DESPITE the growing environmental argument in favour of electric traction, news reaches us that electric working has been suspended on Zimbabwe's only electrified line. Diesel locos are now hauling all trains on the 313 km single-track route between Harare and Dabuka.

According to NRZ General Manager Air Commodore Mike Karakadzai, the power feed from the Zimbabwe Electricity Supply Authority had become too erratic. The 25 kV 50 Hz supply had sometimes been switched off with a train en route, blocking the line completely. Recent heavy rains had also damaged the overhead line equipment.

We can only hope that turning off the power will not encourage thieves to steal the catenary, mirroring the vandalism and cable thefts that have left 75% of NRZ's signalling and communications network inoperable. The signalling, too, has been hit by the power outages, leaving the railway to rely on paper train orders or pilot working.

NRZ faces huge problems obtaining spare parts for its aging assets, which Karakadzai blames on sanctions and a shortage of foreign exchange. Only half of the 168 locos and 10 000 wagons are operational, and 10% of the network is subject to speed restrictions as low as 5 km/h.