ESTABLISHED in 1897, the National Railways of Zimbabwe (NRZ) is headquartered in Bulawayo. It was part of imperialist, idealist and mogul Cecil John Rhodes’ “Cape-to-Cairo” road and rail network project. Its core business is cargo carriage, passenger services as well as real estate.
BY MTHANDAZO NYONI
Bulawayo — known as the City of Kings due to its association with its famous Ndebele Kings Mzilikazi, Khumalo and his son Lobengula — was a strategic place for Rhodes’ dream as the city links Zimbabwe with Zambia, South Africa, Botswana and Mozambique ports of Beira and Maputo, through the railway network as well as countries further north.
Zimbabwe’s railway system has three well-connected hubs; Bulawayo, Gweru, and Harare. The railway is at the centre of the international rail routes linking the Democratic Republic of Congo, Zambia, Botswana, Mozambique and its ports of Beira and Maputo, and South Africa’s critical ports of Durban, Richards Bay and Port Elizabeth.
It is also at the centre of shorter and cost-effective railroad links between Malawi and South Africa, the port of Beira through Mutare-Harare, and Lusaka and Durban.
The lines from Zambia through Victoria Falls; Botswana through Plumtree; South Africa through Beitbridge; and to the central parts of Zimbabwe through Gweru all converge in Bulawayo.
To trace NRZ’s rich history and future prospects, Southern Eye interviewed the parastatal’s public relations officer, Nyasha Maravanyika, who revealed that indeed the parastatal was one of the country’s key economic drivers.
When did the first train arrive in Bulawayo?
The first train came to Bulawayo from South Africa on November 4, 1897 and by then the station was in Hillside. From 1897 up to 1980, NRZ was under the Rhodesian banner — the Rhodesian Railways. It is from that period that the Bulawayo city started to develop economically.
“So basically, from that period up to around 1980, there had been massive development in terms of the profile of the railways in the country. It is also during that same period (1897-1980) where the construction of the major railway track was done, the Victoria Falls Bridge was also built and almost every city had some railway developments.
“The reason people are talking of old Mutare and new Mutare it is because of the railway. When the railway line was constructed in Mutare, people left the old Mutare and came and built the city next to the railway line.”
Production capacity between 1897 to around 2000
Maravanyika said from 1897 to 1980, even though they do not have proper statistics, NRZ was “booming”. From 1980 right about around 2000, NRZ was flourishing in terms of business, as it had over 20 000 employees. It was the second biggest employer after the government. It had also, in terms of economic linkages and co-operation, worked well with Zisco, where it had partnership of having certain wagons specifically for Zisco Steel.
“We talk of Hwange Colliery Company, we talk of Zimasco company, we talk of Bindura Nickel mine, the gold mines around Bindura Shamva areas and also in terms of the agriculture aspect, areas around Chihnoyi, Shamva they were great agriculture areas so the railways was in terms of ferrying grain from different farmers to GMB depots,” he said.
“The NRZ from 1980 to 2000 was the main enabler and the hub of the transportation of most of our economic goods. It is also important to note that from 1987 up to now the way country is positioned in the region has always been the good opportunity for the NRZ as the country links almost everyone.
“Even when you talk of Rhodes’ dream of Cape to Cairo it had to come through Zimbabwe going there. So in terms of regional and continental connectivity, the Zimbabwean railway has been critical and key.”
From 1980 to around 2000, NRZ had the capacity of carrying over 18 million tonnes.
Beginning of challenges
From around 2000 following the land reform programme which affected agriculture sector, NRZ’s fortunes began to wane.
The 18 million tonnages they were moving in 1980s, started to drop drastically to around four million tonnes they are currently moving. The rail carrier had 168 locomotives, but only 64 are serviceable, while 3 467 out of 7 255 wagons are usable.
“The economic downturn affected the company’s employee turnover, production turnover, such that the 18 million tonnages that we are talking about drastically reduced to around four million tonnes that we are now carrying and our ability to meet our salary obligations.
“It also meant the employee turnover reduced drastically from over 18 000 to around 5 000. So basically this has been due to economic downturn, which also incapacitated railways in terms of its equipment most of which is now old,” he said.
Maravanyika said one of the challenges that affected their production capacity was obsolete equipment. He said in 2017, they were celebrating 120 years and “you find that our main line track has been there for close to 100 or over 100 years and it needs rehabilitation such that for us operate effectively we definitely need to refurbish our line”.
“The other thing that caused everything is that from 1980 to probably now, we faced a number of vandalism acts where people stole copper wires, our signals and some of our equipment. You talk of our sleepers they are no longer the same,” he said.
The company was also affected by dramatic transformation in weather patterns such as heat waves, which affected their main lines.
Due to these challenges, a number of NRZ’s sidings were closed and the parastatal also started failing to meet its salary obligations.
“We closed sidings around the Zvishavane, Masvingo area, most parts of the country we called small sidings we closed,” he said.
Now the $400 million recapitalisation deal
The Diaspora Investment Development Group (DIDG)/ Transnet Consortium won a bid to partner NRZ in the $400 million recapitalisation project. The project involves the rehabilitation and renewal of plant, equipment, rolling stock, signalling and telecommunications infrastructure and the supporting information technology systems.
It will also see the repairing and rehabilitation of infrastructure and equipment such as locomotives, wagons and coaches, as well as phased modernisation of the train control system.
Recently, President Emmerson Mnangagwa commissioned seven locomotives, 150 wagons and seven coaches leased from the South African rail entity, Transnet, as an interim measure while negotiations for the recapitalisation programme are being finalised and new equipment is being manufactured.
NRZ is expecting an additional 92 wagons, six locomotives and 28 coaches to be delivered in the coming few weeks.
The financial deal should be sealed by June 2018.
When all the equipment has been received, NRZ would be able to haul an additional 100 000 tonnes of freight per month and earn $1,1 million revenue in the process.
NRZ wants to use the leased equipment to cover its resource gap.
“The NRZ’s future lies in it having an overhaul of its systems, its equipment, so that we also move with the world in terms of the upmarket railway service. This is why the NRZ is focusing on the recapitalisation project,” Maravanyika said.
“It focuses mainly on making NRZ efficient again on rehabilitating, reviving and even sourcing out new equipment that is up to world standards. You understand in most countries they have bullet trains. This is where we are looking at,” he said.
Maravanyika said the long-term objective, in terms of recapitalisation, is to have bullet trains.
“It might take long, but we want to get there. We are talking of NRZ being the regional hub. We have projections in terms of where we want to be. We are looking at areas where we can have new railway lines. We are talking of areas such as Harare to Mutoko, Dete to Kwekwe cutting across for the convenient carriage of chrome there…”
“We are talking about Harare-Shamva to Malawi; Shamva to Zambia. All these areas we have our system map, where these new lines are projected in our recapitalisation project. Then we are also looking at the efficiency of the passenger trains,” he said.
Maravanyika said travelling by passenger train was safer and people like it. As such, they were working very hard to make sure that their trains were efficient.
NRZ has five trains servicing the country. Daily trains include Bulawayo-Harare-Bulawayo; Bulawayo-Victoria Falls-Bulawayo; Harare-Mutare-Harare. Weekly trains are Bulawayo-Chiredzi-Bulawayo and Bulawayo-Tshikwalakwala-Bulawayo.
“I think the major issue that needs to be done on our passenger trains is to ensure that we improve on punctuality, hygiene, communication issues. Our normal passenger trains are cheaper. Harare-Bulawayo costs $6, Bulawayo to Chikwalakwala costs about $9, Harare-Mutare $4,” he said.
What else does NRZ offer?
“Going forward, we are looking at the rail tourism or rail leisure where we are mostly using our steam trains or locomotives. A lot of tourists still love those ones because I think in the world it should be South Africa, Zimbabwe and probably Germany who still have those steam trains,” Maravanyika said.
“This is where we are going. Rail leisure is bringing a lot of interest from tourists. We also have chartered trains where people with birthday parties or anniversaries can hire our trains and go and enjoy.
“We are also looking at using our museum, the Bulawayo Railways Museum. We have a very resourceful museum in terms of railways and trains knowledge. We are trying to create value out of that. So going forward, definitely besides the big picture of the recapitalisation, we will have small public-private-partnerships (PPPs).”
The company is involved in PPPs with players such as Bulawayo-Beitbridge Railways, sugar farmers as well as Zimasco and CFM, where it carries chrome and ferrochrome from Zimbabwe to Mozambique.
Maravanyika urged all Zimbabwean to rally NRZ.
“This is where we are going and we want to inform the nation that we need everyone on board. We are on the right track and we are saying we want everyone on board. It might take long, but the NRZ, the giant, is awakening and we are on the right track,” he said.