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Report: Africa Express Trains

China to the rescue of Zimbabwe's colonial-era rail network

The Victoria Falls-Bulawayo train
The Victoria Falls-Bulawayo train Jason Finch/Flick'r/CC
Text by: Robert Tapfumaneyi in Harare
3 min

The story of Zimbabwe's railways mirrors its political history - with tracks laid by forced labour under British colonialism falling into disrepair under President Robert Mugabe.

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Back in 1897 the first steam train arrived in the southern Zimbabwean city of Bulawayo. In the years before British colonialists used forced labour to lay thousands of kilometres of railway tracks in what was then Rhodesia.

Steam trains continue to take tourists from Bulawayo to Victoria Falls on the border with Zambia but this line remains the pride of Zimbabwe's rail system with all other services coming to a near halt.

National Railways of Zimbabwe (NRZ) trains serve all major cities and towns across the country with 3,400 kilometres of track cross-crossing the southern African country.

Many of the trains are still painted blue, grey and brown – the Rhodesian Railways colours - that date back to the colonial regime.

With the exception of the Bulawayo-Victoria falls line, most of NRZ’s infrastructure has been neglected for the past two decades.

Some NRZ workers told RFI that they have not been paid for 11 months.

Norman Simba who has worked for the national railways for the past 23 years is the current president of the rail association of engineers.

He remembers joining NRZ in 1990 when the organisation was still flush with state investment.

“My best memories from 1990 are when I joined the organisation," he recalls. "The workers were known to be paid well and working conditions were excellent.”

Simba also waxes nostalgic about the role the line played during the earlier years

“There was plenty of traffic on offer. There were plenty of locomotives and we could offer a punctual service. I remember we were the suppliers of goods to almost 95 per cent of the country's industries.”

James Ncube used to travel by train between Zimbabwe’s two largest cities, Bulawayo and Harare.

Not any more.

“Before it was an organised transporter you knew you would get to Bulawayo at a given time," he says. "I remember I did frequent trips to Bulawayo, which is no longer the case now. Now you can’t predict what time a train will arrive and there are derailments that take place from time to time, so it’s no longer a mode of transport that one feels secure with.”

NRZ's decline began just a few years before President Robert Mugabe began to fall out of favour with his former colonial masters, Britain, for land-redistribution policies that discriminated against white farmers.

As Mugabe’s relationship with Western powers worsened, he secured a closer relationship with China.

Last year China Railways Corporation announced plans for a multi-million-euro investment in Zimbabwe, including a high -peed rail link between Harare-Bulawayo.

NRZ may again take pride of place among southern Africa’s railways but this time with the help of the Chinese.

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