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In a rare success story, Zimbabwe's only commuter train is packed

​Zimbabwe's train: Cheap and reliable

​Zimbabwe's train: Cheap and reliable

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.

In pic: A commuter train known as the 'Freedom Train' approaches a station early morning in Cowdray Park township, in Bulawayo, Zimbabwe.

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​Popular train service

​Popular train service

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.

In pic: Commuters are seen in a filled commuter train heading for the city in Bulawayo, Zimbabwe.

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​Stops, ticket office...

​Stops, ticket office...

At Cowdray Park, there is no platform, and no station except for a makeshift ticket office made out of an old carriage sitting in a field.

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 7:00 am, 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.

In pic: A makeshift ticket office made out of an old carriage sitting in a field in the sprouting township of Cowdray Park in Bulawayo, Zimbabwe.

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Minibuses vs train​

Minibuses vs train​

The prices for kombis (minibuses) went up to two dollars, and that's just too expensive. The train is 50 cents.

In pic: Commuters queue to purchase train tickets in Cowdray Park township, in Bulawayo, Zimbabwe.

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​Train services scrapped

​Train services scrapped

The government last month announced that fuel prices would more than double -- triggering violent protests, a security crackdown and further pressure on minibuses to hike prices.

Bulawayo once had two commuter train lines carrying workers in from either side of the city, while the capital Harare had three lines -- all of them dubbed "Freedom Trains" as they allowed passengers to avoid higher road costs.

The services were scrapped around 2006, and the Cowdray Park line is the only one to be re-launched in a $2.5-million project funded by the state-owned National Railways of Zimbabwe.

In pic: Commuters clamber aboard a train heading for the city in Bulawayo, Zimbabwe.

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​Rare success

​Rare success

Mugabe's successor President Emmerson Mnangagwa has backed railway investment as part of his plans to turn around the economy.

But the outcome of the commuter train is a rare success in his efforts, which have struggled to produce concrete results.

Zimbabwe's rail network -- which includes the dramatic line across the Victoria Falls into Zambia -- was built under British colonial rule, and at its peak in the 1990s had 600 locomotives and 3,000 passenger carriages.

In pic: Commuters make payments to purchase commuter train tickets in Cowdray Park township, in Bulawayo, Zimbabwe.

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​Harare and Bulawayo line

​Harare and Bulawayo line

Today it has less than 100 locomotives and a few hundred carriages, running a threadbare schedule between major cities, and a much-reduced freight service carrying sugar, chrome and quarried stone.

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.

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.

In pic: Passengers buy tickets at the main station for a commuter train to Cowdray Park and surrounding townships in Bulawayo, Zimbabwe.

(Text: AFP)

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