The trains should be run like proper businesses to ensure adequate value and sustainability
Passengers on the Lagos-Ibadan rail service were recently stranded for several hours because the train ran out of fuel. The report elicited widespread jokes and memes on social media. But it is no laughing matter. The inconvenience to passengers, the disrupted schedules, missed appointments, financial losses, and stress, etc., were considerable. And the ordeal cannot be dismissed as a legitimate emergency because checking the fuel level of a means of transport is something that Nigerians do every day as a matter of routine. A public utility that cannot manage this most basic of function is seriously underperforming and there is simply no excuse for such irresponsible sloppiness by officials.
More fundamentally, there is the risk to life with trains breaking down or running out of fuel in the middle of nowhere. So many things could have gone wrong beyond the inconvenience of those unfortunate passengers. A health emergency during the unplanned wait could have worsened the condition of a passenger. Robbers or assassins/terrorists/bandits could have struck with devastating consequences. For those reasons and more, this unfortunate incident should not be swept under the reeking carpet of impunity. First, the specific individual(s) whose actions or inactions resulted in the embarrassment must be identified and appropriately sanctioned. As part of this process, relevant changes in personnel should be considered. Second, this is also a good opportunity to review the operations of train services across the country.
However, this is not an isolated incident. From the fuel scarcity hampering the operations of the airlines to the ever-present problems that make road transportation both inconvenient and unsafe, Nigerians are gradually becoming grounded, literally. In the past few years, life for the average traveller has been traumatic. The growing concerns about the railway on which the current administration has made heavy investment have now compounded the problem. Before the Lagos-Ibadan train service diesel scandal, the Itakpe-Warri train was seen picking passengers at a bushy location outside their station. The relatively new train services are increasingly raising anxieties among passengers.
As a nation, we need to develop zero tolerance for negligence and incompetence. Trains getting stuck in the middle of nowhere is certainly not funny for the passengers and their loved ones. Neither is it for our railway’s patronage, profitability and even the country’s image. But this has been the story of the Nigerian Railway Corporation (NRC) whose operations have been subjected to the civil service structure and work ethics. Operators can pick passengers indiscriminately in unmarked routes and diesel can dry up on the train while on a journey.
Having infrastructure is commendable but maintaining it properly is much more important. The trains have been built at enormous cost, mostly through debts. Populism is good but it is at a cost, especially when it is needless, and certainly not with facilities built on huge debts. We need to run them like proper businesses to ensure adequate value and sustainability. The shiny real estates in the train stations in Ebute Metta, Abeokuta, Ibadan, etc., in the stations are practically lying fallow.
The federal government should think of concessioning the running of these trains or at least have some management arrangement in place, while the NRC maintains standards. Official responsibility should be limited to the provision of infrastructure, in this case the rail tracks, train stations, communications and security as well as formulating the necessary policies and regulations to guide operations. Private investors should be allowed to bring in the coaches and run them. They can then pay agreed fees to the government for the use of the tracks as well as other necessary taxes.
This will bring in more commuters, promote competition, and ultimately guarantee operational efficiency.