Cablegate: National Railways of Zimbabwe On the Decline

This record is a partial extract of the original cable. The full text of the original cable is not available.




E.O. 12958: N/A

Ref: Harare 79

1. Summary: The National Railways of Zimbabwe (NRZ), a
critical artery for this landlocked country, is one of the
unnoticed victims of Zimbabwe's economic decline. Reliable
sources at the NRZ, one of the many parastatals recording
consistent losses over the past 18 years, confirm that
capacity utilization of the rail network has declined by 40
percent due to numerous economic factors, including lack of
investment, poor management and under-capitalization. The
NRZ has also redirected resources for urban commuters, a
public relations ploy of questionable value. End summary.

Rail Corridors Vital to Entire Region

2. NRZ provides a stark example of Zimbabwe's crumbling
infrastructure; most of the rail tracks have not been
rehabilitated in the past 20 years. The Zimbabwe Government
sees the NRZ as a strategic asset and is reluctant to
concede authority to private control despite a SADC policy
recommendation that the rail tracks need rehabilitation, an
impossible upgrade without private sector capital. The NRZ
is also a vital link for the regional transit traffic for
countries such as Zambia and the Democratic Republic of
Congo (DRC). Like all other regional railways, NRZ is facing
stiff competition from road transport, which can offer
competitive advantages in terms of freight rates, road
reliability and delivery times. Depending on the type of
freight, volume and value, road transport can sometimes
actually be cheaper.

3. NRZ operations, not normally under the spotlight, are
becoming increasingly important due to the central role of
rail transport in cross-border movement of humanitarian
relief grain along the SADC transport corridors. The
constraints of the rail system are consistently cited as one
bottleneck in the relief food pipeline. Problems at NRZ
have so far escaped public scrutiny due to the many
competing social, economic and political problems currently
facing the country.

4. During the SADC/WFP transport and logistics meeting in
Harare in September 2002, the General Manager of Corneider
de Mocambique, a company holding a 25 year concession for
the container terminal and general cargo berths of the of
port of Beira, expressed concern at the number of NRZ cars
(about 211 wagons) sitting idle at the port due to lack of
motive power. Beira is supposed to be Zimbabwe's preferred
port due its short distance - 600km from the capital,
compared to the South African ports of Cape-town and Durban.
However, while cars sit idle in Mozambique, products vital
to Zimbabwe - such as coal, necessary for running the
country's powers stations - remain stranded without
transport (reftel).

Lack of Forex Strangling Capital Improvements

5. NRZ is suffering along with the rest of the country due
to the strangling economy. The withdrawal of World Bank
loans, along with the widespread lack of forex, mean that
the organization is failing to procure important spare parts
for its aging locomotives, as well as failing to service
important signaling equipment which is being vandalized and

Attempts to "Move" the Voters

6. The introduction of "freedom trains," a political
gimmick developed during the presidential election campaign
in order to woo urban voters to support the ruling party,
has compounded NRZ problems. "Freedom trains" have been
trumpeted as a cost-effective alternative to the omnipresent
commuter omnibuses; in fact, given the current fuel crisis,
commuters are flocking to the trains as one of the few
alternatives for passenger transport. Some locomotives are
being diverted to pick up passengers from various urban high-
density suburbs at less than cost-effective fares, instead
of concentrating on moving cargo. The end result is that
nobody wins. Commercial enterprises - including mines and
industry - suffer because capacity is diverted to
passengers. The trains, not designed for urban commuting
service, have not appreciably reduced transport problems for
most urban workers because service is limited to only eight
of about twenty two high-density commuter suburbs in Harare
and Bulawayo. In addition, although many desperate
commuters would adjust their schedules to take advantage of
the "freedom trains," sporadic timetables and massive
overcrowding make them an alternative of questionable value.


6. The crumbling of a once-viable rail network is a symptom
of the general decline of the country. Though no particular
attention is being paid to NRZ, it might prove to be one of
the worst failures of the current regime. If the GOZ
continues with its current policies, chances are very high
that the NRZ might be forced to cease operations due to the
lack of equipment and capital to keep it running - thus
affecting movement of goods in the entire region as well as
in Zimbabwe.


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