’THE ZIMBABWE RAILWAY continues to be critical for the growth of regional and international trade’, reports the World Bank following a recent study of the country’s transport infrastructure. At the centre of international routes linking the DRC and Zambia with Botswana, Mozambique and South Africa, National Railways of Zimbabwe is ’strategically positioned’ to become the lynchpin of sustainable regional and international trade, strengthening economic growth across southern Africa. Today NRZ is in a pitiful state, handicapped by the country’s economic woes and a lack of foreign exchange for essential investment, compounded by years of poor management and uneconomic tariff structures. ’It is seriously lagging behind in terms of efficiency, cost-effectiveness, safety and environmentally-friendly railway services’, says the report. But instead of addressing the political framework within which NRZ must operate, or offering advice on cost-effective improvements to get the railway back on its feet, the World Bank goes on to recommend its favoured solution: reform. ’Restructuring at NRZ has been slow, with the parastatal delaying in implementing the SADC Protocol on Transport & Communication’, says the report, adding that ’it is necessary to develop an interim railways sector strategy in three critical areas improving operational efficiency promoting railway concessions and reducing the financial deficit’.Zimbabwe’s Minister of Transport & Communications Christopher Mushohwe has already backed a split of infrastructure and operations, announcing during a visit to Dabuka marshalling yard in November that the government will take over maintenance of the rail network, leaving NRZ to concentrate on operations. A further restructuring exercise would transform the company into separate business units.NRZ General Manager Mike Karakadzai said the move would help relieve NRZ finances by transferring the cost of infrastructure maintenance to the government, although the latter’s record in recent years has not been exactly encouraging. Even a cursory look at experience with vertical separation over the past decade will show how difficult it can be to make complex structures work successfully, even on mature and relatively efficient railway networks. And our recent review of privatisation (RG 9.06 p517) found that success depended more on regular investment in asset renewals and securing reliable traffic flows than on the choice of management structure. NRZ would surely be better able to recover if treated as an integrated business, with the injection of some experienced ’can-do’ managers, provided with enough funding for essential repairs and given the freedom to run the railway without political interference. But what is the chance of that?n