Zimbabwe: The long wait goes on

first_imgAn agreement for Russia’s United Wagon Company to supply 100 wagons offers fresh hope for investment in National Railways of Zimbabwe. However, a proposed US$1bn recapitalisation programme collapsed in October, further delaying much-needed enhancements. Daisy Jeremani reports from Bulawayo.,The problems facing Zimbabwe’s national railway are legion, but at the core are an ageing rolling stock fleet and poor infrastructure. Prior to 2000, National Railways of Zimbabwe moved around 18 million tonnes of freight per year, but by 2016 this had dwindled to 2·5 million tonnes before recovering slightly to reach 3·4 million tonnes in the 2018 financial year.The 1 067 mm gauge national network is old and littered with severe speed restrictions. Derailments are not uncommon. In addition, NRZ is saddled with US$500m of debt, part of which is owed to its workforce. Over the past two decades, several attempts have been made to salvage the railway’s finances; the latest effort was launched in August 2017 by the Diaspora Infrastructure Development Group, a consortium of expatriate Zimbabweans backed by Transnet, the South African rail freight and logistics parastatal.US$400m plan abortedThe investors were planning to inject US$400m in capital, but on October 16 last year President Emmerson Mnangagwa’s government announced the cancellation of the tender, claiming the DIDG/Transnet partnership had failed to provide proof of funding. The NRZ network is 2 580 km long; the electrification installed in the early 1980s is no longer operational.Lack of visionAccording to former NRZ Chairman & General Manager Alvord Mabena, the collapse of the DIDG/Transnet deal was ‘nothing new’. During his second term as CEO in 2014-15, a proposal to recapitalise the state enterprise by the Development Bank of Southern Africa also fell through.‘All that is primarily a question of lack of national vision’, he says. ‘A lot of time has been wasted on work to revive the railways, but as soon as a new minister is appointed he discards all that work and introduces his own. That has cost the country dearly and it’s still happening today. The justification for any long-term project comes from the organisation’s internal experts. They advise the government on what they require to do in the next five, 10 or 20 years and that programme is agreed upon.’One of the most high profile symbols of NRZ’s decline is the lack of functioning electrification, although the country’s busiest main line had been wired in the early 1980s. The 305 km section between Harare and the Dabuka marshalling yard in Gweru was formally inaugurated in October 1983, which at the time was hailed as a new dawn for the national railway. But plans to expand the 25 kV 50 Hz electrification from Dabuka to Bulawayo and Victoria Falls did not come to fruition.‘Some of the infrastructure has been totally vandalised, so that investment has gone to waste’, Mabena reports. Following the theft of many OLE and signalling components, trains using the route have been diesel hauled for several years. Rehabilitation had been complicated by government intervention in NRZ’s procurement processes, Mabena adds, to the extent that the railway has ended up taking delivery of equipment that is not compatible with its domestic standards. The situation has been complicated by efforts to standardise railways across the southern part of Africa, especially in areas such as braking systems, wagon design and locomotive specification.‘The vision is still there. We want to recapitalise and government is in the thick of things to make sure we court an investor’Nyasha Maravanyika, Public Relations Manager, NRZHope for the futureDespite the continuing challenges, NRZ spokesman Nyasha Maravanyika remains upbeat about the parastatal’s prospects. He insists that the collapse of the DIDG/Transnet deal does not mark the end of efforts to secure investment to rehabilitate the network. ‘The vision is still there. We want to recapitalise and government is in the thick of things to make sure we court an investor’, he says.NRZ does acknowledge the myriad of challenges facing it, with many infrastructure components now exceeding 70 years old and rolling stock typically averaging at least 30 years. The NRZ workshop in Bulawayo began a programme of fleet overhaul and refurbishment, but even that faced considerable challenges. An acute foreign currency shortage makes sourcing components from Europe extremely difficult. NRZ had to resort to the established railway practice of cannibalising stored rolling stock to keep other vehicles in service. The DIDG-Transnet proposal did nevertheless lead to some modest investment in rolling stock. NRZ was able to lease on an interim basis nine Class 34 and four Class 43 diesel locomotives from Transnet Freight Rail, along with 200 wagons and 34 passenger coaches. The wagons were put to dedicated use for chrome ore exports through Maputo in neighbouring Mozambique.UWC dealSix days after the government revoked the DIDG/Transnet agreement, NRZ signed a contract with Union Wagon Co for the supply of rolling stock; the first of an initial batch of 100 open wagons was due to arrive from UWC’s Tikhvin works last month. The agreement includes options which could see the Russian company supply up to 5 000 wagons. Meanwhile, the DIDG consortium appears determined to seek legal redress for cancellation of its contract. Chairman Donovan Chimhandamba told the Zimbabwe Independent on November 29 that it had provided evidence to the government that a consortium of banks, including Africa Export & Import Bank, had formally agreed to raise US$1bn for the railway’s recapitalisation programme.DIDG is reportedly preparing a US$215m lawsuit against both NRZ and transport minister Biggie Matiza. ‘The gross misrepresentations around missed timelines, lapsing of the framework agreement, DIDG funding and Transnet’s role have been unfortunately distorted and can only be addressed by us being afforded an opportunity to present to the President and cabinet representatives, including minister Matiza in one forum, so as to correct these misrepresentations and move the project forward with haste. NRZ and Zimbabwe cannot afford such a setback’, Chimhandamba explained.center_img NRZ staff work on a DE11 diesal locomotive as part of a rolling stock overhaul and rehabilitation programme under which stored vehicles are being returned to traffic.Although NRZ had a target of carrying 4·2 million tonnes of freight in 2019, Maravanyika reports that this is unlikely to be realised because of economic instability during the year. In addition, NRZ is continuing to struggle to retain traffic in the face of intense competition from road haulage. In the past, the railway had been protected from road competition on some key flows, but these measures were removed in the 1990s by the government as part of economic stimulus policies.Another priority for NRZ is to restore the regularity of inter-city passenger trains. The Bulawayo – Harare trains are currently running three times per week in each direction, but demand exists for at least a daily train pair.This article first appeared in the February 2020 issue of Railway Gazette Internationallast_img