In Summary
  • Zimbabwe's rail network 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.
  • 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.

BULAWAYO,

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 6am 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.

SQUEEZED

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 7am, 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.

"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."

Zimbabwe commuter train

Commuters are seen in a filled commuter train heading for the city on January 29, 2019, in Bulawayo, Zimbabwe. PHOTO | ZINYANGE AUNTONY | AFP

FUEL PRICES

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 had 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 re-launched 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.

RARE SUCCESS

But the outcome of the commuter train is a rare success in his efforts, which have struggled to produce concrete results.

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