The Nigeria Railway Corporation (NRC) is back in business, with massive investment in railway modernisation and acquisition of newer coaches. In their interview, the Managing Director of the company Fidet Okhiria shed light on some of their achievements and constraints so far.
Q: The NRC has launched services on the Warri-Itakpe, Abuja-Kaduna, and Lagos-Ibadan routes. Where else does the corporation plan to be in the next one or two years?
A: We are hoping that between two to three years, we should be able to talk about Lagos-Ilorin, Abuja-Kaduna-Kano-Maradi, Port-Harcourt to Maiduguri on the narrow gauge, and to Calabar. We should also be talking about either Lagos-Benin or Port-Harcourt to Benin, and then Itakpe-Abuja.
Q: The train is a means of mass transportation but many Nigerians have complained that the fares being charged are too high, saying the train services are for the elite. What’s your take on this?
A: I do not believe it is for the elite alone; we have coaches for different categories of people. The price starts from N2,500 for the 82-seater up to N7,500 for the 24-seater. But people usually pick the higher ones and forget about the lower ones. So, people want to enjoy all the facilities at the basic price. However, even the basic is far more affordable.
Q: What is the target of the NRC in terms of passenger traffic?
A: I do not want to give figures, as the reality will be based on the number of rolling stocks and trains that we are able to run. However, we hope that for our existing coverage, we want to be able to move 520 people at a time per trip. For instance, Abuja-Kaduna, we are doing eight trips for now; by next month, we’ll increase it to 12.
After the commissioning of the Lagos-Ibadan railway line, we have moved from two trips to four. We also hope to increase it to eight. And when it is fully deployed, we’ll be having 16 trips of passengers daily.
For Itakpe-Warri, we have one train now, but as we speak, another train of eight coaches and one locomotive is on the road between Ijebu-Ode and Benin. This will help us to start four trains a day on Itakpe.
Q: What plans does the corporation have for freight traffic?
A: We are open to freight traffic on the standard gauge, probably beginning from Ibadan. When we get the track into the port, we will be able to use it to Ibadan.
At the moment, we are moving freight on the narrow gauge, although we have issues with the terminal operators. Because, when we send in loads, we find it difficult to offload, the same happens when we send wagons; we find it difficult to load on it.
There is a joint meeting set up by the ministry that is reviewing the processes, so that when we deploy the standard gauge, the challenges will no longer be there.
At the moment, we are using the old tracks to move freight. We are moving pipes from Lagos to Itakpe and Zaria. We are also moving containers out of the port. But the volume is what we want to increase.
We are still expecting the rolling stocks; as we get more, we will increase the number of trains we run. We are already discussing with Flour Mills [of Nigeria Plc] big time to move their products on the narrow and standard gauge lines.
Q: The corporation has said it would ensure 16 trips daily on the Lagos-Ibadan standard gauge line this year; how do you plan to achieve this?
A: We have the locomotives for those services that we have mentioned right on ground. We even have some for freight on standard gauge. But what we have for narrow gauge is not enough; we will get them soon, very soon.
Q: Vandalism of train infrastructure has become rampant. What is the corporation doing to check this? Has anyone been prosecuted for this?
A: As of yesterday (last Tuesday), I think 28 people were sent to the court and have been detained in Kirikiri. Before now, we have arrested over 200 people. But because of the court’s industrial action, we could not do anything. But now that they have resumed, we have started the prosecution process.
Q: Your trains have suffered a number of breakdowns, and some people have wondered why coaches that were recently purchased were breaking down. What is responsible for this?
A:I do not like the idea that the trains have been breaking down. How many times has this happened? I do not blame them because this is the only shining thing that they can see. All attention is on it.
We had a glitch and we responded to it quickly, sent another one, and ever since, the train has been running. But every day, people still continue to talk about that one. We will ensure that we do the right thing. After that one, has any occurrence been recorded? For instance, in Abuja-Kaduna, when a train stops for another to pass, people will be grumbling.
Q: The NRC is partnering with some other organisations to offer tickets online. Is it that the corporation could not afford to erect its own ticketing gateway or someone’s interest needed to be satisfied?
A: What interest other than the interest of Nigerians? People say that fund is scarce. People also say railway [corporation] does not want to engage private people. So, we have engaged them. There’s nobody’s interest apart from that of Nigerians.
Q: There have been calls from some quarters that the railway subsector should have its own substantive ministry. What is your take on this?
A: What difference does it make? It is the human beings; when you have the Ministry of Railway, they’ll call for the Ministry of Mechanical, Ministry of Personnel.
I am not part of those people who believe in that; for me, to what extent? The minister has been called the Minister of Railway; so, it is getting the needed attention. I am not scared of being controlled.
The point is if the ministry is run well, railway will run well.
Q: Looking ahead, when will Nigeria be able to boast of efficient train service, in terms of connectivity, pricing, and speed?
A: It depends on Nigerians, if they continue to vandalise and discourage the government from doing what they are doing.
We will want to do it at a go; it also depends on the resources available. But the policy provides that all state capitals, all mineral-producing areas and potential production centres are to be linked by rail.
Q: Can you give us a sense of the level of security on the train for passengers?
A: Everybody should be conscious of security. We have an average of two policemen on the train. Before now, what we had was two on a train, but now, we have two per coach, uniformed and having a gun. We also have those ones who do not wear uniforms. We have Man O’ War, and civil defence on the train.
Before we send a train, we send a monitoring team to ensure that the track is fine, and that there is no threat on the track. That is how we have been operating for now. We are thinking of deploying technology, although it is going to cost some money.
Q: What is the current stage of the signaling systems on the completed lines?
A: It is still in progress; this is because we want to get the best. Technology is changing every day. We want to have a system that is not only modern but also upgradeable at any particular time when we have the technology.
Q: What roles do private operators play in the running of the completed lines?
Q: People can bring in coaches and run; we are open. You can bring your train and we will enter a Memorandum of Understanding.
People can decide to take, for example, Ikorodu to Benin. We will guide them and they will operate. They can do anything.