Urban rail in Africa: Zimbabwe’s traffic, Maputo’s bike culture

Passengers hustle to take their seats on a bus that is ready to depart from the Road Port bus terminal in Harare for Johannesburg. Vendors are also not to be outdone as they push their way out of the luxury coach that is already in motion for the journey of over a thousand kilometers.

Amid all this jostling, suddenly a loud voice cries out, “Good morning, ladies and gentlemen! This morning I am going to read from Proverbs 10:4 which says, ‘lazy hands make a man poor but diligent hands bring wealth’.”

There is a sudden silence among the passengers who seem to have been taken by surprise. The preacher, Pastor Perseverance Hara of the Pentecostal Association of Zimbabwe, then continues with his sermon before the attentive audience. “I bring the gospel of diligent hardworking to the cross-border traders.”

Pastor Hara ceases work around 4 pm just in time to catch the City-Marimba “freedom train.” There, he continues with his business. And this preacher’s religious business could grow exponentially in the future if his fellow Zimbabweans go for an expansion of commuter train services to unlock the recurring gridlocks created by the exploding number of privately owned vehicles in Zimbabwe’s capital.

Writes Lincoln Towindo of The Sunday MailThe commuter train service was introduced in Harare and Bulawayo in 2001. The trains serviced inner-city routes and were meant to address the crippling transport shortages experienced then.

They were christened “freedom trains,” ample testimony of their popularity. Images of dozens of commuters exercising “freedom” by sitting precariously on the trains still linger. Such commuters could not afford to sidestep the bandwagon of affordable commuting. The trains ferried thousands of them to and from work for only a fraction of the standard fares charged by competing public transport operators (the iconic kombis).

A decade on, the popularity of the trains is waning following the proliferation of faster transport modes and a marked increase in private vehicle ownership.

“There is no metropolitan area around the world where public commuting is entirely dependent on road transport alone,” explains Harare-based urban planning expert Percy Toriro. “Road-based commuting has to be complemented by rail transport in order to strike a balance in the context of rapid urban development. The authorities need to invest seriously in the area of rail development within suburbs. For instance, the railway line that runs through Mufakose could be extended to include surrounding suburbs such as Budiriro [means “opportunity for achievement or success” in Shona], Glen View right through to Highfield.”

An NRZ conductor Misheki Dhliwayo issues tickets to commuters on the City-Marimba Park commuter train (photo courtesy of The Sunday Mail)








For landlocked countries such as ours, harnessing such means of mass transportation means we eventually save on energy. In turn, less private vehicles on our roads means that the environment will not suffer much.

A trip on a “freedom train” from central Harare to Mufakose lasts  between 45 and 50 minutes. Whereas, travelling from the city centre on a commuter omnibus during the late afternoon rush hour takes over an hour, depending on the volume of traffic.

“Commuter omnibus operators plying the City-Mufakose route sometimes charge US$1 during peak hours. Apart from this, the journey is also painful. It is better for the authorities to improve commuter train services,” said Mrs Jessica Maronga, a daily communter.

“I save more by catching the train. Can you believe that I spend an average of US$2 on transport for the whole week? This translates into US$8 per month,” she added, pointing at the adjacent gridlocked Lytton Road.

The National Railways of Zimbabwe (NRZ) operates three commuter train routes in Harare: Marimba Park, Dzivarasekwa and Ruwa [a place of alleged UFO spotting in the 1990s]. It also services the Emganwini and Luveve lines in Bulawayo. A trip into town on the train costs 2 South African rand. The NRZ has also since introduced US$1 multiple-trip tickets. The train coaches accommodate up to 800 passengers.

Many cities around the world have adopted a hybrid system, which incorporates both rail and road.

Zimbabwean transport expert Blessed Muponda: “There is no transportation master plan for the cities, hence the mounting traffic congestion and increased vehicle operating costs. High-density areas are home to the majority of people with limited income, but often lack sufficient public transportation. We need to start with cost-effective rapid bus and commuter train systems with dedicated lanes and bus routes that can improve access to the city and reduce road congestion.”

In South Africa, the Gautrain service was introduced to relieve the Johannesburg-Pretoria traffic

One of the 4-car Bombardier Electrostar trainsets is seen racing away from the camera, past Kelvin Power Station towards Sandton, with an airport-bound train approaching on the right of the picture (photo Eugene Armer, courtesy of railpictures.net)

corridor of congestion and offer commuters a viable transport alternative. The service, which cost an estimated R24 billion, is based on a hybrid system that includes rapid transit buses as well as trains. Independent estimates indicate the number of cars on the N1 highway linking the two metropolises has dropped by 20% with 100,000 passengers using the trains daily.

The service was introduced on the eve of the 2010 World Cup finals. 81 railcars are to be built locally as part of the jobs creation initiative (estimated at an additional 93,000 jobs and set to create more than 3,000 others per year during operation).

Though not everything is that

Map of the N1 highway (South_Africa)

rosy about the Gautrain. The environmental benefits of the project are disputed and the environmental impact assessment revealed that Gautrain would at best be environmentally neutral. South Africa uses coal-based electricity generation and the electricity required for Gautrain would come from outside the Gauteng region. The pollution associated with the generation of this electricity would therefore effectively be exported to the Mpumalanga region, an area already under severe strain from air pollution and other abuses of power.

Critics pointed out that the project would use the majority of available national and provincial transport fundsin a context where massive amounts were needed to deal with widespread traffic congestion and commuter transport problems nationally and in the province. The existing railway system in the province,

Ben Schoeman Highway is the main freeway between Johannesburg and Pretoria

under national rather than provincial control, which serves the majority of the population, was severely underfunded and large-scale and violent public unrest caused by inadequate and old trains had manifested in the province. Critics alleged that options like rapid bus transit could achieve similar levels of service at a fraction of the costs. These matters were never submitted to a public debate as the project was designed and launched within the confines of the Gauteng Government bureaucracy.

In the United States, commuter rail services provide efficient transportation. Scheduled service is on a nonreservation basis primarily for short-distance travel between a central business district and adjacent suburbs. The metro service in New York is renowned the world over for its efficiency.

In Hawaii there’s much excitement about the construction of a new commuter rail link through Honolulu. Closer to home, Zürich has some new trams on the way and in Singapore a French consortium has just won a sizeable contract to supply some new trains for the city state’s transport system.

A Gautrain railcar built and shipped from the UK is being unloaded in Durban. From there it made its way to Midrand for quality and safety checks. There is a specially built track for test runs there

Monocle‘s Tyler Brûlé observes: The only problem with all these lanes and lines being laid around the world is that the destination is frequently neglected. Given all the excitement about how fast a 10-car train can travel from a remote suburb to city centre, or how many people a tram can attract away from their cars, mayors and planners frequently forget about the neighbourhoods and communities that their vehicles stop at.

Brûlé spent some time chatting to US transport secretary Ray LaHood:

-Is high-speed rail really going to come to the US?

– Absolutely, it’s going to happen. You’re going to see it in Illinois, it’s going to happen in California.

The next morning on the Acela train from DC station, he was reminded why the US needs to fully embrace high-speed travel. With news that American Airlines’ parent company AMR had filed for chapter 11 bankruptcy protection as I settled into my seat, I was very happy to be riding with Amtrak despite the tired interior and Wal-Mart style lighting. By the time they hit Baltimore the train was packed with travellers.

In the US, many cities are trying to figure out how to get more people to ride the rails to work rather than jumping in the car. For sure, the rolling stock is part of the problem (why is it that so many American commuter trains look like prison cars?) but the bigger issue is that suburban stations are lonely, windswept places that are anything but inviting. Largely automated affairs with no ticket offices, let alone functioning toilets or cosy places to buy a coffee, rail stations in the US have failed to seize the opportunity to become hubs of commerce and have a life that goes beyond morning and evening traffic spikes.

In Zambia, President Michael Sata, during election campaigns, promised to revive the Njanji Commuter Train Service (suspended in 1998 after two trains collided). Opened in 1991, the line was a money-spinner earning 458 million Zambian kwacha in revenue in 1995 – a typical year – when 2,700,000 passengers were carried. The pledge proved an election winner, according to observers.

Hotel Universo blogs: SALCEF Construzioni Edili e Ferroviarie S.p.A, an Italian company has agreed to put up as much as $14 million just to study the possibility of building an above-ground metro line between Maputo and its smaller neighbor, Matola. Over 200,000 people commute daily between the two cities.

“This company will risk its own capital for the study which should absorb between 15- 20% of the total of 50 million euros that the company will use up to the conclusion of the first phase of the project”, Mozambican Transport Minister Paulo Zucula told reporters.

Here Criticalmassmaputo is alluding to the woman bike fashion from Brazil

If this pans out, Mozambique would become the second country south of the Sahara with such a system. The ten miles or so that separate the cities can take as much as two hours depending on traffic, and that’s when you can catch a minibus. This wordpress blogger suggests with subtlety, “How about bikes?” referencing an interesting blog in Portuguese Criticalmassmaputo.wordpress.com.

 As Honolulu presses on with its new rail project and Harare’s urban experts and NRZ officials start discussing their options, Tyler Brûlé suggests that city planners would do well to spend a bit of time in Tokyo’s suburbs and take a few cues from the Japanese rail operators who have built whole cities around their suburban stations. Everything from schools to hospitals, grocery stores to nursing homes are built beside and above stations in Japan.
 How about building the first Sign Museum on the continent close to the main railway station in Harare, where the current “Traffic Lights Don’t Work” signs from Kadoma could take their due archival space?

2 thoughts on “Urban rail in Africa: Zimbabwe’s traffic, Maputo’s bike culture”

  1. Response to Blessed Muponda: In 2001, NRZ rolled the Commuter train service. In its magazine the Railroader, it was entitled ” The dawn of a new era.” It was a noble idea to transport workers cheaply and away from road congestion. Unfortunately, there was no proper planning. No infrastructure was put in place to accommodate the commuters from inclement whether. Toilet facilities were removed from [old brown/cream coaches. On a visit to Zimbabwe three years ago, I witnessed that things have not changed. In Muganwini, Bulawayo there is no platform for easy access to trains. The same could be said for other suburbs where this service is in operation. It’s a pity that like the deregulation of road transport no forward-thinking was put in place. South Africa should have been a case study for commuter rail transport. The same applies to road commuter services. However NRZ should be acknowledge for re purposing the older coaches for this service. Yes a master-plan is now overdue. One hopes that the toilet block built next to the waiting-room at Harare station has been removed for safety reasons. It violates building lines as it is the only structure built near platform edge. Mishaps of trains going beyond stop blocks on platform 3 ended up on the spot where the toilet block is. Lastly Bulawayo and Harare are not the only towns needing rail commuter services, but rather the whole country where rail network exists. Legislation should be put in place to form a new entity-Department of Rail Networks [under the Ministry of Transport] which will deal with planning, procurement of rail vehicles and maintenance of system. This will be similar to Department of Roads. NRZ unlike Air Zimbabwe and Zupco which offer transport services only, builds and maintain its infrastructure at cost, therefore heavily disadvantaged.Once done, NRZ will concentrate on offering transport services only be it mainline, commuter and freight. Still I cannot understand how a commuter train from Mufakose to Harare station takes between 45-50 minutes. I commute a distance of 207 km every morning by train and it takes 3 hours allowing for 3 minutes at each of the 15 stations. This is a distance roughly between Harare and Kwekwe. So as proposed by Blessed Muponda, a comprehensive Rail Masterplan is required to rail forward.

    1. On South Africa. I gather from the net: the Gautrain project is probably the only successful, sustainable Public-Private Partnership in megaprojects that African infrastructure saw in years, if not decades. Or am I getting something wrong here?

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