Uche Onyia, 55, a farmer in Ehamafu town in Enugu State is one of many people caught with the nostalgic feeling of how railway was working well in Nigeria before now. He concedes that he has not boarded a train in the past 15 years “because trains do not come here anymore”.
Onyia stresses that the train was the cheapest means of transportation then, saying that “trains will transport anything you want, from farm produce to livestock, for just a small amount.
“All my friends and relations who travelled very far — especially to the northern part of Nigeria — also travelled by train. It was so much fun then.
“The railway was very supportive of our economic activities. I used to travel by train to Markurdi and Oturkpo to sell my palm oil.
“On my way back home to Ehamafu, I used to buy big tubers of yam. My last journey by train was from Ehamafu to Markurdi about 15 years ago.
“The trains have since stopped running and the railway lines are now overgrown with weeds. Some people have even erected structures on the rail lines,’’ Onyia moans.
Similarly, Rosemary Chukwu, an Aba-based trader, recalls that she used the train service to transport soaps and detergents manufactured in Aba to Jos, Kaduna, Bauchi, Maiduguri and other big cities in the North in the 1980s and the early 1990s.
“That was the good old days; the trains have stopped working for a long time,” she says.
Chukwu emphasises that she abandoned the soap and detergent business about 15 years ago because the transportation of her wares by road became too expensive and somewhat dangerous.
However, the good news for people like Onyia and Chukwu is that the management of the Nigerian Railway Corporation (NRC) has gone far in the rehabilitation of railway lines across the country, as part of efforts to resuscitate rail transport.
Nigeria’s railway map currently reveals two major lines. The first, known as the Western Line, is from Lagos to Kano. It passes through towns like Abeokuta, Ibadan, Ilorin and Jebba.
The second line, known as the Eastern Line, is from Port Harcourt to Maiduguri. It goes through towns like Aba, Umuahia, Enugu, Markurdi, Lafia, Kanfachan, Bauchi, Gombe and Potiskum.
The Managing Director of NRC, Mr Adeseyi Sijuwade, says that N67 billion has been earmarked for the rehabilitation of Port Harcourt-Maiduguri line.
He says that the Western Line has been rehabilitated, adding that train shuttle services between Lagos and Ilorin have also commenced since 2011.
“Presently, we move about 12,000 commuters daily within Lagos. We also move about 4,000 commuters from Lagos to Ilorin on Tuesdays and Fridays. The Ilorin to Lagos train trip is on Wednesdays and Sundays,’’ he says.
Sijuwade says that the NRC is now experiencing a new dawn, stressing that the Lagos-Kano shuttle service will be restored before the end of this month.
He concedes that although the commencement of the train service has been postponed twice, the service will surely begin this month.
“The railway engineers have just returned from the final inspection of the tracks; our contractors are now working on the minor adjustments that were recommended by the engineers.
“We are going to begin trial runs very soon, while the full restoration of train services between Lagos and Kano will certainly start before the end of this month (July),’’ he says.
The NRC chief pledges that the Port Harcourt-Maiduguri train service will be restored soon, as the rails’ rehabilitation works have reached an advanced stage.
Besides, Sijuwade says that the new standard rail-gauge line between Kaduna and Abuja is 35 per cent completed, adding it will be fully completed within the next two years, if adequate funds are provided for the project.
“Fortunately, the Subsidy Reinvestment and Empowerment Programme (SURE-P) is adequately funding the three railway projects: Kaduna-Abuja, Lagos-Kano and Port Harcourt-Maiduguri rail lines.
“However, only the new Kaduna-Abuja rail line is of the standard gauge among the projects. We only want to complete the rehabilitation of existing lines before going full blast in having the standard gauge on all routes.
“By the time the standard gauge track is fully in place, the current narrow gauge lines would be used by cargo trains alone because they cannot bear the speed of modern passenger locomotives,” he said.
It is expected that when fully operational, the Western Line would be specifically devoted to the haulage of export-bound goods to Apapa Port and Tin Can Island Port in Lagos. The line would also be used for the distribution of imports from the ports to the hinterland.
“Apart from moving passengers, the Western Line will also move cement from Dangote and Lafarge works to different parts of the country.
“Some tank wagons, which will be used for transporting petroleum products, have also been acquired by the NRC,’’ Sijuwade says.
A tanker driver, Umoru Alhassan, describes the acquisition of tank wagons by the NRC as a welcome development, saying that this will lessen the risks taken by tanker drivers in transporting petroleum products across the country.
“However, the railways will not make tanker or trailer drivers redundant; it will only make our job easier as we will now move goods and products from railway stations to filling stations, warehouses and markets.
“Most of the accidents on these bad roads involve our members and we are not happy about this. Many people do not appreciate what a tanker driver or a trailer driver goes through due to long hours of driving, bad roads and even the condition of our trucks.
“We welcome the second coming of the railways,’’ he adds.
Observers believe that the reintroduction of rail services in the country will also be helpful in efforts to tackle the growing menace of unemployment.
A Port Harcourt-based historian, Mr Ajuomiwe Ezuma, says that the rail rehabilitation project will definitely create more jobs, while improving the living conditions of many citizens.
“If properly executed, the management of the NRC will earn appreciable revenue from revamped train services, while jobs will be created for many unemployed youths across the country.
“This is a step in the right direction and it should be sustained because many Nigerians still believe in using the railways for their journeys.
“Besides, the haulage business will receive a big boost because the railways can move big freight from one part of the country to the other,’’ he says.
Ezuma insists that an active railway sub-sector will prolong the lifespan of the country’s highways, while the current menace of overloaded trucks and fatal road accidents will be drastically reduced.
Observers agree that the multiplier effects of a functional rail system in Nigeria are numerous and positive.
They say that a restructured rail transportation system will inevitably boost the economic fortunes of Nigeria and the well-being of her citizens.
Uchediumor is of the News Agency of Nigeria (NAN)