Professor Chirwa’s Electric Train ‘Derails’

Chirwa's Electric Train 1

So it was just window-shopping when the Zambian commuters were presented with the vision of an electric train pulling in the subway at Lusaka Railway station. They will just keep on admiring such elegant conveyances in Hollywood movies while they are stuck with old, diesel-powered locomotives.

The idea of the electric train existed in the mind of Professor Clive Chirwa who was siphoned from England to come and run the rundown railway system in the capacity of Chief Executive Officer (CEO). Looking at his CV, it is very easy to tell that as Professor of Automotive and Aerospace Structures, he can help resurface the buried railway network in the country. However, when he showcased the tantalizing glimpse of what was going to be the perked up Zambia Railways, the idea appeared too exotic for fledgling Zambia. Those who put ink to paper for money to come out simply looked the other way and seemingly said, “Isn’t there anybody else out there who can do the job within our means?”

In no time the CEO was fired for, according to former Zambia Railways Limited (ZRL) board vice-chairperson Professor Oliver Saasa, lack of and limited corporate governance skills to run the company. However, the appointing authority came to his rescue and put him on suspension to pave way for investigations on corruption charges. As if that was not enough, Transparence International Zambia also prodded the Anti-Corruption Commission to start a probe into reports of alleged corruption at the ZRL. The last string linking him to ZRL was severed by the CEO himself when he expressed regret about ever coming to Zambia for the job.

This flashes a worry that if he goes, the blueprint about modernizing ZRL will be shredded then discarded in the trash bin en route to the incinerator – never to be heard of again in this generation. The only consolation will be, “A diesel locomotive in the hand is worth two electric ones in Chirwa’s head.”

The case of Professor Chirwa has raised heated debates across the nation but for a time being let us dichotomize the man and look at his intellectual capital rather than his astronomical demands. His idea, if well implemented, was not only to bring electric trains but also to improve the railway line and authenticate the slogan ‘Zambia on the Wheels’.

He was promising to use the US$120 million Eurobond fund allocated to ZRL to turn the company into something that exists in Europe. He was talking of a dual line from Chingola to Livingstone. No doubt, the line was going to be less bumpy too.

If the electric train was to be a reality, it would ‘shorten’ the distance between the two extremities: Chingola and Livingstone. It would be possible for a person living in Ndola to travel to work in Lusaka and back everyday, starting work at 08:00 hours and never reporting late.

Another possibility would be for commercial dealers living in Kitwe to journey to Lusaka for business and back the same day. Instead of boarding a bus at 21:00 hours risking moving at night, they would simply work up early in the morning, catch the early train and arrive before shops open at 08:00 hours. By 15:00 hours they would be back in Kitwe selling the merchandise in their shops.

The idea would also have a positive impact on roads. Our high ways would be spared the frequent damage they suffer at the weight of heavy goods vehicles. Most of the heavy cargo would be shipped by rail and arrive at their destinations in time.

Moreover, many big trucks which congest the high ways would be redundant. This would translate into less traffic and reduced road carnage engendered by heavily loaded trucks.

With the expanded company, the number of employees was going to be close to what it was prior to privatization – a move which would up the revenue of the country.

All these were positive plans which if implemented would grade the path for economic growth. But the purveyor of them was shut up as prodigal. The professor can go, alright, but will his idea go with him or be retained as good for the nation?

Since the position of ZRL CEO will need to be filled in by somebody else, (that is if Prof Chirwa goes for keeps) the nation will turn their attention to the new boss and demand that he uses the US$120 million to realize something similar to what the previous boss displayed.

Meanwhile, Transport, Works, Supply and Communications Permanent Secretary Muyenga Atanga has been appointed to babysit the company. It is not yet known for how long, but the people of Zambia speedily need modern trains and subways just as they watch in movies.

So instead of focusing so much on the individual, in the name of Professor Clive Chirwa, give the Zambian commuters the development that they so much need in the railway system.