Photos: After years of neglect, Zimbabwe restarts ‘Freedom Train’

Chugging through townships, maize fields and scrubland as the sun rises, Zimbabwe's only commuter train is cheap and reliable -- two qualities that its passengers cherish in a downwards-spiralling economy. Each morning sleepy travellers walk to the tracks and clamber aboard before the train leaves the Cowdray Park settlement at 6:00 am on its 20-kilometre (12-mile) journey into Bulawayo, the country's second city. The hugely popular service was only revived in November after being suspended for 13 years as the rail network collapsed under President Robert Mugabe, who ruled for nearly four decades until ousted in 2017.

UPDATED ON FEB 12, 2019 10:18 AM IST 10 Photos
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A commuter train known as the ‘Freedom Train’ approaches a station early morning in Cowdray Park township, in Bulawayo, Zimbabwe. Chugging through townships, maize fields and scrubland as the sun rises, Zimbabwe’s only commuter train is cheap and reliable -- two qualities that its passengers cherish in a downwards-spiralling economy. (Zinyange Auntony / AFP)

A commuter train known as the ‘Freedom Train’ approaches a station early morning in Cowdray Park township, in Bulawayo, Zimbabwe. Chugging through townships, maize fields and scrubland as the sun rises, Zimbabwe’s only commuter train is cheap and reliable -- two qualities that its passengers cherish in a downwards-spiralling economy. (Zinyange Auntony / AFP)

UPDATED ON FEB 12, 2019 10:18 AM IST
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Passengers buy tickets at the main station. The hugely popular train service was only revived in November after being suspended for 13 years as the rail network collapsed under President Robert Mugabe, who ruled for nearly four decades until ousted in 2017. (Zinyange Auntony / AFP)

Passengers buy tickets at the main station. The hugely popular train service was only revived in November after being suspended for 13 years as the rail network collapsed under President Robert Mugabe, who ruled for nearly four decades until ousted in 2017. (Zinyange Auntony / AFP)

UPDATED ON FEB 12, 2019 10:18 AM IST
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En route, the train stops several times in the open to pick up more passengers who stream in from surrounding homes, climbing up the steps and squeezing into 14 packed carriages. Soon after 7am, it pulls into Bulawayo’s grand but dilapidated station and disgorges about 2,000 workers, uniformed school children and other travellers into the city centre, ready for the day ahead. (Zinyange Auntony / AFP)

En route, the train stops several times in the open to pick up more passengers who stream in from surrounding homes, climbing up the steps and squeezing into 14 packed carriages. Soon after 7am, it pulls into Bulawayo’s grand but dilapidated station and disgorges about 2,000 workers, uniformed school children and other travellers into the city centre, ready for the day ahead. (Zinyange Auntony / AFP)

UPDATED ON FEB 12, 2019 10:18 AM IST
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A man searches for a vacant seat on-board the train. On the Bulawayo commuter train, some windows on older carriages are even still marked “RR” for “Rhodesian Railways” -- Zimbabwe’s name before independence in 1980. (Zinyange Auntony / AFP)

A man searches for a vacant seat on-board the train. On the Bulawayo commuter train, some windows on older carriages are even still marked “RR” for “Rhodesian Railways” -- Zimbabwe’s name before independence in 1980. (Zinyange Auntony / AFP)

UPDATED ON FEB 12, 2019 10:18 AM IST
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Armed police stand guard at a checkpoint. Bulawayo once had two commuter train lines carrying workers in from either side of the city, while the capital Harare had three lines -- all dubbed “Freedom Trains” as they allowed passengers to avoid higher road costs. Services were scrapped around 2006, and the Cowdray Park line is the only one to be re-launched in a $2.5-million project. (Zinyange Auntony / AFP)

Armed police stand guard at a checkpoint. Bulawayo once had two commuter train lines carrying workers in from either side of the city, while the capital Harare had three lines -- all dubbed “Freedom Trains” as they allowed passengers to avoid higher road costs. Services were scrapped around 2006, and the Cowdray Park line is the only one to be re-launched in a $2.5-million project. (Zinyange Auntony / AFP)

UPDATED ON FEB 12, 2019 10:18 AM IST
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“The prices for kombis (minibuses) went up to two dollars, and that’s just too expensive,” said Sipeka Mushoma, 61, a heavy vehicle driver who managed to grab a precious early seat. “The train is 50 cents. My children have to get the kombi to go to school, but this saves me a lot of money to buy vegetables and bread. Zimbabweans are hurting badly, some of us are really starving now.” (Zinyange Auntony / AFP)

“The prices for kombis (minibuses) went up to two dollars, and that’s just too expensive,” said Sipeka Mushoma, 61, a heavy vehicle driver who managed to grab a precious early seat. “The train is 50 cents. My children have to get the kombi to go to school, but this saves me a lot of money to buy vegetables and bread. Zimbabweans are hurting badly, some of us are really starving now.” (Zinyange Auntony / AFP)

UPDATED ON FEB 12, 2019 10:18 AM IST
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National Railways press relations chief, Nyasha Maravanyika seen at the main station. “The president and new government are very supportive of the railways,” said Maravanyika, adding that talks were under way for an international consortium to fund a full-scale relaunch of the whole rail network. “We had to refurbish old carriages to get this service going, and it has been a huge success,” he said. (Zinyange Auntony / AFP)

National Railways press relations chief, Nyasha Maravanyika seen at the main station. “The president and new government are very supportive of the railways,” said Maravanyika, adding that talks were under way for an international consortium to fund a full-scale relaunch of the whole rail network. “We had to refurbish old carriages to get this service going, and it has been a huge success,” he said. (Zinyange Auntony / AFP)

UPDATED ON FEB 12, 2019 10:18 AM IST
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Zimbabwe’s rail network was built under British colonial rule, and at its peak in the 1990s had 600 locomotives and 3,000 passenger carriages. Today, it has less than 100 locomotives and a few hundred carriages, running a threadbare schedule and a much-reduced freight service carrying sugar, chrome and quarried stone. Just $10 million would put the other four commuter lines back in operation. (Zinyange Auntony / AFP)

Zimbabwe’s rail network was built under British colonial rule, and at its peak in the 1990s had 600 locomotives and 3,000 passenger carriages. Today, it has less than 100 locomotives and a few hundred carriages, running a threadbare schedule and a much-reduced freight service carrying sugar, chrome and quarried stone. Just $10 million would put the other four commuter lines back in operation. (Zinyange Auntony / AFP)

UPDATED ON FEB 12, 2019 10:18 AM IST
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A man crosses the railway line for a commuter train in the morning. The main line between Harare and Bulawayo -- opened in 1907 -- was once electrified, but vandalism stripped it of its copper cables, signalling system and track motors. Today, diesel-powered trains on the line are often hugely delayed and drivers are often forced to communicate using text and WhatsApp messages. (Zinyange Auntony / AFP)

A man crosses the railway line for a commuter train in the morning. The main line between Harare and Bulawayo -- opened in 1907 -- was once electrified, but vandalism stripped it of its copper cables, signalling system and track motors. Today, diesel-powered trains on the line are often hugely delayed and drivers are often forced to communicate using text and WhatsApp messages. (Zinyange Auntony / AFP)

UPDATED ON FEB 12, 2019 10:18 AM IST
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Rattling along on her return journey home, Ashley Sinda, 40, was weary after a long day working as a cleaner at a pharmaceutical company. “I live 300 metres from the last stop, so it is easy for me,” Sindia said, sitting among nurses, teachers, office and labourers. “It is impossible to afford the kombis, even if they are faster,” she said. “I am glad of this train, it is a good thing for us.” (Zinyange Auntony / AFP)

Rattling along on her return journey home, Ashley Sinda, 40, was weary after a long day working as a cleaner at a pharmaceutical company. “I live 300 metres from the last stop, so it is easy for me,” Sindia said, sitting among nurses, teachers, office and labourers. “It is impossible to afford the kombis, even if they are faster,” she said. “I am glad of this train, it is a good thing for us.” (Zinyange Auntony / AFP)

UPDATED ON FEB 12, 2019 10:18 AM IST
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