The Railway Corporation should get serious about its business

Barely a month ago, President Muhammadu Buhari expressed delight while inaugurating the recently completed passenger train service from Abuja to Kaduna. But there are already worries about the seriousness of the corporation on this service. During the last Eid-el-Kabir public holidays when many members of the public were expecting to use the services, the Nigerian Railway Corporation suspended its operations, ironically, because of the holidays.

The corporation capped the perplexing decision with the additional information that it would use the two-day break for a “comprehensive maintenance of the train.” There are many questions begging for answers: Why would a newly launched service need a comprehensive maintenance? Why would the authorities choose a holiday period when there would be many passengers to carry out such “maintenance”? Would workers on what is an essential service be going on holidays like normal civil servants, especially at a period their services would be most needed? Put more succinctly, why will a business venture suspend its operations at a time of boom?

It is indeed noteworthy that while inaugurating the Abuja-Kaduna rail track, President Buhari had said: “It is on record that between 1963 and early 1980s, Nigeria had a vibrant rail system which conveyed agricultural produce, livestock and solid mineral resources to Lagos and Port Harcourt sea ports from where they were exported to other parts of the world.” The statement was an admission of how the nation has mismanaged one of its most vital public utilities.

All over the world, rail is the most common mode of mass transit, both for short and long distances. In some countries like China and Japan, rail transportation has been modernised with high-speed express trains that even compete with airlines. They can cover hundreds of kilometres within an hour. Unfortunately, our experience in Nigeria has been that of a gnawing irritation and a chorus of lamentation about what used to be.

Even though slow, tedious, painful and often overcrowded, rail transportation was accepted as a means of transport as far back as colonial times where millions of commuters and goods of international commerce like cocoa, groundnut, rubber were moved to the ports during the heyday of agricultural boom. Besides relieving the roads of pressure and traffic snarls, rail transportation was economic and energy efficient.

However, against the dictates of common sense, and aided by a marauding group called haulage cartels, the rails were neglected and later out-rightly abandoned. And since many could not afford to fly and the inland waterways have no ferry system that works, all attention is turned to the roads where trailers, trucks, cars and buses compete for space. Today, most roads in the country are in pitiable conditions, riddled with potholes and craters. Accidents are common place and are indeed assuming epidemic proportions. It is then little wonder that Nigeria has been put down as one of the countries with the highest fatality rate in road accidents in the world.

Last week, the Minister of Power, Works and Housing, Mr. Babatunde Fashola, called for the use of rail for the movement of cargoes across the country in order to save the nation’s roads. Fashola expressed dismay at the rate the roads and bridges were collapsing as a result of stress of cargoes on them by the tankers and trailers. It is a given that a nation with a population in excess of 170 million people cannot afford to neglect the rails. That explained the excitement that greeted the recent completion and inauguration of the Abuja-Kaduna rail line.

But from what happened during the Sallah break, there are questions begging for answers about the seriousness of this administration on the issue of rail transportation.