In a rare success story, Zimbabwe’s only commuter train is packed

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Commuters are seen in a filled commuter train heading for the city on January 29, 2019, in Bulawayo, Zimbabwe. (AFP)
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A passenger's hand grips onto the doorway rails of a commuter train on January 29, 2019, in Bulawayo, Zimbabwe. (AFP)
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Commuters purchase tickets on January 29, 2019 in Cowdray Park township, in Bulawayo, Zimbabwe. Zimbabwe's only commuter train is cheap and reliable -- two qualities that its passengers cherish in a downwards-spiralling economy. (AFP)
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People wait on railway tracks to board a commuter train on January 29, 2019 in Cowdray Park township, in Bulawayo, Zimbabwe. (AFP)
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Schoolgirls plait their hair next to a railway line as they wait to board a train on January 29, 2019 in Cowdray Park township, in Bulawayo, Zimbabwe. (AFP)
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Commuters queue to purchase train tickets on January 29, 2019 in Cowdray Park township, in Bulawayo Zimbabwe. (AFP)
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A man crosses the railway line and wait for a commuter train in the morning on January 29, 2019 in Cowdray Park township, in Bulawayo, Zimbabwe. (AFP)
Updated 10 February 2019
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In a rare success story, Zimbabwe’s only commuter train is packed

  • Mugabe’s successor President Emmerson Mnangagwa has backed railway investment as part of his plans to turn around the economy
  • Zimbabwe’s rail network — which includes the dramatic line across the Victoria Falls into Zambia — was built under British colonial rule

BULAWAYO, Zimbabwe: Chugging through townships, maize fields and scrubland as the sun rises, Zimbabwe’s only commuter train is cheap and reliable — two qualities that its passengers cherish in a downwards-spiralling economy.
Each morning sleepy travelers walk to the tracks and clamber aboard before the train leaves the Cowdray Park settlement at 6:00 am on its 20-kilometer (12-mile) journey into Bulawayo, the country’s second city.
The hugely popular service was only revived in November after being suspended for 13 years as the rail network collapsed under President Robert Mugabe, who ruled for nearly four decades until ousted in 2017.
At Cowdray Park, there is no platform, and no station except for a makeshift ticket office made out of an old carriage sitting in a field.
En route, the train stops several times in the open to pick up more passengers who stream in from surrounding homes, climbing up the steps and squeezing into 14 packed carriages.
Soon after 7:00 am, it pulls into Bulawayo’s grand but dilapidated station and disgorges about 2,000 workers, uniformed school children and other travelers into the city center, ready for the day ahead.

“The prices for kombis (minibuses) went up to two dollars, and that’s just too expensive,” said Sipeka Mushoma, 61, a heavy vehicle driver at a Bulawayo steel manufacturer, who managed to grab a precious early seat.
“The train is 50 cents. My children have to get the kombi to go to school, but this saves me a lot of money to buy vegetables and bread. Zimbabweans are hurting badly, some of us are really starving now.”
The government last month announced that fuel prices would more than double — triggering violent protests, a security crackdown and further pressure on minibuses to hike prices.
Bulawayo once had two commuter train lines carrying workers in from either side of the city, while the capital Harare had three lines — all of them dubbed “Freedom Trains” as they allowed passengers to avoid higher road costs.
The services were scrapped around 2006, and the Cowdray Park line is the only one to be re-launched in a $2.5-million project funded by the state-owned National Railways of Zimbabwe (NRZ).
Mugabe’s successor President Emmerson Mnangagwa has backed railway investment as part of his plans to turn around the economy.
But the outcome of the commuter train is a rare success in his efforts, which have struggled to produce concrete results.
“The president and new government are very supportive of the railways,” said Nyasha Maravanyika, the railways’ press relations chief, adding that talks were under way for an international consortium to fund a full-scale re-launch of the whole rail network.
“We had to re-furbish old carriages to get this service going, and it has been a huge success,” Maravanyika told AFP.
“The old commuter trains were suspended as the coaches and the signalling became more and more run-down.”
“People know that when they are on the train, they are on their way to work,” he added.
“It is an answer to their transport blues. We are here to attract commuters as kombi fares rise — that’s our job.”

Maravanyika says just $10 million would put the other four commuter lines back in operation.
“We hope to re-open the other Bulawayo line next and, despite all the challenges, revive Zimbabwe’s railways,” he said. “They were the heartbeat of the southern African rail network.”
Zimbabwe’s rail network — which includes the dramatic line across the Victoria Falls into Zambia — was built under British colonial rule, and at its peak in the 1990s had 600 locomotives and 3,000 passenger carriages.
Today it has less than 100 locomotives and a few hundred carriages, running a threadbare schedule between major cities, and a much-reduced freight service carrying sugar, chrome and quarried stone.
The main line between Harare and Bulawayo — opened in 1907 — was once electrified, but vandalism stripped it of its copper cables, signalling system and track motors.
Today diesel-powered trains on the line are often hugely delayed and drivers are often forced to communicate using text and WhatsApp messages, Maravanyika said.
On the Bulawayo commuter train, some windows on older carriages are even still marked “RR” for “Rhodesian Railways” — Zimbabwe’s name before independence in 1980.
Rattling along on her return journey home, Ashley Sinda, 40, was weary after a long day working as a cleaner at a pharmaceutical company.
“I live 300 meters (990 feet) from the last stop, so it is easy for me,” said the single mother of two, sitting among nurses, teachers, office workers staring at mobile phones and laborers who swilled cheap local beer.
“It is impossible to afford the kombis, even if they are faster,” she said. “I am glad of this train, it is a good thing for us.”


Cliff divers leap from Beirut landmark in international tour

Updated 16 July 2019
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Cliff divers leap from Beirut landmark in international tour

  • The competition was the fifth of this year’s Red Bull Cliff Diving Series that began its 11th season in April
  • Raouche Rock has featured on the back of postcards, on stamps, in family photographs and many Arabic songs and films

BEIRUT: Cliff divers used to competing in isolated spots have been leaping into the Mediterranean in bustling Beirut, the first time the Lebanese capital’s landmark Raouche Rock has hosted an international contest.
The towering rock, also known as Pigeons Rock, is an enduring symbol of a city where many other landmarks were destroyed by the 1975-90 civil war.
“Normally when we have cliffs like this, it is in the middle of nowhere. I have never been to a place with an amazing cliff right in the city center,” said Gary Hunt, a Briton who won the men’s competition on Sunday.
The competition was the fifth of this year’s Red Bull Cliff Diving Series that began its 11th season in April on El Nido island in the Philippines and winds up in Bilbao, Spain in September.
Hunt became the first diver in the series history to receive a perfect 10 score from each of the five judges at Sunday’s competition.
In the women’s contest, Australia’s Rhiannan Iffland, 27, scored her sixth consecutive win of this series.
“It doesn’t matter how many times you perform a dive. You still get up there 22 meters (72 feet) high and you still have all these negative emotions,” said Iffland, who has been diving since she was nine.
“To overcome that fear is something that I cannot express.”
Raouche Rock has featured on the back of postcards, on stamps, in family photographs and many Arabic songs and films.
Daring Lebanese have leapt from the rock for generations. Some have also committed suicide from it.
Hundreds of spectators watched the competition, which ended on Sunday, from the adjacent rocks and promenade.
’Young again’
Among them was 63-year-old fisherman Mohamed Itani, who said he had jumped off the cliff 36 times over the years for fun. “It is beautiful,” said Itani as he watched the divers. “It makes me feel young again.”
Judges mark the divers on their take-off and entry to the water and number of twists, somersaults and position in the air.
Hunt, 35, said he used to count to three just before he jumped but now just takes two breaths: one when he lifts his arms up and one when he leaps.
“There are three seconds in that air where you are just in total control. Your brain and your body decide what you do and you are completely free,” he said.
Itani described a similar feeling. “You’re like an eagle in the air,” he said.