If you go up the Harare kopje and gaze down upon the extreme eastern part of the city, the view is not too different from that of the 1920s and 1940s. Okay, the corrugated iron roofs have given way to tiles and bricks and concrete have replaced the timber structures and some building host more than two storeys. But the view of the Harare Railways Station, mottled with its unmistakable red-brick, remains just as outstanding.
The Railway Station is one of Harare’s iconic buildings and it has not changed much over the years. In years gone by, when carts and vintage cars criss-crossed the dusty red brown earth street of Railway Avenue (now known as Kenneth Kaunda), which turned to mud whenever it rained, the train station was the most visited place. Travel by train was then the number one mode of transport.
The Railway Station can be traced back to the 1890s when the railway was constructed. It provided a service to travellers from across Southern Africa. The modern building was built in 1925, the main features of which have not been altered much.
The two storey building, with its noticeable dome shaped spire at the top, still oozes its yester year aura. An inviting main entrance ushers you onto the main platform. The ticket room, clock and bathrooms have not changed either. The luggage building is still in its original place on the far east of the station, except now the volume of goods has dropped due to road transport competition as well as inefficiencies in the railways administration. The information and newspaper and magazine stands are still an imposing feature as you cross the platform, which stretches over 500 metres. A restaurant continues to serve travellers passing through.
The station is much quieter these days. There used to be day and night trains leaving for Bulawayo and Mutare and day trains running to Bindura and Chinhoyi but they have since been suspended. Evening trains too have been scaled down to only a few a week. The commuter train, which brought life to the station, has also been scrapped.
The ability to reserve your seat 30 days in advance has been discontinued. Reservations are not fully computerised, so buy travelling tickets for trains leaving from the station the same day. Reservations for your return journey must be made when you reach your destination.
“Although the station appears to be well used, it is generally quiet these days,” said Marcus Rodriguez who arrived at the train station on a rainy day from Laurenzo Marques (Maputo) in 1958. “There were not many berths available those days,” he recounts.
A regular traveler Rodriguez (72) says that it in its heyday the railway station provided an arena for brief interaction and debate between migrants from north, south and east, workers, chancers and drifters of both sexes. Numerous cultures and creeds crossed its platform.
Diaz Bosman narrated his experiences at the station in 1936. “When the ticket man at Harare station told my colleague and me to be up on time, we simply exchanged knowing glances, but he had the last laugh. We should have believed him.
“‘Don’t forget,’ he said, ‘be here at 6.30pm, the train leaves at 7pm sharp,’ and all we could do was to chuckle as we left the station. Isn’t it the norm that few trains in the world leave on time?
“We went for a binge in Pioneer Street [Leopold Takawira St]. The street was famous in those days for having indecent rooming houses and bars. At 6.30pm we heard the train honking. One problem stood in our way. We had to run to the station and climb aboard before it leaves the platform, but it had rained heavily and our sprint to the station was slowed by the red soil that stuck to our boots like glue.
“We arrived at the station with only seconds to spare. We sprinted to the platform. A restaurant attendant sees us sweating and breathing hard. We nearly missed the train.
“Thus how memorable the station is to me.”*
*Images of Yesteryear by Louis Nell