Managing Director of Nigerian Railway Corporation (NRC), Mr. Adeseye Sijuade , in an encounter with John Iwori and Sunday Okobi enumerated the challenges of running of an efficient railway system in the country and the way forward.
Many questions were minds of the THISDAY team that met with the Managing Director of Nigerian Railway Corporation (NRC), Mr. Adeseyi Sijuwade, at the sprawling corporate headquarters of the corporation in Lagos. Though it was not the reporter's first time in the expansive premises which have many ancient buildings, it was his first time in the office of the Managing Director. It is an open secret that Sijuwade hardly grants interviews. This has not endeared him to the media. Haven spent some years as the helmsman of NRC, the THISDAY team, including a photographer, Gbenga Abe wanted to have a peep into the challenges he met on ground in NRC since his appointment.
In the Beginning
After adjusting his black colour leather seat and his breast pocket handkerchief, Sijuwade with a mellow but very crisp and clear voice like a sound in the dead of the night said: "I joined the NRC in August 2009 and what I met here was comatose railway system which has suffered decline over the past two decades. At its peak in 1964, we actually moved 3 million tons of freights. In the early 80s, we went as far as moving 13 million passengers and since then, due to issues such as inadequate funding, poor maintenance, the system has declined. What I met here was a big rot. The rolling stocks, the locomotives
were all down and the train services were minimal. In some areas such as Akere in Niger State, the tracks were completely washed out. This meant that the line was impassable in such areas. So it was virtually dead railway system that I inherited in 2009. Since then for the first time in several decades, the Federal Government actually put in significant funding to revitalise the sector, and for the past 3 years, it has been a lot of hard work, focusing mainly on the rehabilitation of the existing lines like you we have 3,500 kilometre of rail lines predominantly from Lagos to Kano and from Port Harcourt to Maiduguri. In addition, we have also commenced implementation of the construction of the new standard gauge line from Abuja to Kaduna and we just awarded Lagos to Ibadan. Today we celebrate the success of the completion of Lagos to Kano line which was commissioned on December 21, 2012. We have since been moving passengers and freight from Lagos to Kano on a regular basis."
Against the backdrop of the numerous challenges militating against efficient running of railway system in the country, THISDAY wanted to know in specific terms what he need to move from the present level NRC have attained to the next level.
According to Sijuwade who is a chartered civil engineer, having completed the rail line from Lagos to Kano and train operations fully commenced, we now need to focus on sustaining the service. What we have today is a safe and functional line. We need to sustain that safety and functionality of the lines through adequate maintenance of the system, making sure the tracks are well ballasted, top up the ballast in deficient areas on a regular basis and it is also important that we carry out emergency repairs whenever we have washout caused by heavy rainfall, we need to focus on the maintenance of our bridges and culverts. It is amazing that between Lagos and Kano, we have 109 bridges and over 400 culverts. They need to be regularly cleaned out to prevent flooding of the system. The bridges will also be regularly inspected and maintained to prevent failure. We also have issues of rolling stocks and coaches wagons which equally need to be regularly, routinely and periodically maintained. In fact, they are quite a lot that need to be done. From our maintenance and operation perspective, we have come up with a strategy to address these issues. The strategy revolves around our 5 cardinal points. The first being reliability.
That is ensuring that we minimise delays in our services, optimise the journey time that the train moves exactly on the dot of the hour when it is scheduled to move. Secondly, is the issue of availability. That is making sure that our locomotives and coaches are 95 per cent available, meaning that at any point in time, 95 per cent of what we have should be available for service while the remaining 5 per cent go to maintenance and schedule. Thirdly is that of maintainability. This means periodic and preventative maintenance. That is ensuring that all our assets are being maintained in accordance with the schedule in our operations manual. Fourthly, we have the issue of safety.
For us safety comes first, and you quite know that 90 per cent of the accidents that occur on the railway lines do occur at the level crossing. So it is important to ensure that safety barriers are in place and being manned 24 hours and we have the issue of ambience which the fifth cardinal point of the corporation. This is all about customer care. Ensuring that the stations are clean, the toilets and the trains are clean; ensuring that we have good communication systems to obtain customers feedback. These are all the five areas we are working on as we speak. We have also developed performance and reward system and the management system to track our performance, rewarding staff accordingly with the aim to making sure that staff moral and motivation are sustained. These are the things we need to focus on to ensure we sustain these services.
Amending the Railway Act
Against the backdrop of the fact that the present realities have vitiated most of the provisions of the 1955 Railway Act which gave birth to NRC, what is the corporation doing on the propose amendments of the Act in the National Assembly? Does the NRC helmsman belief that if the Act is amended most of the issues hindering its efficient operations would be adequately addressed? Sijuwade explained that the 1955 Act that established NRC predominantly restrains the operations of railways in Nigeria to Nigerian Railway Corporation which means that as we speak, NRC is the only body that can actually run trains in Nigeria.
Giving an insight into the provisions of the new railway bill, he explained that it will address the loopholes in the 1955 Railway Act by creating opportunities for various train operating companies, institutions and even state government to partake in the running of train services within Nigeria.
His words: "The good news is that this railway bill has actually gone to the stage of the final draft which the executive has reviewed repeatedly and we are at the stage where the final draft has been closed and just waiting for other associated bills such as the Transport Commission Bill to be finalised before the bill would be submitted by the executive to the National Assembly for review and eventual passage".
Reminded that submitting a bill to the National Assembly is just the beginning of a very long and sometimes cumbersome and expensive processes and procedures, such as first reading, second reading, and harmonisation between the lower and upper chambers, as well as assent by Mr. President, the NRC helmsman noted that the Federal Government is not unmindful of these intricacies but would also do everything possible to drive the bill into its logical conclusion.
"These are strategies like you said that are required to enable the sector move forward and we will ensure that we put everything in place to achieve a speedy passage of the bill", he added.
Skills for Survival
To sustain the revival of the railway lines, particularly the Lagos to Kano rail line, skill manpower is required. This explained why the corporation advertised for the recruitment of more hands in selected national dailies over a year ago. However, the process of getting more hands has run into trouble waters, making Sijuwade to say that it was one of the challenges facing the corporation over the years.
His words: "This I must say is one of our challenges. That is inadequate number of staff required to operate and maintain good train services. And now that the Lagos to Kano line is completed, it has now become a bigger challenge for us. This is due to the fact that in running train services, there are quite a lot of stations that need to be reopened to maximise the efficiency of the service. These train stations need to be adequately manned. Talking about tracks maintenance, we need to regularly patrol our tracks to ensure that they are well maintained in terms of ballasting and weeding. In fact, talking about train operations, we need workers to operate the train to ensure the level crossing barriers are all manned regularly.
When railway was at its peak in the 70s, we had over 40,000 workers, and since then they have been series of retrenchment and today we are left with just about 6000 workers. So it goes without saying that to run an efficient service, we do need these staff. We put an advertisement over a year to employ about 500 workers but unfortunately we have to put this on hold. This is because as we speak now, we do not have a budget for staff salaries. We are trying to secure funds to do that. We are quite optimistic of the emergence of the subsidy reinvestment and empowerment programme (SURE-P). It will help in these areas because that is really what it is there for. To intervene in such prioritised areas of the Federal Government transformation agenda that need funding, so we are paying attention to it because it is something we may not be able to achieve through what I call budgetary system. Today, we will be looking at engaging close to 1000 workers to man, maintain and operate the train services".
On the total cost of revitalising the Lagos to Kano rail line last December, Sijuwade said the project was broken into parts to ensure it was successfully executed on time.
He revealed that the rehabilitation of Lagos to Jebba line cost N12.2 billion and it was done by the CCECC while the Jebba to Kano was done by Costain Plc which cost N12.1 billion.
Explaining the various components of the multibillion naira project, Sijuwade said: "This is for the rehabilitation of the tracks which is about N25 billion, but we now have the rolling stock. We procured 25 brand new locomotives from GE in 2010, costing 3 million dollars each, and since then, we have also rehabilitated over 200 coaches and wagons going to the tune of about N2 billion. This is going to be a continuous thing. We need to continue to rehabilitate more coaches and wagons. Just about a month ago, we placed an order for the procurement of two set of diesel multiple units, each one with a carrying capacity of about 540 passengers, and these are integrated train sets, coaches and locomotive (two coaches and three locomotives all integrated).
They are predominately designed for mass movement of passengers in densely populated areas like Lagos and Kaduna. These two are expected to be delivered before the end of this year with modern air conditioned coaches with nice toilets with the capacity to accelerate and decelerate optimally within a very short distance. In addition, we also place an order for 6 long haul modern air conditioned passenger coaches, with each having 68 seats. These will be pulled by our existing locomotive engines from Lagos to Kano. So if we are talking about 68 seats in 6 coaches, which are about 400 passengers comfortably seated, moving to a distant place like Kano to be delivered this year. Also, we have another 20 tank wagons with a carrying capacity of 450, 000 litres each again to be delivered by the middle of this year. So these are the efforts that are being made in this regard".
A common sight on Lagos metropolis when the trains are moving is the high number of people on the coaches, some even hanging dangerously on the sides. This was buoyed by the ban on the use of motorcycles (popularly called okada) for commercial transportation, making residents of Lagos to fall back on the services of NRC to commute in the metropolis and beyond. The danger it poses aside, it is an indication of the fact that there is a huge market for good train services in the country. What is the corporation doing to key into this high demand for its services? Does NRC have car parks for passengers to park their vehicles and take them back on their return journey at a given fee as it is obtainable in the developed world?
According to Sijuwade, there is no doubt that our capability is well below the demands of the market, and that is why you have passengers struggling to join the train even if it means sitting on the top of the roof and all that. We are already addressing these challenges as I have earlier said. We have repaired over 200 coaches and wagons in the past two years, and that is something we intend to continue doing this year. We have a lot of coaches that can be rehabilitated, so it is a continuous thing. We rehabilitate these coaches and wagons and put them straight to use. What we are likely to see this year is more coaches coming into use, not just within the Lagos metropolises which is a very busy area for now but for long haul distance like Lagos to Kano.
Continuing, the Managing Director of NRC said: "Today we have just started with the weekly service, a train leaving Iddo terminus by 9 a.m. every Friday getting to Kano the following day between 12 noon and 2 p.m. The same train leaves Kano 9 a.m. every Monday to arrive Lagos the following day. Now with the present state of that track from Lagos to Kano, nothing stops us, if we have adequate coaches, to run this service on a daily basis. So we find ourselves in a situation where the track is underutilised. It is a major challenge. The issue of funding cannot be over emphasised. What we have done as a short term is to articulate these requirements in the budget proposal for 2013 that was submitted by the Ministry of Finance to the National Assembly. It is our hope that this budget will be appropriated so that we can embark on the next phase of the rehabilitation of coaches and wagons in order to meet the demands we are faced with".
Rail for Transformation
There is no doubt that whenever President Goodluck talks about his transformation agenda, railway remains a key component of revitalising the transport industry. The Minister of Transport, Senator Idris Audu Umar has also key into the project going about his public speeches. With the way and manner Sijuwade speak about the railway projects, his passion in it is discernible. Indeed, railway is a favourite hobby-horse for Sijiwuade. But has this desire to transform the railway services from the Presidency translated into huge budgetary provisions into what is needed to successfully drive railway services in the country. Has the level of interest in railway translated into the release of budgeted funds? Apparently aware of what is driving the reporter's questions, Sijuwade who is also a project management consultant with over 20 years of experience in railway engineering noted that the corporation is fortunate to have a President who is particularly keen on providing safe, reliable and affordable mode of transport service which serves as alternative to road transport.
According to him, what the President has done with the co-operation of the National Assembly is to ensure that the funding required to bring this realisation is being provided. You must have had about SURE-P, and let me honest with you, the railway sector, is one sector that has benefited from the programme. Without the SURE-P intervention, there was actually no way that the Lagos to Kano line would have been completed in 2012. What actually happened was that over and above the conventional appropriation which is constrained through an envelope, the government has actually identified key sectors that are being priorities with the aim to achieving the President's transformation agenda. The railway sector is one of those sectors and as such, funds have been provided for the rehabilitation project. Though the NRC CEO admitted that not up to 100 per cent of the money has been released, he pointed out that NRC has a very good co-operation from the Ministry of Finance, Budget Office which facilitated the release of the bulk of the money.
He argued that this was why the corporation was able to complete Lagos to Kano rail line late last year.
"That is why the rehabilitation of the Eastern line is moving at a pace such that by the end of this year, if that SURE-P intervention is sustained, if the pace of the release of money is sustained, we will have trains running between Port Harcourt and Maiduguri. Similarly, the Abuja to Kaduna standard gauge project is now 40 per cent complete, and if this level of funding which the President has directed is sustained, the Abuja to Kaduna line would be fully operational by the end of 2014. What we are saying now is that these interventions need to be sustained not just for the rehabilitation, but also for the maintenance and operations of train's services to a point where NRC can become self-sustaining and a point where the private sector would be required to take over train operations", he said.
On the safety and cleanliness of the coaches presently used for the Lagos to Kano rail line, the chartered civil engineer maintained that ambience and safety are parts of the cardinal points of the continual improvement of NRC train services. "What we have for the Lagos to Kano train now are policemen and other security agents like the Man O War providing security for the train throughout the journey. In addition, we have metal detectors within and outside the train. When we want to have big occasions and ceremonies where there would be mass movement of passengers and goods, we engage the Nigeria Police Force Bomb Disposal Unit in the train. That is what we are doing to in terms of securing the train and we shall continue improving on that. With regards to ambience, we now have cleaners in and outside the train. The on-board cleaner man the coaches, the toilets and other facilities right from the origin of the journey to the final destination. Continually cleaning the toilets and the coaches in general is to ensure that we have hygienic environment", he said.
He lauded his staff and other stakeholders for their support in the strides the corporation has recorded since he was appointed the helmsman of NRC.
His words: "I must start by saying a big thank you as my message for them. That has been my message for them over the past few weeks because what we have achieved recently, for me is because of their commitment, motivation and energy of the NRC staff. They are all very dedicated and devoted to their work. I also have a very hard working and supportive Minister of Transport. The NRC is wholly owned by the Federal Government so without the support of the ministry, it would be difficult to achieve what we have achieved. He (the minister) has been very supportive and inspirational. But over and above that, we have the President who is very firm and committed, and what we see today is actually the result of the President's transformation agenda.
Lastly, it is noteworthy that we have enjoyed immense support from the National Assembly in terms of the passage of budget proposals particularly the 2012 budget, and by virtue of their oversight functions, they have been able to advise us and equally put us in the right direction".