The Perks of Traveling by Rail in Zimbabwe (if any)

by Andy Kozlov

The Bulawayo-bound Pathfinder bus that I was going to take on Christmas eve was cancelled. So I was stranded in Harare and again got to consider satisfying a long-held curiosity of a long-distance train travel in Zimbabwe. But then I remembered how persuasive my friend, a Zimbabwean taxi driver, was when I mentioned the idea to him on various occasions – trains in Zimbabwe are not reliable at all: you take one from Harare thinking that you reach Bulawayo in 12 hours and end up in the middle of nowhere for no-one knows how long.

His word versus a National Railways of Zimbabwe (NRZ) chap’s whom I talked to a number of months back when I went for a Rail Leisure Father’s Day Steam Safari Train ride (Bulawayo-Figtree). National Railways people were so friendly to me both then and when I visited the Bulawayo

AIr Zimbabwe hangar at the Harare international airport (photo by Andy Kozlov, October 2011)

Railway Museum at the beginning of the year. I enjoyed their nicely-implemented PR campaign again at this year’s tourism expo in Harare.

The Zimbabwe railway system was largely constructed during the time of British colonial rule, and part of it represents a segment of the Cape-Cairo railway. Until 1980 it was called Rhodesia Railways (RR).

NRZ started steam train trips using the refurbished stock from the museum in September
2005, when a special train was run from Bulawayo to Victoria Falls to celebrate the Centenary of the Victoria Falls Bridge.

It’s no news that NRZ has been in shackles this past decade. Goods transport has declined, from 18 million tonnes in 1998 to 2 million tonnes in 2010. Their trains have been through several accidents, and many observers draw gruesome comparison between NRZ and the once-state-of-the-art Zimbabwean transportation company Air Zimbabwe.

But NRZ’s struggles are not unique to Zimbabwe. Last year, South Africa’s Rovos Rail train derailed near Pretoria. Three crew members were killed and several passengers were injured. Like the NRZ Steam programme, the Rovos Rail trains use vintage rolling stock that has been gutted to transform the coaches into luxury accommodation. And they are very expensive to travel on.

Last November I came across Taurai Chinyamakobvu‘s article about how NRZ should be revamped.

This Zimbabwean scholar is a Japan-based innovation and technology analyst who (if you google his name), drawing on his experience of the Far East, once argued why Air Zimbabwe must be liquidated and in his other article presents a case for making Zimbabwe an airline hub. His NRZ piece is thrilling in its attempt to compare NRZ to the Japanese JR.

Mooka steam train in Japan

Here is an NRZ anecdote from Taurai:

The last time I used a passenger train in Zimbabwe was in 2004. The journey had more drama than I had bargained for.

I boarded a Bulawayo-bound train on a Friday evening. It departed Harare between 8 pm and 10 pm, and was supposed to get to Bulawayo between 8 and 9 am. Users of NRZ trains will appreciate that the train hardly leaves at a specific time! I intended to get to Bulawayo and conduct my business between 9 am and 1 pm on the following day.

So quite early in the morning, as the train approached Shangani, the train driver, much to our shock, disbelief and dismay, stopped the train mid-track, jumped off and  without explanation disappeared towards Bulawayo road.

No one from NRZ explained anything. No one knew what was happening! Soon after that, many people got off the cars and started milling around the train, tracks and Shangani plains, without any knowledge of what was going on. We all waited around the train wondering what was happening. Soon word started spreading that the NRZ had stopped paying its drivers overtime, so the train driver’s time was up before he got to Bulawayo, so he had to leave the train there and someone would have to come later to pick up from where he left it.

After what seemed like ages, we eventually saw a cream Mazda 323 appear from a dirty, dusty road amongst the thorn bushes that litter the Matabeleland plains. A passenger from that car, who turned out to be a train driver, jumped into the locomotive and started the train. No one really told people to reboard the train, but common sense dictated so, and before long, our journey resumed. Needless to mention that instead of getting to Bulawayo at 8am, I arrived in Bulawayo between 12 noon and 1pm.

A Pathfinder bus parked at the Golden Mile Hotel in Kadoma (photo by Andy Kozlov, September 2011)

Who knows, maybe next time when my bus gets cancelled I will take a chance and a train to Bulawayo. If we get stuck on the way and the train driver decides to disappear for a couple hours, it might give me some quality time to reflect and get down to writing that film script about Cardinal Eugene Tisserant and the Eastern Catholic Churches that I’ve kept putting aside for a number of months.

Meanwhile, NRZ’s Rail Leisure Steam train tours are growing in number. According to the provisional calender that I got at their stand during the tourism expo, there will be over 20 tours to Figtree, Plumtree and Victoria Falls, priced from 50 to 300 USD.

For details contact Mr Munya on 0712616497 or 0772678324, landline 09 363675/362291 or email them on steamsafari@nrz.co.zw and passengerservices@nrz.co.zw

You can write to Andy Kozlov on a.kozlov@steppesinsync.com

If you want to learn more on transportation trends in the developing world see such SinS articles as

Post-Soviet nations gradually embrace high-speed overland transportation

How India reconnects with its North-East

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