This is the final part of my little intervention on the rail renaissance in Nigeria. I wrote this while this column was in hiatus, before the elections. Necessity has caused the Minister of Transport to make a few changes and I haven’t used the train since that time. Things got worse at a point and arrests were made. Chaos probably still ensues. All of Nigeria’s big men now use the train, as the Chairman of UBEC and his daughter were once kidnapped on the road and his driver shot dead. I am sad that we are abandoning a very important road to bandits. Not even the novelty of having trains should cause us to do that. Here are my suggestions on improvements:
The issues for improvement
- It is evident that there is leadership failure right from the Minister of Transport. With the level of exposure he and his executive colleagues have to how things are done abroad, he should not leave our train stations in such a disorganized state
- Using the broken-windows theory analogy, those stations can only descend into further chaos until our rail system becomes crime and filth-ridden and any self-respecting Nigerian will avoid them like the plague, and the entire system will collapse
- Price – Passengers will not like this, but the service is damn too cheap. A First Class ticket with full air-conditioning and the promise of a very smooth ride for two hours flat from Abuja to Kaduna, is N2,500. N1,500 is the price for an economy ticket. This is unnecessary subsidy at this age and time. A bus ride over very bumpy road, without air-conditioning and no respect for passengers’ comfort is also N1,500. The other day, Minister Rotimi Amaechi stated that they cannot increase prices because they don’t want people to complain. He said they spend N56m monthly on each train, but only recover N16million. Invariably our politicians see train services as another avenue for pleasing constituencies? I saw at least two billionaires in the first class cabin, men who could buy the entire train network. I believe it is also not okay for people to take advantage of the cheapness of the service because that is how we kill everything in Nigeria. We must be fair to our country. We must also know that anywhere there is undue advantage like that, something bigger and more sinister is going down in high places. For now, the train service is almost becoming a ‘man-knows-man’ affair
- Loans – Meanwhile the entire rail system is built on Chinese loans which will have to be paid back someday, whether we like it or not. Perhaps we are setting up the entire rail system to be bought over on the cheap by the Chinese, otherwise we would be struggling to rev up the cash flow so that we can begin to put something aside for payback day. The financial management of the rail sector in Nigeria is a sham, from a mile away.
- Security – The security of the train system – from what I observed – is non-existent. The boys that we saw arrested by the police, adamantly sat on the rail tracks and forced the driver to stop. Curiously they waited and were accosted by the police. The train could have crushed them and that will be a huge scandal. There was also another news item where Minister Amaechi said that the trains could not go faster because they will crush cows. Now, with the defiance those boys showed to the train, it may be a matter of time before criminals get daring. Thankfully there are a handful of policemen on each train but we don’t have to experiment with our own era of train robberies – especially now that we are going national with the service. Also, what about terrorism? Anyone can bring in any explosives into Nigerian trains presently. The people who set up the systems seem to have become disinterested in the entire system. No system is perfect, but we should have tried to replicate what we see abroad – especially in view of our security challenges.
- Private sector – Nigeria Railway Commission is the best example that government has no business doing business. Train service is business. Government can see the opening up of rail network as a national integration strategy but this does not justify running a moribund, decadent, and fraudulent system. This thing should be turned over to the private sector. We know that the government does not trust itself around money, but a sensible government should be concessioning the entire system for the next ten years under firm agreements and collecting its proceeds upfront at a good price. This way, even the customers will get a better experience.
- Uptake – The uptake of the service is a clear indication of the business potentials. It is as if the government did not expect that people will show up in these numbers. If this is the case, three things can happen. One, fares should go up. Two, more train frequencies is a necessity. Three, with the number of people trying to get black market train tickets, we should be having departures every half an hour, with capacity for more frequency. This will mean investment in more trains or addition of more carriages/cabins on existing trains.
- Nationwide potential – Train services seem to be the next thing Nigerians are waiting for. It’s a shame that Fashola and Amaechi couldn’t complete what they started in their states. These projects can transform the outlook of those states. More effort needs to be added, and more collaboration with private sector too. However, good care is needed. A few days ago, a train derailed at Ashade Market, Agege, killing one person and injuring several. From that incidence, it was evident that no one checks the fidelity of the tracks. This is another way jobs are created abroad. Every inch of a train track must be inspected every other day. Yet we say there are no jobs in Nigeria – because of blind corruption and greed which prevents our leaders from giving jobs out to those who need them. We cannot mess around with train tracks.
- Accounting – It is evident that the authorities are not interested at all in the accountability aspect of things. It is possible that most or all of the cash proceeds of the train services are treated as slush funds (after all it does not cover the cost at all). The entire laxity around affairs is palpable. If managers don’t show seriousness around money, they can’t show seriousness around anything else.
- Ambience – Do we believe we cannot strive towards excellence? Why would we start out in anything, with a view to achieving mediocre results? What stopped us from building train stations of international standards that every Nigerian will look forward to? It can only be because we don’t think our people deserve good things, or that they can’t handle it.
By and large, my experience with our rail system shows we have a serious leadership problem, no less. The people have no fault in this, but we aren’t properly led. Nigerians will do themselves a favour to get new leaders with a more progressive, more respectful vision for all, a sense of urgency, an unbendable resolve to achieve excellence, and attention to details.