Mashudu Netsianda, Senior Reporter
HAVING been in the country’s railway system for close to five decades, Mr Gordon Murray is undoubtedly one of the few remaining connoisseurs when it comes to Zimbabwe’s rich history of locomotives and coaches.

Mr Murray (69), a curator at the National Railways of Zimbabwe (NRZ)’s Bulawayo Railway Museum, has a strong passion for locomotives, which he developed at a tender age. He has proved to be a fountain of knowledge in terms of how the country’s railway system came into being, its development and growth over the years.

Bulawayo Railway Museum, which is located at the NRZ Railway Station in the city, was established 1972. The facility houses several exhibitions on the history of the railway system in Zimbabwe, formerly Rhodesia.

There you can find the very first steam locomotive to arrive in the country in 1899 and colonialist Cecil John Rhodes’ personal railway coach which carried his remains from South Africa to Bulawayo for burial in the Matopo Hills following his death in 1902.

Due to Mr Murray’s vast experience in the railway system, he has co-authored two books on the history of the railways in Zimbabwe. The first book titled, “Our Railway Heritage” focuses on the history of the exhibits at the Bulawayo Railway Museum. The publication contains vital information relating to the different historical locomotives at the museum and the mileage travelled, including coaches and other relics of the NRZ.

His second book, “Iron Spine and Ribs” which he co-authored with Rob Burrett and Robin Taylor aptly captures the history of the foundation of the railway of Zimbabwe and Zambia. The book was published in 2015.

His narrative captures the very first moment when the first steam locomotive known as Jack Tar arrived in the country in 1899. The locomotive was built by Manning, Wardle and Company of England in 1896.

Jack Tar, including the second oldest locomotive, The Lawley, a narrow-gauge engine built in 1897, are kept at the museum. Mutare was the country’s first railway headquarters before it moved to Bulawayo in 1910.

Chronicle this week visited the railway museum to get insights into the history of coaches and locomotives in Zimbabwe and Mr Murray took us through the historical journey.

Having joined the NRZ in 1972, Mr Murray developed a strong passion for the locomotives. Train coaches and locomotives run in the family. His grandfather, father and uncles worked for the railways in the early 1900s.

“Jack Tar was dismantled and sent across the Zambezi Gorge via the “Blondin” cable where it assisted in extending the line northwards. It became the first locomotive to operate in Northern Rhodesia (now Zambia),” said Mr Murray.

The locomotive is probably the most famous of the exhibits at the Bulawayo Railway Museum.

Mr Murray said the museum’s oldest exhibits date back to 1897, and include Cecil John Rhodes’ personal railway coach.

With an impressive collection of steam locomotives from the turn of the 20th century, the museum gives a glimpse into how the railways developed over the years.

In the 39 years that he worked at the NRZ before retirement in 2011 to join the museum as a curator, Mr Murray’s forte revolved around ticketing and handling of goods.

“I have had a wide experience and the best part of the railways is that you need to know so much about the system and operations. I gained a lot of knowledge in the workings of the country’s railway system such that I eventually developed a passion for trains and locomotives,” he said

“I actually got fascinated with trains when I first joined the NRZ in 1972. In fact, I loved getting closer to locomotive engines each time they parked at the shed and would be so curious to know more about their history, operations and the mileages and basically, that is how it all started.”

Mr Murray said because of the love for locomotives and their evolvement from steam to electric, he teamed up with other railway history experts, Robin Burrett and Robin Taylor and decided to co-author books.

“Like any other railways system in the world in Zimbabwe, the railway evolved with time from the steam locomotives then diesel and then electric, which is what NRZ did because you have got to progress with times.”
Mr Murray said astonishingly, some of the steam engines at NRZ have done over 2 million miles. He said Jack Tar was last used as a shunter engine in 1942.

“Originally when they started building the railways you first had the Beira and Mashonaland rail, which was from Beira to Harare route and it started off as the Bechuanaland Railway Company from Botswana to Bulawayo. After that, it was changed to Rhodesia Railways and they combined the Beira-Mashonaland Railways,” he said.

“It was then changed to Rhodesia Railways Limited before it was then bought out by Government in 1944 and subsequently became Rhodesian Railways. In 1979 when the country changed to Zimbabwe-Rhodesia it became the Zim-Rhodesia Railways and then in May 1980 it was renamed NRZ.”

Mr Murray said the first railway in Zimbabwe was to Bulawayo with the first train having arrived in the city on October 19, 1897, five years before the arrival of the first motor vehicle in 1902.

“The line to Victoria Falls was completed in 1904 and that is when the material started to be brought from England through Beira through Bulawayo right up to Vic Falls to build the bridge so that they could join Zambia and Zimbabwe. Jack Tar was brought here in pieces on a cable called Blondin cable and it was assembled in Zambia,” he said.

“When they built the Vic Falls Bridge from two sides (Zimbabwe and Zambia), it met in the middle on April 1, 1905 and the bridge was officially opened on 12th September in 1905.”

Mr Murray said currently there are three steam locomotives, which are still running in Zimbabwe although they are now mostly used for shunt runs (runs done within a railway station).

“The locomotives were built in the 1920s, but they are still maintained because steam locomotives are an attraction to tourists and train enthusiasts,” he said. — @mashnets