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

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.”


Jane Fonda returns to civil disobedience for climate change

Updated 19 October 2019

Jane Fonda returns to civil disobedience for climate change

  • Jane Fonda plans to get arrested every Friday to advocate for urgent reduction in the use of fossil fuels
  • Getting arrested in 2019, poses some entirely new challenges: Fonda

WASHINGTON: Inspired by the climate activism of a Swedish teenager, Jane Fonda says she’s returning to civil disobedience nearly a half-century after she was last arrested at a protest.
Fonda, known for her opposition to the Vietnam War, was one of 17 climate protesters was arrested Friday at the US Capitol on charges of unlawful demonstration by what she called “extremely nice and professional” police. Fellow actor Sam Waterston was also in the group, which included many older demonstrators.
Now 81, Fonda said she plans to get arrested every Friday to advocate for urgent reduction in the use of fossil fuels. She hopes to encourage other older people to protest as well.
Getting arrested in 2019, poses some entirely new challenges, Fonda told The Associated Press in an interview.
These days, “they use white plastic things on your wrists instead of metal handcuffs, and that hurts more,” she said.
“The only problem for me is I’m old,” Fonda said. After her first arrest last week, she had trouble getting into the police vehicle because she was handcuffed behind her back and “had nothing to hang on to.”
On Friday, Fonda emerged from a cluster of officers and stepped smartly into the police wagon, her hands cuffed in front of her.
“Thanks, Jane!” some of the protesters called out.
“What would you tell President Trump?” someone in the crowd yelled to her earlier, as she and other protesters stood on their platform in front of the Capitol.
“I wouldn’t waste my breath,” she shouted back, drawing laughter.
The rally drew at least a couple of hundred people, young and old.
While Fonda has taken part in many climate demonstrations, she said Greta Thunberg’s mobilization of international student strikes and other activism, along with the climate writing of author Naomi Klein, prompted her to return to courting arrests for a cause.
Fonda cannot remember precisely which cause led to her last arrest in the 1970s.
She said her target audience now is people like her who try to cut their plastic use and drive fuel-efficient cars, for instance, but otherwise “don’t know what to do and they feel helpless,” she said. “We’re trying to encourage people to become more active, across the age spectrum.”
Especially in the US, young people appear to be driving many of the protests and rallies demanding government action on climate change, University of Maryland sociologist Dana Fisher said.
Nearly half of the people who turned out for a September climate protest in Washington were college age or younger, and a quarter were 17 or younger, for instance, Fisher said. Most were female.
On the other hand, it was older, white females who turned out for earlier protests during the Trump administration, like the women’s marches, Fisher noted.
“There’s a whole group of very activated, middle-age white women. They woke up after the election, and they haven’t gone back to bed,” Fisher said.
So far, those people have not been involved in the youth climate movement. Fonda’s efforts could “get them out there,” Fisher said.
If her efforts misfire, Fisher added, the older people risk making the movement look uncool.
Asked how she would answer any young climate activist who complained of being co-opted, Fonda said, “I would hug them.”
And she did just that with some of the teenagers and other young activists she invited up to the stage to speak.
“It’s a good thing that Jane is doing, to try to shift the paradigm so it’s not just falling on young people” to rally the public on fossil fuel emissions, said Joe Markus, a 19-year-old Washington-area student attending Friday’s protest.
Leslie Wharton, 63, from Bethesda, Maryland, sat out the Vietnam War protests that drew out Fonda. She came out Friday as part of a group calling itself Elders Climate Action.
Lots of people of all ages are worried about climate change and want to do something, Wharton said, but “us elders are retired or part-time. We can take the time.”