Sunday, July 31, 2016

Opening up Nigerian economy via train services

On Tuesday, July 26, 2016, President Muhammadu Buhari commissioned the $1.46bn Abuja – Kaduna rail service which is Nigeria’s first-ever standard gauge rail track to go into operation. It happened to be a project inherited from previous administrations. For me, it underscores that government is a continuum and I look forward to completion of many other projects initiated by previous regimes. On the day of the inauguration, I was a guest on Politics Nationwide, a magazine programme of Federal Radio Corporation of Nigeria where I discussed the import and importance of the resuscitation of Nigerian train services.

Unknown to new generation of Nigerians, the railway services in Nigeria is over hundred years old. In fact, according to information garnered from the website of Nigerian Railway Corporation, the first rail line in the country was constructed from Lagos to Ibadan (193km) between 1898 and 1901. By 1964 the 640km Kano – Maiduguri rail line, then known as Bornu extension, was completed.  . Presently, the Railway system is made up of 3,505 route kilometres and 4,332 track kilometres. In addition to this is the 19km 1067mm gauge extension from Port-Harcourt to Onne deep sea port and the 277km standard gauge rail construction of 1435mm from Ajaokuta to Warri.

My first experience of riding in a train was in 1980 when my elder sister and I traveled from Ibadan to Jos to spend part of our long vacation with an uncle who was residing in the Plateau State capital. It took us 48 hours to make the journey. We left Ibadan about 9pm and arrived Jos at the dawn of the third day. It was a novel and exciting experience for me and the memory of that trip lingers 36 years after. I recalled writing down the names of every town we got to in the small notebook I took with me.

Unfortunately, train services, just like other government transport corporations like the Nigerian Airways and the Nigeria National Shipping Line went comatose due to a number of factors. These include, corruption, undue political influence in the administration of these transport companies, sabotage, and lack of maintenance culture among others. At a point in time, Indians were brought in to run Nigerian Railways profitably and efficiently. By the time the administration of the corporation was handed to Nigerians they ran the organisation aground. Nigerian Railway used to be one of the highest employer of labour in those days. There were many Nigerians like me whose first time experience of knowing about other parts of Nigeria was through a jolly ride in the train. Not anymore!

With the ‘killing’ of Nigerian railways through maladministration and other factors enumerated above, our roads became overburdened. Haulage businesses which were best done via rail thrived through the use of articulated vehicles which are most times overloaded and constitute nuisance on our roads due to frequent accidents. Why on earth should we be moving cement, petroleum products, solid minerals as well as heavy machinery on roads? In the first instance, many of these roads are not well built; to now have heavy cargoes moved across the country on them end up damaging the roads and shortening their lifespan. Unfortunately, with the destruction of Weigh Bridges by Obasanjo administration, many articulated vehicles plying our roads now deliberately carry more luggage than the trucks were meant to carry.  The good thing is that rail services is gradually coming back and with it is the provision of alternate transport services which is cheaper and safer.

The point being made here is that the decades of overreliance on roads for movement of people and cargoes is about to end. Train provides a complimentary transport services to other means of transportation such as vehicles, ships and airplanes. With the commissioning of the Abuja to Kaduna rail services, jobs are being created as the Nigerian Railway Corporation will now be recruiting more staff to manage the transportation business. Also, farmers, traders and other private individuals now have a cheaper and safer if not faster means of transportation from Abuja to Kaduna. I learnt a seat in the First Class cabin of the train goes for N800 while the Economy goes for N500. That is cheaper than traveling to Kaduna by car.

I have a number of appeals to make to President Muhammadu Buhari, the management of Nigerian Railway Corporation, the National Assembly and the general public. First, PMB should ensure that all outstanding rail projects in Nigeria are well resourced to ensure their speedy completion. I learnt that the Abuja – Kaduna railway project was part of the wider Lagos – Kano rehabilitation work initiated since 2009. As that corridor has been given prime attention, so should the Lagos –Ibadan corridor. In my own estimation, given the huge vehicular traffic on the expressway and being a major artery road that links Lagos seaport and airport to the rest of the country, a high speed rail services from Lagos to Ibadan will greatly decongest the road and make the road which is at present being rehabilitated to last long. The Lagos to Calabar rail project being initiated by PMB government should also be accorded high priority to ensure its speedy completion so that it does not turn to another East – West road debacle.

The PMB administration should remove railway from the exclusive legislative list and take it to concurrent list of our Constitution.  The Nigerian Railway Act should be amended to allow for private sector participation in the provision of train services. Just imagine what would have become the lot of our transport system if it’s only government that provides road, air and water transportation? Private sector has a great role to play in the provision of efficient, safe, reliable, and affordable train services. The time to open up for private sector participation is NOW!

For the management of Nigerian Railway Corporation, safety and security should be given prime attention. Train provides mass transit and any security breach or attack on the train will engender huge casualty which will lead to lack of patronage. We cannot discount the fact that Nigeria is still battling with terrorism, thus, sophisticated gadgets needs to be procured to enhance proper screening of passengers and cargoes that will be commuted on the train. There is also the need for effective policing of the rail lines to forestall derailment. Knowing full well that rail lines pass across major towns and cities, the railway crossing on our roads should be properly gated and effectively controlled to avoid accidents with vehicles. It cannot be over-emphasised that high maintenance culture is desirable.

For the commuters, they should pay the correct fares for the services. They should not indulge in hanging or sitting on the trains in order to enjoy free ride as is common in Lagos. They should alert the Railway Corporation if they suspect foul play in case some undesirable elements decide to remove rail track in order to cause derailment. They should not also build close to rail track or encroach on the Corporation’s land.