A TIRED-LOOKING young man enquires at the booking counter whether he can find space in the sleeper section of the National Railways of Zimbabwe (NRZ) passenger train plying the Harare-Mutare
An equally bored NRZ officer tells him the section is fully booked. “Nzvimbo dzapera musleeper tsano, endai kumbombera. Kana mozoteera mangwana. (The sleeper is fully booked. Go into the economy section or better still try tomorrow),” says the officer as he dismisses the young man.
Frustrated, the man strolls through the station and hops into an Economy coach, which is now fully packed with passengers.
As he squeezes into a seat, in comes a young woman who offers to accommodate him in the sleeper section provided he pays a “small fee”.
Even before the train leaves the Harare station, it dawns on the young man that not only will he pay for the sleeper, but will also be the woman’s client during the night long journey to Mutare.
As standards continue to plummet at the beleaguered NRZ, prostitutes are cashing in on the collapsing system and using the sleeper coaches as brothels on rail.
The prostitutes dis-guise themselves as genuine travellers and use the rooms to entertain their clients throughout the journey.
As the Zimbabwe Independent reporter who travelled by train to Mutare last weekend later discovered the ladies of the night only take to the train during peak periods especially month ends.
The last Friday of every month is their busiest day as they target men visiting their families in rural areas along the railway line. During this period the train is so full many passengers are forced to stand in the passage way throughout the journey.
The story of the NRZ is one of a parastatal that has been falling apart for the past two decades.
It is a testimony of how President Robert Mugabe’s government has destroyed the robust infrastructure and companies it inherited from the Smith regime at Independence in 1980. On Friday last week the Independent witnessed evidence of a railway system that is on the brink of collapse.
The stench of urine greets the passenger as he enters the train. The situation resembles the filthy alleys in many of Zimbabwe’s cities.
“This train smells of urine. The seats are in tatters, nothing seems to function. Things have crumbled,” says one Thomas Mukoshora as he struggles to make himself comfortable on his seat.
The truth is that there is no system to talk about. There is no running water in the toilets. The acrid smell of urine spreads to the coaches.
“It is a health hazard and it’s only a matter of time before we have a crisis,” says Lilian Mukoshora who claims to have used the train for the past 26 years. “The Rhodesia Railway was never in such a mess. This is beyond repair mwanangu.”
The booking system is a shambles and passengers literally fight for seats whilst NRZ officials stare.
The booking clerk who seems tired of his routine job allocates a single seat to more than four people.
The unfortunate ones are forced to take a nap right next to the toilets. The Blue train introduced amidst pomp and fanfare in the late nineties is now a pale shadow of itself with coaches in a sorry state.
The television sets that once provided over night entertainment on the long intercity routes have since been switched off owing to a licencing dispute with Zimbabwe Broadcasting Corporation (ZBC). The only entertainment in the dilapidated coaches are the foul-mouthed drunkards who occasionally crack jokes.
The NRZ bar has stopped operating and has been replaced by illegal beer sellers who have invaded the trains. The intoxicated drunkards are often abusive especially to ladies travelling alone.
The Independent witnessed one drunk man who pestered women on the entire journey to Mutare.
Passengers also have to be careful not to be crashed in a stampede by fighting man. On this particular night there were more than four browls on the train that left one man badly injured. On two occasions an army officer was called in to intervene.
Before the NRZ degenerated to its current state a journey from Harare to Mutare took less than 8 hours starting from Harare at 21:30pm.
However on this particular occasion it took more than 11 hours to get to Mutare after the train was grounded for three hours in Rusape due to signaling problems.
“We must wait here (Rusape) until we have a small train coming all the way from Mutare to inform us the route is clear. Hatifambe tinozoita zvakaitika kuDete (We can’t proceed or there will be repeat of the Dete train disaster),” explained the officer to angry passengers who were by this time threatening to deal with him.
The station master for Rusape had disappeared from the scene after angry passengers had threatened to manhandle him.
The signals along the railway line have been vandalised and the company has failed to raise enough funds to replace them. There is no functioning signal between Rusape and Mutare.
Over the past few years the NRZ has seen a number fatal accidents. On all occasions the NRZ has attributed the accidents to either human error or failure of the signaling equipment.