claim to 
be safe and pretty
crime-free, the gap between the “haves” and “have-nots” has catapulted 
Zimbabwe into
being a  free-for-all society. The NRZ has not been spared this survival 
mind-set. In 2011, at least
US$750 million is required to rebuild the NRZ, according to Ministry of 
Finance statistics, with
US$59,9 million required to remove speed restrictions, US$284 million to 
rehabilitate rail tracks,
US$23,3 million to re-electrify the 307-km Dabuka-Harare section and US$83,9 
million to
purchase signalling and telecommunications equipment. The short,electrified 
section was a
modernshowpiece just four years after Independence. The situation has 
deteriorated to the
supporting masts being uprooted besides the theft of the wiring. The 
electrified section, in which
360km of copper cables were stolen, has thus ended up returning to diesel 
traction, rendering the
fleet  ofelectric units useless. In December 2010, NRZ reported that only 
one – of an original fleet
of 30 electric locomotives – was operable.
The theft of phone lines along the system has created a return to 
paper-written instructions and
also radio communication between train crews and Centralised Traffic Control 
(CTC). The former
Rhodesia Railways prided itself on having put CTC in place from as far back 
as the early fifties. In
the past 10 years some horrific collisions have occurred, resulting in 
considerable human loss, a
fact the state-controlled media chose to play down.

The system is reported to be working at between 30-50% of its capacity owing

to the myriad
challenges. The struggling parastatal has on more than one occasion failed 
to raise, via
government, the monies to put in place desperately-needed new motive  power 
and rolling
stock procurements. Seven years ago, a $US110.4m deal with China for 10 
locomotives, eight
commuter train-sets and 64 inter-city coaches  came to nothing.  Further 
orders for twenty-
nine passenger coaches, from Nanjing Puzhen Rolling Stock Company,  and 14 
diesel locomotives
have been thwarted too. The system’s oldest diesel-electric motive power 
type, although it was
re-engined, now dates back to the mid-1960s. Elements of the passenger 
rolling stock date back
to the fifties.

NRZ’s passenger services, both urban in the form of “The Freedom Trains” 
linking the high-
density suburbs with the main city centre in both Bulawayo and Harare, as 
well as the inter-city
services were popular when the Zimbabwean currency was in free-fall. The 
train was cheapest!
However, since the US Dollar has become the standard currency following the 
abandonment of
the hyper-inflated Zimbabwe Dollar, commuters have returned to road 
transport as the taxi
services are quicker and competitive once again fare-wise. The aged 
passenger train rolling stock
has become dirty, smelly and dangerous owing to dark travel – carriage 
interiors are often not lit,
making commuters feel vulnerable. Late running of the trains has also become 
an issue with
patrons as well as overcrowding when insufficient saloons are laid on. There 
has been a decline
in goods carried to 3.7million tonnes during 2010 from 18 million tonnes 
shipped in 1998!

In December 2010, NRZ’s corporate communications manager stated in the media 
China North Railway Company (CNRC) would only deliver an order for 14 diesel 
units on full
payment of what is a $US29 million deal. Government had raised a 10% deposit 
by year-end.

The World Bank was not shy of late to suggest many parts of the rail system 
be shut down owing
to their poor condition. The Zimbabwean Government has dragged its heels in 
establishing PPPs
to help revive its parastatals, not least NRZ.

Not only is the railway important to the economic viability of Zimbabwe, but 
as stated earlier the
NRZ network is a major corridor for neighbouring states, such as Zambia and 
the Democratic
Republic of Congo, and their life-line connection to South African ports. In 
March this year, the
parastatal announced to the independent media that it was expecting cargo 
volumes to surge by
58% to 6,4m tonnes this year – time will tell if such traffic is actually 

The National Railways of Zimbabwe’s woes continue – in December, it was 
reported that
Zimbabwean farmers had moved a step closer to seizing planes belonging to 
the troubled
state carrier Air Zimbabwe and trains owned by the NRZ in their efforts to 
get compensation
for farms seized by President Robert Mugabe – without any compensation – 
since 2000. In
claims registered recently in New York, the farmers have now been empowered 
to attach
planes, trains and any assets belonging to quasi-state corporations which 
they can identify
outside Zimbabwe’s borders.

Despite the gloom and doom, the NRZ still plays host to tour operators by 
running steam
safaris in the southern and western part of the country. These clients speak 
highly of the
NRZ operating department’s efforts to put on a good spectacle against the 
very difficult
odds at hand. The NRZ has recently embarked on a new business unit – 
marketing and running its
own Rail Leisure ventures (see That’s one thing – the 
Zimbabwean people have
always had to be admired for their absolute gob-smacking resilience and 
ability to get stuck
in and “make a plan”.

In late March, the Zimbabwean Cabinet approved two bills that provide the 
legal framework for
the implementation of reforms and restructuring in troubled parastatals, 
like the NRZ. One hopes
something far more tangible than just cheap parliamentary banter and debate 
comes out of these
bills since Zimbabwe’s rail system is so pivotal to the seamless regional 
transport structure  desired
by rail managers on the ground and by politicians – in the latter’s case, 
hopefully not just rhetorically

[Batwell is the Southern African regional editor for the International 
Railway Journal, UK and France’s Le Rail magazine]


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