ZAMBIA Railways Limited (ZRL) is at the centre of a revolution which seeks to transform one of Southern Africa Development Community (SADC) region's biggest railway company, from an ailing national transport business, into a shining modern transformed railway network in the next three-years.
The Government is determined to see to it that the country's railway infrastructure does not go to waste under a not well-defined concession agreement which has since been revoked.
The company has prepared fertile ground to nurture a successful revolution now being master minded by Clive Chirwa, who is among the country's most-accomplished and internationally recognised engineer.
The 900 kilometre long mainline and 300 kilometres branch railway line in a deplorable condition, 928 employees, a sizeable number of locomotives, coaches and wagons, coupled with Government's financial backing and political will, are expected to be used as key factors in the resuscitating of one of the country's State owned business venture.
Already, the Government has taken a positive move in revamping the railway line by allocating K640 billion for its rehabilitation
ZRL has said it needs a budget of K600 billion to revive the struggling railway company and bring it back to full operational capacity.
A special team of experts from the company in conjunction with those from Government was working out a recapitalisation programme which would among other things, come up with a report on the new investment portfolio for the entire organisation.
Both local and foreign companies would be engaged in providing various services under an ambitious programme aimed at rehabilitating the railway line.
ZRL company secretary Nathaniel Inambao said tenders for the rehabilitation of the railway line will be floated both locally and internationally.
An inventory of all ZRL properties and infrastructure was currently going on and the findings of the team carrying out the exercise would be made known to the public after completion.
The railway infrastructure which have been vandalised include tamping machines worth millions of Kwacha which were left negligently at Chambishi and Chisamba where they were gutted by fire.
The tamping machines in Kafue and Kalomo have been vandalised beyond recognition so are the flashbutt in Kafue.
For the moment, there had been adequate locomotive power though the wagons are mostly in a poor state.
ZRL has started the process which would culminate into rehabilitating old wagons apart from procuring additional ones while the passenger coaches need replacement because they are also in poor state.
The Government has mandated ZRL to run the line from Victoria Falls Bridge in Livingstone to Chililabombwe and the inter-mine lines of the Copperbelt.
Mr Inambao said ZRL was determined to efficiently and effectively implement its duty to provide passenger and cargo flight services from Livingstone in the south of the country to the Coperbelt in the north.
Some Copperbelt residents said there was need for the ZRL to quickly rebuild the inter-mine railway service which for many years played a crucial role in the promotion of commerce and trade between the province, the neigbhouring Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) and other parts of the country.
The inter-mine rail service was not included in the 2003 RSZ concession agreement leaving the infrastructure vulnerable to some local criminal gangs who earn a living by engaging in activities surrounding the mining business commonly known as Jerabos.
An on the spot- check by the Times of Zambia, found that the Luanshya-Ndola railway line for example, and other parts of the inter-mine railway network has been vandalised with rail slippers and the railway line uprooted in many portions and sold to scrap metal dealers who have over the years been targeting the lucrative export market.
Most of the railway slippers have been shipped out of the country for sale to some furniture companies as confessed by suspects who were caught red-handed when police in Ndola swooped on them as they vandalised the Ndola-Luanshya railway line.
To make matters worse, the Rail Systems of Zambia (RSZ) even leased some sections of the lines to private individuals who have set up various undertakings.
A commercial vegetable garden has been set up covering a large section of the Ndola-Luanshya rail track near the golf club.
The damaging of the line between these two towns affected the haul of copper from Luanshya and Baluba mines, copper cables from the Zambia Metal Fabricators (Zamefa) and farm produce from as many as 1,000 small-scale farmers in the Kafue farm corridor.
Recent investigations revealed that some ZRL employees leased part of the area which used to be covered by the railway line to a Non-Governmental Organisation, Seed of Hope..
Last week President Michael Sata appointed Professor Clive Chirwa as Chief Executive Officer (CEO) taking over from Knox Karima.
President Sata wants to see that Prof Chirwa sorts out the country's railway line
including the inter-mine railway, which was critical to the efficiency of
the mining sector.
" I have confidence in your ability to use your vast reservoir of knowledge to help our country to revamp the railway network that results in a railway system that will create the necessary economic impetus," he said.
On September 7, 2012, Finance and National Planning Minister Alexander Chikwanda, announced the revocation of the 20-year concession agreement between Government and RSZ, saying management of the railway firm had reverted to ZRL.
Mr Chikwanda said the measure was necessary because any additional delays would result in further destruction of railways assets, making it expensive to plan upgrading the railway to meet regional and international standards.
After getting the news that Government wanted to revisit the concession agreement RSZ chief executive officer Benjamin Even cried foul, saying his company had invested more than US$50 million since, 2003, which was above the contractual obligation.
"Our obligation as concessionaries is to operate and improve the infrastructure and to hand it back to the Government at the end of the concession period in a better condition," he said.
According to Mr Even, the state of the 100-year-old railway infrastructure and other challenges that have risen were not foreseen in the concession process by the two parties, although that did not mean that the process was bad.
Commenting on his appointment Prof Chirwa said his vision was to transform the rail industry in Zambia so that it becomes the "nucleus" of industralisation.
Prof Chirwa has stated that he was determined to put up an electrified railway system in the next three years, which would be able to steer economic growth.
He said he would first put up a strategic plan with an overall budget which would facilitate the construction of railway infrastructure.
"Hundreds of thousands of people will get jobs in the reconstruction process and ultimately when the rail is constructed. We want to build the railway line and electrify it in three years. I want the rail to become the nucleus of industralisation in Zambia. This is my vision and we will achieve it," he said.
The Government has been concerned with a situation where millions of tonnes of both Zambia's imports and exports which should have been transported by railway were diverted to road transport in the process exerting severe toll on the roads.
According to transport and communication expert Raymond Jhala the time has come for ZRL to reclaim its lost glory and become a shining example in the region.
Mr Jhala expressed confidence that a strategist like Prof Chirwa at the helm of the national railway firm would perform in accordance with the people's expectations.
Mr Jhala said ZRL management need to conduct thorough research on why heavy goods such as copper and machinery are being transported by road and not rail.
It is important for us as a nation to establish why heavy cargo has moved from being transported by rail to road.
Prof Chirwa and his ZRL management team need to look at all the challenges facing ZRL and address them.
Chief among the challenges is the passengers and cargo trains' slow speed on the rail truck and derailments.
Another expert, Henry Chipewo, a fellow of the Chartered Institute of Logistics and Transport, has over the past years been imploring the Government to seriously think about investing in the railway system because it was cheaper than constructing or rehabilitating roads.
Mr Chipewo said it costs $1.2 million to construct one kilometre of tarred road and less than $100,000 to construct a similar distance of railway.
ZRL said research should be that after the concession agreement of the national railway company most companies and businesses dealing in heavy duty cargo were transporting only 10 per cent of their goods by rail and 90 per cent by road.
ZRL director of finance and administration Regina Mwale said before the handover of the rail line to RSZ, ZRL was transporting 1.8 million of cargo in 2002 but it fell to 1.4 million tonnes.
The new ZRL management wants to exceed the not so impressive record of handling 690 tonnes of cargo left by RSZ.
"As we grow the business, we will recruit more people. After the cancelling of concession agreement ZRL was now targeting transporting 1.5 million tonnes optimum for the company to stay afloat,"Ms Mwale said.
The volume of both cargo and passenger freight services, traffic was expected to double going by the overwhelming support ZRL was now receiving from the corporate world locally and outside the country.
The railway firm has also started revamping its passenger freight business whose customers have over the years been drastically declining after the concessioning of the country's rail business which once had business, economy and standard classes into a dirty and smelly environment shortly after RSZ took over the business turning into the exact opposite of its past.
"With immediate effect, we have started working on the lavatories - they will be watered at every station," Ms Mwale said.
ZRL has also announced plans to sink boreholes at most stations to ensure that lavatories are cleaned regularly.
The firm has also engaged on-board people to be cleaning passenger trains all the time to win back passengers.
At its peak the Kabwe based ZRL once had 8,600 employees but at the time of the take-over, the company only had 26 employees but this has now swelled to 928 following the absorption of 903 from RSZ
The Railway Workers Union of Zambia (RWUZ) president Nathan Zulu has appealed to the new company to look into workers' conditions of service because currently, there are some disparities between those who were employed by ZRL and the ones who were employed by the Railway Systems of Zambia.
He said workers were key players in the revolution which did not only mark the rebirth of ZRL but the complete modernisation and transformation into a leading railway company in the SADC region.
Mr Zulu said ZRL workers were optimistic that their company was now set for a complete transformation following the appointment of Prof Chirwa as chief executive officer.
"We are commending the President for this appointment. It's very timely because we need someone like Prof Chirwa with vast experience in the railway and transport areas," he said.