The Secretary General of Nigeria Union of Railway Workers (NUR), Comrade Segun Esan,
In this interview with JOY EKEKE he speaks about the challenges of policy inconsistency in the railway sector and offers insight into the operations of the Railway Corporation of Nigeria.
Nigerians are mostly familiar with road and air modes of transport and not rail, what is responsible for this?
The federal government which, of course, is the owner of the rail transport subsector made it so. Roads and airports are heavily funded and built while railway was left and abandoned for years to go into operational recluse. Unlike in the 50s, 60s, up to 80s when railway enjoyed government funding and equipping which positioned the Railway well enough to care for the significant market share of the evolving passenger and freight traffic of the time.
The neglect suffered by the Railway especially in the hands of military governments was largely responsible for the poor development of the rail mode. Kilometres of road were added and a number of airports were built between independence without any known corresponding investment and expansion of the existing kilometres of tracks in the railway. This does not give the various governments at the centre any pass mark.
Succinctly put, if the Railway has enjoyed equal development and expansion as the road mode, we wouldn’t be where we are today and we wouldn’t be too attracted to road and air modes of transportation. Added to this, Nigeria has never ever had a long term development policy/plan consistently implemented for the transformation of the rail mode.
The best the federal government has done is to apply some remedial approaches to the fundamental challenges facing the rail sub sector which includes paucity of funds resulting from inadequate or zero budgetary allocation, lack of enabling environment for the sub sector to grow, continued decadence and dilapidation of fixed and movable assets, dwindling workforce, lack of regular equipping with motive power base, coaching facilities and wagons, among many others.
These all help Nigerians to become so materialistic that ownership of vehicles is no longer a matter of necessity but of luxury with which one’s economic and social status is being gauged. This is how commuting
Nigerian public gets defined as road mode adherents. What is being done to bring railway transport back into reckoning?
What the government has done repeatedly is to hurriedly organise rehabilitation of the system by providing funds and lacking the competence to do effective monitoring of the project. For instance, past rehabilitation projects include transfer of technical, operational and administrative aspects of the Railway to the RITES of India from 1976 to 1983 or so under the military regime of Lt. Gen. Olusegun Obasanjo. This arrangement meant well for the Railway and it achieved some marked achievements but that were soon lost when the Indians left. Romanian Projects came shortly after then and that one died at gestation level and could not avail the industry any significant gains. CANAC of Canada came and no verifiable achievement was seen on ground. Then the entrance of The Chinese firm, China Civil Engineering Construction Company, CCECC, in 1995 under late President Abacha. The industry had supply of 50 mainline diesel-powered locomotives with about 400 new coaches and a number of rail buses for engineering inspection. The entire 50 locomotives came with diverse maintenance approaches with no service supports.
This reality constrained the locomotives to be repaired through the process of Cannibalisation which is repair process of taking parts from one loco to repair another. This typifies robbing Peter to pay Paul aphorism and in no time, over 80 percent of the locos went dysfunctional and off the tracks earlier before their life span of, at least, 15 to 25 years!
However, the best of remedial approach to repair and reinvent the Railway actually began 2009 with the rehabilitation of the entire 3,505km narrow gauge tracks, supply of 25 new locomotives, wheel lathe machines for wheel profiling, heavy duty cranes and recovery equipment, rehabilitation of passenger coaches and wagons, employment of new staff to replace the retiring ones and stabilize the workforce which had been grossly decimated by multiple retirement, reintroduction of 2 sets of Diesel Multiple Units (DMUs) with three coaches each (each with 72 passenger carriage capacity), and gradual return of goods and passenger train services like mass transit train services across the country and some long distance goods and passenger train services. Also achieved under this rehab arrangement is the gradual gravitation of the Railway from predominantly narrow gauge track system to modetnisation/standardisation as evident in the construction and commissioning of Abuja-Kaduna standard railway, rehabilitation and completion of 272km Ajaokuta-Itakpe standard railway, proposed Lagos-Ibadan and Lagos – Calabar rail track, etc. But then, the rehabilitation has its constraints which includes alleged over invoicing and award of contracts worth millions and billions of naira to contractors without due diligence.
Another challenge of the rehabilitation is that it lacked good and proper supervision which the workers would happily brought about through the Union. In a situation like that, the workers through the Union would have done proper supervision that would have saved the project from the few supervision hitches it suffered. This is because the workers and Union are major stakeholders in the industry and will never leave anything undone towards ensuring compliance and getting desired results from the massive rehabilitation.
Railway Corporation has come a long way out of moribund state. Train services have returned and operational base of the corporation has been widened with the commissioning of Abuja -Kaduna train service. The corporation is still faced with four major challenges which include: very poor salary regime. Railway remains the only poorly paid parastatal under the federal ministry of transport. So there is need to review its salary regime so as to amaze the industry attractive to young and employable Nigerians. Presently, fresh graduates abhor working in the Railway because of the poor salary. Because of this reality, a good number of those employed between 2011 and present date abandoned the work for better places and this is affecting the corporation as no young person want to build career here.
Another major challenge is policy inconsistency or outright absence of it. The federal government as to put in place a policy template through continued development of the corporation’s can be marshalled. Also a great challenge is the issue of revenue leakages which occur as a result of porous nature of the trains stations. The corporation is being restricted to train operation alone while some of its non operational assets like its vast hospital outfit have been transferred to the ministry of health.
I think the corporation should be encourage to broaden its streams of revenue by harnessing and optimising all its money-yielding facilities like its operational and non operational landed property as administered by its estates and valuations subsidiary, signal and telecommunication backbone and others. It will not be a bad idea at all to start considering the return of its hospital to status quo especially in the reality of the repositioning of the Corporation which includes recruitment of army of employable Nigerian youths.
The corporation needs a standard hospital under its control in order to have a healthy workforce at all times. Federal government must always equip the corporation within the purview of the development plan with motive power, coaches, wagons and tracks must be maintained to ensure smooth running of trains.
What is the potential of the sector to create more employment?
The potential of the sector to create more employment remains ever intact and yet unutilised to the expected optimal level. The industry once had about 50,000 workers scattered across the country. The dysfunctional state of the industry for a long time as a result of neglect forced some harvests of retrenchment on it and these incessant retrenchment weeded away many good and skilled hands in the Railway. Others that survived the torrents of retrenchment remained very grossly demotivated with extremely poor and ridiculous salary regime, stagnation, lack of working tools, etc.
The situation, however, has improved a little with the major milestones recorded during the last rehabilitation which witnessed the best of federal government’s financial commitments and political will. A lot still need be done to bring the system to socioeconomic relevance with a view to using railway to answer employment possibilities but the basic thing is that railway must be made effective and efficient. By so doing, it can be used to solve employment issues. Railway provides very wide spectrum for employment if made perfectly functional.
What roles can the private sector play in developing the rail sector?
There is need for extreme sagacity and caution when it comes to taking railway through privatisation. This is because our experience as a nation as regards privatisation is not worth writing home about at all. Still haunting us as a nation are the thoughts of privatisation of Durbar hotel, Daily Times Nigeria Ltd, and recently that of Power Holding Co. Ltd PHCN. Unarguably, we have been worst for it. Improved services that will make life more livable as promised have eluded us. This is why subscribing to railway privatisation becomes very unthinkable Even considering the magnitude of the spread of the industry across Nigeria. If care is not taken, railway privatisation will bring about regrettable job losses and assets stripping.
The advantages of economies of scale will be jettisoned, safety of operation will be substituted with profits and this prepares the system for trains accidents.
This will rob the citizenry of democratic accountability because at that point of privatisation, government would have lost control and effective regulation. Or how will you regulate investors who are here with their money to invest and make profit? U can’t eat your cake and have it. The truth is that there are a number of railway that are really effective and highly functional as public transport while privatised railway in some places, even including some same climes, have failed. What we need do in order to steadily development the Railway is to have long term development plan that must be implemented continually.
The focus of the policy should gradual movement from narrow gauge to standard gauge as we are presently doing, heavily equipping the system with needed movable and fixed assets, supply of locomotives which can be achieved by going into collaboration with loco-producing countries like US UK, and others, and by creating railway into one autonomous ministry or government department of Railways and grow the industry according as the plan/policy on ground. Privatisation in Nigeria has not encouraged us to a level of entrusting such vast and huge national asset as the railway into the hands of private investors that are ready to cut operational costs and still expect great profits. This is a risk not worth taking at all.
What future developments should Nigerians expect from NRC? Development opportunities abound in the sub sector given the fact that Nigeria is yet to take railway to the nook and crevice of the country just as road network. If the Railway gets developed, communities and towns around the track also come alive with business activities and trading. Housing business also will flourish at the development of the Railway. Population gets easily spread and livability of lives of the common people also receive a boost. Job opportunities abound too. Means of transportation from one place to another that is very pocket friendly, convenient, safer and comfortable substitutes other modes of transportation. Car owners are attracted to park their cars and ride on the trains and the road network gets less busy and safer and costs of maintaining the road network will be saved. The chain effect is endless.
What is expected of a train operator in terms of qualification?
Presently, entry qualification of a prospective locos driver should be the one avails him knowledge in mechanical engineering and computer literacy. This is because the locos in the fleet of the corporation are computerised and a little sophisticated which requires guts and brilliance. Mechanical Engineering knowledge will be useful when the need arises to do some quick fix on the locomotive.