The International Steam Pages

A Trip on the Zambezi Sawmills Railway, 2006

Dietmar Fiedel writes:

In 2003 the main line of Zambia Railways (ZR) running from the Zimbabwean border at Victoria Falls to Kitwe, and some branch lines in the copperbelt, was privatized. The new company, named Railway Systems of Zambia (RSZ), announced in the press that they would stop running down the infrastructure and that they would improve the condition of the railway network. Nothing has come of this so far, as anyone can see on a visit to Zambia.

The branch line from Livingstone to Mulobezi was not included in the privatization and it is still controlled by ZR. The Njanji Commuter Service in Lusaka was not included either, it had already closed down. My last visit in Zambia was 8 years ago and now, more than two years after the change of ownership, I was eager to see the present situation. For me as a self confessed railway archaeologist, a large number of steam locomotives dumped in the north of the country over 30 years ago was another reason to plan this trip.

The Mulobezi Railway

Completed in 1931, this line was a part of the private Zambesi Sawmills Railway (ZSR) network. The purpose was the transport of timber, cut from the rich forests to the north and west of Livingstone. Railway sleepers for the Rhodesia Railways (RR) were a speciality. The workshops and running shed of the ZSR were located in Livingstone, they have become the railway museum. The main line to Mulobezi still exists, but all of the branches were lifted in the beginning of the seventies. In January 1973, after the Zambezi Sawmills closed, the line was taken over by Zambia Railways. The sawmill in Mulobezi finally shut down around 1994. The people of this small town were faced with the choice of moving or looking for another living. The responsibility for these people is the reason why the government, through ZR, still provides a weekly mixed train to Mulobezi. The Investor who is now running the line to the copperbelt did not wish to become involved with the rail service to this rural part of the country. There is no direct road from Livingstone to Mulobezi and the indirect way is mostly unpaved and impassable during rains. A stoppage of the rail service would be disastrous for the local people. The railway is the nerve centre of the region, as can be seen by anyone riding on the train to Mulobezi.

“The train to Mulobezi should depart every Wednesday at 8am.“, said the Livingstone Station Master on the phone. He did not want to talk about other details, like arrival time in Mulobezi or the return in Livingstone. Usually the train arrives back at the end of one week, barring serious problems. Fitted out with these little gems of information before leaving Germany, we started our adventure. The tour started in Bulawayo on the Victoria Falls train at the end of May 2006. The two man expedition was completed by Graham, a Zimbabwean friend, who had never been to Zambia before.

After arrival in Livingstone the railway museum was the first item on the agenda. About twenty steam locomotives of the former RR and ZSR are displayed in an extensive area in superficially good condition. I did not visit the RSZ loco shed because I did not expect to find any steam locomotives there, they were all scrapped or sent to the museum around 1995. On a visit in 1994 I saw many dumped Garratts and 12th class engines in the shed yard. The Area Manager of Livingstone told me that nowadays there is only one steam locomotive is left, apparently 12th class 204. It is proposed to put it up as a monument in front of the railway station. 

In good time, some minutes to 8am, one European and one Zimbabwean traveller turned up at Livingstone station, loaded with water and canned food for a week, to be on the safe side. The ticket to Mulobezi cannot be purchased at the ticket office in the main building, where one can only get tickets towards Ndola. To buy a ticket for the Mulobezi train, you visit a small building in the station forecourt, where the office of the Mulobezi railway is located. The fare for a single trip to Mulobezi, 163 km away, is 18.000 Kwacha, nearly 5 Euro.

Sammy, the Train Manager, was very sorry to tell us that the train would not depart on time. The only platform was still blocked by a RSZ train, which had arrived from Ndola in the night. He could not say when the coaches would be removed so that our train could be accommodated. Indeed, it was only at 1 pm that our train found the line to Mulobezi after a short shunt in the Victoria Falls direction. This was necessary because the line branches off from a headshunt in the opposite direction to the station. All trains to Mulobezi leave Livingstone Station backwards.

The arrangement of the train was very interesting: A U15C type diesel loco (No. 02-311), build by General Electric, three quite battered economy coaches ex ZR, one staff coach, a snack car, a tank wagon for water and plenty of mostly empty wagons for freight and cattle. The crew of the train was remarkable as well. Two drivers, a train manager, two conductors, one freight conductor with some helpers, a chef plus assistants, two railway policemen with submachine-guns, three wagon examiners and three permanent way workers. Not counted were persons belonging to the train, but who could not to be identified.

The first stop of the train was only a few kilometres outside Livingstone at “Sawmills”. This compound was erected by the Zambesi Sawmills Company for its employees. At this stop all available standing room was occupied and the train got really packed. At a snail’s pace the ride continued through the typical bush landscape of southern Africa. The milestones helped to calculate the speed, which did not exceed 15 km/h most of the time. On the way to Mulobezi the train gets emptier stop by stop as the people who went to Livingstone to sell their goods, mostly charcoal and livestock, arrived home. Some stops where made to provide the rural population with water from the tank wagon. They were waiting for the train with empty containers to fill up with the essential stuff and to carry home by ox teams. This is another reason to keep the weekly train running despite the ailing infrastructure.

Time was running faster than the train, and soon we had to prepare for the night. Fortunately we were equipped with woollen blankets, which we had wisely bought in Bulawayo before the trip to Victoria Falls (for 5.3 Million Zimbabwe dollars each). The NRZ did not offer bedding even in first class. On the Mulobezi train the blankets were doubly helpful. The slowly swinging coaches sent me to sleep promptly and I missed the crossing of the Ngwesi River on the new bridge, more than 100 meters long and about 10 meters high. I made the same mistake on the way back to Livingstone. In the morning I noticed that the train had grown by two wagons in front of the locomotive: a truck with timber and a cattle wagon. Obviously both were picked up by the train along the main line during night. Sammy told me that the empty wagons were left on the line on the way to Livingstone to be loaded prior to the return of the train. Because there are no sidings except at Ngwesi, the full wagons had to be pushed to Mulobezi.

I should comment on the snack car, which was not at all expected. The lively chef offered grilled chicken with rice or nshima, the Zambian counterpart to the Zimbabwean sadza. Beside that we purchased some crisps, Cola, Fanta and of course, Chibuku. This stuff was sold tot by tot from a big container, not packed in cardboard boxes. On the way back the menu changed from grilled to boiled chicken in recognition of the toughness of the rural type of bird bought in Mulobezi. Most of our tinned food was not needed.

On Thursday at around 12 pm we arrived at Mulobezi station. The remains of the former sawmill system let us know how busy the place once was. Today the area seems to be in a state of hibernation. Three steam locos are rusting at the station, waiting for the opening of a museum, I was told. Let’s see what will come of that! Three other more or less complete engines are dumped in the high grass some hundred metres outside of the station yard on the former line to Lonze forest. All of these locos were bought second-hand from Rhodesia Railways or South African Railways.

Surprisingly it was not a problem to find accommodation in Mulobezi. There is a guest house not far away from the railway station so there was no need for another night on the train. Certainly there is no electricity and no running water and only one African style toilet for the entire establishment, but everyone tried hard to give every possible comfort to the European strangers. And a candlelit dinner of corned beef and canned tuna fish can be very romantic.

The next day we were back at the station very early. The departure of the train back to Livingstone was scheduled for 8 am and we had no wish to be left behind. Our U15C was already on the train, turned as if by magic with the cab in front. The triangle at Mulobezi seems to be still serviceable. In Zambia, turning locomotives is done by triangles. As far as I know only one turntable exists, in Kapiri Mposhi which is owned by TAZARA.

We left nearly on time around 9 am. Most of the cattle wagons were now occupied by four-legged passengers, some of the freight cars were loaded with bags of charcoal and the timber was behind the loco and not in front as on the way there. This was particularly favourable to the locomotive drivers who watched the condition of the line during the trip like hawks to stop the train before any derailment. Four whistles sent the track workers out of their compartment or the snack-car to repair the line. This racket was repeated several times, day and night. We stopped often for bags of charcoal to be loaded into the wagons. The production of charcoal seems to be the main business in the area around Mulobezi after forestry has nearly completed closed down.

In the late evening we finally witnessed the event we had expected on the way to Mulobezi, namely a derailment. One bogie on a cattle wagon derailed. However, the staff in the caboose at the rear stopped the train by the operational (!) emergency brake and because of the low speed, there was no major damage to the permanent way. The track workers appeared straight away with re-railing ramps, similar to those used on a model railway, and put them behind the derailed bogie. After a hand signal the locomotive driver shunted the train slowly backwards and in less than 15 minutes after the derailment the train was back on the track and the driver went on. Unfortunately I could not take photos of the procedure, dusk was already setting in.

After a second night on the train and a cosy trip through the African morning we arrived at Sawmills around 11 am. The train emptied suddenly and the friendly conductor advised to leave here, too. It might take hours until the signalman at Livingstone station gave us right of way to the platform track, RSZ has priority. We managed to get hold of a taxi to the hotel and only after checking in, the desired shower and a first Mosi Lager at the hotel bar did we hear the whistle of the Mulobezi train arriving at Livingstone station - the conductor turned out to be exactly right. An adventurous journey along the African bush came to a good end for all those involved.

These are the steam locos seen at Mulobezi:

Rob Dickinson