CRUCIFIXION OF ZRL VISION
By Professor Clive Chirwa
Distinguished Professor of Automotive & Aerospace Engineering
Newly Appointed Research Professor at Copperbelt University
In November last year I accepted an invitation from The Republican President to come home to Zambia and run Zambia Railways limited (ZRL) in the capacity as Chief Executive Officer.
I abandoned everything to come and serve my country. In December I carried out my orientation study in order to understand the enormous problems ZRL was facing after the demise of Railway System of Zambia (RSZ) concession.
After meticulously analysing the infrastructure and operations of ZRL, I believed as a distinguished engineer with an international business acumen that the problems were mathematically and practically solvable.
To that effect, I planned the entire implementation period broken down in four phases to such accuracy that Zambians would have seen true deliverables of the highest internationally acceptable quality for less public money in five years.
In addition, before returning to my University in the UK post my contract, I would have trained a young CEO to take over my designed modern 21st Century railway infrastructure with Zambian made rolling stock and partially home assembled locomotives.
The story you are reading here is in part about how a vision was crucified in its infancy by those who are not interested in seeing this country progress and for political reasons rather than for accomplishing engineering solutions that will benefit generations to come.
The story begins from my study room in the UK where I was designing for my country new railway lines, wagons, passenger coaches and station buildings; while people in Zambia were celebrating Christmas and New Year.
By 5th January this year, on my birthday, I had completed all the mathematical designs and began computer simulations of the systems. This was extremely difficult, but since the problems were engineering in nature that meant they were solvable.
A week after completion, I flew into Zambia and presented my vision with all the designs to the Zambian people at the government complex conference centre in Lusaka.
The public lecture was fully packed and the entire rehabilitation and new construction of Zambia Railway vision was presented to not only the nation, but the world at large.
The response from investors, financiers and railway engineering firms who wanted to work with us was electric. This was going to be the biggest infrastructure project in Southern Africa and was going to create thousands of jobs for our people since we categorically stated in our policy document that the railway project will be built by Zambians alone with finances from outside Zambia.
At this moment in time I was working 12 to 15 hours a day running the implementation plan in my head and discussing it with all the ZRL employees through a well structured internal lecture series.
The project and its delivery sequence was planned so well by the responsible management team and engineers at ZRL that under my leadership we were confident of delivering in the specified period.
The Project Vision
We divided the project into four phases namely: Phase I – Rehabilitation of the existing infrastructure along the main line and the inter-mines; Phase II – construction of the second line parallel to the existing line from Chingola to Livingstone, electrification and the sinking of Lusaka station 1.3 km distance; Phase III – construction of railway line to connect Mpulungu port in the north to TAZARA at Mpika and beyond to Chipata line; and Phase IV – The connection of mulobezi line to the new bridge at Kazungula connecting Zambia and Botswana.
The EURO Bond US$120 million is not enough
In my five year contract I was geared to execute only Phases I and II with an estimated budget of US$1.5 Billion. How were we going to source this money you may ask? As a leader I took charge and plans were made to use the EURO Bond US$120 million as seedling money that we were going to present to capital markets for us to be offloaded the rest of the money.
This was perfect and many financiers overseas were ready to just do that at very reasonable rates. This would have meant that the Zambian public would have had a modern railway paid by eager private companies.
What is transpiring now, where the Euro Bond money is just going to be used for the rehabilitation is not correct for the simple reason that it is not enough and will be wasted before the rehabilitation part of the project is even completed.
My vision was the best avenue to achieving a modern railway with little money.
Opposition to the Vision
However, not everyone accepted my vision. When asked why? The responses have always been based on myopia perhaps due to not understanding complex engineering problems and to some extent lack of exposure.
The biggest misunderstanding has been the sinking of Lusaka station and the electrification of the main line. For the sinking of the Lusaka station people were saying there are big rocks underground or there is water underground. To me as an engineer this is the simplest of the problems.
Therefore, we were going to do it cheaply by open pit methodology where we were going to have a single or double deck passages. In the double deck design, the cars would have passed above the railway line.
Economically, the city would have reclaimed the most expensive piece of land in Zambia for building development at the same time reduce congestion in the city as many routes would have connected the west end to the east end of Lusaka.
A Dutch company with enormous experience in tunnelling in mushy saturated water grounds gave us a presentation on similar projects, while a Swiss company presented tunnelling trough rocks.
As an engineer I always knew that it can be done at calibrated cost.
On electrification of the line, the argument by anti-development group has been to say we do not need it since that can only work in the first world.
For me to prove it to them I had to go not far, just around the countries near Zambia. South Africa, Zimbabwe, Botswana, Angola, and Namibia have all electrified railway lines in parts. Even the Democratic Republic of Congo that we stereotype as the backward nation has working 850 km of electrified railway lines since the 1950s.
As you can see the backward country has turned out to be Zambia. My electrification proposal was meant to reduce the ZRL enormous diesel cost accounting nearly 40% of gross revenue and it made a lot of sense for long term since Zambia has no oil that can be commercially exploited and plus the removal of fuel subsidies will hurt ZRL further.
I see no long term future in diesel engines for the main line between Chingola and Livingstone due to the fuel cost that will be prohibitive.
The Anti-Development Group
The anti-development group for the railway in Zambia is not composed of illiterate people.
This group has many facets from political garbage hiding behind persona incognito to some truck owners who have heavily invested in the lorries with borrowed money.
The change in a working railway is perceived as a threat to their businesses and they would rather curtail national development for selfish ends in copper haulage business.
The other facet is composed of government officials who travel abroad a lot in pretence to attending exhibitions and general meetings.
As soon as they get to the airport on their return, they dump in the bin the collected brochures from the exhibitions to provide space for one more pair of cheap shoes for someone who is not part of their family.
The anti-development group is only interested in chaos because that is when they thrive. The losers are the people of Zambia who want to see real development not numerous shopping malls that sales unaffordable products to them.
Zambia Railways is Currently Losing Money
ZRL cannot afford not to change. Indeed I will encourage the new management to embrace my vision so that they can take the company forward.
As a technocrat and not a politician, although I have helped political parties get into power through my understanding of economics, analytical and statistical skills, I will once again urge the engineers at ZRL to do what is right for the company.
At present moment Zambia Railways is losing too much money. While I was there we planned to carrying 90,000 tonnes of cargo a month, but in reality the company is carrying far much less and will not meet the target we set ourselves of carrying 1.1 million tonnes in this financial year.
On passenger part the company is losing much more a month and not US$70,000 which is publicised in the media. These losses are unsustainable and the crucifixion of the ZRL vision that I put in place means the only way for the company is to go down the pan rather than growth.
ZRL is currently making money based on the market I developed. There are no new major clients who have come on board. The only mining company that is working with ZRL is KCM whom I brought on board.
The major contracts that are there up to now are those that I signed. I was at Zambia Railways for 3 working months only and the work I put in is equivalent to many years.
It has now been 4 months since I left and little has changed in terms of customer base and therefore the fruits being enjoyed are mine with the dedicated work force I used to have.
Appeal to New Management
I therefore plead to the new management to use my plans in implementing the rehabilitation programme. I suggested rehabilitating the existing line in 6 to 8 months of implementation after every material is in place and ready to be used. To achieve that the line rehabilitation would have been worked on in nine modules with a lot of job creations. Contractors would have been engaged as conduits to employing many young people as apprentices.
Tendered suppliers would have been spread more to allow competition and reduce cost. The current monopoly of one contracted company supplying say concrete sleepers will never yield results in even two years of the proposed new plan developed later after my departure. We needed to have minimum two concrete sleeper manufacturers in Zambia.
The one we have has no capacity. For rails we needed to promote our Kafue steel company by engaging it more, etc. The short 6 to 8 months duration in rehabilitation was meant for two reasons, to reduce or to eradicate the number of derailments that are very high and cost a lot of money sometimes equal to a monthly haulage target on one part.
We cannot afford to have more derailments. We cannot take derailments as norm because in other countries where this happens once in a blue moon it’s a criminal offence. On the other part we needed quick rehabilitation so that we increase the train speed soonest and improve transit time hence more revenue, while the cost is minimised.
We also planned for a think-tank that would have been responsible for continuous stock of engineers and artisans from colleges. Here too we would have seen a cluster of supply chains with more job creations making products to be assembled on Zambian designed rolling stock and locomotives.
To facilitate this, a design studio was proposed that possessed unique skills supported by the Railway Institute that was supposed to be at the Copperbelt University. All is not lost if my vision is implemented albeit in parts.
From me, I would like to wish the new management good luck in the rehabilitation programme and please use the Euro Bond US$120 million wisely. Do not crucify my vision since it is the only credible plan that will bring ZRL to become a profitable and self sustaining company while making Zambia proud.