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Hundred fifty minutes train ride

June 29, 2017: It is 05.45am on a chilly Thursday morning. In the company of seven journalists from different media houses, we leave our lodging places for Balaka Railway Station to catch a 6.00am train destined for Nayuchi in Machinga via Nkaya and Balaka stations.

Before I slept that night, I went down the memory lane and remembered that I first saw a train when I was as young as seven years old. That time, I was staying at Lolo in Luchenza.

In those days, I could run away from home just to watch trains pass by, on their way either to Makhanga in Nsanje or Limbe in Blantyre.

However, I had never boarded one, although I knew age-mates who had a chance to enjoy a ride or two or more.

I found solace in the hope that, one day, I would board one. I fantasised travelling on a train plying the Limbe-Makhanga route because it was very convenient for me.

But such hopes were literally washed away some time in 2004, as there was no train travelling from Limbe to Sandama in Thyolo. The worst, however, was when the 2015 floods washed away the railway.

“The magnitude of damage is extensive and there is need for a new alignment of the [railway] line. But we are starting rehabilitation before this year ends. At this stage, we are in the process of finding a contractor,” Central East African Railway (Cear) Managing Director, Hendry Chimwaza, was quoted in the media as saying some months ago.

This enkindled hope in me, considering that there would be an overhaul of the railway, followed by alignment. Sleep caught up with me while I was engrossed in such thoughts.

I am a believer and often quote Ecclesiastes 3: “There is a time for everything, and a season for every activity under the heavens….”

At 6 o’clock sharp in the morning we were in the train. I thought we were late, but that was not the case. When I entered the business class coach, which was fully booked for us, I realised that the train would not start off until other officials joined us.

Friends joked that the train could not leave behind the company’s Managing Director, Hendry Chimwaza. He was part of our team, which also had the Director of Railway Services in the Ministry of Transport and Public Works, Geoffrey Magwede and Cear Engineer Crispin Kapalamula, among others.

Ten minutes later, the officials arrived and, by then, we had taken a lot of pictures. I took a seat that had a table, waiting with baited breath to depart for Liwonde via Nkaya Railway Station in Balaka.

The train, Cear 520, with 11 wagons— three transship, six coaches, one van, one generator set and a locomotive— left Balaka at around 6.20am.

“This is day two of our trip [media tour]. This train is going to Nayuchi in Machinga District, but we will drop off at Liwonde Station. From there, we will proceed to Hippo View Lodge for some presentations and then we will dismiss the tour for our respective homes. So, enjoy the ride as I hand you over to the Managing Director [Chimwaza],”said Chisomo Mwamadi, Cear’s Communications and Corporate Image Manager.

But, as Chimwaza was explaining why the train was travelling at a snail’s pace of about 25 kilometres per hour while, at the same time, experiencing a bumpy [train] ride, the hostess appeared and interrupted.

“This is a business class coach and feel welcome. You will be served with breakfast, and you are advised to open windows only when the train has stopped; otherwise it is fully equipped with air conditioners. If you open the windows when in transit, that can damage the system. Take note that we also have flush toilets, but do not use them when the train is at a station because we flush directly into the railway,” she said.

However, the last part attracted immediate reaction from one of the journalists, who asked:

“In terms of sanitation and hygiene, how does that work considering that there are a lot of people who live along the railway and even some pass through it?”

Cear’s Managing Director parried the fears, saying there was no harm. He likened the waste to that of cattle.

“The traditional method of disposing human waste from trains is to flush the waste onto the tracks. In fact, once the waste is flushed it changes the outlook and after sometime it is unrecognisable, just like that of a cow. Therefore, passengers are discouraged from flushing or using toilets while the train is at a station to avoid heaping the place with human waste,” he said.

Magwede then chipped in, saying that is the trend all over the world.

“Trains, as you can see, travel in the bush and we assume there is no harm. It’s not practical to keep human waste and empty it at designated places as bus coaches or planes do,” Magwede said.

Then the train stopped for some five minutes to pick and drop passengers at Bazale.

By then we had been served with breakfast.

While I was enjoying the briefing in the train, Times Group cameraman, Mike Mataka, whispered to me: “Ask for a 30-minute interview for a Times Television programme. Let them talk about their history and operations.”

I nodded in agreement and immediately asked Mwamadi and Wezi Kalua—the Communication Analyst at Cear— to arrange an interview with the company’s Managing Director. I knew that is how I would learn much about Cear.

According to Chimwaza, Cear started operating on November 1, 1999, after entering into a concession agreement with the Malawi Government to start operating trains through Private Public Partnership agreement.

“Initially, the agreement was for 20 years and was expected to end in 2019 but the agreement was reviewed in 2013 and it will end in 2045. The agreement has always been to carry general cargo and passengers.

“Yes we have the capacity to carry heavy goods. The Nacara Corridor railway has, since August 2015, been rehabilitated at the cost of $46 million. We have over 20 locomotives, over 600 wagons that can help us carry heavy cargo and also 15 coaches for passengers that were procured at $6 million some two years ago. These investments have improved infrastructure and operations,” he said.

I had no problems with names such as locomotive and wagons considering that a day before the ride, Chimwaza had already cleared the misconception of a bogie and a Moto Thole at Nkaya Railway Station in Balaka.

“A bogie is not a wagon. In fact, a bogie is just these eight rail tires on this wagon. And what other people say is Moto Thole it is a Motor-Trolley,” Chimwaza clarified.

While enjoying exhilarating comfort, Chimwaza went ahead to explain why the company had to invest a lot of money in the facilities since August 2015.

“If you can notice now, there are no bumps while, at the same time, the train has increased its speed and it can go up to 70 kilometres per hour without any problems. The railway has a capacity to carry 22 million tonnes in a year, of which four million tonnes are for general cargo such as sugar and fertilisers, while 18 million tonnes are for coal,” Chimwaza said.

According to him, the jigsaw puzzle to develop a sound and viable railway system has been the overhaul of the Nacala Corridor.

“We established Lirangwe work site in Blantyre to weld the rails to fitting size from 30 kilogrammes to 40 kilogrammes. Then we had to put balancing stones, and concrete sleepers to stabilise the railway line. Basically, the whole process is to allow the railway have the capacity to load heavy goods and also capacitate trains to speed at least 50 kilometers per hour,” Chimwaza said.

As we approached Nkaya, I asked the Times Group cameraman if all was well, and he responded: “We are good. So far, 15 minutes gone and we just need at least 10 more minutes.”

I then asked if the project, which ends this month end, is already paying dividends.

“Let me give you a quick example. We invested $6.3 million to refurbish Nkaya Station into an operations hub and, as I speak, it has reduced train transit time from Nayuchi to Blantyre by three hours. This means we, as a company, have achieved operations efficiency as the traffic of trains has improved,” he said.

When we arrived at Liwonde, I noticed that there were other service providers, including Freight Forwarders and Malawi Revenue Authority officials.

I left Liwonde satisfied, covering the 155 minutes train journey that costs K600 in the company of fellow journalists and officials that matter in rail transport in the country.

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