Engr. Fidet Okhiria, Managing Director, Nigerian Railway Corporation is a great interviewers’ delight. No airs around him as this reporter was ushered into his office, all he asked was how long is this interview? And he continued working on his laptop. Just few questions, and we are done. He talked about the railway modernization, challenges, his lifestyle and more in this interview with Saturday Sun.
Railway transportation appears to be regaining its lost glory in Nigeria, how do you feel about that?
I feel proud, I feel good. I would say I thank God it’s happening in my time and it is also to the benefits of Nigerians that we should have good infrastructure. I would say we should look forward for better things to happen, for more expansion. God bless us with the money that we need to do it.
Someone sent the picture of the newly acquired train to me and I asked if truly the picture was taken in Nigeria because of the beautiful train and station. Can we maintain such facility in Nigeria?
Why not? We cannot be less behind other countries; we should endeavour to keep up the pace. Do we need these facilities in a modern way? Yes. It took us time, no rail system that is the same all over the world. You must have to meet with the people’s demand and need. We should be able to maintain it the same way we maintain the ones you think is not fine, is more difficult, because we have to bend backward the spares are off the shelf, we have to order them, especially when, I don’t want to use the word obsolete, we are trying to catch up with the world and it’s easier and faster to get the spare, to maintain what we brought in now. That is the thing they are doing in China and they are doing in Europe.
What is this particular train called?
Diesel Multiple Unit
Nigerians like loads, you see men and women carrying heavy luggage, are these new facilities for such?
There are what we call parcels. If you carry loads, you don’t take it and enter the plane, the same thing in rail service. We have what we call baggage bags, you book your loads. People can book their loads and not necessarily follow the train and they ask somebody to pick up. We also have that facility. When you bring your load that cannot be taken as cabin baggage you have to check in, into what we call baggage van. We weigh it, we charge you and we give you the document for it (waybill) to enable you collect it back when it gets to the assigned location.
How many trips does the train go in a day?
For Abuja to Kaduna, we are targeting 14 trips a day. Lagos-Ibadan, 16 trips a day, then Itakpe -Warri, four trips a day. Those are for the passengers. We are expecting the freight wagons , the ones we use in carrying containers, grains, cement, those are yet to arrive for the modernised tracks but we have them on the old tracks.
Could you put a figure to the number of Nigerians that travel by rail across the country daily?
Within Lagos alone, the mass transit before COVID-19, I think we are moving close to 10,000 a day between Apapa, Iddo, and Agbado. On the Abuja – Kaduna, we move close to 5,000. A lot of Nigerians use the train service. If you try it once, it’s convenient, you travel at peace and you will always come back.
What does the future hold for this transportation sector?
There are no two ways about it. A country with a good rail system, its commerce and economy will always blossom because you easily move the goods by train and at the same time people can travel at peace day or night. What I tell people, there’s nothing like traffic hold up on the rail. You can time yourself. You can go on schedule. Like the developed world that already have modern trains in their places, no matter who you are they go on train. The high, low and the mighty, they go on train. We should look forward to a better service, we should look forward for the expansion of train services throughout Nigeria, not only where we have covered now. We pray that the government will still have the courage, the interest and will to continue the expansion because if we do it now we are not going to repeat it tomorrow. That is the advice.
Some people are of the opinion that we cannot maintain these trains without the help of the Chinese, how true is this?
Nigeria railway has been here for 100 years
I’m talking of this particular modern train system
We have what we call service level agreement with the manufacturers because if you have a new product the manufacturer must be with you to transfer the technology and our people will learn from them. We have a two years program for the manufacturers to be with us not that they will be the one operating it. At least they will teach our people and guide them to ensure that they imbibe the maintenance culture that is required. For the track infrastructure, the agreement is that they will be here for three years so that after construction they will be with us while we are learning on the rope to catch up with the technology. Right now, we are talking about modern tracks, we are talking about concrete sleepers, before now, we are used to steel or wood sleepers that are very light, which means for you to maintain them you require equipment and machines because individuals can’t move the rail and it’s continuous wielded tracks, so equipment are required for the proper maintenance.
Are there still challenges in spite of the huge investment in the Nigerian railway?
There are challenges here and there. There’s nothing that is just smooth going in life. We all know that the fund is never enough, if it is available or not, there’s no time it will be enough. That is why we have management to make sure we prioritise on what to do at the right time. We are also having problem of insecurity. People trying to vandalise the rail, not only the rail but also others. We have that as a serious challenge. We are now trying to use technology to monitor our installations. At the same time we have a police command here, and the Civil Defence Corps are also on ground. We also have some private security people on ground. The way to go is by deploying technology, which we are doing gradually. To have CCTV so that when people try to vandalise, there should be alarm to prevent them from doing that.
What about the dilapidated buildings in the railway compound. Coming into the compound from Alagomeji, Yaba, known as LOCO years back, the buildings are absurd, any effort to bring them back to shape?
You can see there are new structures coming up. If you go through Alagomeji, the small, small, structures are no longer there. New stations are coming up and we are building a replacement for those buildings. Gradually, we will be there. We will not do it all at a go. But what is important is to make sure that we lay our tracks. Lay the station that will bring the money to maintain the other quarters and office premises. We can say railway compound is a construction site at the moment because you see heavy-duty vehicles moving up and down and we can’t down anything till the construction is done.
Have you been in this system for long as a staff or you came from some other background?
I have been here. After graduating from the university, I did my youth service and I started work here. I grew through the rank. I started as the Pupil Engineer, rose to become the district manager, became a director and by His grace I’m the Managing Director.
What lessons have you learnt about life?
It is to be patient; in railway you have all the tribes. You have to learn patience. The cultures are not the same. If you worked in railway, that means you have worked in the entire Nigeria because you meet all the cultures, different religious groups, different tribes, so you have to be very patient to work in government and imbibe the spirit of loving your neighbour as you love yourself and one day it will be good. There’s no need to be in hurry. Any assignment given to you, do it as if it’s your own, don’t say it’s government work because you are the government if because you are working for government you don’t do your work well, I don’t see how you can change your mind when you now leave the government work and do your own. I don’t know if you are going for another training to do the proper thing. Just be patient and cooperate with other people working with you.
The impression I got from people in the railway compound on my way to your office, is that the MD is approachable, nice man; does that have anything to do with your growing up?
My father taught me that anywhere I find myself I should try and be humble. The person you meet up today you also meet him down and that you are up today by His grace doesn’t mean the other person cannot be up. So, you don’t know it all, you can always get one or two things from others. I have to leave my doors open and hear views from other people. Even when sometimes people bring problem that you can’t solve it maybe in the process of talking to them, they would realize what they thought was a problem is not really a serious problem. I also ensure that leaving my doors open doesn’t affect my job. I have to balance it.
Where is your favourite travel destination?
My hometown, Ekpoma in Edo State. I always want to be with my people.
Edo! Not America or England?
America is expensive.
But you can afford it
There are other people, if I can afford it, how many people can afford it in my family. I’m here now as the MD, if I have somebody that cannot pay his child school fees and he’s my relation what do I need to do. I have to support that person; otherwise even when you go home or your children go home their life is not safe. Because they are not educated and they see you as somebody, ignorantly, they think it’s because of you they are not educated and you are affluent. So it’s better what you have, see how you can use it to better other people’s life. That is the way Nigeria will be better. There’s no use having 10 houses, when some don’t have a room to sleep. We should be our neighbour’s keeper. I hardly travel abroad except for official assignment. I can’t just wake up and say I want to go and rest abroad. If I want to rest I go to my hometown and rest.
How do you relax?
I’m a squash player. At the same time I’m a badminton player. I can lock myself in my room and dance but I don’t go to clubs.
What makes you happy?
If I see other people happy then I’m happy. I don’t want to see a bad situation relating to a human being. The more people are happy around me the happy I am.
What makes you sad?
If I’m not able to help. If you had come here with a problem and I’m not able to help I will go home not happy.
Your favourite food?
As you grow old, they tell you don’t take this, don’t take that. Before, I used to love pounded yam and bitter leaf soup. But these days I take vegetable, take salad, so I have joined them. Once in a while I eat pounded yam.