It is not an accident that the most developed and urbanised parts of Botswana are along the railway line. Since the 1890’s, the railways have played a crucial role in the development of Botswana. Along with being a bulk carrier of goods, the railway lines have inspired development from the south through to the eastern part of the country, accelerating mining activity and causing massive growth of urban areas as well as commercial and trading activity.
In 1984, moves were initiated to establish a national railway company. Two years later, in 1986, Botswana Railways, a 100% government owned body was established by the government through the Botswana Railways Act. This act facilitated negotiations, purchase and transfer of assets from National Railways of Zimbabwe (NRZ), who owned all of Botswana’s railways at the time, to Botswana Railways (BR).
The task of ensuring the success of the takeover was given to the Permanent Secretary of the then Ministry of Works and Communications, Mr. C. M. Lekaukau. A unit was set up in the Ministry of Transport and Communication to ensure a smooth takeover. The Unit was headed by a Railway Project Coordinator, who was assisted by a Railways Implementation Officer. Other officers in the Unit included a Chief Civil Engineer, an Assistant Civil Engineer, a Chief Signal and Telecommunications Officer and a Financial Controller.
The Botswana Railways Act of 1984 was repealed by the BR Act of 1986, which stated that Br was set up to operate as a commercial entity of the Government of Botswana with the focus of providing an efficient yet cost effective railway service within the Botswana and a railway link to neighbouring countries, South Africa and Zimbabwe, as well as beyond into the interior of Africa.
During the takeover of the railways from NRZ, Botswana Railways looked to Transmark, a consultancy unit of British Rail for advice. Following Transmark’s advice, the Botswana Government decided to put the headquarters of BR in Mahalapye, about the midpoint of the line where locomotives and crews could do change-overs.
Another decision made was to appoint key staff, which the Government found difficult. Railway men do not easily give up their jobs for short-term contracts. This led to the government appointing the services of Transmark, who were able to source staff from British Rail. Also upon advice from Transmark, human resource studies were undertaken to better determine staffing needs and develop an organizational structure for the company, including terms and conditions for staff and salary bands.
After the takeover and transfer of assets was complete, Botswana Railways formally purchased the assets of National Railways of Zimbabwe in Botswana for US$38 815 663. BR began formal operations in October 1987.
It hasn’t always been smooth sailing since then. In 1999, Zimbabwe placed an embargo on cargo transiting through Zimbabwe on BR to encourage use of the Beitbridge Bulawayo Railway, which resulted in BR losing about 90% of its bulk cargo freight business. In 2000, BR embarked on a restructuring of its operations that saw a reduction of its labour force from 2000 to 900 workers in efforts to offset the loss of cargo business. In 2005, another Organizational restructuring review was done in order to enhance business effectiveness.
Today, the Botswana Railways system consists of 888km of 1067mm Cape Gauge Track. The main line runs through the south-eastern region of Botswana, from Mahikeng in South Africa to Plumtree in Zimbabwe. Along the way it runs through Lobatse, Gaborone, Mahalapye, Palapye and Francistown. There are three additional branch lines, one from Palapye to Morupule Colliery, one from Serule to Selebi-Phikwe and one from Francistown to Sowa.
The development of the railways has spurred the development of Botswana. It has not only carried bulk freight, passengers and goods, it has carried with it development, urbanisation and hopes for a better life as well.