Zaria — Many observers are relating the problem of deplorable roads, high rate of unemployment and poverty in the north to the absence of railways services.
In the 1960s up to early 1980s, railway is the most reliable mode of transportation for most northerners, especially the peasant farmers. The Kano -Zaria - Kaduna 'local train' for example, used to stopover in at least 13 local railway stations. Farmers and other peasants along this axis used the train for transportation of their farm produce and other materials at a very cheap rate.
The train was then nicknamed 'local' because of its accessibility to the local residents of the most remote areas of northern Nigerian villages.
Aside the Kano - Zaria - Kaduna 'local train', there used to exist the Kano - Nguru (Yobe State), Zaria - Kauran Namoda (Zamfara State), among others, 'local trains' that ply the various routes that were then available. This helped, in no small measure, in providing employment opportunities for many northerners as well as ease movement of goods, passengers and other services to the most far-off areas of the region, observers said.
An elder in Zaria, Mallam Sale Wanzami, when recounting the good old days of the railway, said he keeps wondering why Nigeria government allowed that vital sector to go into limbo.
"It is unfortunate that government had allowed the railway to close shops. I am about 70 years old, so, I know what railway was to an ordinary northerner. The local industries, especially the ones that depend on farm produce, had collapsed largely due to the failure of the Nigerian Railway Corporation (NRC). You would find that most of the industries in the north had railway lines linked to their premises. That made it easy for groundnut to be moved to the Zaria oil company in Chikaji, for example. This is aside moving the cottons cultivated around Katsina, Bauchi and Zamfara States, for example, to the textiles in Funtua, Kaduna or the Ginneries in different parts of the north.
"In the same vein, when you visit any railway station at that time, you can appreciate the number of people earning a living in those there. In Zaria main station, for example, there were not less than 20,000 people earning a living in that and these people cut across many professions that include traders, shop owners, artisans and even porters. The same thing applies to 10 local railway stations between Zaria and Kano where you get reasonable number of people eking out a living. Honestly, this is why I still cannot come to terms with why the government allowed that very important sector to collapse. In my own sincere opinion, the collapse of the railway has contributed to the escalation of poverty, especially in the north because thousands of people, including peasants, were sent out of jobs.
"Therefore, putting back railway in good shape would translate to the transformation of many people and societies. It would also lead to the reduction of road accidents, curtailing petrol scarcity, reviving of industries among many other positive impacts," Mallam Wanzami said.
However, in an interview with Weekly Trust, Engineer Ayeni Adekunle, the Railway District Manager (North), said there is an ongoing effort to revive that railway. This, according to him, led to the various railway lines rehabilitation work going on in the Northern District of Railway, which has its headquarters in Zaria and comprises Kaduna, Katsina, Zamfara, Kano, Jigawa and Yobe States.
Engr Adekunle said the re-launching of the Kaduna - Minna train is one of the numerous efforts geared toward revamping the railways. He said NRC is gradually returning to life, as the various tracks rehabilitation works have commenced and very soon the trains would begin running on the tracks.
"The rehabilitation work has commenced in more than half of the six states we are covering. There have been work on the Lagos - Kano axis and recently we have started work on the Zaria - Kauran Namoda axis, which is the Funtua line. Rehabilitation is also going along the Kafanchan line. The only axis that is left for now is Nguru axis and I am sure management is looking into that and we will begin to see some actions along that line soon.
"Last Thursday, August 23, we did a re-launch of the Minna - Kaduna train. Although it has been in existence but there was need to come up with other innovations to enhance its operations. The re-launch has four-fold objectives. There has been a lot of congestion in the Minna train because of the patronage we have been enjoying. Therefore, we need to address that problem by increasing our carriage capacity with additional coaches. Before, we were using about seven to eight coaches but now we have increased them to 12," Engr Adekunle explained.
He said the corporation also used the re-launch of the Kaduna - Minna train in showcasing the NRC's staff ability and competence.
"All the works done on the new coaches were by our staff. It was a purely in-house work, which were done at our workshop here in Zaria. That showed that if we are given the opportunity, our staff can excel. We also used the re-launch to optimise our market share in terms of passenger traffic. By increasing our carriage capacity, it implies that we are optimising our market share.
"Our customers can now also enjoy the value for their money. We have brought in some modifications. The train's light was restored, which was not working before. We also introduced fans and canteen in the train where people can go and relax or eat food, snacks or drinks.
"Railway operations in the northern district have been on for some time, but the re-launch of the Kaduna - Minna train is helping us to increase our capacity because we are enjoying patronage in that axis. Other lines are also coming up. Our coaches are gradually being rehabilitated. Very soon we expect that Kano - Lagos train would soon commence operation. There challenges we are addressing but services will soon commence. What people should know is that even while the rehabilitation work is going, areas where we can operate trains we would still go ahead to do so," Engr Adekunle said.
In railway operations, communication is very important, according to Adekunle. And because the management is aware of this, he said, NRC is putting in place new equipment for communication. The corporation has acquired micro-web system to ease communication in the NRC, Adekunle explained.
"The issue of staff welfare, which is a very important factor for motivation, is improving. Recruitment of new staff has taken place and it is still ongoing. As part of our desire to have an efficient railway system, we have what we called the human capacity development programme, which we don't have for a very long time until recently. This enables staff to go for training and to be abreast with best and current practices in the railway sector.
Staff are receiving their salaries as at when due. There is no more backlog of salaries. Before now, people used to tease us that 90 days in railway is equal to one month but it is now no more because sometime we receive our salaries earlier than some establishments.
"Railway is very important to the development of every country. This is one salient point that we must always emphasis. Issues of roads, economy, unemployment, among others, can be addressed by an efficient railway. Moving of large quantity of freight can be done on the railway and the roads can now have some rests. Trucks can only move to areas where the train cannot go. A lot of people earn their living in the railway.
"The Railway also helps in social integration where passengers from different parts of the country can meet and that can help solve a lot of our problems. I know a situation where people get married through interaction in the trains.
Therefore, it is important government pay attention to the development of railway, especially by coming up with development plan whereby a certain number of track length will be constructed over a period of time just like what we have in the road sector. Funding of railways should be a consistent thing and not an intervention. If we can construct 500 km length of new tracks every year, in ten years we would have 5,000 km length of track, which would supersede what the colonialists have left for us, which is about 3,500 km," Engr Adekunle said.
While railway stands as the cheapest and reliable mode of transportation, its importance to northerners cannot be overemphasised. Therefore, the rehabilitation of the sector, observers said, should be one of the priorities of the northern governors and other stakeholders.