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Stakeholders canvass railway reform as Abuja-Kaduna train suffers another breakdown

By Joke Falaju, Abuja
29 June 2021   |   4:15 am
For the umpteenth time yesterday, hundreds of passengers on the Abuja-Kaduna train service were stranded in the bush after the train developed fault few minutes after it left Rigasa station in Kaduna State.

Abuja-Kaduna railway

• Passengers stranded for hours
• NRC apologises to passengers, says incessant breakdown normal
• It’s due to lack of maintenance, say stranded passengers
• FG generates N918m from rail in three months

For the umpteenth time yesterday, hundreds of passengers on the Abuja-Kaduna train service were stranded in the bush after the train developed fault few minutes after it left Rigasa station in Kaduna State. 

A passenger had taken to social media in a tweet to announce that the train had initially stopped twice before it finally broke down in the middle of a forest in Dutse, Kaduna around 7:00 a.m.

It was gathered that the train has broken down severally in the past leaving passengers stranded, disrupting their travel plans and also exposing them to undue security risks.

Managing Director of the Nigerian Railway Cooperation (NRC), Fidelis Okhiria, who confirmed the incident to The Guardian, said the train broke down as a result of engine failure but added that a relief engine has taken over.

An engineer of the NRC, who addressed the passengers on board, told them that it would take two hours to fix the train. “We are very sorry, the locomotive is faulty. We have contacted the Idu Train Station for another locomotive. It would take them two hours to be here,’’ he said.

The Minister of Transportation, Rotimi Amaechi, had assured last year that locomotives on the route that have broken down up to two times would be returned to China.

He said: “It is worrisome that these locomotives that are brand new are failing. The locomotives have a warranty that covers them for over four years and the government is considering returning them to China.”

However, passengers have continued to lament the rigours of travelling on the route by train and encountering incessant breakdowns, which leave them stranded for hours. Regular travellers have expressed worries that the rail route, which has been a safer alternative to the bandits-infested Kaduna-Abuja expressway, is also beginning to feel insecure.

Midat Joseph, an Assistant National Secretary of the Nigeria Union of Journalists (NUJ), said the train developed fault around 7:00 a.m. He said: “I left my house as early as 5:00 a.m. to join the 6:40 a.m. train but unfortunately I have been trapped here in this forest. This is not the first time I will be experiencing this mess.”

Another passenger said he had similar experience on Saturday, saying they spent more than five hours to get to Abuja for the one and half hours journey. “This is unfortunate. On Saturday, we left Abuja by 6:00 p.m. but we did not get to Kaduna until past 11:00 p.m.”

“It is a concern because two of the trains have broken down before. The government needs to ensure adequate maintenance of the trains. The fear of a train breaking down in the bush, in the middle of nowhere, is real, as bandits are everywhere, including on rail routes,” a traveller, Bako Hassan, said.

Another train user said: “It is corruption. They collect a lot of money from travellers but they cannot service the trains. This is not proper. The NRC needs to look into the careless attitude of its workers and engineers. Some of the trains are now a shadow of their former selves due to lack of proper maintenance.

“The bandits and kidnappers must be wishing that one day, the trains would break down in a place where they can operate and they would have a field day. The government should not endanger the lives of travellers.”

The NRC, however, insisted that breakdown of the train is a normal occurrence that happens with anything that has mechanical and electrical components. According to the Operations Manager for the Abuja-Kaduna trains, Mr. Victor Adamu, it is a normal occurrence for anything that is mechanical.

He said: “The breakdown was reported to me for the first time today. Allegations of the trains breaking down incessantly before today, I cannot speak on that. The breakdown of the Abuja-Kaduna train is a normal occurrence for anything that is mechanical or electrical. I am only aware of the breakdown that occurred today. I am not aware of any other breakdown that happened before today.

“Immediately today’s breakdown was reported to my office, what we did was to activate a relief to the point of failure, and bring the train to its point of destination in Idu. Any other thing outside what I just told you, I am not aware of.”

The Operations Manager also declined to speak on whether the breakdown is due to a poor maintenance culture by the NRC on the trains.

The Station Manager, Pascal Nnorli, in a statement, has apologised to passengers on board the KA2 train that left Rigasa yesterday but which failed at Dutse section as a result of mechanical malfunction. He noted that the development was highly regretted.

Nnorli said the failed locomotive “is currently receiving attention from our team of engineers and technicians at the Idu locomotive workshop, Abuja. “While thanking our esteemed passengers for their patronage, we once more sincerely apologise for inconveniences this breakdown would have caused them.”

In November 2020, the NRC had apologised for any inconveniences caused passengers as the locomotive turbocharge failed causing a breakdown on Abuja-Kaduna rail route. He pledged NRC’s commitment to ensure there is no reoccurrence of the incident in future.

The Minister of Transportation also apologised to Nigerians for the breakdown, which occurred between November 18 and 20. He had said: “I want to apologise to Nigerians over what happened at the Abuja-Kaduna rail station.

“We now have new locomotives and we have called the Chinese because we never expected the mechanical fault at this early stage. On behalf of the Federal Government, the ministry and the NRC, we apologise to Nigerians and I have instructed the NRC to fix it or invite the Chinese. If this is happening now, then they should bring back our old locomotives, it will just affect turnaround times because we get the new locomotive to increase the turnaround time.”

But six weeks later, the train broke down again on January 3, this time around Akere, a rural area in Kaduna, where NRC engineers battled to fix it for over three hours.

Incidentally, the January incident was confirmed to reporters by Victor Adamu, the Operations Manager. According to him, the fault was a minor issue that had already been fixed.

The estimated cost of the Abuja-Kaduna rail project was $874 million (approximately N317.3 billion). China‘s EXIM bank provided $500 million as a concessionary loan for the project, while the remainder was provided by the Federal Government.

The Abuja-Kaduna rail project was finalised in 2009. The contract for building the new line was awarded in December 2010 and track laying for the single standard gauge line was officially launched in July 2013.

HOWEVER, stakeholders have raised concerns over the continued breakdown of locomotives on the route. The Chief Executive Officer, African Railway Consulting Limited, Olawale Rasheed, stated that the incident calls to question the operational procedures within the railway system, adding that it is validating agitation to separate policy making from railway operations.

Olawale added: “There is an emerging fact that no matter the level of investment in the sector, failure to reform the legislative and policy framework will always wreck havoc. The situation is hurting the Chinese investors as well as the nation as a whole.”

He stressed that the Railway Reform Bill should be revived and passed into law before further damage is done. Another railway expert, Roland Ataugba, noted that operations remain the bane of the railway system, saying we can’t keep doing things the same way and expect a different result.

He said: “Railway is a business. It must be run like one. It must compete and offer consistent and reliable service. A government agency lacks the capacity and flexibility to engage with the dynamism required in a competitive market place.

“The railway environment needs restructuring. It needs independent regulation and operations concessions. The government agency should manage railway assets only. It should not manage operations. It has done so unsuccessfully for 60 years and has been bankrupt twice. This has grave implications for safety and abuse.”

Security concerns had forced many citizens to seek solace in the Kaduna-Abuja rail route. Early this month, bandits had reportedly blocked the Abuja-Kaduna road, kidnapping scores of travellers.

According to Senator Shehu Sani, he received a distress call from a traveller, who informed him the bandits blocked the road between Jere and Katari.

And only last week, many travellers were stranded on the Abuja-Kaduna Highway as angry residents blocked the road over incessant attacks by bandits.

MEANWHILE, the National Bureau of Statistics (NBS) has said the country generated N918.66 million through the NRC in the first three months of the year as it moved less passengers and lower volume of cargo compared to last year.

Data released by the NBS showed that a total of 424,460 passengers travelled via rail in Q1, 2021, as against 647,055 passengers recorded in Q1, 2020, representing a 34.4 per cent decline year-on-year.

Likewise, a total of 10,511 tons of volume of goods/cargo travelled via the rail system in Q1 2021 as against 18,484 recorded in Q1 2020 and 35,736 in Q4, 2020 representing 43.13 per cent decline YoY and 70.59 per cent decline QoQ respectively.

Revenue generated from passengers in Q1 2021 was put at N892.46 million as against N398.99 million in Q4 2020, while revenue generated from goods/cargo in Q1 2021 was put at N26.195 million as against N82.57 million in Q4 2020.

In total, rail transportation in Nigeria has so far generated N5.79 billion between 2019 and the first three months of 2021. According to the NBS, in 2019, N2.412 billion was generated from passengers, while in 2020, N1.745 billion was generated.