FROM the outside appearance, the National Railways of Zimbabwe (NRZ)’s passenger train looks like material straight from a metal scrap yard.
With the coaches’ exterior now discoloured by rust after decades of dedicated service, the passenger train’s wagons are undoubtedly past retirement.
The coaches’ interior takes you back down memory lane to the country’s independence in 1980 when they were still competitive.
Though the coaches and the diesel engines that pull them are now outdated, they are still offering an invaluable service to Zimbabwe’s poverty-stricken commuters.
Plying between Harare and Bulawayo and between the two cities’ central business districts and a few selected high density residential areas, the commuter trains are owned and managed by NRZ, a parastatal.
Named Freedom Trains when they were unveiled more than 10 years ago at the height of Zimbabwe’s economic meltdown, the train service offers a cheaper ride for the commuting public.
Stalked by constant threats of retrenchments as industry shuts down following two decades of poor economic performance, many Harare and Bulawayo commuters board these rickety wagons in the morning and evenings. The locomotives are powered by diesel in an age of highly advanced high-speed commuter trains powered by electricity.
This is because the parastatal is underfunded and has been posting losses over the years.
The railway network and power lines have also been vandalised.
Once upon a time, the country had more than 300 kilometres of electric train lines, but every single centimetre of the line disappeared without trace due to vandalism and theft.
I recently took a ride on one of the Freedom Trains, at a modest fare of US$0,30 or R3 a single trip, just to have a feel of a service that is otherwise the solution to transport headaches facing many cities across the world.
I randomly chose, out of the three services on offer, to catch the evening shuttle to Marimba, west of the capital Harare.
As NRZ wallows in the doldrums of undercapitalisation, it is barely able to services the three Harare routes between Monday and Friday.
Despite the company’s liquidity challenges and low worker morale due to inconsistent wages, the Freedom trains surprisingly leave on time.
At exactly 1720 hours, the Harare-Ruwa shuttle left the station followed by that to Dzivarasekwa at 1725 hours and at precisely 1730 hours the Marimba-bound train left Harare main station proceeding at a commendable speed to its destination.
Stopping for less than a minute to drop or pick up passengers at close to a dozen stops along the way, the train was amazingly efficient for a company that struggles to pay its workers every month.
Along the route, vandalised electric train cable holders dangle from metal poles like gangrened fingers in a cruel reminder of how much ground the country has lost in developing its railway system to world class standards.
Examples of successful railway systems are many in both well developed and struggling economies.
For example, the Mumbai Suburban Railways in India is the lifeline of the city of Mumbai. The rail service carries more than seven million commuters on a daily basis compared to less than 500 for the NRZ in both Harare and Bulawayo.
A quick survey of the travellers on board revealed that most of them were not formally employed but self-employed in the city centre, vending everything and anything from needles to vegetables.
With transport now dominated by thousands of commuter omnibuses costing US$1 a trip during peak hours, the commuters are finding solace in the train service.
As the country’s economic outlook still remains unclear, many of the passengers predicted that the number of people using the train service might increase as the liquidity situation continues to tighten.
Since 1982 when the country last experienced a wage spike, real wages in Zimbabwe have been on a serious decline. Wages slumped to unimaginable levels at the height of the country’s 2000-2008 hyperinflation era and the consequences have been dire. The World Bank has since described the plunge in wages as a “brutal but necessary adjustment.”
Despite undergoing this painful phase, the country has been ranked 132 in terms of its competitiveness out of 140 countries surveyed by the World Economic Forum.
Retrenchments and an under-performing economy have spurred forward the country’s unemployment to its worst levels yet in decades.
Currently more than 90 percent of employable people are formally unemployed, according to the 2012 national census.
After factoring in the huge army of people who have opted to be self-employed to make ends meet, the Zimbabwe National Statistics Agency claims that Zimbabwe’s unemployment can be put at 10,7 percent, just slightly above that of the United States of America’s 7,6 percent.
NRZ is content to continue offering the Freedom Train service despite the fact that it is draining its already depleted coffers.
“The world over, this is just a social obligation. It is meant to lessen the burden on the commuter and is not profit-driven…This is not the core business of the railways,” said Fanuel Masikati, NRZ spokesperson.
While the passenger transport business is not a core part of NRZ, it is sinking the parastatal deeper into debt
NRZ’s cargo service has also been performing poorly.
Since 1992, the amount of cargo it has moved has dropped by 85 percent from 12 million tonnes to 1,7 million tonnes in 2011.
While NRZ is certainly providing an invaluable service, it is only a matter of time before the service is terminated because of the heavy losses being incurred by the parastatal.
The NRZ requires US$2 billion in fresh capital but the lifeline has not been forthcoming.