Columnists Features

We need modern railway system

OUR Government in September 2012 announced that it was revoking the concession agreement with the Railway Systems of Zambia (RSZ).
The minister of Finance indicated in his statement that Government had decided to revoke the concession after observing that RSZ had been flouting the provisions of the agreement.
RSZ was awarded the 20-year concession in 2003 to operate freight services on the Zambia Railways Limited (ZRL) network connecting the Copperbelt mining region near the Democratic Republic of Congo border to the Zimbabwean border at Victoria Falls, along with a seven-year concession to run passenger trains.
The statement further observed that clauses in the concession such as “investment in the maintenance and renewal of both infrastructure and rolling stock” had been completely flawed as there had been no tangible investment.
Further the statement said this neglect led to deterioration of the state-owned assets.
Government also said there had been an “unacceptable” number of derailments and poor safety, which were resulting in loss of life and property.
Many stakeholders welcomed the Government’s repossession of the national railway firm as we didn’t approve of how RSZ was running the corporation.
The railway company was almost going into oblivion under the stewardship of RSZ, which is a subsidiary of NLPI, a company of Mauritian origin.
After taking over the company Government injected in capital to the sum of US$120 million, part of the proceeds of a Eurobond borrowed from corporates in September 2013.
Since then the company’s fortunes have turned around and have been on an uphill trend as it has continued to record improvements in its operations.
ZRL has since signed contracts with various organisations, especially those in the mines, to ferry their products destined for export.
In May this year, ZRL chief executive officer Muyenga Atanga reported that the company had recorded a significant improvement in its performance by increasing its monthly haulage tonnage from 53 metric tonnes in April to 69 metric tonnes.
The company also announced that one percent out of the US$120 million government has injected in its recapitalisation will be used to buy new telecommunication equipment aimed at improving communication on the mainline and improve safety.
We commend the  government for moving in swiftly to save the company, which was on the brink of collapse.
ZRL has always been an integral player in the fight for the economic development of our country.
I, however, wish to clarify here that in its current state of operation, it is still very far from where all of us stakeholders would want it to be.
As an individual stakeholder I want a railway company that offers modern, affordable, reliable and efficient services.
I want to get on a ZRL train from Livingstone and arrive in Chingola on the same day.
I want to get on a ZRL passenger coach and be able to watch a movie, or better still be able to work on an article for tomorrow’s newspapers.
My wish list for ZRL can be quite long, and I am sure that the same goes for corporate stakeholders.
They need a railway that is affordable, efficient and reliable for them to excel in their businesses.
Right now ZRL can barely match up to anyone of the above standards. Both its current passenger and cargo coaches are in a deplorable state.
Its railway infrastructure is obsolete and in some cases non-existent or vandalised, and this has contributed greatly to the abnormally extended travel time and derailments on the company’s trains.
The current management is doing a good job in trying to get the company running but more work needs to be done.
I am afraid the US$120 million which Government has invested in the company will not be enough to take ZRL where we expect it to be.
It needs more money so that it can invest more in its railway tracks. That should be top priority.
We need the whole country to get connected by rail because it is the most cost-effective mode of transport for both individuals and bulk cargo for long distances over land.
To borrow the words of the late African-American hero Reverend Martin Luther King, “I have a dream” that in the very nearest future I will be able to travel to my grandmother’s village in Samfya from Lusaka within a few hours using a ZRL train.
If other countries have done it, then we can do it even better. Let’s get to work!
The author is a humanism advocate.

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