MIDWAY : Hard times

When you need to travel by train in Zimbabwe these days, the overnight services are an unsettling experience. It is not only the stations along the way that are in darkness,

you cannot count on much illumination inside the carriage either.

Most travellers on the poorly maintained inter-city trains bring a torch.

Being a regular user of the train between the capital, Harare, and the second largest city, Bulawayo, 480 km by rail, I have witnessed then alarming deterioration of the rail system in recent years.

To begin with, because the rail fares are lower than those for road and air travel — made worse by erratic fuel availability and prices, the demand is very high and getting a ticket is a nightmare. The less fortunate spend two or three days trying to purchase a ticket. Some sleep at the station to increase their chances.

There have also been allegations that National Railways of Zimbabwe (NRZ) employees work with outsiders to resell tickets at exorbitant rates to desperate travellers. “Sorry, no electricity on board,” the attendants will often tell you if you do finally get a ticket. And if you are getting off at towns along the way, say Kwekwe or Gweru, there are times that you find these places unlit due to the power cuts that have hit Zimbabwe owing to electricity shortages.

The cuts have also meant that rail signals are usually down, putting travellers’ lives at risk. A number of accidents have occurred in recent years, including one in which 13 people were killed in Dzivaresekwa, a suburb of Harare this year. Ageing equipment, including the railway line itself, has also been responsible for some of the accidents.

But even if you are not involved in an accident, you are likely to be subjected to a long and boring journey. Travelling between Harare and Bulawayo, you might spend up to 20 hours on board, on a trip that not long ago would have lasted only about 10 hours.

More often than not, water is also not available but passengers continue to use the toilets, creating a pungent smell. Cockroaches and mosquitoes are also regulars on board. But for the passengers it’s more a matter of saving hard-earned cash than travelling in elegance.