The rail services could be better managed
Rail transportation will breathe fresh life into the transport sector and reduce the intense pressure on the highways. It is therefore commendable that the Muhammadu Buhari administration has continued where President Goodluck Jonathan stopped in completing ongoing rail projects. But the operations of the rail routes have called to question the ability of the federal government to properly run the corporation. From non-availability of tickets to inability to manage passenger traffic during peak hours, the experience of passengers, especially along the busy Abuja-Kaduna route, has been harrowing.
It is baffling that in this day and age railway tickets are still being sold manually. With that, hundreds of passengers at train stations spend several hours on the queue trying to buy tickets from the few booths available. While we urge the railway management to introduce e-ticketing for their passengers to buy tickets on-line while validating them at the stations before departure, it is glaring from recent arrests by the Economic and Financial Crimes Commission (EFCC) that some perverse incentives have been created for racketeering and fraud.
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. However, 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 has been 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 highly economic and energy efficient. Even more, the rail corporation was then a big employer of labour with more than 40,000 staff on its payroll.
But against the dictates of common sense, and aided by a marauding group called haulage cartels, the rails were gradually neglected and later abandoned out-right. And since many could not afford to fly and the inland waterways have no ferry system that works, all attention was turned to the roads where trailers, trucks, cars and buses competed 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.
Yet attempts to rehabilitate the rail lines in the last two decades have cost taxpayers a fortune with no tangible result. The late General Sani Abacha government expended some $530million on a rehabilitation contract with the China Civil Engineering Construction Company (CCECC). Not much was done as the impact was not felt. Between 1999 and 2008, according to the former auditor-general of the federation, Mr. Robert Ejenavi, some N125 billion was sunk into the railway watering hole by the federal government.
While we must commend President Buhari for making completion of railway projects a priority, the issue of management remains a problem. Threats by the supervisory minister, arrests of staff by EFCC operatives and other knee-jerk reactions are no substitute for efficient management anchored on transparency and accountability. The earlier the federal government realised that the better for the country, given the huge sums of borrowed money that has been sunk into the railway projects in recent years.