It sneaks between the townships and cornfields whistling under the rising sun. Zimbabwe’s railways have just relaunched a reliable and cheap commuter train. A revolution in a country strangled by an endless crisis.
Every morning at dawn, schoolchildren in uniform and sleepy employees walk along the railway line to the “station” of Cowdray Park, 20 kilometres from Bulawayo, the country’s second largest city.
Here, there is no platform or station as such. An old wagon placed in a field simply acts as a ticket office.
"The train trip costs 50 cents. It allows me to save money to buy vegetables and bread.
After a thirteen-year interruption in service, the Cowdray Park – Bulawayo line was just reopened in November, with a daily round trip.
Like Zimbabwe’s economy, the country’s rail network was abandoned and dismantled during the last years of Robert Mugabe’s long reign (1980-2017), which plunged the country into an endless slump.
His successor Emmerson Mnangagwa has made it a priority to revive the economy. A mission that, in his eyes, also involves the train.
Last year’s delivery of new wagons and locomotives for Zimbabwean Railways (NRZ) “represents our commitment to change, progress and development”, he launched on that occasion. “It’s time to steam ahead.”
As a result, NRZ funded $2.5 million to renovate a first suburban line. One of the rare “success stories” of a Zimbabwe that has been plunging back into shortages of all kinds (fuel, oil, medicines…) for months.
It’s 6:00 in the morning and the train is shaking. On his way to Bulawayo, he stopped at imaginary stations in the middle of nowhere to pick up more passengers, until his terminal, which he reached an hour later.
Low cost ticket price
“The price of a trip in a kombi (minibus) now costs 2 dollars, it’s much too expensive,” explains one of its passengers, Sipeka Mushoma.
“The train trip costs 50 cents (…) It allows me to save money to buy vegetables and bread,” adds the truck driver, on his way to work.
That morning, the 60-year-old was lucky. He managed to find a seat in the crowded 14-car train.
Annual inflation of 42% and the recent doubling of gasoline prices – which in January caused a violently repressed popular revolt – have had an impact on kombi race prices. Not on the train, which runs on diesel but is subsidized by the state.
“We are here to attract commuters (…) There is no way we are going to raise our prices,” says Nyasha Maravanyika, NRZ press officer.
Until the early 2000s, Bulawayo had two commuter train lines and the capital Harare had three. But this service, nicknamed “the trains of freedom”, was brutally interrupted. “The wagons and signage were in too bad a condition,” says Nyasha Maravanyika.
To date, only one line has been put back into service, but “it is a great success. The train is convenient and on time,” he says with satisfaction.
More funds needed
Another $10 million would be needed to get the country’s other four commuter rail lines back on track. But there is no money, the state coffers are desperately empty.
Today, NRZs have fewer than 100 locomotives and a few hundred wagons, providing erratic links between the country’s main cities and a very limited freight service to transport sugar, chromium or cut stones.
From the time of its splendour – from the colonial period to the 1990s – the railway network proudly displayed 600 locomotives and 3,000 passenger wagons linking neighbouring countries. “It was the heart of the rail network in southern Africa,” according to Nyasha Maravanyika.
Some locomotives of the “freedom train” still bear the initials RR of Rhodesian Railways, named after Zimbabwe before its independence.
On her way back from Bulawayo, Ashley Sinda was drowning in a car after a long day of hard work.
“I live 300 metres from the last stop, it’s easy,” explains the cleaning lady, a single mother, sitting between nurses, teachers immersed in their mobile phones and workers who avidly drink a cheap local beer.
“It is impossible to pay the kombis, even if they are faster. I am really happy with this train”.