ZRL was formerly a region of Rhodesia Railways (RR) with its regional headquarters in Kabwe while the company’s headquarters was in Bulawayo. The construction of this line reached Victoria Falls Bridge in 1902.

The line operated as RR with joint ownership with Southern Rhodesia (present day Zimbabwe) until after the dissolution of the Federation of Rhodesia and Nyasaland in 1963. RR operated as a Unitary Railway System with assets remaining jointly owned by Zambia and Southern Rhodesia until 1967 when the Zambian Government passed the Railways Act to give birth to the Zambia Railways Board.

In 1978, the Government transferred the Zambia Railways Board to ZIMCO. This transfer necessitated the incorporation of the new company, limited by shares and the dissolution of the Zambia Railways Board. Zambia Railways was incorporated as a limited company through the Railways Act of 1982.

The company has gone through different business cycles and restructuring. Up until 2013, the company was a parastatal but privatized by way of concessioning to a private entity called Railway Systems of Zambia (RSZ). However, in September, 2012, the Government rescinded its decision and repossessed ZRL from RSZ due to the general deterioration of the railway infrastructure.

Until the 1990s, ZRL was the main carrier of bulk cargo and passengers. Today, trucks are the dominant mode of transport but traffic is steadily increasing by rail.