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100 years of the railway








The early days of the pioneers, the Zambezi River was essential to transportation in Malawi. The Shire River, a tributary of the Zambezi provided at that time the most convenient route from the Indian Ocean coast to Nyasaland now known as Malawi. The Murchison Cataracts, north of Chikhwawa, divide the Shire into the navigable upper and lower sections and they effectively prevent through navigation to Lake Malawi. Steamers sailed from the port of Chinde on the swamps of the Zambezi delta up to Nsanje (Port Herald) and Chiromo and passengers for destinations to Blantyre and beyond would be conveyed by porters. This means of transportation was not sustainable to support the spread of Christianity, trade development and growth.
In 1902 a contract was signed for the construction of the Shire Highlands Railways (SHR) from Chiromo to Blantyre. In 1908, SHR which connected Blantyre with the steamer stations of Chiromo and Port Herald was completed. The railway gauge was chosen as 1067mm in line with the railways of Southern Africa. Building the line

to Blantyre proved difficult because of the hilly terrain. After leaving Sankhulani at 78metres above sea level the line climbs the escarpment to the Shire Highlands and becomes a tortuous line over a large part of the 106 km to Limbe situated at 1,159 metres above sea level. There were delays in construction arising from negotiating the right of way with chiefs and particularly with settlers who at times refused to grant rail access through their acquired land. Workers were allowed to attend to their farming activities during the rainy season, returning to work after harvesting their produce.

In the south, the line was extended from Chiromo to Nsanje. Increasing difficulties experienced by steamers up the Shire stimulated a further extension of the railway southwards into Mozambique. In view of the fact that the proposed line between Nsanje and Chindio on the banks of the Zambezi would run partly in British and partly in Portuguese territory a separate company, the Central Africa Railway Company (CAR) was formed. In 1915, when the SHR reached Chindio on the north bank of the Zambezi, regular sailing up the Shire ceased. The Trans-Zambezia Railway (TZR) was completed from Beira to the south bank of the Zambezi opposite Chindio in 1922. The Zambezi Railway Bridge, the second longest railway bridge in the world at that time, was opened to traffic in 1935. The line reached Salima in the same year.

Thus Malawi with no coastline and having many miles of Mozambique territory between it and the sea port of Beira had by means of British capital been provided with an own route to the sea and to the interconnected railway system of southern Africa covering Mozambique, Zimbabwe, South Africa, Zambia, Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) and Angola through the Benguela Railways to the Atlantic ocean.
The railway provided an economic opportunity for Malawians to work in the mines of South Africa and the copper mines of Zambia and the DRC.
In 1970, the line between Nkaya and Nayuchi connecting to the Mozambique railway line to the deep sea port of Nacala was opened. The extension to Lilongwe was opened in 1979 and to Mchinji through to Zambian border in 1981. With the opening of the line to Lilongwe a total route length of 778 kilometres is operated, comprising 677 kilometres between Mchinji and the Border station on the southern border with Mozambique and 101 kilometres between Nkaya and Nayuchi. At time of independence in 1964, the route length was 465 kilometres.
During construction of the railway a multitude of other tasks had to be carried out for the efficient operation of the railway. Various communication systems were installed, starting with wire telegraphs, then wire telephones and a train authorisation system: Token System. For purposes of establishing rates and fares, kilometric marks and indicators of train stations were put in place. A complete logistics system was established: workshops, service stations, depots and working sites. The railway itself was being supplied with steam and diesel locomotives, goods wagons and passenger coaches. Indispensable human resources were needed in the many diversified professions of the railway activity. The workers would be provided with training, medical assistance and institutional housing.

The railway has a tradition of granting social benefits to its personnel. These include short term loans, academic loans and contributory pension scheme. The Limbe railway workshops were the first to provide electricity to Limbe, and together with the Imperial Tobacco Group provided potable water to its staff and buildings. It would not be surprising if some of the water piping in the Limbe railway estate still dates back to those early days.
The railway was built to provide a fast, economic and safe transportation of passengers and goods into and out of Malawi. The explorer Dr. David Livingstone had seen the harsh reality of the slave trade and mobilised action in two dimensions to eradicate this evil: to advance Christianity and secondly to develop trade.

Missionaries and traders came in answer to this calling. Long distance trains ran between Malawi and Beira. Settlers came to establish plantations and farms. It was estimated that by 1920, there were 1,015 Europeans and 515 Asians.
During the early years of the pioneers, cotton was the main industry before tobacco became the bread earner for Malawi. Increasing attention was being given to coffee and tea. The railway was an important route for export of these products. Trade in ivory was big business and this was export markets. In 1971, goods traffic totalled 994,000 and passengers 862,000. In 1975, goods traffic totalled 1.338,000 and passengers 1.211,000. In 1980, goods traffic totalled 1,303,000 and passengers 1,267,000. In 1997/98, goods traffic totalled 338,000 and passengers 452,000. In the new millennium, in 2003, 603,000 passengers used rail. Throughout history, passenger traffic has been an important activity for the railway. Passenger services ran throughout the entire system and international trains ran to Beira. A Diesel Railcar service was introduced between Limbe and Beira for weekend travel. Dondo a few kilometres from Beira was an interconnecting station from where connection was made to Zimbabwe and beyond. International passenger traffic was withdrawn in 1975 when Mozambique became independent and there was need for obtaining a visa before entering that country. After railway restructuring in 1994, passenger service was withdrawn on most routes as the service fell under Public Service Obligations and financial responsibility being on the government.

The Beira and Nacala rail routes closed to Malawi in 1984 following the escalation of the civil war in Mozambique. The railway thus lost the monopoly of the transport market and would never again regain its transport supremacy.
For many years motive power was steam but in order to provide for the continually expanding tonnage, steam power was progressively withdrawn in favour of diesel locomotives and by 1973, steam power was withdrawn completely. The railway has preserved steam locomotive No. 8 in the livery of the Shire Highland Railways. This may be viewed at Railway Marshalling Yard, Kanengo Lilongwe. Steam locomotive No.49 is stabled at Limbe Railway Workshops. A study done on Loco No. 49 concluded that the locomotive could be refurbished for tourist travel between Malawi and the port of Nacala. Henry Posner III of Railroad Development Corporation, USA has offered to finance this refurbishing. There has been no response from the railway.
Before the restructuring of Malawi Railways in 1994, the fleet of locomotives comprised of 8 diesel hydraulic shunting locomotives, 16 diesel light line locomotives, 14 AEI and 20 MLW mainline locomotives in various service conditions. The total number of all types of wagons was 852, in addition to 22 vans and 30 standard class coaches. After the concession, the fleet reduced to 14 mainline locomotives: ALCO 251 Bombardier MX-615, 1500 hp, 1973/80 Model; 5 Belgium-built Cockerill Mechanical Industries (CMI), 525 hp, 1993 Model, shunting locomotives and an average of 400 freight wagons and 17 coaches.

In 1930, Nyasaland Railways was incorporated to acquire debenture stock of shares of the SHR. The attainment of independence in 1964, the railway became a parastatal named Malawi Railways. In 1994, the Government of Malawi undertook the restructuring of the railways. This followed a profound exchange of views on the components of a new railway policy for Africa that took place among policy and administrative authorities from the transport sector, managers of railway enterprises, and bi-and multi-lateral donors. This exchange of views helped to define the general guidelines of a policy for the restructuring of the railway activity. The general objectives for restructuring the railway in Malawi were: To enable the railway to play its economic role in the national and sub-regional transport system; To transform the railway into an efficient market-oriented transport enterprise exercising its activities on a commercial basis, in active competition with other modes of transport; To achieve financial equilibrium in order to suppress the burden put on public finance; and To strengthen the technical and marketing cooperation between the railway in Malawi and the Mozambique railway system. Malawi Railways (1994) Limited commenced trading in readiness for eventual privatisation.
On 1 December 1999, the Government of Malawi granted a concession to The Central East African Railways Ltd. (CEAR) to operate the railway system in Malawi. The government was placing the management and operation of the railway under a concession to include the right to use, rehabilitate, modify, operate and maintain the railway estate by the concessionaire.
It is over 100 years of railways. Tribute must be paid to the pioneers, missionaries, settlers and the native population (unskilled) for their unswerving commitment in the face of adversity, to conquer step by step the long tortuous journey of the railway system. They had a larger purpose: to endow Malawi with a rail transport system capable of sustaining its economic development and growth.

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