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Tell us where you were and what you saw!

Moderator: David Benton

  by David Benton
Sunday Mail

Sunday 12th October, 2008

By Nancy Mwape

Railway Systems launches express passenger service

For most people in Zambia, road and air travel are the most convenient modes of transportation. Although rail transport in other parts of the world is an ideal mode of transportation, the story in Zambia is different due to many hurdles the sector is facing. Recently, Railways System of Zambia (RSZ) launched an Express passenger train service on the Lusaka and Livingstone route. Our reporter NANCY MWAPE who traveled on the train narrates her experience.

THE Railways System of Zambia (RSZ), formally known as the Zambia Railways (ZR), is the country's oldest rail line. It was built by British colonial rulers as part of their vision of the Cape-to-Cairo railway, but the economic spur was to access the mines of Central Africa.

In 2003, Government concessioned ZR's freight and passenger operations for a 20-year period but ownership of all assets, infrastructure, rolling stock and buildings remains the property of Zambia. Government has in the past described RSZ's performance as shameful because of its failure to deliver on the rosy promises management made when it won the concession. But RSZ says it has spent over K1 billion in the on-going restructuring programme. RSZ company spokesperson, Charles Phiri, said the restructuring programme was a response to some of the major concerns raised. He said that the company has been upgrading all facilities.

On September 30, 2008, the RSZ management launched an Express train service to operate between Lusaka and Livingstone on Tuesdays, Wednesdays, Thursdays and Sundays. The service is aimed at helping to decongest the ordinary train service operating between Livingstone and Kitwe.


Traveling on the 470 km stretch from Lusaka to Livingstone by road takes between five and seven hours. On the express train, the distance will be covered in 14 hours. On RSZ's ordinary train from Kitwe to Livingstone, it takes 34 hours to complete the 830 km journey.

I arrived at the RSZ Lusaka terminal at 16:30 hours, bought my ticket for the trip to Livingstone at K30,000. I had a brief tour of the station with the rail-line's company passenger manager for central region, Belden Mundia. Mr Mundia said the major renovations undertaken by the company included improving the face of the station, toilet area and ensuring that it was conducive for travelers. He said that one of the significant differences between the two services was that while the ordinary train stops at every station between Livingstone and Kitwe, the Express train would only be stopping at major stations. Mr Mundia said that the express train coaches have been refurbished by fixing windows, installing sinks and flushable toilets as well as lighting up all the seven carriages each of which has capacity of 90 passengers. Mr Mundia said vandalism of the coach fittings was the major challenge the company. He said there was a tendency by some passengers to remove toilet pans and sinks, break windows and to vandalize the rail-line.

At exactly 18:00 hours, the train left for Livingstone with some coaches empty and a handful of people in others. Within a kilometre of pulling out of Lusaka station the train crawled through the densely populated Misisi Township where excited children started running after the train, with some of them throwing stones at it.


As the train gained speed, it shook violently as a car would on a potholed road. It also raised a lot of dust which filtered into the coaches. Regular train travelers, who know how dusty the trip can be as the journey progressed, occupied the first coach. Mr Mundia attributed the bumpy ride and the dust to vandalism of the rail-line. He said that crushed stones that balanced the rail tracks were being stolen sold to people building houses.

At 19:30 hours - one-and-a-half hours after starting the journey - we reached Kafue RSZ rail station, just 45kms away. We met an ordinary service train from Livingstone, which headed for Lusaka and onward to Kitwe. The train was filled to capacity. On noting that some coaches on the Express train were empty, some passengers on the ordinary train shouted out that some of the carriages be moved to the Kitwe-bound train to ease congestion. Expectations that the journey would continue within minutes were shattered when we learnt that the train driver had to wait for authorisation from the headquarters in Kabwe to proceed to the next station, Mazabuka. We waited for one hour before continuing with the journey. We reached Mazabuka, the 125 km mark at 22:00 hours. Another two hours later (midnight) we were in Monze. As some passengers disembarked and others jumped onto the train, RSZ coach attendants started checking for tickets in the company of G3 security officers.


Children under the age of six years travel free of charge, for as long as they are in the company of parents or guardians. Such an incentive, comparatively lower fares and no charge for luggage under 50kgs makes train travel a preferred choice for many people, especially those that are not in much of a hurry. Mr Frank Makota, an entrepreneur based in Livingstone, said the train was helping a lot of Small and Medium Entrepreneurs (SMEs). "The introduction of the Express train is a welcome move, but we would like to see the introduction of a sleeper rather than just have an economy class train. As a businessman, need to sleep, wake up fresh in readiness for my business in Lusaka," he said. "We also need catering services rather than having to buy fruits and fritters through the window at stations," Mr Matoka said. He said that as more people get to know about the service, the train was bound to get more passengers. Mr Patrick Milimo, a teacher and father of six, was another happy passenger. He said that he had just been transferred from Lusaka to Choma and that it was cheaper for him to use the train to relocate his family and to transport his household goods. He was, however, concerned that because of the bumpy ride, breakable items like his television set would not survive the journey.

To secure his television set, he put it on one of the empty seats. This drew the attention of the security guards. After a not so cordial exchange of words, which was followed by compromise, Mr Milimo was allowed keep the television set on the seat as no passenger was inconvenienced by the action. As the night grew colder, the passengers got tired of talking. They secured seats on which to lie down and try to sleep. As the train was not full, it was easy to get free seats on which to stretch out, but it was not that easy to actually sleep. The ride was just to bumpy, dusty and noisy.


Next stop: Choma. Time: 02:15. We had been on the track for just over eight hours and had covered 285kms. I woke up as some passengers got off the train - relieved that the bumpy and dusty ordeal was over and probably more happy that they had reached their destination. The next stop was Kalomo. The time was 04:50 hours. From Kalomo, the train was supposed to cruise through Zimba non-stop to Livingstone. But between Zimba and Livingstone, the train was delayed for about 20 minutes due to some on-going repairs of the track that had been damaged in a cargo train accident. RSZ officials explained that when the weather was too hot, it was normal for trains to go off the tracks which xpanded and contracted. As the train approached Livingstone, its speed was significantly reduced due to the bad state of the rail line. When we approached Maramba Township in Livingstone, Mr Mundia told the passengers to open the windows as this was another area where stone-throwing was common.
The task of opening the windows was not that easy though. Some of the windows we slid up to open, could not be locked in place and so they slid shut again.


We did manage to open some of them and this meant more dust in the train. We arrived in Livingstone at 09:30 hours, 30 minutes behind schedule and this was because of the unforeseen delay between Zimba and Livingstone. I was tired and hungry, having traveled on a virtually empty stomach. The only food I had had was a drink, a banana and biscuits. Mr Mundia who was unworried about the many empty seats on the train, said that once more people get to know about the service, it would strike a balance of distributing people from the ordinary to the express train. Although the Express train service between Lusaka and Livingstone is a cheaper mode of transportation, the RSZ needs to do a lot more to improve its quality to make it a mode of choice.
  by george matthews
I once (1971) travelled part of the way between Livingstone and Lusaka. In colonial days I could have had a sleeper and enjoyed the trip, however slow. But the train I took was a Japanese built DMU which would have been suitable for short journeys. As the journey was at night it wasn't at all pleasant. I can't now remember if I travelled all the way or whether I left the train having had enough and resorted to hitching along the road. I don't think I joined the train at Livingstone. I do remember it was very late, like most third world trains.

I was ultimately on my way to Kenya. Probably that was the journey I flew from Lusaka to Dar es Salaam.

In 1969 I joined a Rhodesia Railways train at Livingstone and crossed the bridge on the way to Bulawayo.