Bullet Train Totally Irresistible
16 June 2018
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By Dr Gus Manatsa | There’s a reason the “bullet train” train is a predictable pre-election teaser: it’s an irresistible idea.

With an expansion of rail networks, especially inter-city rail, we could expect the following

1. Fewer people need to drive, meaning massive reduction in traffic jams and road
accidents and less fuel import costs

Gus Manatsa

2. With easier access from more remote areas, there is far less pressure and
competition for inner-city real estate, potentially reducing costs of housing for
millions of people.

3. Much easier for tourists to connect our major destinations- Eastern highlands,
Kariba, Victoria Falls, Matipo, etc.

4. People can do work or entertain themselves on the train. In a car, you look at the car
in front of you, and in a plane, you spend most of that time getting messed around
by security clearances, restrictions and endless announcements.

Imagine sauntering down from Harare to Bulawayo or even Johannesburg’s Park station in
a comfortable seat on board a shiny new Fast Train. We could call it iHlasi. You would sit and work on your laptop, or read a book, or recline your seat to take a nap while the landscape whizzes by fast. And then, less than two hours later, you would alight at Bulawayo Central, and get on with your day. I have loved travelling by train, ever since I was in high school and when I visited Europe as a postgrad student and got a taste for the romance of long-distance rail. More recently, travelling by the G trains running between Beijing and Shanghai at a high speed of 350 km/h has hooked me on the convenience. But even if the Zimbabwe’s fast train version ends up being slower, I think it’s still a better option to catching a plane. Just think of all the faffing around you avoid when you take an intercity train. To take a flight you have to catch a bus or taxi to the airport, then queue to check in both person and baggage, then the security scan, then schlepping to the boarding gate, then boarding, then you can’t take out your laptop for roughly half the trip, then you wait to get off, then you wait at the baggage carousel, then you wait for a cab or train. Phew!


However, with regular trains, just think how many more of us would travel intercity on a
regular basis. How many dodgy buses you could avoid (over 1000 people have perished in
bus crushes since 1980). It would provide competition to airlines, and it’d also provide a way around the airport curfews. At last, you could leave Bulawayo after dinner, and arrive in Harare before midnight.


A fast train would also integrate the MDC’s proposed shift of the country’s capital city to
Gweru far more successfully with the most populated corridors in the country. It would
allow civil servants to work in Gweru while still living in Bulawayo or Harare. The Acela train
that links Washington DC with New York, Boston and Philadelphia is a legendary piece of
infrastructure, famously caught by former Vice-President Joe Biden so he could remain
based in Delaware with his family.


Traditionally, we dream big pre-election, and then discover via a post-election study that it
isn’t viable, so I’m bracing myself for disappointment. There’s always a chorus of naysayers who point to the cost. If you consider that Zanu PF looted $15bn dollars’ worth of diamonds, Zimbabwe can afford a fast train. Morocco has just introduced Africa’s fastest train at a cost of $2.3bn.


I’d also point out that in other countries, they don’t seem to dither over the cost of major infrastructure projects – they just build them. Just under 40 years ago, China was a poor country dominated by peasant farming. Fast forward to 2018, the Shanghai Maglev trains are the fastest trains commercially operated in the world, with a top commercial speed of 431 kph and a top non-commercial speed of 501 kph. At that speed, a Harare- Bulawayo journey will be done within one hour. Harare- Johannesburg would take about 5 hours (including border stops), 2 hours Harare- Lusaka and under 2 hours to Victoria Falls.

Forty years ago, the Central Committee of the Communist Party of China started the
courageous endeavour and still on-going process of reform and opening up in China. There
is every reason to believe that the MDC Alliance dream of national rejuvenation will likely
guide us on a journey of reform and opening-up anew. The MDC Alliance will have to lead
the Zimbabweans in taking on difficult issues and navigate treacherous rapids, cutting a path through the mountain rocks of corruption and building a bridge across the rapid currents of infrastructure. I just don’t see the same will and energy in Zanu PF.