NRZ suspends train commuters stating ZUPCO owes the operator huge debts. Minibus associations mushroom

Edwin Chabuka Avatar
National Railways of Zimbabwe NRZ ZUPCO

ZUPCO made a comeback in 2019 and it came in with a bang. A new fleet of buses and some of the lowest fares on the market. Also with the help of the SI 83 of 2020 to have all commuter operators either get registered with ZUPCO or get off the streets, it almost immediately became the biggest transport company overnight.

Interesting tech was also introduced for payments with the ZUPCO tap card even though topping it up was a bit inconvenient requiring one to visit a ZUPCO kiosk to recharge. But its death was less to do with that and more with the fact that ZUPCO operators were not receptive to that payment system and ended up reverting back to cash if ever they implemented the tap card payment system in their vehicles in the first place.

ZUPCO minibusses and buses disappear from the streets

It was a slow process but little by little ZUPCO registered commuter omnibuses and buses disappeared from the streets. A number of them cited that the system was unsustainable for the operator with the fees being stipulated by ZUPCO.

Then we get to 2022 and these same private operators who once had been registered under ZUPCO start to form their own transport unions to compete with ZUPCO. In Harare, there are quite a number of these unions on the streets now with ZUPCO-branded vehicles almost gone extinct.

Now the latest casualty comes in the guise of the ZUPCO-NRZ partnership which NRZ terminated announcing that it is owed a substantial amount of money by ZUPCO and will only resume operation once they pay their dues. The statement reads:


The National Railways of Zimbabwe (NRZ) would like to advise the commuting public of a temporary suspension of the Urban Commuter Train Service with effect from Monday 28th November 2022.

The service was launched in partnership with ZUPCO last year to ease congestion in Bulawayo and Harare.
The suspension was occasioned by an unsustainable operating environment arising from huge debts owed to NRZ by ZUPCO. NRZ was therefore left with no option but to suspend commuter trains from 28 November due to capacity challenges.

Normal services will resume once ZUPCO fulfill its obligations as set in the agreement. Any inconvenience caused to our valued customers is sincerely regretted.

NRZ Press Statement

If ZUPCO is more affordable why is no one using it?

The pricing structure of ZUPCO made it really affordable. They were massively undercutting the competition and from experience even offering better quality transportation for the public. In this respect they seemed to have most of the ingredients to gain an advantage of the law of large numbers. So how did they become undesirable?

Time is money

The commuting public has a general preference for smaller vehicles like sedans and hatchbacks. The reason behind this is that they accommodate a small number of passengers which means they take less time to reach capacity and go. They are the least comfortable and the most expensive but the commuting public values time and are willing to endure more expensive fares and a less comfortable ride.

ZUPCO buses were absolutely terrible in this regard. The bus would not leave till it’s reached capacity which often took up to an hour. An hour of just sitting stationary in a but is an hour the commuting public just does not have. What was going to give ZUPCO rapor was them sticking religiously to a timetable and assuring the commuting public that it will always keep time.

Insufficient Fleet

ZUPCO states that is has 2000 buses and omnibuses registered under it and their own fleet consists of 273 buses and omnibuses. This pales into comparison with the 60 000 onmibuses and 20 000 buses that are operating under ZUDAC (Zimbabwe Union of Drivers And Conductors). And even with this, the combined effort of registered buses, omnibuses, unregistered operators (Mshikashika) and private vehicles all struggled to move commuters during peak hours. ZUPCO’s fleet alone is inconsequential to meeting the sheer volume of commuters during these peak times.

This meant they were not dependable. There was no guarantee that you can get one unless you wait in mile long queues for hours on end. This lack of reliability again made them undesirable. They were just an endangered species.


If you have ever used public transport you will know that operators move leaps and bounds to find customers. Often at times they can willingly deviate from the normal route even for just one commuting person. It’s a sport for them. Same goes for dropping off commuters. If you ask nicely they can drop you off exactly where you need to be dropped off. Yes I know and you are right. For other motorists these drop off spots can cause unnecessary traffic jams and in some cases pose a danger for that same commuter getting dropped off in an undesignated spot.

Regarldess, the commuter sees it as a convenience. And it may be more of a case of poor public transport infrastructure but that’s a story for another day. ZUPCO just could not offer the same level of pick up and drop off convenience as other registered and unregistered operators. Beyond pick ups and drop offs, payment methods were and are still more flexible on non-ZUPCO operators. Whilst ZUPCO accepts payment in Zimbabwean dollars and US dollars but at the prevailing official rate, non-ZUPCO operators go further in accepting EcoCash or even the South African Rand.

Back to the drawing board

ZUPCO is a really nice idea but right now it cannot exist in isolation. For there to be a turn around in the public transport sector there needs to be a lot of work done in the supporting infrastructure. Maybe bus stops are not the solution but rather dedicated bus lanes. Maybe in the CBD Metro rail makes more sense than omnibuses for bus rank to bus rank transit. And for suburbs already serviced by rail maybe the solution is refurbishing that infrastructure. But the lowest hanging fruit is sticking to a strict time table otherwise the mshikashika will remain desirable.

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  1. Anonymous

    First and foremost there should be a mind set change on the part of the public! The people themselves should be rejecting illegal transport, they should not be boarding transport at illegal and unsafe places, they should be all demanding proper transport with proper well run timetables! It is the old story – supply and demand! Change the demand …
    Unfortunately there is a general lawlessness on the part of the population and this is reflected in all the layers

    1. Perception or Reality

      “Let them eat cake!”…. Or in this case “The people themselves should be rejecting illegal transport”
      It’s a statement that sounds so reasonable but in the cold light of day shows that the person saying it is wilfully oblivious or completely and utterly out of touch with the problems that people face on a day to day basis.
      It’s all very nice to say this is illegal and that’s illegal but when the average person on the street is faced with the problem of how to get to work or their place of business on time in the morning, and then evening the problem of how to get home again. It’s then that you realise that all this talk of illegal transportation is complete and utter BS! 🐃💩
      When faced with the option of waiting for a ZUPCO bus that may or may not be coming or jumping into one of the so called illegal taxi’s standing right in front of you. The answer is obvious.
      When you look at the hard figures as shown in the article you can see that ZUPCO was always going to flop because the business fundamentals weren’t there in the first place, either through ignorance or incompetence or maybe this was Political Theatre.
      Where the government wanted to be seen as doing something tangible towards fixing the public transportation crisis they created through negligence. Mind you the point is to be seen as doing something let’s not talk nonsense about fixing the problem. 😉
      And any insinuations that the main reason public funds were missused to buy buses for ZUPCO was to facilitate the transportation of people to and from rallies or funerals deserve to be dismissed with contempt :(😡;(
      And there is then there’s the Security Theatre playing out daily on the streets of Zimbabwean town/cities.
      Remember the conductor/driver of the “illegal” transportation you used today to get into/out of town and that police officer manning one of the many road blocks covering every single means of entry/exit to the CBD?
      Well it turns out that the police officer and the conductor/driver aren’t related so they definitely weren’t having a private and important talk about their relatives and that wasn’t a letter given to police officer either! ;)😉
      And all those high-speed chases in the CBD? Oh that’s just boys being boys having little fun, whilst pretending that they are taking action against the “scourge of illegal transportation operators! ”
      Stop asking silly questions about how come they weren’t stopped at the roadblocks. Can’t you see how the police are taking action without fear or favour!

      1. Wisey

        Well said

      2. BeIT

        I can’t see how anyone else can add any more flavour to Perception or Reality.

  2. Doug

    The real issue here is the parent ministry of both zupco and NRZ who are throwing commuters under the bus. Government is also part of the problem or part of the solution here by not availing or by availing subsidies to the two transport ministry arms. On its deathbed, maybe on the last kicks of the dying horse, zupco had started making it difficult for passengers by increasing fares to levels which were higher than the other operators. If all the reports can be followed up, of there was implementation, considering also the promised 90 new buses per week, ZUPCO would be having more than six thousand buses by now. Of note on the commuter train, anyone who has experience of train rides from days gone by will tell you how scary the ride is on the commuter trains with wagons swaying and all sorts of screeches and noise from the not so well aligned railway lines!

  3. Jarzin

    🤣You know you are old when you have experienced zupco timetable anxiety attacks! If I heard the ‘Jarzin! 🎵🎵🎵🎵 J – A – R – Z – I – N!’ jingle play on radio, my heart would drop coz I knew I was screwed if I didn’t drop everything (breakfast or bathing) and run for my life! My cousin almost beat my *** so many times we started leaving separately in the morning!
    The timetable you could set a watch by was a simple and powerful thing I took for granted! Maybe going back to something like that with smaller buses could help, but the convenience genie is out of the bottle now with kombis and mshikashika.

    1. Doug

      Time is money. That is why in those “Jarzin” days life was better and more organized. Even the environment in those days responded to time. In those days one never needed a watch to know the time as the happenings around you could make you correctly guess the time every time. Just look around in the present world and compare the economic success of countries which keep time versus those which do not and you will see that not keeping time is a driver of poverty. The only place where time is respected is at the airport when using foreign airlines.

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