A lifeless environment greeted The Standard news crew when it arrived at the National Railways of Zimbabwe (NRZ)’s Bulawayo station last Tuesday afternoon.
By Musa Dube
The place looked virtually deserted. Just over a decade ago, the afternoon periods such as this used to be the busiest hours at the station with people coming from or going to various places. That is now all history!
The hive of activity that used to characterise the station is long gone, as passengers have abandoned the unreliable and rarely available rail transport.
As if that was not enough, the number of companies transporting goods by the NRZ has also drastically dropped because of poor service. And, because of this lack of business, the entire NRZ station is in such a sorry state of disrepair it could be mistaken for a “junkyard”.
The railway station is now a place of rusty, smelly and run-down coaches and wagons scattered all over the place. Workers who agreed to speak on condition of anonymity said things were getting worse by the day.
“We have heard several rumours that the government intends to buy new coaches and engines from China but nothing has materialised,” said one of the workers.
The workers at the troubled company said the trolleys, wagons and the coaches have been dumped there for many years. “The management had said it was going to refurbish the coaches so that they meet the basic standards but all has been talk with no action. Most of the coaches have no lights and have broken windows. It is no wonder people are shunning travelling by train,” he said.
“What we are seeing are changes in ministers and board members but no improvement at the company,” said another worker who identified himself only as Phiri. The dumped coaches have become homes for vagrants and streets kids.
The NRZ Company is operating far below capacity due to numerous challenges that include financial, administrative and the national economic mess that has engulfed Zimbabwe for over a decade.
Since the introduction of the multiple currency system about five years ago, the locomotive company had been struggling to pay its workforce that consists of 8 000 employees. Due to this scenario, the workers’ morale has plummeted to unprecedented levels. NRZ owes its workers salaries, overtime and allowances running into millions of dollars having failed to pay them over long periods of time.
By the end of December 2013, the figure stood at US$59,5 million. Against this backdrop, the parastatal has for the past decade seen several skilled workers leaving in their droves for greener pastures.
Over the past years, the beleaguered parastatal has recorded reduced volumes in freight and passenger movement as customers prefer road transport that is more efficient. At its peak in 1998, NRZ used to ferry goods in excess of 18 million tonnes which, however, went down to 3,7 million tonnes in 2011.
Once the employer of choice, NRZ is said to now have about 65 locomotives, 3 271 wagons, nine cabooses and 158 coaches against the optimum average requirement of 83 locomotives, 4 262 wagons, 17 cabooses and 145 coaches.
There are lots of speed limits in rail tracks and the poor rail infrastructure has resulted in service deteriorating. The company is also facing a daunting task to improve its communication signals that are too old and need replacement.
The problem has also been exacerbated by vandalism and theft that has resulted in NRZ making huge loses. Bulawayo-based economist, Thabani Moyo, said the government should privatise the parastatal and bring new partners that could inject the much-needed capital and technology.
He said the delay in privatising the parastatal was a stumbling block to the recovery of the economy.
“The government should just seek new partners who can recapitalise the parastatal and bring new technology and equipment,” said Moyo.
A new board of directors headed by Alvord Mabena has since been appointed to take over the reins at NRZ. Mabena bounced back at the beleaguered parastatal 15 years after his departure from the railway company where he was general manager. Minister of Transport, Obert Mpofu made the appointments on Wednesday.
Mpofu earlier said the government was seeking fresh capital to inject into NRZ.
“My ministry is currently negotiating with one financial institution for funding of the railways recapitalisation programme. Further, my ministry has also received two enquiries from potential investors who are considering investing in the railways under the Rehabilitate Operate and Transfer arrangement,” said the minister responding to questions in Parliament.
“I am confident that we will be able to sign an agreement on any of the above three options within the first half of the year,” said Mpofu.
Whether what the minister said will finally come to pass or not, only time will tell.