Zim railway's pipe dream

Plans to expand the railway system may fail because of a lack of capital. (Aaron Ufumeli)

Plans to expand the railway system may fail because of a lack of capital. (Aaron Ufumeli)

The cash-strapped National Railways of Zimbabwe (NRF) says it has a plan. But with no investor or a cash injection from the government, the question is: How feasible is that plan?

Among the ambitious ideas in a dossier recently handed out by the company is the construction of six new railway routes and two manufacturing plants in Bulawayo, at a cost of more than $450-million.

The NRZ, wholly owned and run by the government, mirrors its shareholder – battling financially to pay its employees, struggling with a liquidity crunch and with no investor willing to resuscitate it.

Critics blame the Zanu-PF government for running the NRZ into the ground by staffing the NRZ's top management with its cronies. Only 151 out of the total fleet of 309 coaches are in service – in a deplorable state.

But the railway company believes its plan is just what it needs to reinvent itself. The proposed railway lines include the Harare-Chitungwiza urban commercial railway system estimated to cost more than $440-million. The project would be a rail commuter service between the two cities. It would comprise a double-track urban-commuter electrified railway that the parastatal says will cater for travel demands generated by the Harare-Chitungwiza region's high-density areas.

New railway lines
The NRZ also proposes constructing a new railway line to link Lion's Den in Zimbabwe and Kafue in Zambia.

There are also plans to construct a new railway line to link Harare or Bindura in Zimbabwe to Moatize in Mozambique. The benefit, the NRZ says, is that Zimbabwe will be better connected to Mozambique through Zambia; this will provide an alternative route for traffic to seaports.

The NRZ says these efforts are part of its efforts to revive its economic misfortunes. It even proposes integrating the railway system to the existing bus system, to maximise the efficiency of both modes so that those in areas not served by the proposed rail system can use the railway services.

The two manufacturing plants in Bulawayo are expected to cost $14-million. According to the NRZ's proposal document, the concrete sleeper manufacturing plant, which would fall under the NRZ's infrastructure section, is intended to improve track conditions, reduce transit times for customer cargo and reduce derailments.

The concrete sleeper plant is estimated to cost $4-million and would include a wagon wheel manufacturing plant, reducing importation of such wheels. The second plant is estimated to cost $10-million.

But the NRZ plan is silent on how it will bankroll the proposals.

According to Obert Mpofu, the minister of transport and infrastructure development, the government was in talks with funders for the NRZ's recapitalisation. He recently told Parliament that his ministry had received two enquiries from potential investors who are considering investing in the railways under a transfer arrangement.

Economist John Robertson said money and mismanagement are the NRZ's biggest problems. Although the parastatal has ambitious plans to open new routes, it is technically broke, like any other government entity, according to Robertson.

“It needs massive recapitalisation but very few investors are ­willing to pour money in such an entity that is a victim of mismanagement," Robertson said.

“Above all, the entity needs sound management, otherwise that [investment] could go to waste."

The parastatal is in deep trouble after its revenue in the eight months to August last year dropped by 11% to $54.74-million, from $61.96-million, as recorded in the comparable period. – CAJ News

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