The resumption of direct train service between Lagos and Kano by the Nigeria Railway Corporation (NRC) has been postponed several times in the past.
The delay in the resumption of the service, however, ended on Friday, December 21, 2012, when a 20-coach passenger train left the Iddo Railway Terminus in Lagos for Kano.
Observers recall that the last time a direct train journey between Lagos and Kano took place was over 10 years ago. The rail line from Lagos to Kano, also known as the Western Line, covers a distance of 1,126 km and traverses Abeokuta, Ibadan, Ilorin, Jebba, Minna and Kaduna, before terminating in the ancient city of Kano.
The Port Harcourt-Maiduguri route, known as the Eastern Line, passes through Aba, Umuahia, Enugu, Markurdi, Lafia, Kanfachan, Bauchi, Gombe and Potiskum, before ending in Maiduguri. The line, which is currently undergoing rehabilitation, may be inaugurated this year.
Similarly, direct train service from Port Harcourt to Maiduguri has also been in limbo just like the Western Line. Observers attribute the development to the utter neglect of the transportation sector by successive governments, which had also affected shipping, aviation and other services in the sector.
Therefore, it was a thrilling moment for the NRC on December 21, when it simultaneously commenced the haulage of petroleum products from Lagos to Kaduna. The corporation had earlier acquired pressurised tank wagons for the purpose and it moved 30 tankers of diesel from Ebute-Metta in Lagos to Kaduna.
Earlier, in 2011 to be precise, the NRC reintroduced the Lagos-Ilorin passenger services. This was in addition to the introduction of a 30-kilomtre mass transit service between Lagos and Ijoko (Ogun) and the service has become quite popular among workers and traders, as it moves more than 12,000 persons on daily basis.
At the launch of the resuscitated Lagos-Kano train service, the Minister of Transport, Idris Umar, said that the revival of the service reflected the commitment President Goodluck Jonathan's administration to revamping the run-down facilities of the transport sector, particularly the railways.
Umar, who launched the service and undertook a ride with passengers from Iddo to Ikeja, stressed that the government was making tangible efforts to re-establish a vibrant railway system in Nigeria because of its importance to the country's economic growth.
Although efforts to resuscitate railway transportation began before the inception of the current federal administration, one of its programmes - the Subsidy Reinvestment and Empowerment Programme (SURE-P) - has com-mitted about N1 billion to the project in recent times.
Dr Christopher Kolade, the Chairman of SURE-P, who spoke at the launch of the Lagos-Kano train service on Dec. 21, said that the intervention was a confirmation of the determination of the Jonathan-administration to revive railway transportation to enable it to contribute to the country's economic growth.
Kolade, who was represented by Mr Chike Okogwu, a member of SURE-P committee, said that the intervention was a potent avenue of investing the Federal Government's savings from the partial removal of the subsidy on petroleum products and providing vocational training in rail tracks' maintenance.
He stressed that the successful inauguration of regular rail services between Lagos and Kano also vindicated President Jonathan's establishment of the innovative socio-economic intervention prog-ramme. Kolade pledged that the fruits of SURE-P's intervention in critical sectors of the economy would become visible to Nigerians in the years ahead.
In his remark, Mr Adeseyi Sijuwade, the Managing Director of the NRC, said that the successful re-introduction of the Lagos-Kano train service was a promise made and kept by the Federal Government.
Although Sijuwade had earlier assured the nation that the train service would commence in July, its five-month delay was attributed to the heavy flooding across the country, which adversely affected rail tracks and washed off a bridge on the 1,126km-rail line earlier in the year.
He also said that N67 billion had been set aside for the rehabilitation of the Port Harcourt-Markudi-Maiduguri rail line, adding that its inauguration would soon come up and be celebrated as that of the Lagos-Kano line.
"Already, we move about 12,000 commuters daily within Lagos and about 4,000 from Lagos to Ilorin on Tuesdays and Fridays. The Ilorin-Lagos train trip is on Wednesdays and Sundays," Sijuwade said shortly before the launch of the Lagos-Kano service.
Observers note that the revival of train services on the Western Line is expected to reduce the heavy presence of haulage trucks on some major highways, particularly the Lagos-Ibadan Expressway, where articulated vehicles had continued to be a major cause of accidents.
The reduction of heavy-duty and overloaded trucks on the highways will also prolong the life-span of the roads, they add. The observers stress that the railways will, once again, be used to move export-bound goods to the ports of Lagos - Apapa and Tin Can Island Ports - as well as distribute imports from the ports to the hinterland.
Sharing similar sentiments, Sijuade said: "Apart from moving passengers, the Western Line will also move cement from Dangote and Lafarge works to different parts of the country."
Also, the haulage business will receive a big boost because the railways can move big freight from one part of the country to the other," he added. However, NRC records indicate that railway transportation began in Nigeria in 1898 with the construction of a 32-km line of the 1067mm gauge from Iddo (Lagos) to Otta (Ogun).
This was further extended to Ibadan, covering a total of 193km in 1901. Rail lines' construction in the country continued in a systematic manner: the 295-km Ibadan-Jebba line (1907-1911), the 562-km Kano-Borno line (1909-1915), the 252-km Jebba-Minna line (1922-1927) and the 179-km Kafanchan-Jos line.
The statistics on passengers and freight traffic show that the NRC in 1964 moved 11,288,000 passengers and 2,960,000 tonnes of freight but the figures had dropped to 4,342,000 passengers and 1,098,000 tonnes of freight by 1974.
Thereafter, passenger traffic gradually rose to 6.7 million in 1978 and reached a peak of 15.5 million in 1984. However, this declined again to three million in 1991 and 1.6 million in 2003. The decline in service delivery is also reflected in freight traffic fluctuations; from three million tonnes in the 1960s and 1970s to less than 100,000 tonnes in recent times.
As a large employer of labour, the NRC had about 45,000 workers between 1954 and 1975 but currently, the corporation has only 5,000 people in its employ.
The NRC once had as many as 200 locomotives, about 54 shunters, 480 passenger coaches and over 4,900 freight wagons. The protracted neglect of the railway sector by successive governments led to a situation in which some of the wagons were more than 50 years old as at 1993.
In the same vein, the track conditions have limited trains to a speed of 35km per hour, although a source said that the trains could make up to 70km per hour.
However, Sijuwade stressed that all these would soon change. He gave the assurance that under the new arrangement, the Nigerian Railways would become more efficient and well-managed. Besides, the NRC chief said that after the rehabilitation and effective running of the old narrow gauge tracks, the introduction of the standard gauge rail system would begin.
Observers note that the introduction of the standard rail track system would revolutionise rail transportation in the country, as the system could accommodate bullet trains that could make up to 300km per hour.
This, in essence, means that a trip from Lagos to Kano will be accomplished in less than 12 hours, unlike what happened on Dec. 21 when the train, which left Lagos around 11 a.m. got to Kano at 9:00 p.m. the next day - 34 hours! Observers are, however, happy to note that the historic Lagos-Kano train journey was given adequate security cover because of the growing menace of suspected terrorists, particularly in the Kano axis.
In the meantime, Sijuwade has repeatedly assured Nigerians of the determination of the NRC to provide affordable, safe and reliable train services. This is not a mere ego massage; as the ticket for a trip from Lagos to Kano costs N1,500 for the economy class, while for each of the passengers in the first class compartment, which has superb facilities, the journey costs N6,000.