A recent train ride shows that the Nigerian railway may crash again even after N3. 7trillion has been spent on it since the Abacha regime.
Even this may be a conservative figure. How much has been spent on the railway since the 1960s may never be known. What can be said, however, is that from the time of General Sani Abacha, about N3. 7 trillion has been spent on the railway. And more will still be spent. While $1. 5b (N235b) was budgeted for the Lagos-Ibadan rail last year, N24.451bn contract was recently awarded for the rehabilitation of the 1,016km Makurdi - Kuru rail line.
The late President Umaru Yar'Adua had revoked a $8. 3bn ( N1. 294tr) contract on the railway and went on to award another $76. 25m contract. Earlier, Abacha spent $500m (N78bn) on 50 locomotives without much to show for it. Another N7 billion allocated in 2003 for the completion of the Nigerian Railway Corporation (NRC )workshops and repair of grounded engines has not been satisfactorily accounted for. It will also cost the Federal Government N1. 22 bn to construct a kilometre of railway line. The N3. 7trillion is touted to be enough to do light rails across the country.
The corporation, in 2011, according to official figures, recorded a passenger volume of 3,140,722 compared with 1,514,215 attained in the 2010, while 283,592 tonnes of goods were carried, an increase of 103 per cent over the 139,377 tonnes carried in 2010. But, in 1984, the corporation ferried 15.11million passengers. No one has told how much the NRC contributed to the government purse. Most of the 923,768 sq. km rail network are still in shambles. The trains are few and archaic.
The way to ensure that the railway does not die again is to ask, 'Why did the Nigerian Railway Corporation first die?'
Some analysts point at corruption, lack of transparency, accountability and incentives for efficient service. The next question now is, 'Have those factors that killed the railway disappeared since March 2011 when the trains returned to the tracks?' The answer is no. In fact, a ride in the train, on Tuesday, from Ijoko, Ogun State to Oshodi, Lagos, indicated that the threats are more potent now and are ready to kill it before it gets up.
The railway network, built and managed from 1898 to 1960 by British colonial authorities, was already old, dilapidated, inefficient and inadequate at independence. This was worsened by the government which allegedly neglected it in favour of road transport development. Added with corruption and general mismanagement of the industry, the military government in the 1970s was constrained to invite Rail India Technical and Economic Services (RITES) to manage it from 1978-1982 at huge cost. The railway industry would not have collapsed in the 1990s if RITES did its job well.
However, managing the railway in Nigeria is a problem. There is high level of indiscipline. Passengers are chaotic in the way they board the trains. They do not queue. They gather at the station, like traders in Ariaria or Idumota markets in Abia and Lagos states respectively. Nobody directs anyone. They seek and get information from themselves on how the train and station work.
They are like columns of ants on fire. When the train arrives, the passengers run riot, jumping and falling on one another, scrambling for seats. It's reminiscent of those days in Lagos when the few Molue buses were easily the means of travel for millions of Lagosians. There is nobody to guide them at the entrance to the train doors. So, the mammoth passengers just scamper and run wild for seats.
One of the effects of the disorder in the train is that when one passenger enters, he will begin to 'colonise the seats', meaning they claim other seats by placing bags, tickets or handkerchiefs to indicate that some people have already taken the seats.
Imagine the anger passengers go through after running through the whole stretch of the Ijoko rail to the station but lose seats because the remaining ones have been 'colonised'. Meanwhile, the people whom the seats are claimed for may still be on their way to the station, but you that came earlier will have to stand throughout the journey.
Some of the passengers are of the opinion that if the trains are run like the Lagos BRT buses where tickets are issued at the point of entry into the buses, it will create a lot of order. Or if some of the staff stand at the train doors and ensure that passengers enter orderly, it will also end the idea of seizing seats.
But the real reason the railway may die again is corruption. This endemic cancer is alive in the trains. The reporter was shocked when he noticed it and challenged the ticket officer who became hostile and almost violent.
The problem with the reporter perhaps started in Germany in 2006. The reporter had ridden the trains that looked like luxury buses in the German cities of Frankfurt and Mainz. The tracks there were also on the main roads where buses, cars, bicycles and bikes rode. Inside the trains, everyone paid his fare. They were not overcrowded. They were on time. There was order. When the reporter asked a Nigerian there what would happen if one did not pay one's ticket, the friend replied that the offender would be arrested, tried and jailed.
That was what triggered the reporter's anger. He had run up to the Ijoko train. In fact , he would have got a seat had he not decided to be a good Nigerian and got his ticket at the station. By the time he returned, all the seats had been taken, some seized. He went through most of the coaches. Some of the seats were not occupied by they were already seized. So many people were standing on the aisle, making it difficult to pass through. The scene was reminiscent of the old Molue and old Lagos before Governor Babatunde Fashola brought his BRT buses.
Inside the trains, it is still as in the Fela song: 44 standing, 99 sitting. Some of those standing had paid. But many of them had not.
Now comes the question? How will those that do not pay still pay since the train has left the station where they obtained their tickets? This is one of the biggest rackets in the corporation.
This reporter observed the ticket officer going round and punching the passengers tickets with his machine. Earlier, the reporter had asked those without tickets what would happen to them if the ticket man saw them. They said the ticket man would ask them to pay N300, instead of the official ticket of N150 (the actual ticket fare from Ijoko to Iddo terminus) as punishment. But when the ticket man came, checking and punching tickets, he was busy pocketing N150 from the unpaid passengers, without issuing any tickets to them.
The reporter calculated that with the number of those standing standing in that coach, as well as those that would still board the train when many people disembarked at the various stations before Iddo, the ticket man would reap a huge amount of money for himself, while the corporation runs dry. It is thus easy to see why the railway cannot work, why it will collapse again and why Nigerians will continue to suffer.
This prompted the reporter to ask the ticket man why he was not issuing tickets to the passengers that paid him N150 cash. The ticket man smiled without knowing that the questioner was a journalist. He replied that if he gave them tickets-displaying a white sheet booklet with light green covers- the passengers would pay N300 each. The reporter asked him why he did not issue the tickets. Sensing that his fraud was being found out, the ticket man became agitated, shouting at the reporter.
The reporter did not declare who he was, even when the man was shouting at him, asking what concerned him. That he had no right to question him. He said he would throw him out of the train and other unprintable things.
The reporter reminded him that the NRC was run with public fund and that he is a Nigerian citizen. While the shouting lasted, the passengers began to beg both the reporter and the ticket man to cool down and let the matter go. That was shocking. The passengers were asking for the matter to die even if it would lead to the death of the railway again. That is the ambivalence about fighting corruption in Nigeria. No wonder the people lack many things, including the basic necessities of life, the reporter told them.
President Goodluck Jonathan
Apart from overcrowding, the next thing the reporter noted was the dilapidated coaches. It is trite to say that the coaches look like 19th century monsters, the facilities there are gone. There are no toilets. The staircases are too high for the passengers to climb. Some of them do not even have rails. Some do not have staircases either. The passengers have to jump from the train to the ground. The stairs are not built for cripples, the physically challenged and old people who cannot climb them. No wonder some passengers die in the course of using the trains. Recently, a passenger, jumping out from the stairs of the train, landed on the ground and died at the Ikeja station.
The train the reporter rode that morning had killed an Okada man and his passenger at the Agbodo crossing station, Lagos. New and modern coaches should be bought.
Again, only one track is working from Iddo to Ijoko. So, much time is wasted by the train as it waits for the Ilorin train at Ijoko station where it would use the two lanes there for its journey to the North. The Ijoko-Iddo train will spend at least two hours for the Iddo-Ilorin train to come from Iddo to Ijoko before it will move.
For now, there is no comfort using the trains. There are agitations for the privatization of the rails.
Some of the passengers asked government to allow private entrepreneurs to buy trains and run on the existing tracks, the same way private transporters like Chisco, ABC, Ekene Dili Chukwu run buses on public roads and private airlines like Arik, Dana, Air Nigeria use public airports. NRC's monopoly was questioned. They said if Nigeria Airways and NITEL could not manage the planes and telecommunications because of corruption, how can NRC run the trains?
These are valid issues. The same way the airports were concessioned, the same way NRC can be concessioned. If not , as the reporter's train ride showed, the rails will return to its perilous state.
Huge public funds have been injected into the corporation but the NRC locomotives are still inefficient. The 115-year-old enterprise still runs an archaic track system of 1,067mm gauge.
A media editorial said "while it is unclear how much Nigeria lost in the failed $8.3 billion contract signed on October 30, 2006 between the Olusegun Obasanjo Administration and China Civil Engineering Construction Company for the modernisation of the railway system, the Yar'Adua-led administration approved $76.25 million in 2009 for the purchase of 25 diesel-powered locomotives. As with the 50 locomotives/coaches acquired for the NRC by the regime of the late Sani Abacha, little is known of any improvements achieved through the 2009 expenditures. Another N7 billion allocated in 2003 for the completion of NRC workshops and repair of ground engines has not been satisfactorily accounted for."
Privatising the NRC may be the only way out. Both Canada and the United States run private freight services.