NationAL RAILWAYS OF ZIM revival: The full story

There are a lot of misconceptions floating around about the equipment the National Railways of Zimbabwe recently unveiled.

Thankfully, The Sunday Mail Society is here to put things in their proper perspective.

President Mnangagwa did not commission – but officially took delivery – 34 coaches, 200 wagons and 13 locomotives as part of an interim arrangement to stabilise the key parastatal.

During a tour of the NRZ operations in Bulawayo last week, the company’s public relations manager Mr Nyasha Maravanyika said: “Many people are talking of the President commissioning the equipment. There is no way he can commission equipment which is not new. These coaches, wagons and locomotives are not brand new but refurbished ones.

“The US$400 million deal between the NRZ, Transnet and Diaspora Infrastructure Development Group is yet to be finalised. From our timeframe, we are looking at around June this year for the finalisation of that deal.

“So when the deal is finalised, it will take between 18 and 24 months to order and receive wagons, coaches and locomotives, which will have our specifications. As we are waiting for the operalisation of the deal, it was deemed prudent that we leased these wagons, coaches and locomotives, as a stop-gap measure, whilst we wait for the arrival of the new equipment.”

The US$400 million deal, besides re-tooling the NRZ in as far as locomotives, wagons and coaches, will also see the re-lining of the main railway line, which runs from Mutare, through Harare and Bulawayo to Victoria Falls.

“It is an open secret that our railway line is in a bad shape and part of the money from the deal will help revamp the railway line. And we are not looking at just the railway line, the signals are also in need of rehabilitation, so there is more to the deal than just the rolling stock,” explained NRZ chief engineer (traction and rolling stock) Daniso Mlambo.

Eng Mlambo said because of evolving technology, most locomotives now come with on-board signals, similar to how aeroplanes operate, removing the need for signals along rail tracks. Electric locomotives that used to run the Dabuka (Gweru)-Harare stretch have been de-commissioned because most on-track signals were vandalised.

“In South Africa, for example,” said Mlambo, “they are facing the same issue of vandalism and they are looking at replacing some of the usually targeted items, such as copper, with alternative materials, such as aluminium.”

The National Railways of Zimbabwe is bedevilled with antiquated signals – and which at times is non-existent – such that they have to rely on cellphone communication to move between stations.

“But given that at times networks can be down, this compromises our operations,” said Maravanyika.

The result is that the Harare-Bulawayo – once the NRZ’s most profitable route – is a shadow of its former self. Poor patronage by passengers has resulted in the rail authority combining goods and passengers (a cross-tripper), thus delaying schedules as they have to offload goods as well as passengers, along the way.

“Rail offers the cheapest and safest form of moving both people and goods and we are hopeful that the current efforts to revive our operations will bear fruit,” enthused Maravanyika.

For example, a single wagon can carry 60 tonnes, and a locomotive can draw between 20 and 25 wagons, with a tandem (two locomotives) doubling the drawing capacity to 40 wagons. A triplet (three locos) can carry up to 60 wagons.

“If you look at the computations, you can easily see how much strain and stress we would have removed from our road system. If one wagon can carry the load of two 30-tonne trucks, how many of these trucks are we removing from the road if the NRZ is to realise its full potential?” asked Mlambo.

With most of the current railway line having been laid in the early 1900s, the strain age has had on the infrastructure is ever present.

“During this rain season, we receive quite a sizeable number of reports on wash-aways, when the line gives in to incessant rains. During the hot season, we experience kick-outs – that is when it is hot, the line expands and when it gets cold it contracts, with the result that the line bulges. It is an old rail line, it need money for rehabilitation.

“So these incidents, whenever and wherever they happen, compromise our delivery times. A train, especially a passenger one, has to run on schedule and usually these schedules are compromised because of these incidents,” explained Mlambo.

Some of the rail sleepers, made of wood, have since outlived their life span, and need to be replaced with concrete or steel ones.

In spite of these challenges, local rail maintains a fairly decent safety record, with the last fatal collision coming on February 1 2003 when a passenger train collided head-on with a goods train, killing some 50 people on the spot in Dete, just outside Hwange.

Whilst the Harare-Bulawayo run is supposed to be the flagship route, the most patronised one is the Bulawayo-Chicualacuala, which runs weekly through Chiredzi, and the most punctual one being the Harare-Mutare run. The challenges facing the NRZ are such that the rail authority is currently short of “export-fit” wagons, compromising some its orders that has to cross borders. “Export-fit wagons are essentially wagons that conform to the standards of the country were these wagons will be transiting through. We are looking at corrosion, bulging sides, lack of scheduled service, among other issues, which make wagons not to be certified export fit.”

The consignment that was officially received last week include a Volvo engine driven power coach, which provides electric power to the fully air-conditioned coaches.

“In a nutshell, the role of the NRZ is that of an enabler, we enable the various arms of production, from manufacturing, agriculture to mining to link together and our revival marks a revival of the whole economic matrix. We are not only cheaper but also safer mode of moving products between linking chains of productiion,” summed up Maravanyika.

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