By Mustapha Yauri/Philip Yatai
Kaduna, Sept. 28, 2020 Experts in the transport sector have advised the Federal Government to repeal the 1955 Railway Act, to allow private sector involvement in Nigeria’s rail services.
The experts said in separate interviews with journalists that the Act had stalled development in Nigeria’s rail transportation, as it empowered only the Federal Government to construct rail tracks and run train services.
They noted that only the Abuja-Kaduna line was added to the 3,505 kilometers of rail line inherited since independence, 60 years ago.
The stakeholders argued that increased investment in the country’s rail transport would boost the nation’s economy, reduce pressure on road infrastructure and loss of lives and properties due to traffic crashes, and increase the lifespan of roads.
Dr Joshua Adeleye, Head Transport Research and Intelligence, Nigeria Institute of Transport Technology Zaria, said that the monopoly in the system due to the Railway Act has made the rail sector obsolete and stagnant.
“The Act says only the federal government could construct rail track and run train services in the country”, he told NAN.
He noted that Britain that brought the rail transport system into Nigeria had since the early 80’s, repealed its Railway Act to open the industry for full participation of the private sector.
He said in the United Kingdom, there are close to 50 operating companies and about 20 railway infrastructure companies being driven by the private sector.
Adeleye said that Nigeria needed to open up the industry to allow private sector participation by amending or repealing the Act to “allow the railway to be on the concurrent list.”
The new Act should focus on using rail transport to transform the socio-economic ecosystem of Nigeria,
Adeleye said, adding that the sector has to be market oriented and open to private capital.
He advised that the new law should allow state governments and the private sector to construct or partner with investors to set up rail lines, while the Federal Government oversees safety regulations and compliance to standard.
“This has been done in the air transport system whereby you have private terminals in Lagos and some airports in the country,’’ he said.
He said that it was necessary to break government monopoly in order to make the rail system market oriented, offering efficient services to customers.
Adeleye noted that the innovations would help to create jobs and boost the economy, as more companies come into the sector.
He noted that funding by government alone cannot sustain the rail system, hence the need to attract private investors.
“The investor may not afford to construct rail lines, government could do that and ask the private sector to run the services in compliance with Nigerian standard.
“That is the contemporary practice, but unfortunately it is not what we are doing in Nigeria now.
“It is good we have the Chinese funding rail projects, but if we continue to operate under the 1955 Act, the quality of service would not be efficient,’’ he said.
According to him, the fortune of rail transport system started going down in the late 70’s due to technological advancement and the dynamic nature of transport system.
“Initially, the early locomotives in the rail transport system were the steam powered engine, later it moved to diesel engine and today we are talking about electric engine.
“The administration of railway in Nigeria has not been as dynamic as it is supposed to be.
“The speed of change in terms of administration, technological advancement and technological transfer of knowledge acquired over time, has not been as rapid as it is supposed to be.
“These and the political will were part of the reasons why the fortune of rail transport system gradually nosedived.
“Over the years, we have been having successive governments that are not interested in rail transport especially in the late 70’s. When Nigeria was expanding the road network, the rail component was neglected.
“The colonial administrators were able to construct about 3505 kilometers of rail line that is how we left it since independence in the 1960’s if not because of Abuja-Kaduna rail line. Considering the size of Nigeria, that was insignificant.”
Adeleye also said that the capital intensive nature of the rail system in terms of construction of rail lines and purchase of locomotives may have discouraged government to invest aggressively in the sector.
“For us in transport, the system generally includes Rail, Air, Maritime, Pipeline and Road, therefore, you don’t develop one mode of transport and leave others.
“The one you leave without being developed will not enable you derive the benefits of the one you have developed, and that is one of our problems today,’’ he said.
Adeleye noted that Nigeria is still using the old policy of administering railways, adding that the system will continue to be a conduit pipe for scarce resources, unless government limits itself to regulation of safety and standards.
Also, Alhaji Musa Hassan, a retired Locomotive Inspector, described the railway Act as archaic, and Nigeria needs a new law to modernise its railway operations.
He said that when he joined the services of the Nigeria Railway Corporation (NRC) in 1966, the system was working fairly well, moving passengers and goods across Northern and Southern parts of the country.
Hassan who is the Financial Secretary of Nigerian Railway Pensioners Association in Zaria, however, said that neglect and poor funding made the rail services to nosedive.
According to him, governments in the past refused to release vital funds needed to procure locomotives and coaches, as a result of which the rail system collapsed completely, until now that it’s being revived.
He also said that the expansion of the road transport system made the rail transport to lose patronage.
Hassan, however, said commercialising rail transportation will be difficult, noting that previous attempts had failed.
“Since the time when I was in service the proposal for commercialisation was brought in, but it could not take off because there is nobody who will buy the rail tracks; locomotives are very costly and virtually everything has gone up now.
“ Sometime ago, Aliko Dangote was involved in public private partnership, he bought two locomotives for the Nigerian railway corporation, he was carrying his goods from Lagos to the North, but that venture could not go on because of some difficulties,’’ he said.
Also, Mr Daniel Dabo-Yatai, who worked with the NRC between 1961 and 1992, said poor investment in the rail transport system led to its collapse.
He said that the rail system was very efficient up to mid-1970s, helping to transport goods including coal, cement, petroleum products, agricultural produce, cotton, livestock, machineries, military vehicles, among others across Northern and southern parts of the country.
“In the early 1960s there were not many tankers, trailers and other heavy vehicles, and the government, businessmen and women relied solely on rail transport to transport their goods and services.
“It was, therefore, a huge business for the Federal Government and the revenues derived from the sector was so huge that we received our salaries every 25th day of the month.
“However, with much attention given to road transportation, things began to deteriorate and by the 1980s the corporation hardly paid salaries, sometimes for up to six or seven months,” he said.
Dabo-Yatai said that with the shift of attention to road transport, people began to invest in buses and eventually tankers, trailers, lorries, and other heavy duty vehicles, thereby caging train services.
According to him, lack of attention and funding led to poor maintenance of the dilapidated locomotive engines, coaches and wagons, which led to epileptic train services.
“The inconsistencies led to the drop in revenues and eventual laid-off of thousands of railway workers.
“As such, the current move to revive the sector is a good one, but the government must be ready to invest hugely in the sector.
“Efforts should also be made to connect major towns with the rail network to reap its maximum benefits.
“This will make rail transport cheap and affordable, because what a train waggon can transport in a single trip will take a trailer or a tanker two to three trips to convey,” he said.
Mr Godwin Kwalbe, who conducted a bachelor’s degree research on the contribution of railways in the development and urbanisation of Kafanchan, Jema’a Local Government Area of Kaduna State, said funding remains key to a robust rail transport in thecountry.
Kwalbe who welcomed current efforts to revive the rail transportation, however, said that the Federal Government needed to invest more and move faster for the impact to be felt on the economy.
He said that increased investment in rail system would make transportation of goods and services cheaper, reduce accidents and increase the lifespan of major highways.
Kwalbe’s argument was confirmed by the 2019 report of road traffic crashes released by the Federal Road Safety Corps (FRSC) which shows a total of 9,218 accidents recorded in 2019 alone.
This was in sharp contrast to the 970 accidents recorded in rail tracks in eight years, between 1997 to 2005.
Dr Gaius Jatau, Associate Professor of Economic History, Kaduna State University, pointed out that the the rail system has made huge impact to the national economy.
He said it had led to the emergence of business communities around railway stations across the country which were still functioning to date as railway markets.
“Also, the railway system equally led to the growth, urbanisation and development of some communities into major towns and cities due to the flourishing transport system.
“However, with the dependency nature of the Nigerian economy, the rail system was allowed to rot, due to poor maintenance culture and complete dependence on importation of tools and replacement parts,” Jatau said.
He also agreed that the priority accorded roads development led to the total neglect of rail transportation in the country.
“As such, with more priority accorded to the road transport system the rail system continues to decline coupled with corrupt practices that have equally taken its toll on the system.
“While road transporters were blocking funding and attention to the sector, the management of the railways were equally subsumed by corruption with revenues going to private pockets instead of government purse,” he said.
Jatau, however, commended current efforts of the federal government to revamp the rail transport network, saying that the transformation from narrow-gauge to standard-gauge holds huge prospects for the railways.
Some of the railway workers told NAN that the introduction of the standard gauge has eased their work tremendously.
Mohammed Mohammed, the Yard Supervisor, Rigasa Train Station, Kaduna, said he had the privilege of experiencing both the narrow gauge of the 1960s to early 2000 and the recently introduced standard gauge.
Mohammed, who joined the NRC in 2012, explained that while the operation of the narrow-gauge rail lines was basically manual, the standard-gauge was largely electrical.
“Operating the rail points to change which line a train should follow in the narrow-gauge was manual, required physical strength, making it very difficult and risky sometimes.
“But the standard-gauge is computerised, and one can change the points in the comfort of a control room with just a click of a button without necessarily going to the points physically.”
Similarly, Sani Abdullahi, a Senior Driver Operator, Rigasa Train Station in Kaduna, who joined the NRC as Assistant Driver in 2000, said that the narrow-gauge train could carry up to 35 coaches, but was very slow, moving at a speed of between 70 to 80 kilometres per hour, and prone to accidents.
Abdullahi, however, said that the current standard-gauge train speed was over 100 kilometres per hour, with low accidents rate.
“The current coaches were also fitted with air conditioning systems and modern toilet facilities including a kitchen, which the narrow-gauge train did not have.”
On his part, the Rigasa Station Manager, Mr Aminu Ibrahim, said that the Abuja-Kaduna segment of the rail system modernisation initiative was the first to be implemented by the Federal Government as part of the Lagos-Kano standard gauge project.
Ibrahim said that the country’s railway modernisation initiative was aimed at replacing the existing narrow-gauge system with the wider standard gauge lines, to allow high-speed train operations on the railway network.
He said that the station runs four trips daily to Abuja, but added that the fares had been increased by 100% as the train capacity had been reduced by 50% in line with COVID-19 protocols.
“This is why the fare was increased by 100 per cent: N3,000 for economy class and N6,000 for first class for the 6:40 am and 6:00 pm trips to and from Abuja.
“However, for the 10:30 am and 2:00 pm trips, economy class is N2,600 while first class is N5,000,” he said.