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Train service is beyond commissioning inherited projects

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IKENNA EMEWU

In 2004, the government of President Olusegun Obasanjo flagged off Nigeria’s 25 years railway development policy.

On that policy initiative, the government embarked on railways revival and awarded contracts to work on rehabilitating the railway lines and buying coaches to commence operations of the railway system again.

After the contracts, we started seeing some rays of hope in the sector. But painfully, it seems the lights have started dimming once more.

The history of the Lagos-Ibadan railway line that has become a success today goes back to that era. The Odua Group 2001 announced they had plans to award a contract for the building of the same railway link as a private sector participation initiative. Then, the Nigerian Railway Corporation (NRC) announced a plan to sue to stop Odua because the Act establishing it had no provision for private participation. They dropped the plan later and possibly re-routed the intention to queue with the FG railway policy

In 2012, the contract was awarded. The $1.53 billion project was awarded to the China Civil Engineering Construction Corporation (CCECC) for the 157km Lagos–Ibadan segment of the standard gauge railway in 2016, later with a 7km arm extension. Work started in 2017, was completed in December 2020 and later commissioned in June 2021.

The railway stations are world-class, according to the standard the contractors know in their world that has become number one in the world for railway and train services.

The Abuja-Kaduna railway contract was awarded the same year to CCECC also.  Work started on that first standard gauge railway project in the same year and was completed in December 2014, while its services started in July 2016 after President Muhammadu Buhari commissioned it.

The railway contract actually awarded by the present government was the extension of the Ajaokuta railway to link Abuja in 2019. In October that year, the FG executed a $3.9 billion deal, then an N1.4tr contract with the CCECC.

I have firsthand report of the way train services in Nigeria function. Immediately after commissioning, we relapse back into our usual lethargy with a sham administration. From the contract terms, after the contractor built and handed over the project, the management, and administration fell wholly on the NRC.

An attacked train

In September 2020, I had a project to document the Abuja-Kaduna and Abuja metro railway projects and their services. I had to take a train trip to Kaduna from Abuja to experience what I was reporting.

On that service, I found that the NRC had no provision to book a ticket online. We paid manually at the station that didn’t use even the POS. There is no bank within the premises and no acceptance of payment by electronic transfer. The Abuja train station is some 20km from the closest bank somewhere in Jabi or Gwarinpa and you are expected to come with cash to the Idu Station. That beautiful modern architecture had a 1920 type of service going on in it.

In the month of March the following year, NRC had ‘advanced’ and made provision to book for a ticket online. But you still can’t pay online. A day after we booked, the person traveling had just the little pleasure of walking across to the counter to pay cash in a shorter queue than that of those that didn’t book online.

Much as I travelled with a first-class ticket that September 2020, there was no comfort in buying even a bottle of water on board. When we arrived at the Rigasa station in Kaduna, I incidentally met a man who introduced himself to me as the station manager to who I made all the complaints of the observed lapses. He assured me that they were just coming back to operation from the Covid-19 restrictions and would soon shape up things. But till now, nothing has actually changed.

After the terrorists’ attack on the Abuja-Kaduna train last Monday, we have had wide disparities in the number of booked passengers, number of boarded passengers, and the number of actual passengers that is more than 200% higher than the booked figure.

The transportation ministry in 2020 lamented that the NRC was losing so much revenue to ticket racketeers and would step up action on electronic and online payment to stem that. We can see that nothing was done after the statement.

In August last year, on a similar assignment, I was amazed to see the Ebute Metta world-class station in Lagos. To my utter dismay, in Lagos you know and on the Murtala Mohammed Way, central Yaba, there is no POS or bank outlet within that magnificent station. The ticketing officers collect only cash. I pleaded and complained, asking why they take only cash in today’s world and nobody gave me any response.

To worsen the rot and backwardness in the NRC service, after paying, I was told to ‘please, go over there and write your name and phone number on that piece of paper.’ That was the system in the year 2021 right inside Lagos. I wondered aloud what the officers were doing with the flashy big, new computers sitting on the desks in front of them. We filled out the forms like people who boarded a ramshackle bus to Ibadan at Oshodi under the bridge.

On this train service, and in the entire station, two months after the official commissioning and in almost one year of operation, there was no semblance of a shop where you can buy a bottle of water. I wondered how travellers with little children would cope with such a development.

From the services of the Nigerian railway system I have experienced, our government just frolics in the borrowed euphoria of commissioning projects other governments had awarded and paid for. Time is proving that operating the system is way beyond celebratory commissioning.

NRC doesn’t seem to have plans to put in any modern addition in the services they render. We still bicker whether the train from Ibadan to Lagos in the second week of this month actually ran out of diesel midway into the journey or not.

In October 2021, the same Abuja-Kaduna railway track was bombed by bandits and services disrupted.

On February 2, we suffered another shame when hundreds of passengers on the Kano-Lagos train were left stranded as the train broke down in the middle of the journey. The social media space was flooded with photos and video clips shared by passengers on the service from the bush where they were abandoned in the bandits-infested northwest region.

Superclass Ebute Metta Railway station, Lagos built by CCECC Nigeria

The same train services operated effectively all over the world is a different story in Nigeria.

Minister Chibuike Amaechi frankly admitted that the delay by the FG to approve money for the provision of security gadgets on the rail tracks helped in making the terrorists’ attacks of last Monday possible. We can, therefore, conclude that our government has not added any value to the railway services it inherited, gladly commissioned and vaunt as its achievement.

After the long delay in the appointment of ministers, President Muhammadu Buhari assigned Mr. Amaechi as transportation minister and in the middle of December 2015, he visited the NRC head office in Lagos and gladly said “In fact, I think we have a problem; most people don’t believe that the railway transport is functioning in Nigeria. I didn’t even know until I started this tour, I never knew that the railway was functioning, it was even from his (MD’s) speech that I learnt that there are some coaches or services that go to Kano or Port Harcourt or elsewhere.”

The statement conveys one simple meaning …we have politicians who only play politics to win elections and don’t actually know what Nigeria is made of or what is needed. This was a former governor for eight years and a former speaker of a state assembly for eight years also. He campaigned on lies, not really aware of what exists in Nigeria.

By implication, we engaged Amaechi to manage a strange place, ministry, and establishment. Here we are with the results from his half measures of completing what they met on the ground whose contracts were already awarded and paid for. If the contracts never included facilities for the administration of the NRC operations, the Amaechi team, actually the Buhari administration, possibly didn’t care anymore. Tomorrow, they may blame the former government for not awarding contracts for websites and online booking and payment platforms for railway services.

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