The summer season is always a welcome time for Zimbabwe, whose economy is heavily reliant on agriculture.
Rains are copious during this time, providing an opportunity for farmers who rely on rain-fed agriculture to plant crops while the hot sun interspersed with rains is ideal for crop growth.
While summer rains are most welcome for the country, they always present a unique challenge to the National Railways of Zimbabwe (NRZ) as they cause weather induced disruptions, delays and cancellations of some of its train services during the course of the rainy season.
This summer season is no different from previous ones with train movement disruptions resulting in cancellations and delays of some trains causing inconveniences to passengers and customers.
During a hot summer’s day, railway tracks are susceptible to a phenomenon known as kick out. This is when heat from the sun expands the rail which then bends. As a train travels over the bent rail it derails.
Tracks are also vulnerable to wash aways during the rainy season. A wash away occur when heavy rains destroy a portion of the rail.
Both kick outs and wash aways are seasonal events which occur in the summer.
Kick outs are common between Bulawayo and Dabuka; Dabuka and Harare and also on the Somabhula-Rutenga corridor.
Train services are disrupted once there are kick outs and wash aways and resumption of service depends on the severity of the damage and time taken to repair the line.
Ballast (quarry stone) on railways is put to hold the rail in place with support from sleepers. However, some people herding cattle along railway lines are removing the ballast from place when they drive their livestock over the tracks.
This disturbance of ballast makes the tracks vulnerable to wash aways and people must always use designated level crossing points when crossing the rail to avoid tampering with ballast.
Since the start of the summer season, kickouts and wash aways have been reported on the NRZ system.
There have been more than six kickouts with repairs to tracks and wagons damaged by the resultant derailment costing the organisation a lot of money. In three of the incidences, almost seven kilometres of rail and more than 1 180 railway sleepers were damaged and had to be replaced.
The kickouts occurred at the peak of the summer hot season between 16 October and 31 December 2017.
The most serious incident of kickouts last year was on 31 December 2017, a goods train from Dabuka to Rutenga derailed after a kick out between Bannockburn and Laings near Zvishavane on the line to Rutenga.
The line was blocked for more than a week and the derailment resulted in the cancellation of trains carrying exports from Zimbabwe through Maputo Port in Mozambique while imports by train into Zimbabwe and Botswana, including diesel, were held at Rutenga while NRZ repaired the line.
However, incidents of kick outs and wash aways would be significantly reduced should the organisation’s recapitalisation process take shape.
The NRZ recapitalization exercise is expected to take shape this year as the parastatal and its prospective partner – Diaspora Investment Development Group (DIDG) / Transnet are expected to conclude the deal this first quarter.
The recapitalization process, which will cost $400million, will involve among others, the acquisition of rolling stock and the rehabilitation of the track to enable the NRZ to increase its capacity to move freight from 3 million tonnes to 6 million tonnes in the short term before reaching its designated capacity of 18 million tonnes in the long term.
While the NRZ unreservedly apologizes for its customers’ late arrival of goods, delays and other inconveniences, it is critical for these publics to understand and appreciate the various challenges the railways utility encounters season by season in its operations.
Despite all this, the NRZ once again would like to express its unflinching commitment to continue providing seamless, efficient, reliable, cost effective and safe transportation services to all its publics.