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Government under pressure to resume train operations

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Residents around the Warri-Itakpe region in Delta and Kogi states are eagerly awaiting the commencement of full commercial operations of the rail line. The Coordinator, Warri- Itakpe Train Service, Sanni Abdulganiyu, disclosed this in Abuja, on Tuesday. He said: “The people are anticipating when we will commence operations as the roads are bad now due to the rainy season.

“The bad roads make them spend more hours on the road before getting to their destinations, so they want to travel by train. And, because of this issue of Coronavirus (COVID-19), we cannot operate.

“We are discussing with the Nigeria Centre for Disease Control (NCDC) right now on resumption, and as soon as we conclude and they give us a go-ahead, we will commence operations.” However, stakeholders have expressed concerns over the Federal Ministry of Transportation’s decision not to reopen train operations.

The Minister of Transportation, Rotimi Amaechi, had insisted that reopening the railways will escalate the spread, therefore, will remain off the table. Recall that railway services had been shut down since March 2020, following the outbreak of COVID-19 in the country.

“We are not in a hurry to reopen the train services, I had a conversation with the chairman in charge of the technical committee on COVID-19, and I did say economically it is not wise.

“First, you have about 88 passengers per coach, and for you to run social distancing on any of those coaches, then you have to do about 40 passengers per coach, you would be making a total loss,” the Minister said.

While acknowledging the logic behind Amaechi’s explanation, some stakeholders disagreed with his conclusion that the trains cannot opened safely, as it does not reflect the situation of rail services worldwide.

Some argued that if planes could fly, why not trains?
They also noted that his argument about incurring huge losses sounded rather trivial, considering that rail workers were still being paid, while the equipment continue to depreciate, adding that all that is needed is to establish appropriate protocol for the trains to move.

“Perhaps, the government thinks diesel and some overheads are the only operational costs? What about the fixed costs, depreciation, the bureaucracy among others? The government repaid her Chinese loans? All just goes to show that the government does not understand what it means to run a business,” they wondered.

Commenting, Segun Olanjorin of the African Railway Roundtable, said: “What the Ministry should do is to create a stringent template with phased reopening, starting with Abuja – Kaduna. There are best practices already in operation in several parts of the world. We should draw lessons from all countries already reopening and adapt it for our local peculiarities. We cannot shut down rail transport. The economy is dying. The Ministry should copy the Aviation ministry and set conditions.”

Similarly, the General Secretary, National Union of Railway Workers, Segun Esan, in a telephone interview, noted that globally, what everyone is concerned about is how to combat and curb the spread of COVID-19.

Thus, with the railway high carriage capacity, it can trigger the spread of the disease. Esan said: “How best we can manage the situation, is to return the train service within the ambit of the preventive safety protocol of COVID-19, and very, unfortunately, it is the Federal Government, which announced that it is in charge of managing the preventive protocols through its Taskforce on COVID-19 and all other agencies in that regard.”

“What we are concerned about is the public safety, unless the Federal Government and its agencies are regulating the protocol of COVID-19 clearly, it is then we can say activities should resume fully. If we insist they resume now, the public will be in danger, likewise our workers. It is going to be volatile and out of hand to resume without putting necessary measures in place. The best is to keep railway services in the cooler till when the situation is proven safe.”

Also, in a chat with The Guardian, Deputy Director, Public Relations, Nigerian Railway Corporation (NRC), Yakub Mahmood, said the Corporation is waiting for approval from the Transport Ministry.

Mahmood reiterated that the Minister had said the reopening of the railways won’t be done anytime soon because all protocol behind COVID-19 must be put in place.He said: “Unlike airports, trains move people in mass; if you consider the number of people being conveyed, it is thrice the number of people the plane carries or more, so we don’t want to endanger the lives of our passengers.

“We are not in a hurry to start running the rails. If we must resume, the protocols of COVID-19 and that of the Presidential Task Force must be adhered to, an approval must be sought. In fact, the Managing Director of the NRC is in Abuja for deliberations on the matter.”


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