BY TOPE TEMPLER OLAIYA
ONCE upon a time, traveling by rail was the preferred choice for many Nigerians. It was also the most popular means of conveying goods across the country and the rail management body known then as the Nigerian Railway Corporation (NRC) was a busy organisation.
The company was then at its best pursuing its vision statement, which was: to be a world-class rail transport organisation, providing safe/efficient, affordable, reliable, widely linked network and customer-oriented services. Today, a visit to some of its facilities scattered across the country show remnants of the good old days.
As the years rolled by, the corporation and its coaches went moribund; the rail service lost its enviable position as a first-rate means of transportation. At the expansive railway compound in Ebute-meta, Lagos, most of the infrastructure, which aided the movement of passengers and goods, are not only in a dilapidated state, they depict state of antiquity.
While for several years, NRC struggled to maintain some skeletal services, particularly on the Iddo-Ota terminus, the corporation got a new lease of life last year, when the Federal Government injected into it 25 new locomotives, which were commissioned by President Jonathan, in a widely publicised train ride to Abeokuta from Lagos, during his campaign tour.
More were still to follow, as NRC kicked-off the Mass Transit Train Service (MTTS) between Lagos and Ilorin; and recently, the free train-ride for Osun State citizens going home for the Eid-el-Fitri holiday.
DURING a recent train-ride from Iddo to Ijoko in Ogun State, it was a trip that re-created the images painted by the late Afrobeat musician, Fela Anikulapo, who in a song had said the mass transit lorries in Lagos popularly called Molue, carried 44 seating, 99 standing passengers.
On the train ride, it was more than the Molue experience, as passengers jam-packed their way into every available space on the coaches. Those standing stood backing each other in the bid to get some ease. It was to say the least, too close for comfort, as many of the passengers were seen wiping their faces and bodies with handkerchiefs.
At departure, the train did not leave the terminal in Iddo jam-packed, though all the seats were already occupied. Some passengers got on board when the train reached Ebute-meta. By the time it arrived Mushin, it was filled to the brim.
As the train moved on to Sogunle, few people forced their way in through pleading and others joined by jumping in from the window and forcing themselves on those already hanging by the door. When the train got to Ikeja, it stopped again and those who could risk their lives climbed onto the roof of the coaches.
Nobody alighted from the train until it got to Agege and Iju Station. By the time it got to Agbado, more than half of the passengers on board had alighted. The train finally terminated its journey at Ijoko after over three hours.
Majority of the passengers were traders and those working in informal sectors. However, many of those who joined the train from Ebute-Meta and Yaba stations were corporate-looking passengers and students. Keji Abosede, a student of Lagos State Polytechnic, who resides in Ijoko, said she comes to school and returns home daily by train.
WITH so much pressure on the nation’s road network, which has left most highways in deplorable state of disrepair and also turned them into death traps, stakeholders have called for the revival of the rail and water transportation systems as alternative means of transporting bulk goods within the country.
For many who had followed various government programmes towards actualising the nation’s vision 20 2020, one of the areas, they felt government need to expedite action if the vision is to be realised is in the transport sector.
To them, the vision may be a mirage if Nigeria with a population of over 150 million, fails to diversify her transportation sector from its present dependence on road for the transportation of bulk goods within the country.
The panic created in the nation’s air space, by the recent air disasters, observers felt should compel government to consider seriously water transportation as a viable alternative for mass movement of people, particularly within the coastal areas of the country.
Former employee of Nigeria Railway Corporation, Pa Michael Ogbebor, while lamenting the situation, advised that the only way to tackle unemployment and the chaotic transport situation is to fix the railway. “I am worried that all tiers of government are wasting scarce resources to construct and fix roads on a regular basis. The solution is to reduce the stress on our roads by fixing the rail system,” he said
However, the Minister of Transport, Senator Idris Umar, has said his ministry is working assiduously to diversify the nation’s transport system, especially the rail and waters ways in transportation of bulk goods within the country.
To allow for proper harnessing of the railway, established about 112 years ago, the Minister recently announced the Federal Government’s plan to repeal the Nigeria Railway Act of 1955 to allow states and private sector participation in rail business. According to him, the liberalisation of the railway business will ensure rapid development of the sector.
As it stands, the country’s legislation does not allow private sector to play any role in the rail sub-sector. The Nigeria Railway system transformed from its first and initial name ‘Government Department of Railways’ to Nigerian Railway Corporation in 1955 through the instrumentality of the Statutory Act of Parliament, which apart from changing the name of the railway industry in Nigeria, equally conferred on it absolute monopoly as the institution recognized by law to carry out railway services.
But the system is outdated and regardless of what amount of resources is invested into its rehabilitation, only very little can be achieved with the current obsolete technology. Today, rail transport accounts for an insignificant part of the transport subsector and therefore contributes too tiny a proportion of value-added in transportation.
Road transport has taken over the traffic previously conveyed by rail, with severe consequences for the state of the roads in the country. Rail transport, all over the world, is known to be very safe, cost effective and labour intensive. It is also usually the most suitable mode of transportation for heavy traffic flows when speed is an advantage, because of the lower cost per person per load.
SOME success stories in the rail transport include the completion of rehabilitation of the Lagos-Ibadan-Ilorin-Jebba narrow gauge rail, substantial completion of rehabilitation of Jebba-Mokwa-Zungeru-Kaduna-Kano narrow gauge rail line and rehabilitation of the Port Harcourt-Aba-Umuahia-Enugu-Makurdi-Lafia-Kuru-Buachi-Gombe-Ashaka-Maiduguri narrow gauge line.
The railway has also recorded improved transportation services with 12,000 passengers daily on Lagos-Ibadan routes, 10,000 metric tonnes of cement from cement factory in Ewekoro to Ibadan and acquisition of 20 pressurized fire proof Tank Wagons, each with the volume capacity of 45,000 litres, an equivalent of 27 trailers for conveying oil and gas products.
Revitalisation of the rail line, which includes the spur line to Jos, Kafanchan, and Kaduna junction, according to the minister, will be completed before the end of the year, a 10-month completion period. He listed other efforts initiated to turnaround the fortunes of the corporation as the procurement of workshop equipment; installations of 5,000KVA, 1,000KVA and 750 KVA generators; refurbishment of over 500 wagons and coaches; and recent arrival of 20 units of pressurised tank wagons for hauling of petroleum products.
On water transportation, which is another mode of transporting bulk products, the Federal Government, through the National Inland Waterways Authority (NIWA) has already dredged the River Niger from Baro in Niger State to Warri in Delta State. With the dredging, the government planned to accelerate trade and boost water tourism by creating a reliable and safer access.
The Managing Director of NIWA, Ahmed Aminu Yar’Adua said with the dredging of the River Niger, future market will open up to improve accessibility of existing areas for boat, habour and inland ports development as well as create avenue for investment and provide job opportunities.
Already, about 2,700 tonnes of ceramics tiles were recently transported by barge in three trips from Onitsha to Lokoja with zero damage along the dredged lower River Niger Channel. This is an equivalent of 135 trailers trip at 20 tonnes capacity per trailer with about 20 percent damage because of bad roads.