JOHN Chitoro, 70, fondly remembers travelling by train when the National Railways of Zimbabwe (NRZ) was a viable entity. He experienced “world class service” in the 1980s and early 1990s on business trips and holiday travel.
Report by Brian Chitemba
“It was an ideal, efficient and reliable mode of transport for those who didn’t want to fly or travel by road,” Chitoro recalls. “I used to travel first or second class and enjoyed value for money. But now the NRZ is a mere shadow of its former self,” he bemoans.
Chitoro enjoyed the regular 400km trips between Harare and Bulawayo using the NRZ as he was assured of a reliable service whether on the night or day train. “The trains were almost always on time, with clean bed linen in the sleeper class, clean toilets and first-class bar services.
For instance passenger trains servicing the Bulawayo/Harare route would leave both cities right on time at 9pm, arriving at 6am the following morning.
According to Chitoro, the NRZ provided competitive services comparable to what South Africa and Botswana offer today. The economy class would only be crowded during holidays, unlike now when the few useable ones are always packed to the brim.
Rail transport, especially the night service, was ideal for the business or ordinary traveller as they could plan their journeys well in advance or at short notice without endangering their lives by driving while they were tired.
Holidaymakers would also board the day train to tour the country’s scenic views. Clean as a whistle and well-maintained, the NRZ’s first and second class were sleeper coaches which enabled passengers the comfort of sleeping in beds while the third and fourth classes catered for seated travellers. However the situation has deteriorated alarmingly resulting in passengers enduring the foul stench that emanates from dirty toilets.
Apart from the deterioration of train services, the NRZ headquarters in Bulawayo is also a crumbling wreck. The general manager’s once luxurious house in the affluent Suburbs area in Bulawayo has become an eyesore with the once neatly trimmed lawn replaced by an assortment of weeds. Surrounded by well-maintained houses, the shabby-looking building sticks out like a sore thumb.
Due to the NRZ’s deterioration travellers and holidaymakers now have limited options when it comes to the modes of transport available because of the poor public transport system which results in much loss of life during the festive season.
Passengers and goods that could have been safely moved more cheaply and safely by rail now heavily depend on the overstretched and under-maintained road network because of the dysfunctional NRZ. Due to the poor and unreliable train service, travellers are now forced to use buses and other unroadworthy vehicles whose operators charge exorbitant fares during peak periods.
The NRZ has been run down by successive incompetent management leaving the rail company virtually redundant while workers go for months without pay.
Surprisingly NRZ boss Mike Karakadzai and his top management allocated themselves the latest Toyota Landcruisers and Prados reflecting a sharp contrast with workers who are currently owed salaries dating back five months.
The parlous state of the NRZ suggests the parastatal’s latest projection to transport more than six million tonnes of cargo in 2013 will remain a pipedream. The NRZ moved 12 million tonnes of cargo in 1992 and 19 million tonnes in 1997, but it only managed 1,7 million tonnes in 2011.
Although NRZ’s cargo carrying capacity is depleted, it is the passenger service that has borne the brunt of the rail company’s mismanagement. The NRZ has partly blamed the deterioration of standards on vandalism which has seen the firm losing equipment worth millions of dollars.
About three years ago 380kms of electric cable valued at US$110 million was stolen between Dabuka in Gweru and Harare, and although it is suspected that the theft was masterminded by insiders who know the company’s operations, no arrests were made.
The NRZ now has about 168 locomotives with only 71 serviceable in 2011; the rest were obsolete. Out of 8 682 wagons, only 3 427 were operational.
Once viewed as an employer of choice, the firm’s workforce has shrunk from a staff complement of 18 000 at Independence in 1980 to its current 7 000.
Bulawayo-based political and economic commentator Dumisani Nkomo said there was a need to recapitalise and overhaul infrastructure in line with modern technologies.
The NRZ needs about US$2 billion to recapitalise and modernise its operations in the long term, but it was only allocated a paltry US$20 million by the government.
“It’s (NRZ) also contributing to the dilapidated state of roads as more heavy trucks are now being used (to move heavy cargo) instead of using rail transport,” said Nkomo.
“In countries such as the US and Canada, there is a sophisticated rail network for both commuters and goods. We have to urgently revive our rail network to a vibrant system and not confine it to history. The steel, iron, coal and other mining sectors need a vibrant rail system.”
Nkomo further queried the appointment of top managers with no experience in the transport sector arguing that the move was part of a broader plan by Zanu PF to control vital sectors of the economy.
Karakadzai is a former airforce officer with no history in the transport sector.
But NRZ spokesman Fanuel Masikati said the parastatal was refurbishing locomotives and wagons to boost its current capacity while efforts were underway to establish public private partnership.
“Customers can now bid farewell to periods of anxiety and anticipation in the delivery of their cargo since it was established during the trial period (of acquired express trains) that, with express trains, it now takes a maximum of 46 and 40 hours to transport goods from as far away as Hwange to Harare and from Beitbridge to Harare respectively, for both local and imported traffic,” said Masikati.