ZIMBABWE Mining & Smelting Co is to hire two diesel locomotives from South Africa in a deal that could pave the way for major rail users to overcome loco and rolling stock shortages crippling the national railway. Chief Executive Sydwell Jena confirmed early last month that Zimasco was about to sign an agreement under which Sheltam would be paid US$850 a day for each loco with a driver. They will haul ferrochrome in NRZ wagons - refurbished at Zimasco’s expense - for export through Beira or Maputo.

The government has approved the deal because ferrochrome exports are vital to the failing economy, and Jena said special tariffs were being negotiated. An NRZ driver will ride as pilot in each cab, and Sheltam’s drivers will have to be certified as competent by NRZ.

NRZ’s capacity to move freight has been cut drastically since 1998, when 18·3 million tonnes were carried. Only 9 million tonnes were moved last year, and a study published in August said that the figure could be a low as 6 million next year if nothing is done to procure vital spare parts for more than half the loco and wagon fleets that are currently out of service. NRZ has previously hired locos from South Africa, but cannot pay in local currency because annual inflation is running at 300%. Zambia and Botswana railways have agreed to use their locos on international trains as far as Thompson Junction and Bulawayo respectively.

The study concludes that if the collapse of NRZ is to be arrested, US$50000 in foreign exchange and Z$7bn in local currency is needed to repair motive power, rolling stock, signalling and communications. Zimasco has offered foreign exchange to get spares for the locos needed to haul its traffic, which includes imports of 2000 tonnes of coke each month through Durban. This would allow coke to be railed through Beira or Maputo at less cost.