Bulawayo Railway Museum – a fascinating historical visit for locals & tourists

By Professor Ross G. Cooper

Formerly: Department of Physiology, University of Zimbabwe, Harare, Zimbabwe.

E-mail: rgcooperuk@yahoo.com

The Bulawayo Railway Museum is one of the few Heritage Museums in the World that hosts original locomotives and detailed historical descriptions of rail life in The Federation of Rhodesia and Nyasaland, Southern Rhodesia, Rhodesia, Zimbabwe-Rhodesia and Zimbabwe. It was officially opened on 4th November 1972.  Located on the border of Bulawayo’s industrial estates between 13th Avenue and Josiah Chinamano Road, the fantastic museum is well worth a day’s visit. The museum has not only attracted local visitors but tourists and enthusiasts alike from all over the World. If one is willing to take a brisk walk, it is interesting and enjoyable along 12-span of oxen streets and, after passing through a tunnel beneath a road, a path leads one up to the museum surrounded by enormous Eucalyptus trees. On its approach, it looks like an original station and its neatness, tranquillity and displays are impressive. The entry fee is very affordable and photographs are permitted. Although there is a lack of souvenir and refreshment shops, one can buy books on the railways and other artefacts from the ticket office and get the covers press-stamped. Since re-wiring and lighting, there are many displays with verbal commentary and audio impressions. A visitor could imagine passengers sitting down to eat a colonial Railway Pudding: ½lb. flour, 1 tablespoon butter, ½ pint milk, 1 teaspoon sugar, 1 egg, 1 teaspoon carbonate soda and 1 small teaspoon tartaric acid; mix soda and acid with flour well; beat butter and sugar to a cream and mix with flour; beat egg and add it to the milk and other ingredients; pour into the large buttered tin and bake 20 minutes, and cut in half and spread with jam.

The proposed development of the Rhodesia Railways Museum on the Cnr. 15th Avenue/Hillside Road, Bulawayo included: land of the former Railway right-of-way of the old Salisbury mainline (site A); future development (site B) and rail access to heavy locomotives between the railway station and the museum site (site C). It was reported in October 1968 that Rhodesia would have a 4th major urban museum and Bulawayo an additional national tourist attraction on its completion. It was planned that the Museum Project would fall under the auspices of a Historical Society, membership of which would open to railwaymen and non-railwaymen throughout Rhodesia. Membership subscriptions and proceeds from members’ fund-raising efforts and voluntary work formed the basis of income for the project. In 1972 the Railway Museum was relocated and opened on the Cnr. Prospect Avenue and First Street in Raylton, Bulawayo. On the 4th November 1972, the Minister of Transport and Power, Mr R. Hawkins Esq., arrived on the footplate of a historic train decorated in the style of the first train in 1897 and included Rhodes’ coach hauled by a 1903 vintage locomotive (No. 43) and officially opened the new railway museum. He was suitably attired in an engineman’s blue jacket and cap whilst handling the controls like a veteran. Mr E. Kleyhans (driving), Mr C. Noble (firing) and Mr F.P. Pieterse (station master) assisted in the clanging of bells, the explosion of detonators and an applauding crowd of 1,000.

The engine was decorated with the Portuguese, South African, Botswana and Rhodesian flags. Pulled by the engine were Rhodes’ private saloon (1896), a 1904 carriage converted into a mobile museum and a 1915 vintage guards van. The old Shamva station building complete with its original bell, rain gauge, weighing machine and lamp was brought to Bulawayo and re-erected and it was from the veranda thereof that the general manager Mr T. Wright introduced the Minister. Distinguished guests included His Worship the Mayor, Councillor R.S. Harris and Mrs Harris, members of the Railway Board and other senior railway officials. On completion of the opening ceremony, Mr R.H. Baxter, chairman of the Historical Committee, presented the Minister and the Mayor with commemorative medallions struck by the railways to mark the occasion. Among the displays were Engine No. 15, a 2’ gauge used on the construction of the Beira-Umtali line (opened in 1898) and the first operational fire engine (1929). The catering branch served teas and minerals in a twin diner and at tables alongside. The principal items on display at the opening included locomotives (6th, 7th, 9a, 10th, 11th and 16th class including a Jack Tar; the old station building from Shamva; an old railway signal; a vintage guard’s van and contrast of Rhodesia Railways’ modern twin dining cars adjacent to one of the earliest dining cars. A collection of smaller items and historical records were on display. The opening climaxed 6 years of work by the Rhodesia Railways Historical Committee which was set up by the general manager Mr T. Wright. The Museum also focused attention on current and future railway development, and upon employment, training and career aspirations, in addition to displaying demonstrations of railway operations. 

The British, in their quest for the colonisation of Africa, found it essential that a railroad be constructed. Cecil John Rhodes realised the importance of rail communication into the interior and for Rhodesia, he envisaged two outlets to the sea. Work commenced in 1892 from Fontesvilla reaching Umtali in September 1892, and from Vryburg to Bulawayo in May 1893. They were completed in October 1897 and February 1898, respectively. By 1900 the rail link between Mutare and Harare was completed and the Harare-Bulawayo line finished in 1902. The railway network grew rapidly reaching mining areas. The need for coal from Hwange led to the laying of the Bulawayo-Hwange line in 1903, which was extended to Victoria Falls in 1904. Later the link to Maputo in Mozambique was completed in the 1950s and the Rutenga-Beitbridge link in the 1970s to form a direct link with South Africa. At Independence in 1980, there were 2,800km of track in Zimbabwe and 600km in Botswana was administered by the National Railways of Zimbabwe. Government policy both before and after Independence was to carry some goods at sub-economic rates in order to help the economy. These goods included minerals and agricultural produce. The electrification of the 300km-long rail stretch between Dabuka near Gweru and Harare came at a time when railway revenue was declining. At one time there were 311 diesel engines, 30 electric engines, 118 steam locomotives, 9,500 general wagons and 2,000 specialist wagons.

The potential for country-wide electrification once existed on all the tracks which were generally in good condition. Improvements consisted mainly of relaying with 45kg rail. There was a Centralised Train Control capable of instantly indicating the location of any train in the country. A marshalling yard was constructed at Dabuka designed to handle 4,000 wagons/day and to move containers between trains, and a container park was constructed at Lochinvar in Harare. Extensive workshop facilities were located in Bulawayo and Mutare and private contractors based in Harare and Bulawayo undertook a considerable amount of structural and electrical work. The Road Motor Services once consisted of a fleet of 140 lorries that moved goods from railheads to sidings and stations. They serviced mainly the mines and farms, with livestock and general goods taking up most of the annual business. It used to haul ca.400,000 tonnes of goods and 50,000 head of livestock/year, although this attenuated due to an increase in the number of private road haulage services. Until 1982 the Road Motor Services also ran a passenger service. Prior to this enormous rail activity, the only means of transportation was the ox-wagon, Zeederberg coach, horse, mule, donkey or by foot along dusty roads. The first train steamed into Bulawayo on the 4th November 1897. The line brought huge progress into the interior by transporting experts, building materials and provisions.

From 1st October 1936, Rhodesia Railways Ltd. became the owners of the entire railway system in Rhodesia and Zambia including the Vryburg-Bulawayo section. On 1st April 1947, the Rhodesian Government acquired the assets of the Rhodesia Railways Ltd. and on 1st November 1949, the Railway became a statutory body. The name was altered to the National Railways of Zimbabwe on 1st May 1980. Steam locomotives are still used in Zimbabwe for haulage including coal and for wonderful tourist rides (Mothers’ and Valentines’ Days) in addition to diesel locomotives for freight, livestock, grain and transport haulage. The former U.K. Army Genera Mike Jackson praised the Bulawayo marshalling yards and having been offered a ride in the cab of a steam engine by a very kind driver who showed him how to drive it, his nostalgia for the age of steam was re-kindled. He wrote that they steamed 3-4 miles down the track and then back again, never travelling at more than 20miles/hr. He said he “felt a sense of the massive strength of the massive strength of this great beast”. Modern equipment and the only stretch of electrified line in sub-Saharan Africa put the railway system in Zimbabwe at the head of all others in the region. It was run as a parastatal body based in Bulawayo and after the Government, was the largest employer in the country. The original dream of the Railway Historic Society made up of prominent members of the Railways Historical Committee, that a steam locomotive is established in a running shed on the museum grounds to facilitate historic rides during special times of celebration, was replaced by a twice-yearly steam locomotive journey departing from Bulawayo Train Station.

Hopefully, the mini-locomotives, now stored at the museum and once a delight in Bulawayo Central Park, can be restored to its former, magnanimous working glory. Perhaps annual trips could be organised from schools all over Zimbabwe to this historical museum. The potential for countrywide rail heritage tours carrying forex-paying passengers travelling from Harare Train Station would make better use of the vastly underused facilities. The line to the final historic Matopos stop could be re-opened and travelled along by steam train. The Matopos Branch Line opened on the 7th November 1908 and closed on the 2nd June 1948. The 9-mile line from Westacre Junction was built in accordance with provisions in the will of Rhodes so that, “The people of Bulawayo may enjoy the glory of the Matopos from Saturday to Monday”. The museum proprietor, Mr G. Murray, has, through his friendly, affable, valiant and keen manner, managed to get volunteers and funding to upgrade the museum into one of true international excellence. During a recent visit, The President of Zimbabwe, The Hon. E. Mnangagwa, praised the museum, its dedicated staff and enthusiasts. The buildings, locomotives and carriages have nearly all been repaired, painted and rewired. As one enters the museum one can request a Rhodesian Railways stamp press on their ticket, trample upon the wooden platform flooring, sit down on a wooden bench and gaze out on the historical items including an old fire bucket, luggage scale, face washing dish, clock, clanger, etc. Below is a selection of delightful and colourful photographs of a memorable visit to the Bulawayo Railway Museum.


Bulawayo. City of the Kings in Zimbabwe. Tourist Map. Harare: BoldAds.

Chataway, N.H. 2006. The Bulawayo Cookery Book and Household Guide. London: Jeppestown Press. pp. 156.

Cooper, R.G. 2010. Bulawayo Railway Museum – the dawn of time. Morning Mirror 412: 1.

Cooper, R.G. 2011. Bulawayo Railway Museum. SA Rail 49(1): 35.

Cooper, R.G. 2011. Bulawayo Railway Museum – the dawn of time. Steam in Action 30th June: 1.

Cooper, R.G. 2019. Sam Edward the Steam Engine. ISBN: 978-0-244-21190-5. Morrisville, N.C.: Lulu Press Inc. pp. 16.

Jackson, M. 2007. Soldier. London: Bantam Press. pp. 400.

Tabex Encyclopedia Zimbabwe. 1987. Harare: Quest Publishing. pp. 431.

Railway Museum to be sited in Bulawayo. 1968. Rhodesia Railways Magazine

 October: 10-11.

Zimbabwe National Railways Museum. Gweru: Mambo Press. pp. 16.

Images by Prof. Ross Cooper

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