• COVID-19 stalls completion of Lagos-Ibadan standard gauge
• Railway union seeks protection of workers, commuters
• Experts support reopening, canvass political will
The Federal Government has lost about N766 million within four months of suspension of Nigerian Railway Corporation (NRC) services due to the COVID-19 lockdown.
The loss was incurred following suspension of NRC services at the Abuja-Kaduna standard gauge and narrow gauge at Iddo in Lagos to Ijoko and Kajola in Ogun State.
Railway services have been shut down since March.
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COVID-19 pandemic also affected the $1.5 billion Lagos-Ibadan standard gauge rail line construction, one of the major projects being executed by Chinese contractors.
Minister of Transportation, Rotimi Amaechi, had announced that the Lagos-Ibadan railway project was scheduled for completion by June 2020 after Federal Government took a $1.5 billion loan from China EXIM Bank. One of the conditions for the loan was to ensure that a Chinese firm executed the project. The project was then awarded to China Civil Engineering and Construction Company (CCECC), which, contrary to what the minister asked, has been acquiring most of the equipment and other supplies needed for the project from China.
Amaechi, in March while on a national television programme, stated that the Lagos-Ibadan standard gauge rail project had been put on hold following the outbreak of coronavirus in China.
He said that CCECC contractors had travelled to China but were prevented from returning to Nigeria. It is yet to be ascertained the impact of the lockdown on the $1.5 billion facility.
Meanwhile, an estimate by The Guardian shows that Abuja-Kaduna corridor generates N6, 890,000 daily at the capacity of 5,300 passengers with an average fare of N1, 300 for economy class. It generates a sum of N41, 340,000 weekly and N165, 360,000 monthly.
Apart from five trips operated on daily basis, the route usually runs four trips on Wednesdays with an average of 2,650 passengers, which equates to N3, 445,000 at N1, 300 per fare.
However, efforts to get the total number of Business Class passengers for the Abuja-Kaduna corridor failed.
In Lagos, the mass transit train, which runs on narrow gauge from Iddo to Ijoko, costs N230 per trip. A trip has about 10 to 11 coaches and there are 90 passengers per coach. Five trips are run on weekly basis from Monday to Friday.
Estimation by The Guardian shows that the corridor makes an average of N227, 700 million per trip, amounting to N1, 138,500 daily. With an estimate of N5, 692,500 made weekly, the Lagos mass transit train generates N23 million monthly.
The Federal Government also recorded loss on the Itakpe-Warri railway corridor. Station Manager, Sani Abdulganiyu, who spoke with The Guardian, said the number of passengers using the service had increased before the COVID-19 lockdown. Prior to the COVID-19 lockdown, there were plans to fix the fare at N2,400.
According to Abdulganiyu, passengers have been calling in to ask when the train operations would commence.
“But when we commence, you cannot be without wearing your nose mask; it’s mandatory you wash your hands with soap and water before entering the station, we will sanitise and take your temperature before entering the train and as soon as you enter the train, some other people will carry out the same procedure. We will make sure movements inside the train are limited and people have their nose masks on at all times,” he said.
According to the Nigeria Union of Railway Workers (NURW), the railway enjoys increasing market share, especially on the Abuja-Kaduna passenger train service which accounts for over 4000 passengers daily, while on general basis, the corporation accounts for over three million passengers and over 150,000 tons of goods haulage yearly.
The market share of Warri-Itakpe train service was on a steady growth but ever since railway services went down with the lockdown, lives and economic activities have been adversely affected.
Aside the aforementioned corridors, NRC operates passenger service on Port Harcourt – Aba narrow gauge line and also the Lagos to Kano line on a weekly basis, which, according to sources, are usually filled to capacity.
Meanwhile, experts have commended government’s plan of gradual resumption of the services with strict safety measures in place, as this will ease the burden on road transport, which is usually overwhelmed.
They noted that political will would make the rail sector viable.
The Dean, School of Transport, Lagos State University (LASU), Prof. Samuel Odewumi, said it was proper to shut down operations at the time they did but believed it was time to start the railway operations.
The key word, according to him, is gradual reopening. “If the aircraft that is airtight is allowed to take to the skies, it is far safer for rail that can keep its window open for ventilation. Buses, ferries, trailers and cars are moving, the trains should be allowed to roll. Indeed, the haulage of goods should be stepped up. Let us all draw the attention of the minister to the need for the railways to start rolling again,” he added.
Professor Callistus Ibe of the Department of Transport Management Technology, Federal University of Technology, Owerri (FUTO), said the railway operation that was shut down had implications on the society and the economy.
On the society, he said good health was an asset to the economy since medical costs would be saved and humanity preserved. Rapid spread due to overcrowding at the station and inside the coaches, he said, would be avoided.
On the economy, he said high cost of travel or no travel at all due the unavailability of train services and low communication and missed opportunities had been experienced since the services were suspended.
A lecturer at the University of Greenwich, London, Dr Emmanuel Mogaji, said the huge reliance on road made rail look unattractive. The situation, he said, had been worsened by lack of infrastructure.
Mogaji underscored the need for the political will to formulate policies that would revitalize the railway system and make it financially viable.
“You see, unlike Bus Rapid Transit (BRT), private people can come in with Uber and private buses; for waterways, you have ferries and Uber boat; for airways, we have the market dynamics, but the structure of railway, which is wholly owned by government and doesn’t allow much input from private partners, is one of the problems of the sector.
“The implications are therefore for the government, which is not making money, and customers, who are being inconvenienced. The workers are also impacted but perhaps their salaries are being paid by government,” he added.
Secretary General of the NUR, Segun Esan said the quest of the Federal Government to return train services is a welcome idea and should be a direct function of robust insulation from the pandemic of all the workers of the Corporation, wherever they work within the railway system, and the teeming commuters and customers of the Corporation, wherever they exist in Nigeria.
“While the Federal Government is contemplating resumption of train services, NUR advises government to complete the rehabilitation of the Port Harcourt – Maiduguri (Eastern line) rail to evolve a rail transport sub-sector that can be backbone and mainstay of the transport sector that will give excellent rail transport services to the citizenry.”