HARARE – With over 50 percent of its locomotive fleet down, the National Railways of Zimbabwe NRZ) locomotive yard has become a favourite location for image makers such as photographers and videographers.
The rusty, broken down coaches and the unkempt grass are visually extraordinary, picture perfect in fact.
Urban grooves musicians Tererai Mugwadi and Maskiri have even used the breathtaking and unforgettable idyllic setting of the mothballed train service to record a video of their hit track NaMwari — with the footage a stark reminder of the devastation caused by the hived track-lines.
The contrast between this 2015 video and Oliver Mtukudzi’s song, Right Direction, which showed a more attractive and efficient rail service in the 80s, provides proof that the country’s railway system is now a pale shadow of itself.
While in the past people would enjoy the experience of riding a train, these days people use the train station to get their family pictures taken.
The station gives that diamond-in-the-rough feel, the contrast between rust, unkempt grass and rugged look.
The abandoned rail lines make people outstanding, it gives an almost vintage setting and it’s a perfect setting, according to a professional photographer.
After a decade of impasse, the ghost fleet is slowly dwindling as the train trucks are towed out one-by-one for scrapping. About half the retired trucks are already gone; by the end of 2017, the entire fleet could just be a memory.
The Daily News on Sunday gained unprecedented access to the decaying train service in Harare, spending several days at a time photographing and documenting the mothballed service.
According to information from NRZ workers, the public is now sceptical of riding the train, a situation which has led the company to cut down on passenger train frequencies.
It’s a clear signal concerning the de-industrialisation of Zimbabwe.
“We do not get money from the passenger trains, so we only have the service two or three times a week.
“We have the Harare to Bulawayo one, and that one inomhanya (offers service on) Tuesday, Friday and Sunday.
“And another that services the Harare to Mutare route — on Mondays, Wednesdays and Sundays — they leave at night,” a worker who preferred anonymity told the Daily News on Sunday.
“We now get most of our earnings from the freight business.”
Offering a reasonable $5 trip to Bulawayo in the economy class and $10 in first class, has failed to attract customers. The few running coaches are often stinky from mould, mildew, and decay, and the toilets filthy.
The inefficiencies, deterioration of coaches, and lack of maintenance has kept people away from the harrowing trip.
President Robert Mugabe’s administration has done little to address the crumbling train service. The service has sat unused and largely forgotten.
At the turn of the millennium, Zimbabwe plunged into crisis when controversial economic policies and seizures of white-owned commercial farms led to the collapse of the country’s agriculture-based economy.
The crisis still affects Zimbabwe, where industry operates at less than 40 percent capacity and more than 80 percent of the country’s $4,1bn budget is spent on salaries.
Even though Parliament ordered central government to address the railway situation, nothing has been done in the past decade.
NRZ, which needs at least $2 billion in the long-term to restore full viability, has been struggling to pay more than 5 700 workers and refurbish locomotives due to lack of capital.
According to the Auditor-General Mildred Chiri’s latest report on parastatals, NRZ losses are running into hundreds of millions of dollars. Chiri described it as “operationally handicapped”.
“…the railway is commercially insolvent, with current liabilities exceeding current assets by $170 million.
“This net current liability position is also a deterioration from the prior year amount of $131 million. The board and management should consider reassessing the ability of the railways to continue operating as going concern,” Chiri’s report read.
“The board and management should develop and implement effective operating strategies to restore the organisation to health as a matter of urgency.
“Without qualifying my opinion, I draw your attention to the fact that NRZ is in a net current liability position of $170 million (2014: $131m).
“The national railways also incurred a net loss of $40m (2014: $31m) contributing to a cumulative loss of $276m.
“This cumulative loss and net current liability position, along with other matters indicate the existence of a material uncertainty that may cast significant doubt over the national railways’ ability to continue as a going concern.”
The report established that the parastatal was generating annual revenue of $91,2 million, but incurring costs of $103 million.
The passenger unit had annual revenues of $3,2 million, with costs at over three times at $10,9 million.
This comes as government is failing to revive the parastatal due to lack of funding. Donors seem to be sceptical to come on board.
Government has said a comprehensive capitalisation programme for the NRZ has remained elusive, with Parliament urging it to prioritise reviving the parastatal due to its strategic importance in the economy.
The State-owned enterprise, battling to retire a $144 million debt, owes the workers more than $68 million.
While NRZ is groaning, failing to raise cash for recapitalisation, these efforts have fell through, with recent talks with the Development Bank of Southern Africa for $700 million to bankroll its rehabilitation collapsing, after the undue sacking of its former chairman, Alvord Mabhena, by Transport minister, Joram Gumbo.
Larry Mavhima has replaced Mabhena, a died-in-the-wool transport executive with an impeccable track record.
In the meantime, the ailing institution is groaning under operational problems owing to ageing infrastructure and lack of funding.
A report released by the Public Service, Labour and Social Welfare portfolio committee last year noted that there was urgent need for the government to find effective, long-term solutions to reverse the downturn at NRZ.
NRZ, the report added, should modernise its old equipment, which has created high maintenance costs that result in noncompetitive pricing and services as compared to road transport.
At its peak, NRZ employed about 20 000 workers and moved 18 million tonnes of freight annually. The parastatal has 3 500 operational wagons for moving cargo but most are ageing or in a state of disrepair.
NRZ now moves less than 100 000 tonnes per week, the effects of industrial collapse and poor rail infrastructure.
The NRZ is set to launch a forensic audit as the parastatal seeks solutions to problems that have left the passenger and goods rail freighter in dire straits.
It claims it has purchased 31 wagons worth $2,9 million from China to replace part of its ageing fleet, according to transport secretary Munesu Munodawafa.
Central bank deputy governor Kupukile Mlambo has implored government to resuscitate NRZ to promote exports and ease of doing business.
“To move goods from Zimbabwe to export centres; we need a good infrastructure and our infrastructure has deteriorated over the last years, so we need good railroads.
“We need a functioning NRZ and so on. We are the most expensive country in terms of financing exports because of our infrastructure,” Mlambo told a recent ZimTrade exporters’ conference.