THE Railway Association of Enginemen (RAE), a union that represents National Railways of Zimbabwe (NRZ) train drivers, has warned that the country’s 3 000km rail network is now a death trap.
RAE said the whole rail network had become dangerous for train drivers and passengers and reporting for duty was now risky for them as derailments occurred regularly.
The union said the government, NRZ’s major shareholder, should decisively act and rehabilitate the dilapidated rail infrastructure.
This comes in the wake of the derailment of a Harare-bound train that left 22 people injured, one of them seriously, on Saturday night at Heany Junction about 30km east of Bulawayo.
RAE vice-president Juniel Manyere told Southern Eye yesterday that the dilapidated rail infrastructure was a stumbling block to the country’s economic revival.
“Our members are very much concerned about the frequency of train derailments which occur on a daily bases, but the majority remain unknown to the public,” he said.
“The rail network has become a death trap to us (drivers) and members of the public. The whole network is littered with speed cautions and in most routes, especially the Bulawayo-Victoria Falls one, the speed limit is just less than 40km/hour.
“This delay in movement of goods and passengers has seen people running away from doing business with us. The government should urgently intervene and rehabilitate the dilapidated infrastructure. Rail traffic is pivotal to the national economic recovery and there is no way ZimAsset will succeed with the current infrastructure.”
The ailing NRZ requires $50 million to lay a new railway line connecting Bulawayo and Victoria Falls.
In the past, the parastatal blamed train accidents on vandalism of infrastructure as most of the country’s electrified rail network has fallen prey to thieves who target overhead copper cables used on the railway network.
The World Bank once suggested that NRZ close down nearly two-thirds of its railway network to allow for rehabilitation because of the high potential for disaster they posed.
Zimbabwe’s rail network, once a hub of the regional transport network, stretches for 3 077km.
Newly-appointed NRZ board chairperson Alvord Mabena said the railway tracks were totally unreliable and it was now risky to travel by train.
He said some of the infrastructure was obsolete and suggested suspension of all passenger train operations.
“Running a passenger train is not profitable (and) instead is a waste of money by the parastatal,” he said.
“As long as the government does not subsidise NRZ, it is better to close the service.”
Mabhena, who was NRZ general manager during arguably the rail company’s most successful period before retiring in 1998, said countries such as Botswana resorted to selling the passenger coaches to Mozambique due to profitability concerns.
“The government must come up with a hard decision and do away with passenger trains,” he said.
“Botswana ended up selling its coaches to Mozambique after having experienced viability problems. The infrastructure is obsolete and it is risky to travel by train. The coaches that are in used were made and designed in South Africa in the 1990s.
“I participated in the designing of these coaches hence I say they are old to be safe for use by people.”
Mabena warned that more accidents could not be ruled out if the government did not fund the parastatal.
The revival of the rail infrastructure is pivotal to the country’s economic turnaround programme as investors require such infrastructure for the efficient movement of goods and services.
Experts recommend privatisation as the only way the NRZ can be revitalised as the government is facing a myriad of challenges all related to liquidity constraints.
NRZ requires about $400 million in the short to medium term to revitalise its operations and about $10 billion in the next 10 years to reach full, safe and reliable operating capacity.