Zimbabwe: The once mighty national railways now a shadow of itself

By The Africa Report

Posted on Tuesday, 14 February 2023 16:54
National Railways of Zimbabwe locomotive no. 414 Ubhejane being cleaned at Bulawayo locomotive shed, Zimbabwe, 1992. (Nigel Tout, Wikimedia Commons CC)

For almost three decades Zimbabwe’s railway system has been in a comatose state. The effects of the demise of the National Railways of Zimbabwe (NRZ) are not only being felt by businesses that used rail transport for their raw materials, but by ordinary citizens, smallholder farmers, pensioners, and railway communities, whose livelihoods have been severely affected.

Passenger trains lie idle and rusty at train stations, and railway lines are hidden in long grass and shrubs. Once touted as one of the best rail companies in Africa in the 1970s to 1990s, NRZ has been run down to the extent that the sound of moving trains is a rare phenomenon.

A former president of the Zimbabwe Amalgamated Railway Workers’ Union, Kamurai Moyo, served for 30 years at the rail parastatal. He tells The Africa Report how railway communities are now struggling to survive. The impact of the lack of services has been huge on smallholder farmers.

“Zimbabwe’s railway system used to cover routes such as the Bulawayo to Victoria Falls line. Some areas in that route are not accessible by road; but could be reached by train,” he says, referring to Sawmills, Igusi, and Nyamandlovu on the Victoria Falls line, which are far from the roads.

National Railways of Zimbabwe locomotive no. 407 Ukhozi performs a run-past with the ‘Union Limited Zambezi’ tour train between Victoria Falls and Thomson Junction on the way to Bulawayo, Zimbabwe, 1992. (Nigel Tout, Wikimedia Commons, CC)

Residents around the Intundla area en route to Dete in Matabeleland North live far from the road network and relied purely on railway transport. In the southeast, communities on the rail line from Bulawayo to Chiredzi, Somabhula and Dorset are also affected, says Moyo.

Farmers in those areas used to ferry their produce by rail as it was a cheaper mode of transport,” he says.

“With passenger trains no longer operational in those areas, communities there are now isolated from the rest of the country.”

A villager from Dete, Maria Sithole, recalls better times when passenger trains moved along the Victoria Falls route, and villagers would make money selling roasted nuts, watermelon and bananas whenever the train stopped to drop or carry travellers.

“The trains that passed through Dete on the way to Victoria Falls gave us a good source of income. We are in a wildlife zone, and without these trains passing by with passengers buying our wares, life is no longer easy for us,” Sithole says.

Freight transport once on top

Moyo says until the 1990s, NRZ freight services were very reliable and could carry tonnes of maize, farm produce, raw materials, coal and chrome ore to southern African countries.

“During the drought years, the trains were a blessing because the NRZ could carry maize and other grains to Mozambique, South Africa, Zambia, and hunger spots. Zimbabwe’s railway system was very efficient then,” he says.

Towns were developed around the railroad, with thousands of homes built for workers and higher-ranked employees from the 1960s to the 1990s, according to Moyo.

Workers in Bulawayo, Zimbabwe’s second-largest city, had two-bedroom houses built for them in Sizinda and Westgate, while in Harare the same was provided for workers in the railway suburbs of Rugare and Lochinvar.

“The only good thing is that the former workers were given ownership of the houses in 1989,” adds Moyo.

Corruption and decay

Before Moyo retired, he had gone a year without pay. The NRZ was struggling to buy spare parts for locomotives and rusty wagons.

“When all was well in the 1990s, big companies in Zimbabwe like Hwange Colliery, Bata Shoe Company, the Grain Marketing Board, National Foods and steel companies used rail services to transport their materials,” he says.

Today, most of the railway line is covered in grass and dilapidated.

Grass grows around an old NRZ economy commuter coach. (Bob Adams, Wikimedia commons, CC)

Dorcas Sibanda, a former railway employee, and former opposition member of parliament says corruption is the main cause for the downfall of NRZ.

“There needs to be an investigation into who owns trucking companies that have taken over NRZ business. That is what killed the rail parastatal,” says Sibanda.

She says she believes that big rig trucks carrying goods are owned by politicians and thus get preferential use over goods being ferried by rail. She maintains the trucks that carry heavy loads destroy the roads and cause accidents.

Gideon Shoko, a senator in Zimbabwe’s parliament who also worked for the rail parastatal for 28 years, tells The Africa Report that everything has decayed.

“Companies used to prefer rail transport because it was cheaper. Now if they transport anything by rail, the goods take three days or more to get to their destination. It means perishable goods can rot, and that is why some companies no longer use rail services.”

Shoko says politicians caused the demise of the NRZ. Instead of placing qualified engineers to run the rail company, the Zanu PF-led government placed party cronies in key positions.

There needs to be an investigation into who owns trucking companies that have taken over NRZ business. That is what killed the rail parastatal.

Recent political NRB board appointee Tshinga Dube, 81, is in ill health.

“Now it is managed by lawyers, and people that do not understand engineering issues, but are political appointees,” Shoko says.

Freight transport is a shadow of itself, while the passenger service no longer exists.

Decrepit equipment, no money

In late January of this year, NRZ General Manager Respina Zinyanduko appeared before the parliamentary Transport Portfolio Committee to speak about the challenges faced by NRZ.

Zinyanduko said only 14 out of 68 mainline locomotives are working and are now upwards of 30 years old. Out of a fleet of 5,811 general-purpose wagons, 3,065 are working and are 40 to 60 years old. NRW owns 309 coaches, but less than 20% are working and have been labouring for two to four decades.

“All this equipment has outlived their economic life. The government has not been supporting NRZ through PSIP (Public Sector Investment Programme),” said Zinyanduko.

The PSIP technically did give funding to the railroad, she says, but it was only on paper because monies were diverted to air and roads. The 2022 allocation was equal to $20m, but its value has dropped to $3m due to inflation and is yet to be disbursed.

She added that the NRZ railway line covers 2,760km, but over 10% of it is susceptible to derailment. The lack of recapitalisation in equipment and infrastructure has affected the rail company’s performance. South Africa now does not want the old NRZ trains moving on its railway lines.

“Business has come down from 12 million tonnes it used to move annually in the 1990s to 2.3 million tonnes currently,” she said.

NRZ pensioners suffering

NRZ employed more than 22,000 people throughout the country, according to Senator Shoko.

“When I joined NRZ in 1974, there were 22,500 employees, says Shoko, a former general secretary of the Zimbabwe Amalgamated Railway Workers Union.”

He says in 2014, only 7,500 people were employed. Only 2,000 contract labourers remain today.

During the 1960s and 1970s, thousands of people from Mozambique, Zambia and Malawi migrated to Zimbabwe to work for the NRZ. Most of them are now retired after working for the rail company for decades. But most of these pensioners are now struggling to survive due to paltry pension stipends.

A tour of railway suburbs in Harare is revealing. Households now survive on selling fruits and vegetables.

Leo Phiri, 82, an NRZ pensioner from the Rugare suburb of Harare tells The Africa Report that he is struggling to survive on a Z$3,000 ($9) monthly stipend after working for the rail company for 40 years. He is a diabetic, too.

“I am an immigrant from Malawi and the Z$3,000 monthly stipend cannot even buy me insulin. I get assistance from my children,” Phiri says.

Trying to survive on $1 a week

At the time, one of the perks of retirement included access to two free train travel passes to anywhere in the country, says Moyo, which came in handy when those in Harare needed to travel to NRZ headquarters in Bulawayo to have their grievances sorted.

Once passenger train services were no longer functional, NRZ lost income, which affected the pension fund.

“Sadly, most NRZ pensioners earn Z$3,000 ($4) per month after working for 30 or more years for the rail company. There are some on the lowest grades that are earning as low as Z$1,500 ($2) per month,” Moyo says.

There are thousands of NRZ pensioners struggling to survive in the Harare suburb of Rugare, and Sizinda, in the Bulawayo area.

“I am now a pensioner getting Z$4,000. It means I can only buy two packets of 2kg sugar with that money. Its [NRZ] demise means that those managing the rail parastatal are not capable of turning it around,” Sibanda says.

Engineers have left, and pensioners are suffering because the pension fund was mismanaged.

The once mighty NRZ is now a shadow of itself. (Bob Adams, Wikimedia commons, CC)

“The NRZ medical insurance scheme, Railmed, used to be viable and workers could get good medical services and medicine. Now there are no medicines, and workers are shunned by other health institutions because their medical insurance deductions are not remitted,” Shoko says.

Former railway union president Moyo hopes to wake up one day and hear the sounds of passenger and goods trains moving again.

“Corruption and mismanagement have destroyed NRZ,” he says.

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