By STANLEY GEORGE
THE Nigerian railway transportation system was developed by the British colonialists. It was constructed for the purpose of transporting solid minerals and agricultural produce to the seaports at Lagos and Port Harcourt for onward transportation to Britain to be used as raw materials in their industries. The railways have suffered a lot of setbacks and have been grossly inefficient due to corruption and bureaucratic bottlenecks which have hampered its development. The Nigerian railways were moribund until recently when rehabilitation work started.
In my secondary school days, during social studies and later geography classes when we were taught about the different modes of transportation, I was very keen on rail travel and its thrills. Though I had not seen a train as at then, I could only fantasize travelling by rail. I had only an imaginative picture of the travel experience through interactions with people who had the privilege of travelling by rail in the past. I was very enthusiastic about travelling by rail after there were plans to rehabilitate the railways by Jonathan’s administration.
I decided to give it a trial after the Port Harcourt to Kano rail line was launched. I booked for a first class ticket from Zaria to Port Harcourt which cost N4,500 naira. To make the journey fun, I went in company of some friends who were also really enthusiastic about the trip. Thurs- day February 25, 2016 was the take- off date and the journey was billed
to take-off by 7pm but was delayed for two hours with no explanation from the NRC officials. The first class coach was quite comfortable, air-conditioned and very clean. This was not the case in the second-class coaches. They were really dirty and had an offensive smell oozing out with most of the fans not functional. Although first-class passengers are entitled to food from the on-board canteen, it was unavailable.
The journey was really slow, the train got to Kafanchan by 4am on Friday morning then it dawned on me that the journey will be a very long one. The train got to Markudi at 2pm, we were really exhausted and hungry so we had to look for a place in town to eat as there were no available restaurants in the station.
The train’s engine developed a fault and it took the railway engineers 4 hours before the problem was rectified. We left Markudi at 7pm after spending an extra hour waiting for the engine to be serviced. We reached Enugu by Saturday morning around 3am and got to Port Harcourt station finally at 10.30am. The journey was an avenue to see and appreciate Nigeria’s land resources across the hinterlands.
Based on my experience and find- ings, these are my recommenda- tions. There should be a remodeling of all train stations across the coun- try. They should be equipped with modern facilities befitting of 21st century train stations like comfort- able departure lounges, good conve- nience rooms and cafeteria.
The narrow gauge track model should be replaced with the standard gauge track model, as this enables newer and faster trains to be procured to replace the old and very slow speed trains which are not passenger-friendly. The journey by train is long and shouldn’t be so; for instance the journey from Zaria to Port Harcourt lasted about 36 hours. The newly built Abuja – Kaduna railway line should serve as a model for future railway projects in the country..
Passenger trains should be different from cargo trains as this will save time at different stations. The train I boarded had over fifteen stops and spent about thirty minutes at each station because of the time spent in loading goods into the train. It is also very important for the railway network to be expanded to states that are not yet connected by rail. This will lead to development of more rural communities.
The current rail network was primarily to serve Britain’s economic interest. The Lagos to Calabar rail project pro- posed by Buhari’s administration is a good step in the right direction, the cur- rent rail network of 3,505km is grossly inadequate to meet current realities as population has quadrupled since the last rail line was constructed in 1964. Countries like South Africa and Britain have 20,000km and 15,760km respectively.
The NRC Act of 1955 should be re- pealed and the agency should be un- bundled for efficient management in order to promote transparency and ac- countability. The private sector should be given enabling environment to invest in the railways through public private partnership. The Railways Reforms Act currently in the National Assembly should be passed into law. It will act as a template for the development of the railways in the country.
The current probe of various railway projects by the National Assembly is a welcome development because the various projects have been a waste of the country’s resources. What is on ground is not commiserate with the billions of dollars budgeted for its development by previous governments.
The operations of Nigerian Rail- way Corporation should be digi- talized to reflect current realities for efficiency and transparency. This will enhance service delivery and make the operations of the corpora- tion less cumbersome. The agency should adopt e-ticketing as an op- tion of making payments for tickets to make travelling convenient for travellers and the website of NRC should be updated more often.
During my journey, I saw old cargoes belonging to NNPC used for transporting petroleum products in the past. The NNPC should consider using the railways for transporting petroleum products to various cities to complement trucks and pipelines transportation. This will reduce the risk involved in transporting petroleum products over long distances. Rail lines should be connected to the major seaports to ferry goods swiftly out of the ports as against the old way of using tankers and trailers.
The railways have the capacity of being a major employer of labour in the country if well managed. The sector had over 40,000 employees in its workforce and this has reduced to less than 7,000 presently. The tourism industry will also receive a big boost as more Nigerians and foreigners alike will like to travel by rail to visit tourist attractions.
George writes from Port Harcourt