NRZ 121 years on…
By John Batwell
At the time, imperialist Cecil John Rhodes commented “the railway is my hand” since railways ranked high in his vision for opening up and developing the interior of the African continent. The arrival of the railway in Bulawayo led to the newspaper the Chronicle getting carried away – “Today is the parting of the ways for Matabeleland, the relegation of the old method of transport to the past and the beginning of civilisation in its entirety….”.
It had been four years since Dr Jameson’s Column had hoisted the flag on that wild syringa tree in the contemporary suburb of Sauerstown, marking the occupation of Lobengula’s capital and marking the birth of the Bulawayo of today. It was declared a town on 4 November 1893 and the trains began running in 1897. Editorial comment in October 1897 in the Bulawayo Chronicle said, “Bulawayo has been waiting for the railway like the Australian farmer waits for rain which shall bring him prosperity.”
Ox wagon transport from the South had virtually stopped owing to the rinderpest; freight charges to Mafeking were up two hundred pounds a ton; and the time it took consignments to reach Bulawayo roused the local merchants to great heights of fury. The early development of the territory took place at the pace of the ox. A fully-laden wagon
carrying over three-and-a-half tonnes ground and bumped its way over the rough transport road at little more than three kilometres an hour for some eight hours a day so at such a ponderous pace the almost 800km took a very long time.
Passenger travel beyond Mafeking was by coach conveying 12 passengers and mail but as Bulawayo quickly grew into an important distribution centre as gold mining camps and other settlements sprang up in the area, the extension of the railway from Mafeking was becoming imperative. The northward thrust from Mafeking, where the railway from Vryburg had reached in October 1894, got off to a slow start. At that time, Bulawayo was receiving more than two thousand heavy wagons a year from the south.
A passenger on the mail coach reported counting over a hundred wagons on the road between Palapye in Bechuanaland and Bulawayo alone. Such was the urgency for the rail connection to Bulawayo that the final 18 months of construction, despite problems including water shortages, was laid at the remarkable rate of a mile day, 640km in 400 days! As a result, the railway was in part laid directly on the ground with little or no ballast. Such
was the haste that the surveyors were often only a day or two ahead of the construction gangs and the route took the line of least resistance.
The development of the railways in Zimbabwe was directed essentially by the need to serve the towns, mines and farms which were fast being established and ultimately to link the landlocked country with sea ports. The link between Salisbury (Harare) and Bulawayo was completed in October 1902 and Salisbury was also, by now, connected to the Indian Ocean at Beira by rail. The line had arrived in Salisbury from Beira in May 1899. Rhodes had said, “We are bound, and I have made up my mind, to go on without delay. Let us see it [the railway] on the Zambezi in our lifetime.” It happened but not for Rhodes to observe personally as he died in 1902. The construction north-west from Bulawayo began in 1903, crossing the Zambezi River at Victoria Falls in September 1905 and reaching the Congo border by the end of the decade in December 1909.
As mentioned mining and agriculture in essence dictated the development of rail routes. Three decades of rail growth from 1900 had seen railway lines grow like tentacles penetrating much of Mashonaland such as Chinhoyi, Shamva and Kildonan whilst in the Midlands Eiffel Flats, Masvingo, Shurugwi and Zvishavane came to receive the railway; and branch lines in southern Matabeleland served Matopos (whom Rhodes believed everyone should be able to enjoy leisurely at week-ends) and West Nicholson. (Ninety-four years later West Nicholson was linked to Beit Bridge). Where the tracks did not go, the Road Motor Service (RMS) was set up, this having been introduced in 1927.
Up to 1927, the whole system was operated by Mashonaland Railway Company under the title ‘Beira and Mashonaland and Rhodesia Railways’ but as from the beginning of October 1927 the Rhodesia Railways Co. Ltd. became the working company. From 1 October 1936 the Rhodesia Railways Ltd. became the owners of the entire railway system in Rhodesia (Zimbabwe) and Zambia and the Vryburg (Union of South Africa) – Bulawayo section. The Vryburg – Ramathlabama portion was purchased by South African Railways in late 1959. On 1 April 1947 the then Rhodesian Government acquired the assets of Rhodesia Railways Ltd. and on 1 November 1949 the railway undertaking became a statutory body known as Rhodesia Railways.
The railway line through to Beira in Mozambique was relinquished to that Portuguese colony in that year. On 1 July 1967 the system was divided at Victoria Falls bridge with Zambia Railways in the north and Rhodesia Railways in the south. Rhodesia Railways was redesignated Zimbabwe Rhodesia Railways on 1 June 1979 and finally National Railways of Zimbabwe (NRZ) on 1 May 1980.
In 1987 the NRZ handed over the railway running through independent Botswana (former Bechuanaland) to that country which then took over ownership, management and operation from Plumtree southward.
To be continued