“Without good train service, the economy can never grow because it requires the train to move not just passengers but goods.”
Managing Director of Nigerian Railway Corporation (NRC) Engr. Fidet Okhiria, in this interview with Daily Trust, speaks on the ongoing railway modernization, and the free train service on the Lagos-Ibadan standard gauge corridor.
What was the response of commuters on the free train service declared on the Lagos-Ibadan standard gauge corridor which is still under construction?
When we started, the first day, we had four people and we had maybe one person from Ibadan. On the second day, it rose to 22, then 14 from Ibadan.
On the third day, it went to 50 then 40 from Ibadan. And so we had to caution them. How come you are carrying 50 when you had 40 seats?
So right now we carry 40 passengers. In the week that followed, we have been carrying maximum and when I came now, I saw a lot of passengers on the ground waiting to board but we cannot allow them to sit because we want to maintain the standard set so that we don’t return to where people will start climbing the roof again.
I think very soon, when more coaches come, more people would be able to enjoy the benefits free of charge for three months, then we will start commercial operations.
We are expecting a set of two DMUs (Diesel Multiple Units) made up of two coaches each, that’s 16 coaches and we are not going to deploy all to this route. We will take one set to Abuja-Kaduna.
Then we can now rationalise the other coaches same way. So it is presently on the high seas; we are expecting it by the end of the month or early January. Immediately it comes, we will commission it and deploy it for the trial runs. Nigerians like good things and we can see from the enthusiasm and we appeal that they keep it and maintain it; that they don’t misuse it so that it would last. And we will encourage the government to do more.
How do you control the crowd?
What we do is we have the manifest where people write their names and they are issued tickets and once it gets to the maximum seats available, it stops and they make sure that the security helps in guiding them and we appeal to our people to exercise patience.
As we entered now, people forced themselves in; we had to insist that they come down because that is the only way to do it. If we encourage it today, tomorrow more would come. We appeal to them to exercise patience with us.
We have started. Six months ago, nobody thought there would be something like this. Now that we have started, it would continue to grow and we would try and get more coaches. The era of saying we would buy 10 coaches and wait for another 20 years, I think it is over. We would continue to add something every year, that’s the only way to do it.
What does it cost to provide this free service?
Anywhere you do a new track it is necessary to do a trial run. Apart from getting the people adjust to using train, you still have to do your timing and scheduling of the train so that by the time you start commercial service, you properly get the timing. So it is also a part of the cost of construction.
Government is there to provide for the people and you can’t cover the rail operation with naira and kobo but you cover it with the benefits accrued from having good logistics in the nation. So when the train is working well, the road congestion would go away.
Annual maintenance cost on the road would also go down because the roads are always overused. So the rail is designed for heavy household load, frequent use as soon as you carry out the maintenance unlike the road. There is a limit the road can take. Without good train service, the economy can never grow because it requires the train to move not just passengers but goods. And with train, you can time yourself. You can say, ‘I want to leave by 4 o’clock and get there by 6’.
What is the distance we are running currently and what distance are we expected to get to Ibadan from Lagos at maximum capacity?
From Iju to Ibadan now, that is about 115 kilometres. From Ebute-Metta to Ibadan-Moniya is 156 kilometres or thereabouts. But if you carry it from Apapa, it is more than that. Since it is trial run, we are not running at our capacity because some construction works are still ongoing. When completed, we believe we can run Ibadan and Lagos in one hour, 30 minutes from Apapa if we do an average of 120 kilometres per hour.
Talking about track laying, it is in Lagos area that you have a lot of impediments but which have been largely resolved. But how far have you gone with the track laying from Iju to Apapa?
You can see that the formation is in place and the tracks can be laid within a month if the formation is in place. After the trial run, you are expected to commercialize this service, what is the plan in place to make it efficient? We are just running train, we have been doing that for years.
The only thing is we have a modern train that can run faster, modern coaches that are more beautiful and relaxing as well as modern facilities. You have your monitor you can watch and a better seating arrangement. That is what is happening. There is modern signal and communication technique so that train monitoring and train control would be mostly by technology.
What about the online ticketing solution you have been working on because people want to avoid this issue of racketeering on the Abuja-Kaduna train?
Cuts-in: The so-called racketeering… The e-ticketing would be in place hopefully and we would just roll it in. We are pressing that the infrastructure required for control would be part of the station infrastructure that would be in place. We are not limiting the e-ticketing to Kaduna-Abuja, the solution we have is nationwide.
We can now start configuring it by adding any new line you have. Apart from that, other things have to be in place. You have to put a control system physically in place so that people don’t jump on the train, they don’t even get to the platform without tickets and people don’t exit without the ticketing with the stations being controlled and access is limited to those with the appropriate tickets. But that does not stop the physical buying of tickets. If you go to the airport, you still buy your ticket, you can buy through an agent, those things would be available. You can also get the tickets in a supermarket.
What is the update on Itakpe-Warri?
Itakpe-Warri is being done. You know we had broken rails which are being done by the contractor. What we do now is the train runs between Warri and Agbor. Where we have problem is between Ajaokuta and Itakpe and we have two coaches there now because we moved some of the coaches to Abuja-Kaduna when the pressure was too much. When the new coaches come, we will re-strategise and go commercial on Warri-Itakpe, by then the stations they are building would have been completed.
On the planned resumption of the narrow gauge operation from Lagos to Kano, what have you done on the maintenance of the tracks having used it for this long?
We have sent the district engineers to ensure the tracks are in good condition before then. The CCECC has worked on areas where we have major washout. We are just waiting for the Lagos area to be okay so that the locomotives can come out.
Can we safely say that train operation is back in Nigeria after going moribund for years? What does this portend for our country and how do you feel as the man in charge at a time we are experiencing railway modernization?
We say thank God that it is happening in our time, not just me but you and other people. As I tell people, you need to do it now so that you have more people enjoying it. I am not a financial person, people say we are borrowing. If you borrow and use it well, because those things are relevant things you must do, why not do it? If you do it now, people will enjoy it and people yet unborn are not coming to repeat it, you have done it. So if you borrow and put the infrastructure in place and you are now paying but you have started enjoying what you have put in place, that is the way I look at it. It is better we expand as fast as possible and as far as the money is judiciously used and not being squandered.
Where do you see railway in the next five years with the various projects that are ongoing?
We still need to do more and people should appreciate what the government is doing. It is for us. I don’t think the President is coming to ride the train, we should try and maintain it and keep it. Government property is for us. It is only when we change our attitude and try to maintain government things and if we see somebody trying to vandalize or spoil it, we apprehend him, advise him and talk to him…Imagine if you have trains like this every 30 minutes, people would enjoy Lagos more because the population will reduce and the economy will still grow and people would be encouraged to do more things.
I believe the rail is the way to go in terms of mass movement of both persons and goods. I think we should all put our hands to protect what we have done. So I see Nigerian railway under this condition growing bigger because by the time we get to Abuja, people now continue to appreciate that if we have a working rail, life will be better.
How much do we need to cover the whole of Nigeria?
To cover Nigeria, you would be talking about over $36 billion. There is nowhere we would have such money before. Like my former governor, late Ambrose Alli, used to say, ‘money can never be enough.’ When he was young the father was looking for money, when he became governor, government is still looking for money. So you just do what you can do to make the people happy because after God is government. So government provides everything free – health, water even food, it is just for human beings to organize it and who is to organize it, it is government, to make the people comfortable. It is when people are comfortable that we can talk about people making contributions to government. Everybody cannot be in power but in your little way you can contribute.
Culled from Daily Trust