The Botswana Railways (BR) will tomorrow resume its cross-border passenger train service to Zimbabwe, seven years after it was stopped.
At the time that the service was running, BR was not doing too well financially. However, for reasons of safety and comfort, it had to go to quite considerable expense to maintain the locomotives and coaches in order to provide what was more a public service than commercial venture. Along the way, the financial situation deteriorated to a point where the service had to be stopped because it was draining the parastatal’s coffers. Last year and after securing funds, the passenger service resumed and for more than a year now, has been operating internally, between Lobatse and Francistown. Beginning December 18, the service will be extended across the border to Bulawayo, a rail hub where passengers continuing with their journey can board connecting trains.
Sunday Standard learns that the local service has not been doing as well as management had hoped. Some sources attribute that to the suspension of the service for too long and not being able to cultivate a substantial clientele fast enough for the service to make profit. The marketing of the passenger train itself doesn’t seem to be robust enough to remind members of the public about a service that some may have forgotten. Indeed, that is what some insiders say.
Naturally, this adverse situation threatens the sustainability of the venture and forced management to come up with another strategy. That the service resumes a few days after the overthrow of Robert Mugabe might cause some to think that the two developments are related but according to sources, that is not so. The resumption of the cross-border service is said to be purely a business decision that was not influenced by the politics in any way. Zimbabweans travelling home and coming into Botswana are a loyal and substantial clientele and it makes perfect sense to operate a service that starts and terminates in a Zimbabwean city.
It is likely that BR also lost a certain type of passenger who coveted the passenger train experience for the carnival atmosphere of the buffet coach which had a bar. Coming into office in 2008, President Ian Khama introduced anti-alcohol legislation and BR had to comply with it. If this passenger exists at all and supposing anti-alcohol laws are relaxed upon the ascension of Vice President Mokgweetsi Masisi on April 1 next year, that passenger will definitely resume patronising BR trains.
With a new president (Emmerson Mnangagwa) in office, there is conscious hope that the Zimbabwean economy may be revitalized. That would be very good news for Botswana ÔÇô BR included. There is another dimension in which trade relations between the two countries are being strengthened. Presenting the 2018 budget last Thursday, the Minister of Finance and Economic Development, Patrick Chinamasa, told the Zimbabwean parliament that in order to enhance the flow of commercial traffic, operating hours of the Zimbabwe Revenue Authority at the Kazungula Border Post had been extended from 5 p.m. to 8 p.m. “consistent with operating times on the Botswana side.”
Unfortunately, Zimbabwe will not benefit from the P2.6 billion Kazungula Bridge which is currently under construction and will link Southern Africa with the rest of the continent. Alongside Botswana and Zambia, the country was initially part of the project but fell by the wayside when it couldn’t raise money from international donors. Zimbabwe then kicked up a fuss about plans to build the bridge on its land. When that happened, Botswana and Zambia simply approached Namibia, asked that the bridge pass over its territory and the latter agreed. The result is that instead of going straight into Zimbabwe as had been the original plan, from Botswana the bridge now goes westwards into Namibia, before curving into Zambia.