Rusty shells, obsolete wagons

via Rusty shells, obsolete wagons: The sad story of rail transport – The Standard. 15 June 2014  by Musa Dube

A lifeless environment greeted The Standard news crew when it arrived at the National Railways of Zimbabwe (NRZ)’s Bulawayo station last Tuesday afternoon.

By Musa Dube

The place looked virtually deserted. Just over a decade ago, the afternoon periods such as this used to be the busiest hours at the station with people coming from or going to various places.

That is now all history! The hive of activity that used to characterise the station is long gone, as passengers have abandoned the unreliable and rarely available rail transport.

As if that was not enough, the number of companies transporting goods by the NRZ has also drastically dropped because of poor service.

And, because of this lack of business, the entire NRZ station is in such a sorry state of disrepair it could be mistaken for a “junkyard”.

The railway station is now a place of rusty, smelly and run-down coaches and wagons scattered all over the place.

Workers who agreed to speak on condition of anonymity said things were getting worse by the day.

“We have heard several rumours that the government intends to buy new coaches and engines from China but nothing has materialised,” said one of the workers.

The workers at the troubled company said the trolleys, wagons and the coaches have been dumped there for many years.

“The management had said it was going to refurbish the coaches so that they meet the basic standards but all has been talk with no action. Most of the coaches have no lights and have broken windows. It is no wonder people are shunning travelling by train,” he said.

“What we are seeing are changes in ministers and board members but no improvement at the company,” said another worker who identified himself only as Phiri.

The dumped coaches have become homes for vagrants and streets kids.

The NRZ Company is operating far below capacity due to numerous challenges that include financial, administrative and the national economic mess that has engulfed Zimbabwe for over a decade. Since the introduction of the multiple currency system about five years ago, the locomotive company had been struggling to pay its workforce that consists of 8 000 employees.

Due to this scenario, the workers’ morale has plummeted to unprecedented levels. NRZ owes its workers salaries, overtime and allowances running into millions of dollars having failed to pay them over long periods of time.

By the end of December 2013, the figure stood at US$59,5 million. Against this backdrop, the parastatal has for the past decade seen several skilled workers leaving in their droves for greener pastures.

Over the past years, the beleaguered parastatal has recorded reduced volumes in freight and passenger movement as customers prefer road transport that is more efficient. At its peak in 1998, NRZ used to ferry goods in excess of 18 million tonnes which, however, went down to 3,7 million tonnes in 2011. Once the employer of choice, NRZ is said to now have about 65 locomotives, 3 271 wagons, nine cabooses and 158 coaches against the optimum average requirement of 83 locomotives, 4 262 wagons, 17 cabooses and 145 coaches. There are lots of speed limits in rail tracks and the poor rail infrastructure has resulted in service deteriorating. The company is also facing a daunting task to improve its communication signals that are too old and need replacement.

The problem has also been exacerbated by vandalism and theft that has resulted in NRZ making huge loses.

Bulawayo-based economist, Thabani Moyo, said the government should privatise the parastatal and bring new partners that could inject the much-needed capital and technology.

He said the delay in privatising the parastatal was a stumbling block to the recovery of the economy. “The government should just seek new partners who can recapitalise the parastatal and bring new technology and equipment,” said Moyo.

A new board of directors headed by Alvord Mabena has since been appointed to take over the reins at NRZ.

Mabena bounced back at the beleaguered parastatal 15 years after his departure from the railway company where he was general manager.

Minister of Transport, Obert Mpofu made the appointments on Wednesday. Mpofu earlier said the government was seeking fresh capital to inject into NRZ.

“My ministry is currently negotiating with one financial institution for funding of the railways recapitalisation programme. Further, my ministry has also received two enquiries from potential investors who are considering investing in the railways under the Rehabilitate Operate and Transfer arrangement,” said the minister responding to questions in Parliament.

“I am confident that we will be able to sign an agreement on any of the above three options within the first half of the year,” said Mpofu. Whether what the minister said will finally come to pass or not, only time will tell.


  • comment-avatar
    Angela Wigmore 8 years ago

    Such a shame. I used to love travelling by train pre-1980. Does anyone remember the dining-cars? The meals were second-only in quality to South Africa’s Blue Train.

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    I remember it well, I have not traveled by train for years they still had RR engraved on the Windows, they probably still have, it’s a prime example how everything has deteriorated that a once good railway could become such a disgrace

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    They sold all the spares and material that had been accumulated in 1978 to Zambia and did not replace it. Most of the best plate layers and strategic staff are now working in Liberia. Some of they newer Engines that were bought after Independence along with some Passenger coaches were left in the DRC and no one knows weather someone sold them to Railways there or not.

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      furedi 8 years ago

      Get your facts right Doctor this government was not around in 1978.

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    John Thomas 8 years ago

    This government screws things up. The only way to save the railways or anything else is to remove the dead hand of the state.

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    nyoni 8 years ago

    Actually the RR and then NRZ were the best in Africa and taken down by Zanu as usual. If they want good service Zanu must go.

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      roving ambassador. 8 years ago

      Zanu must just go. Its the elephant in the room. See.

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    Interestingly, the overhead power cables on the electrified section of the Hre – Byo line were stolen a few years ago. Literally hundreds of kms of valuable cable. This has never been reported or even commented upon. When such blatant theft is allowed without any come back then one can only imagine what is going on elsewhere in the organisation. Just job titles everywhere, doing nothing and incapable anyway. The only option will be to sell off the whole thing and go private. There is no other solution. Then, once things get moving again, the pressure on the roads will ease. But, we know the obvious solution will never happen. It’s nice to dream!

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      roving ambassador. 8 years ago

      Guess what? They even set up a new board of Zanoids to run nothing.

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    saundy 8 years ago

    I would like to hear from all those ZPF nitwits who write in to this site in support of their party. The description of the state of the NRZ is a true reflection of the rest of the country. I fondly remember working for the railways in the early 70’s and am saddened by the news of it’s current state.

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    lost birthright 8 years ago

    Who wants to buy a defunct railway system to carry fresh air or have it’s goods stolen anyway. It has gone just the same way the farms have. Second hand equipment from the east will come with 12000 expats to fix and repair them. Now that would be most likely the way to go !!

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    Rhodesia Railways. What a wonderful and inspiring site it is to see these magnificient Beyer-Garrett steam locomotives hauling the heavy loads of copper, from the Northern Rhodesian Copper Belt, Kitwe, Mufulira, Ndola, down to Bulawayo. A new Rhodesia Railways Head Office is built next to the Railway Station in Bulawayo, and the Headquarters for Northern Rhodesia is at Broken Hill. The old passenger coaches of Rhodesia Railways, with balconies at the end of each coach, are being replaced with new coaches, with pastel grey upholstery, and are very well maintained. The train to the Copperbelt, leaves Bulwayo in the early evening, and I book into one of the new sleeper coaches provided. Our coach is de-coupled from the train at Broken Hill station, in the early hours of the morning, and the train continues on it’s destination, the Copperbelt. You disembark the train anytime in the early morning, and leave for breakfast at the Rhodesia Railways Club Dining Room, a short distance from Broken Hill railway station, – a very good breakfast! Livingstone is coming to life, with Railways Staff transferred there mainly from Bulawayo, to maintain the rail tracks, and install the new CTC signalling. – Centralised Train Control. Two trains in opposite directions, running on one track at the same time, passing each other on a loop line siding about 3 kms long. If the trains were running on time, which they always nearly were, they mostly did not even stop. The CTC signalling takes care of that. The route, Bulawayo to the Copperbelt, is called, “Rail Star North”, and there is reported a big increase on visitors to the Victoria Falls, freely visiting both sides of the Bridge. The faithful Beyer-Garretts are at the end of the Steam Age, and Rhodesia Railways has started to replace them with Diesel Electrics. You can sure feel proud of Rhodesia Railways!!!