Wednesday, August 28, 2013

The return of Nigerian Railway services

There are four major means of transport. They are road, sea, air and rail. In Nigeria, the four are present in various degrees. In the good old days, many Nigerians travelling abroad who could not afford the cost of flying did so via ships. These days, that is no longer fashionable as most Nigerians now travel abroad by air. However, canoes and boats are still being used to ferry people across most of the riverine areas. That is however not to say the ships are out of service. They are majorly consigned to cargo services. They bring in goods from overseas and are also used to transport products outside the country. Air plane is, however, the fastest and safest means of transport (yes, despite the occasional crashes). Road transport is the commonest. However, when it comes to mass transit, the train is unbeatable. A train can carry a thousand passengers per trip.
Transport is a social service and the Nigerian government used to have some control of these four means of transport. The government established the Nigerian National Shipping Line and Nigerian Inland Waterways to cater for sea transport. The Nigerian Airways for many decades provided air services for many commuters in and outside the country. Federal, State and Local Governments established one transport agency or another (e.g. Edo Line and Oyo State’s Trans City Transport Corporation)  to provide subsidised road transport to their citizens. Nigerian Railway Corporation was set up to provide rail transport for Nigerians.
I have commuted by train only on two occasions. The first time was around 1979 when my elder sister and I travelled from Ibadan to visit our late uncle who was then based in Jos, Plateau State. We left Ibadan around 9pm and got to Jos at the dawn of the third day. The second time was during a visit to Geneva, Switzerland in 2005 when a senior colleague and I took train to visit a professor friend of his who stayed on the outskirts of Geneva.  On both occasions, I relish the experience. During the Ibadan to Jos episode, I remember the crowded coaches, the ticket inspectors going round to check people’s tickets to ensure no one gate-crashed into the train without paying. I also remember writing down the names of all the towns where the train stopped to drop or pick passengers in a notebook. The Geneva experience was no less memorable. The professor we went to visit said he commutes to work daily via train as it is fast, efficient, safe and economical. The train we boarded was very neat, not crowded and took off on time.
While I could travel by rail in the late 70s, it was no longer so by late 80s as mismanagement, corruption, lack of maintenance culture and politics made the operations of Nigerian railways to become comatose. It was not only the railway though; agencies set up to provide other means of transport were no less affected. Gone were Nigerian National Shipping Line and Nigerian Inland Waterways Agency; Nigerian Airways and the numerous Federal, State and Local Government transport corporations. The misfortune of Nigerian Railway was however most impactful. Nigerian Railway unlike other transport sectors is on the exclusive legislative list, thus only the federal government has control of the corporation. While government decided to privatise the road and the aviation sectors, it decided to unexplainably hold on to the railways sector.
Nigerian Railway, once the largest single employer of labour in the country, became a butt of jokes. A friend once joked about some men who went to the zoo and took a bet on whoever could make a monkey to laugh, cry and run. Most of them could not except for one old man. When asked how he performed the feat. He said calmly that he first told the monkey where he works and it begins to laugh uproariously. When asked where, he said Nigerian Railway. Okay, how did you make the monkey to cry then? He told the crowd he informed the monkey how much he receives as salary which was a pittance thus the monkey started crying for him. How then did you make the monkey to run away? He told the gathering he informed the monkey that there is a vacancy in his corporation – Nigerian Railway and that the monkey should come and apply. Thus, the monkey took to its heel. That joke describes the low level that the once vibrant Nigerian Railway Corporation has sunk.
All of that is changing now under the current administration as the new leadership of the Nigerian Railway Corporation under the board of Alhaji Kawu Baraje and Managing Director Adeseyi Sijuwade are trying to bring smiles back to the faces of millions of commuters who once were using or will like to use this cheapest means of transport. This new revolution started few years ago as the Nigerian Railway Corporation commenced limited intra and inter-state services.  I know very well that the intra state service has been on in Lagos for a while and that the Osun State Government under the leadership of Ogbeni Rauf Aregbesola has been providing free train ride for those who may wish to travel from Lagos to Osun State to celebrate any of the major festivals such as Easter, Christmas, Eid-el-Fitr and Eid-el-Kabir.
Just few days ago, the Corporation announced the commencement of cargo services from Lagos to Kano. This is commendable. There are several advantages in reviving railway services both for human and cargo transport. Aside from being the cheapest means of transport, the train is safe and will remove huge traffic from our roads thus making the roads to last longer. The deplorable state of Nigerian roads is largely caused by the haulage companies that mushroom at the collapse of railway service. Those goods carried by articulated vehicles – lorries and trailers are best transported by rail. The fewer of those vehicles we have on our roads, the better for lives and property as accidents caused by those big lorries and trailers have resulted in many deaths, injuries and destruction of property.
I commend the present attempt by the National Assembly to remove railway from the exclusive legislative list and put it rightly where it belongs, the concurrent list. This will enable the state government to also provide rail services. I equally applaud the Federal Capital Territory administration of Senator Bala Mohammed at the ongoing construction of railway to enable dwellers in the FCT opportunity of train service in due course.
Two issues I want to raise are that government should think about privatising (or at least allow private sector participation) in the rail sector just as it did with the aviation sector. This will ensure professional and efficient management and prevent the resurgent train service from another collapse. The other issue is that prime attention must be paid to security of lives and property of train commuters. The way passengers hang on trains in Lagos is untoward and should be vehemently discouraged. There should be proper signs and gates at railway crossings which are the intersections where rail lines pass through the roads. Passengers and their luggage also need to be properly frisked and scanned so that they do not constitute security risks. The rail lines need to be properly policed to prevent undesirable elements from planting bombs on the rail tracks or derail the train for sinister purpose.  There should also be a well resourced emergency and rescue department in the new Nigerian Railway to deal with any accidents or unpleasant incidents. See you on board Nigerian train soon!