Zimbabwe's dingy trains mirror economic decline

HARARE, Oct 5 (Reuters) - Dark, dirty and slow, Zimbabwe's trains, like much else in the impoverished southern African country, have seen better days.

Once the preferred mode of transport for most Zimbabweans, the state-run rail service mirrors the decline in the country's economic fortunes during the last two decades under the leadership of former President Robert Mugabe.

Gilbert Mthinzima Ndlovu, a veteran of Zimbabwe's 1970s independence war and a security guard at the National Railways of Zimbabwe (NRZ) for 35 years, yearns for the old days when trains were full and arrived on time.

"Times are different now as we have few passengers," the off-duty Ndlovu told Reuters as he rested in a badly lit first class cabin during the journey from the capital Harare to his home in Bulawayo, Zimbabwe's second city.

23 PHOTOS
Zimbabwe's dingy trains mirror economic decline
See Gallery
Zimbabwe's dingy trains mirror economic decline

A passenger sits in a carriage ahead of an overnight train journey at a train station in Harare, Zimbabwe, August 5, 2018.

(REUTERS/Siphiwe Sibeko)

Gilbert Mthinzima Ndlovu (R), a veteran of Zimbabwe's 1970s independence war and a security guard at the National Railways of Zimbabwe (NRZ) for 35 years, chats to his colleague in a carriage during an overnight train journey from Harare to Bulawayo, Zimbabwe, August 5, 2018. 

(REUTERS/Siphiwe Sibeko)

A passenger walks past a sleeper train at a station in Harare, Zimbabwe, August 5, 2018. 

(REUTERS/Siphiwe Sibeko)

An abandoned train carriage stands in Harare, Zimbabwe, August 4, 2018. 

(REUTERS/Siphiwe Sibeko)

Commuters pose for a photograph in a sleeper train from Harare to Bulawayo, Zimbabwe, August 6, 2018. 

(REUTERS/Siphiwe Sibeko)

Wheels from an old train carriage are seen in Harare, Zimbabwe, August 4, 2018. 

(REUTERS/Siphiwe Sibeko)

Passengers chat as they wait for a train at a station in Harare, Zimbabwe, August 5, 2018. 

(REUTERS/Siphiwe Sibeko)

People stand next to rail track as they watch a sleeper train traveling from Harare to Bulawayo pass by near the town of Gweru, Zimbabwe, August 6, 2018. 

(REUTERS/Siphiwe Sibeko)

Passengers are seen ahead of an overnight train journey at a train station in Harare, Zimbabwe, August 5, 2018. 

(REUTERS/Siphiwe Sibeko)

The sun is reflected on railway tracks during sunrise in Harare, Zimbabwe, August 4, 2018. 

(REUTERS/Siphiwe Sibeko)

People sit on a platform at a train station in Marondera, in Mashonaland East, east of the capital Harare, Zimbabwe, August 4, 2018. 

(REUTERS/Siphiwe Sibeko)

People walk past station master's office at Marondera station in Mashonaland East, east of Harare, Zimbabwe, August 4, 2018.

(REUTERS/Siphiwe Sibeko)

A passenger travels on a sleeper train from Harare to Bulawayo, Zimbabwe, August 6, 2018. 

(REUTERS/Siphiwe Sibeko)

A train schedule is written on a chalk board at a train station in Harare, Zimbabwe, August 5, 2018. 

(REUTERS/Siphiwe Sibeko)

Train carriages are parked at a train station in Harare, Zimbabwe, August 5, 2018. 

(REUTERS/Siphiwe Sibeko)

A train mechanic sleeps at a platform after an overnight train journey from Harare, in Bulawayo, Zimbabwe, August 6, 2018. 

(REUTERS/Siphiwe Sibeko)

People wait for a sleeper train, traveling from Harare to Bulawayo, to depart near the town of Gweru, Zimbabwe, August 6, 2018.

(REUTERS/Siphiwe Sibeko)

Passengers arrive to board a sleeper train at a station in Harare, Zimbabwe, August 5, 2018. 

(REUTERS/Siphiwe Sibeko)

A train carrying passengers and goods travels from Harare to Bulawayo, Zimbabwe, August 6, 2018. 

(REUTERS/Siphiwe Sibeko)

Gilbert Mthinzima Ndlovu, a veteran of Zimbabwe's 1970s independence war and a security guard at the National Railways of Zimbabwe (NRZ) for 35 years, listens to a radio during an overnight train journey from Harare to Bulawayo, Zimbabwe, August 6, 2018.

(REUTERS/Siphiwe Sibeko)

A train inspector speaks to passengers on a sleeper train traveling from Harare to Bulawayo, Zimbabwe, August 6, 2018. 

(REUTERS/Siphiwe Sibeko)

Commuters stand on a platform during a brief stop of a sleeper train traveling from Harare to Bulawayo, near the town of Gweru, Zimbabwe, August 6, 2018. 

(REUTERS/Siphiwe Sibeko)

Station master's office is seen at Marondera station in Mashonaland East, east of Harare, Zimbabwe, August 4, 2018. 

(REUTERS/Siphiwe Sibeko)

HIDE CAPTION
SHOW CAPTION
of
SEE ALL
BACK TO SLIDE

Now the 10-hour journey can take 16 hours, he said.

Not surprising, then, that many Zimbabweans prefer to make the 440 km (273 mile) journey by bus or public taxi in around five hours than have to endure a cold overnight train ride - even if at $10 the train ride costs only half as much.

The train carriages often lack lighting and water, and the toilets are filthy. The signaling and information systems are often vandalized and some tracks overgrown with grass and weeds because they have not been used in years.

NRZ is now trying to improve its fortunes.

Last year South African logistics group Transnet won a $400 million joint bid to recapitalise NRZ and fix some of the problems, including acquiring and refurbishing carriages.

But for now passengers have to make do with a broken train service.

"Today you can't even buy food from the train and all the coaches are filthy, with no water and the lights are not working," said one passenger who declined to give his name.

(Writing by MacDonald Dzirutwe Editing by Gareth Jones)

Read Full Story