Tuesday, May 26, 2009

The junky old train

LAST Saturday at Yaba, Lagos, I saw what would pass as a national embarrassment. The scenario has the capacity to further drag the already tattered image of Nigeria to the mud. It was a junky old locomotive supposedly retrieved from the junkyard and made to drag on the archaic rail track. Everything about that piece of machine was an eyesore. From the appearance, to the loud noise and the thick black smoke spewed into the atmosphere, I was dumb founded and dismayed at the decay in every perceivable thing that belongs to this country.

The locomotive, an antique in other climes, apparently belongs to the first generation of 10 Class 1001 diesel engines built by English Electric and introduced in 1955 by the Nigerian Railway Corporation (NRC). The same locomotives were sold to Ghana, New Zealand and Jamaica. But these countries have since changed from the "ancient locomotive" to the modern noiseless and smoke-free speed trains.

If Nigeria wants to operate a railway system, it should move with the rest of the world or call it quit with this railway mess. The country should be spared the shame of operating antiquated locomotives when the rest of the world is moving on modern computer-operated engines. If the country is not ready to build a modern functional railway system, it should forget about it and focus on other matters. Enough of this politics of railway. When will the change come?

I was prompted into making these comments after beholding a sordid sight of what moves in Nigerian as train. I was returning with my daughter from Yaba on that day. We drove through Herbert McCauley towards Jibowu intersection. After being passed by the traffic police, I joined the road heading to Ojuelegba which has a railway crossing. There was a traffic hold-up as I drove a few metres. In a moment, there was thick black smoke spewing into the air from the Yaba end. My daughter wondered if a house was burning. In a few seconds, there was a loud blare from what appeared to be train passing the level crossing.

Indeed, it was a train. But the sight was very ugly. The horizon from the Yaba end turned black from the thick smoke billowing from the rusty locomotive engine. As the train crawled along the dusty rail track, the smoke and noise increased. Soon, the entire place was enveloped in noxious carbon monoxide fumes from the train. The track became dark as the old cargo train zoomed on. As the road was reopened and we ahead, I looked to my right in the direction of the moving train but could see nothing but thick black smoke that swallowed the entire train along the rail track.

What a mess of pollution? Why should the engine be allowed to pollute the environment in such manner? If we can't do the right thing and get modern trains, must we go to the junkyard and retrieve old engines and put them on the track as train? What image does this paint of Nigeria? I remembered Mrs. Dora Akunyili and her re-branding campaign. How do you re-brand Nigeria when more than five-decade old train is what the country could afford in this 21st century world?

It was at that point that my 18-year old daughter commented: "Daddy, so there is train in Nigeria? I thought a house was burning!" I didn't know how to respond to the girl. Should I say yes, we have train. In that case, she would create the impression that what she saw was what trains are elsewhere. Or, should I say no, when in fact she had seen a "train". I managed to tell her that Nigeria used to have functional trains but because of mismanagement and corruption, the trains were abandoned and they became disused. I told her that as a matter of fact, I didn't know from where that train was coming or where it was going because it is unusual to see trains in Lagos.

After 18 years of living in Nigeria and in Lagos for that matter, it is sad that my daughter who has completed secondary school and awaiting university admission has never seen a train. What she knows about train is what she read from textbooks in school. Daily, she passes the railway crossings in Lagos without any sign that there is a rail track passing there. The entire rail tracks from Apapa to Ido, Oyingbo, Ebute Metta, Yaba, Oshodi and so on have been taken over by refuse dumps, overgrown bushes and commercial activities. And of course no train is operating to disrupt the disorder.

It was recently that the Fashola administration, under its urban renewal programme dislodged most of the illegal occupants of the railway lines as well as cleared the refuse dumps. That effort, for the first time in recent years exposed the rail tracks such that people could see them. It is, perhaps, in the same vein that the NRC ventured to operate on the tracks. But because the Corporation has no modern trains, it probably went into its junkyard, retrieved an old locomotive and put it on track all in the name of operating a railway.

The antiquated train I saw at Yaba reminded me of a recurrent ugly syndrome in Nigeria's socio-economic development experience. Everything in this country usually starts well but deteriorates as time goes on. This is contrary to what obtains elsewhere. Ideally, the beginning of something provides a base for further improvement. Thus, having built a thriving railway system in the 60s, 70s and early 80s, the sector should have transformed into a vibrant modern organisation. The rail gauge should have been expanded from single to standard and the trains in the fleet changed to modern ones. But none of this has happened.

What we have witnessed instead is continuous depreciation from what used to be a functional railway system that ferried passengers and goods from the south to the north and vice versa. For example, available statistics show that the railways ferried over 11 million passengers in 1964 but by 2003, 40 years later, the figure dropped drastically to mere 1.5 million. Similarly, freight figures dropped from about 3 million tonnes to less than 10, 000 tonnes. But all that is now history. The NRC has been rated the most decrepit in the world. All the former staff of the Corporation have become abandoned property. Their retirement benefits and other entitlements are not paid. They live in misery and regret ever being part of that dead organisation. Many have died in penury.

The decay in the NRC is enormous that without commitment and political will, this country may never have a functional railway again. Different proposals have been made in the last couple of years without anything coming out of them. The government appears to be paying lip service to the railway issue. As the years go by, the situation becomes worse and the cost of rebuilding a collapsed railway empire becomes outrageous. For me, all the attempts made to revamp the railway system so far are haphazard and can hardly make any difference without fundamental restructuring of the NRC.

The most urgent change needed in this regard is to repeal the omnibus NRC Act of 1955 that established the Corporation and conferred absolute monopoly right on government while disallowing private sector participation in the delivery of railway services. Without doubt, the 54-year old legislation has become obsolete and is no longer in tune with the new development philosophy of Public-Private-Partnership (PPP). The attempt, last November, by the National Assembly (NASS) to repeal the Act was widely acclaimed by the public as a necessary step towards liberating the railways from suffocating official bureaucracy and corruption. The NASS should expedite action on the repeal of the retrogressive Act to liberalise the environment for private sector investment.

Subsequently, a separate Ministry of Railways (MoR) should be created. I have in a previous comment in this column stressed on the need for such a ministry. That would be the only viable framework to supervise and account for the huge investments in the rail system. For example, the Abacha government awarded a $500 million contract to the Chinese Civil Engineering and Construction Company (CCECC) but the money went into the drains without any result. The last Obasanjo administration also awarded another $8 billion contract to the same company to design, construct and maintain a 1, 315 standard gauge from Lagos to Kano and again the contract was mired in controversy over graft and inadequate funding.

At a recent Senate public hearing on transportation, the Auditor-General for the Federation, Robert Ejenavi reportedly said that the country has spent a total of N124.9 billion on railway projects from 1999 to 2008 without any improvement. There is nobody to account for the huge investment. Certainly, the Minister of Transport can't effectively oversee road and railway transport at the same time. Treating something as big and complex as the railways like a parastatal is part of the problem. Only a full-fledged MoR would be able to effect changes. Except this and other measures are taken, we can as well forget about the railway in this country.