Reintroducing limited commuter rail services to Harare is an idea whose time has come, and this time it will likely work as we are also witnessing the first step of a future integrated public transport system with Zupco planning to have buses to take passengers from where the train stops on the outer edges of the suburbs deep into residential areas.
The crucial decision was to introduce the single ticket, at the cost of a bus ticket, for the combined collection bus and train journey. This makes the train a real option, rather than something just for people who can walk several miles.
For example, the eastern route to Ruwa will largely serve the residents of this growing city of over 40,000 plus Mabvuku and Tafara. But the line runs south of Mutare Road and housing runs well to the north. Someone in New Tafara doesn’t need a 5 mile walk to and from the Mabvuku siding.
The main western road to Mufakose serves heavy industrial sites, with the line between Workington and Southerton, then continues to Mufakose, although it must be remembered that Buduriro and Mufakose, two huge suburban areas, are divided by this railway line. and if the service is going to be useful Zupco needs bus services on both sides of the tracks.
Even the third service to Tynwald, on the north branch off the main line at Aspindale, is touted as useful for Warren Park, but that only makes sense to most of the people in this suburb, those on the east side of the hills, if there is a good food bus service.
The initial attempt at rail service, even limited to rush hour, fell apart because, as with so much at this stage of the First Republic, it was tinkered with without any thought about who would actually choose to travel. by train. This time, there has been a lot more thought about what is needed, hence the single ticket rail-bus journey.
It will probably take a while to become popular, with many people keen to see how it works. Zupco and Zimbabwe’s National Railways will therefore have to persist and make adjustments as they go. Evening hours, for example, do not appear to take into account curfews and limited working hours, but may have been set on the assumption that with the third wave almost over, these will be adjusted.
A second factor is the limited number of stops. Admittedly, the infrastructure is not in place in many places for passengers to get on and off the train. But to make the service convenient for more people, more intermittent stops, especially in industrial areas, appear to be necessary. Msasa is not on the list of stops, possibly due to the cut in the tracks on its way up east and the lack of access to the line. But there is a possibility near the old tobacco factory. Ruwa could easily accommodate a few more stops.
But the main thing is that this time the authorities plan to resume service as part of an integrated transport plan. As long as Zupco and the railroads listen very carefully to passengers, adapt as needed, and do their best to make it work properly, it will grow.
There are other considerations. One is security. Railroad reserves have tended to attract some of the less desirable people, criminals to be precise. While the current stops have been chosen where it is easy to board buses, some people who will be using the service live or work near the line.
So cutting the grass and shrubs and having modest police patrols will help. This will be all the more important as more stops are put in place.
But from this small start, Zupco and Zimbabwe’s National Railways need to keep Vision 2030 clear in their minds. Zimbabwe will experience strong economic growth over the next decade. People are already talking about congestion in the road system, and when most families can afford a car, the congestion will be a traffic jam unless middle-income public transport service is available.
Every major city in the world relies on most people, right down to business leaders, who use public transportation because it is faster and more convenient.
If you visit the suburban towns around London, for example, you’ll see huge car parks at train stations, as many go to the station and then take the train to work.
Vision 2030 demands something much more sophisticated than the basic Zupco return and now the start of limited rush hour rail services and planners need to start working now so that the bits are added, the right bits are.
To begin with, the issue of bus terminals must be addressed. Either they are far from most workplaces and other terminuses, such as the terminus on rue Simon Muzenda, or they are miniature spaces in the middle of crowded streets. The long-term solution, especially with an integrated transport system, would be to redevelop the station and all rail terrain west, up to the upper end of Seke Road, into a giant central transport complex where all trains and buses end and start their journeys and where people can walk in minutes from platforms to buses. Railways can swap land they barely use for other land in the manner of Aspindale.
Long ago, there were half-hearted plans for a rail link to Chitungwiza. The concept was good but it needs to be revived and updated, and most likely seriously adjusted so that the new development in South Harare is taken into account. At the very least, as we sort out all the mess of land allocation, an adequate rail reserve needs to be set aside, and in the right place.
Even the stopping points of the trains have to be modernized, someday into suitable suburban stations, again combined with suitable bus terminals. At the very least, lots should be set aside so that they can be built and a lot of thought into placement and design.
At least this time we are off to a good start, with integration from the start. But this is only the beginning. Planners and transport experts now need to sit down and start crafting the Vision 2030 plan, and then start working on the detailed implementation over the next nine years so that when 2030 arrives, we don’t have a permanent blockage and a bunch of unconnected emergency solutions. .
Rather, we should have a public transport system that is the envy of Africa. Thus, the current transition to rail services should not be seen as an emergency measure, but as the start of this process to make first-class public transport a reality.