The ‘Freedom train’

The ‘Freedom train’

Chugging through townships, maize fields and scrubland as the sun rises, Zimbabwe’s only commuter train is cheap and reliable -- two qualities that its passengers cherish in a downwards-spiralling economy. Each morning sleepy travellers walk to the tracks and clamber aboard before the train leaves the Cowdray Park settlement at 6:00 am on its 20-kilometre (12- mile) journey into Bulawayo, the country’s second city.

The hugely popular service was only revived in November after being suspended for 13 years as the rail network collapsed under President Robert Mugabe, who ruled for nearly four decades until ousted in 2017. At Cowdray Park, there is no platform, and no station except for a makeshift ticket office made out of an old carriage sitting in a field.

En route, the train stops several times in the open to pick up more passengers who stream in from surrounding homes, climbing up the steps and squeezing into 14 packed carriages. Soon after 7:00 am, it pulls into Bulawayo’s grand but dilapidated station and disgorges about 2,000 workers, uniformed school children and other travellers into the city centre, ready for the day ahead.

Infrastructure investment

“The prices for kombis (minibuses) went up to two dollars, and that’s just too expensive,” said Sipeka Mushoma, 61, a heavy vehicle driver at a Bulawayo steel manufacturer, who managed to grab a precious early seat. “The train is 50 cents. My children have to get the kombi to go to school, but this saves me a lot of money to buy vegetables and bread. Zimbabweans are hurting badly, some of us are really starving now.” The government last month announced that fuel prices would more than double -- triggering violent protests, a security crackdown and further pressure on minibuses to hike prices.

Bulawayo once h a d two commuter train lines carrying workers in from either side of the city, while the capital Harare had three lines -- all of them dubbed “Freedom Trains” as they allowed passengers to avoid higher road costs. The services were scrapped around 2006, and the Cowdray Park line is the only one to be relaunched in a $2.5-million project funded by the state-owned National Railways of  Zimbabwe(NRZ). Mugabe’s successor President Emmerson Mnangagwa has backed railway investment as part of his plans to turn around the economy.

But the outcome of the commuter train is a rare success in his efforts, which have struggled to produce concrete results. “The president and new government are very supportive of the railways,” said Nyasha Maravanyika, the railways’ press relations chief, adding that talks were under way for an international consortium to fund a full-scale relaunch of the whole rail network. “We had to re-furbish old carriages to get this service going, and it has been a huge success,” Maravanyika said.

“The old  commuter  trains were suspended as the coaches and the signalling became more and more run-down.” “People know that when they are on the train, they are on their way to work,” he added. “It is an answer to their transport blues. We are here to attract commuters as kombi fares rise -- that’s our job.”

‘heartbeat’ of the region

Maravanyika says just $10 million would put the other four commuter lines back in operation. “We hope to re-open the other Bulawayo line next and, despite all the challenges, revive Zimbabwe’s railways,” he said. “They were the heartbeat of the southern African rail network.” Zimbabwe’s rail network -- which includes the dramatic line across the Victoria Falls into Zambia -- was built under British colonial rule, and at its peak in the 1990s had 600 locomotives and 3,000 passenger carriages.

Today it has less than 100 locomotives and a few hundred carriages, running a threadbare schedule between major cities, and a much-reduced freight service carrying sugar, chrome and quarried stone. The main line between Harare and Bulawayo -- opened in 1907 -- was once electrified, but vandalism stripped it of its copper cables, signalling system and track motors. Today diesel-powered trains on the line are often hugely delayed and drivers are often forced to communicate using text and WhatsApp messages, Maravanyika said.

On the Bulawayo  commuter train, some windows on older carriages are even still marked “RR” for “Rhodesian Railways” -- Zimbabwe’s name before independence in 1980.  Rattling along on her return journey home, Ashley Sinda, 40, was weary after a long day working as a cleaner at a pharmaceutical company. “I live 300 metres (990 feet) from the last stop, so it is easy for me,” said the single mother of two, sitting among nurses, teachers, office workers staring at mobile phones and labourers who swilled cheap local beer. “It is impossible to afford the kombis, even if they are faster,” she said. “I am glad of this train, it is a good thing for us.”




Saudi, UAE pledge $3 bn aid for Sudan

Saudi, UAE pledge $3 bn aid for Sudan

Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates yesterday announced three billion dollars (2.7 billion euros) in financial support for Sudan following the overthrow of longtime leader Omar al-Bashir. The oil-rich Gulf states pledged to inject $500 million into the Sudanese central bank and $2.5

Egyptians vote to “Do the right”

Egyptians vote to “Do the right”

Egyptians voted yesterday in a referendum that aims to cement the rule of President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi. Voters were being asked to back amendments to the constitution to allow Sisi, 64, to run for another six-year term while boosting his control over the judiciary and giving the military even g

Thai Navy to remove bitcoin-rich couple’s sea home

Thai Navy to remove bitcoin-rich couple’s sea home

The Thai Navy will begin removing a “seastead” home built by an American bitcoin investor and his partner off the coast of Thailand, an official said yesterday, as the couple remains in hiding from charges accusing them of violating the country’s sovereignty. Chad Elwartowski an

Explosion, gunfire rock downtown Kabul

Explosion, gunfire rock downtown Kabul

Suicide bombers and gunmen launched an attack near a government ministry in central Kabul on Saturday, officials said, in an ongoing assault that destroyed weeks of relative calm in the capital. The attack near the communications ministry occurred one day after planned talks between the Taliban a

Pakistan says killer gunmen based in Iran

Pakistan says killer gunmen based in Iran

The gunmen who killed 14 members of Pakistan’s security forces in the country’s southwest earlier this week came from Iran to carry out the attack, officials said Saturday. Some 20 people wearing uniforms from the paramilitary Frontier Corps stopped buses in Balochistan provin

Djokovic knocked out as Nadal battles on in Monte Carlo

Djokovic knocked out as Nadal battles on in Monte Carlo

World number one Novak Djokovic was dumped out by Daniil Medvedev while Rafael Nadal survived a struggle to reach the semi-finals of the Monte Carlo Masters for the 14th time yesterday. Djokovic, twice a champion in the principality, lost serve five times in a 6-3, 4-6, 6-2 defeat by Russ


Saudi, UAE pledge $3 bn aid for Sudan

Saudi, UAE pledge $3 bn aid for Sudan

Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates yesterday announced three billion dollars (2.7 billion euros) in financial support for Sudan following the overthrow of longtime leader Omar al-Bashir. The oil-rich Gulf states pledged to inject $500 million into the Sudanese central bank and $2.5

US envoy honours contest winners

US envoy honours contest winners

The US Ambassador to Bahrain, Justin Siberell honored the winners at an award ceremony held for the eighth annual Global Innovation through Science and Technology (GIST) Tech-I Competition.  The GIST Tech-I Competition is an annual competition for science and technology entrepreneurs

Jarir Bookstore to open BD4m outlet in the Kingdom

Jarir Bookstore to open BD4m outlet in the Kingdom

Jarir Bookstore, the largest retailer of books and consumer electronics in Saudi Arabia, will open a branch in the Kingdom next year. Jarir Chief Operating Officer Nassir Al Ageel noted Seef District as the best location for their new branch, due to its attractive investment environment. 

TradeQuest Programme winners honoured

TradeQuest Programme winners honoured

Under the patronage of Zayed Al Zayani, the Minister of Industry, Commerce and Tourism and the Minister in Charge of Bahrain Bourse and in the presence of Rasheed Mohammed Al Maraj, the CBB Governor, the final TradeQuest Awards Ceremony was held yesterday, where high school and university student

623 rice bags confiscated after trademark violations

623 rice bags confiscated after trademark violations

Over 600 rice bags were confiscated from shops during inspections carried out by the Ministry of Industry, Commerce and Tourism after noticing trademark infringements. The inspections were part of efforts by the ministry to ensure food safety and hygiene during the month of Ramadan. The i

‘Investing in youth a top priority’

‘Investing in youth a top priority’

His Royal Highness Prince Salman bin Hamad Al Khalifa, Crown Prince, Deputy Supreme Commander and First Deputy Prime Minister yesterday welcomed this year’s recipients of the Crown Prince’s International Scholarship Programme (CPISP), at Riffa Palace. During the meeting, HRH the Crown

‘Cancer cure research progressing at fast pace’

‘Cancer cure research progressing at fast pace’

A leading exemplary, who has contributed tremendously to the field of biotechnology, Dr. Robert Langer is widely recognised as a renowned researcher whose publications have been cited over 283,000 times. His research laboratory at MIT is considered the largest biomedical engineering lab in the wo

Easter Sunday horror

Easter Sunday horror

Seven suspects were arrested in connection with the Easter Sunday bomb attacks on eight churches and hotels in Sri Lanka that left more than 200 dead and hundreds more injured, the country’s defense minister said 10 years after the end of a civil war in which bomb blasts in the South Asian