By Chris Agabi and Mohammed Shosanya, Lagos | Sat, 11 September 2010

Agbana, 45, a trader at Oyinbo, expressed that mixed reaction to our correspondent at the Ebutte-Metta train station.

His views were not largely disconnected from what other commuters expressed when approached by our correspondents.

Struggling in between contempt and commendation, Mr Okafor Jude, a clothes trader in the Yaba market said, “I don’t want to condemn government’s efforts. At least they have tried to revamp the railway system but this is certainly not how an ideal railway travel experience should be.”

What an ideal rail travel experience? He responded, “I may not have experienced it but at least I see on TV how the trains are in other countries. I’m not saying government should introduce high speed electric trains [tubes], we don’t have the power to support that. But we have normal modern coaches that are neat and comfortable. Not what we have here. Obviously, they just brushed up some old coaches, bought some new engines and began operating them, because the interior is scruffy.”

But he was quick to remark that be that is it may, the mass transit trains enable him get to his shop without the hassle of the Lagos daily gridlock.

Fatai Jimoh, a trader differed somewhat. “I enjoy it. I spend less from Agbado to Ebutte-Metta. With just N120, I can come to Ebutte-Metta and in less than an hour, I can avoid area boys. But the same distance will cost me between N500 and N600 by road.”

Mrs Sikirat Abayomi, a mother of three who sells fish said, “The trains are a welcome development.” But the timing somehow affects her negatively. “Because of the nature of my business, there is no market in the morning. All the trains leave before 6:30am from my area, Agbado. As there is no afternoon service, I use the trains only in the evening when I close. But sometimes, I miss them because, 7:00pm when the last train would have left Ebutte-Metta, it is usually the peak of the market. So, I appeal to government to introduce train service in the afternoon and extend it to around 9:00pm,” she requested.

Mallam Musa Inuwa, a trader in Yaba also uses the trains. Inuwa lives in Agege and joins the train from Ikeja to Yaba. His complaint is, it is too slow. “I like it but the speed should increase,” Inuwa suggested.

Some commuters expressed dissatisfaction with the service, saying it may be no different from the dreaded “molue” (the big old and rickety buses).

Our correspondent who recently made a trip in the business class from Ebutte-Metta to Agege when the minister of transport visited the railway corporation to inspect facilities and commission the business class, said the business class, though with fully air-conditioned coaches and relatively more comfortable, is still a far cry from a business coach in other climes.

You could tell that the coaches were once dead and had only been revived. The seats were worn-out and the interior old. It is the engines that are new. The coaches were refurbished.

NRC spokesman reacted to some of the issues raised by commuters above. Mr Segun Esan who works in the NRC public relations department in Lagos, told our correspondent during the ride that NRC is coming from decades of neglect thus, one should expect only gradual changes. According to him, currently, Lagos is using just one track, the second is still being rehabilitated. “That explains why we can’t provide afternoon and late evening services,” he said, adding that once the second track is completed, service will extend to Iddo and other parts.

He said for now, the NRC has taken delivery of 20 locomotives, awaiting five which will be delivered before the year ends, adding that with more locomotives, the NRC would definitely improve.

Also, Mr David Ndakotsu, the Assistant Director, Public Relations, NRC, told our correspondent on the phone that many engineers are on site as he assured that the whole rehabilitation will be completed by end of this year.

Our correspondents gathered that there are three services in the morning and three in the evening. The first train leaves Agbado at 5:30am to Ebutte-Metta. The second leaves Ijoko, Ogun State at about 6:00am for Ebutte-Metta. The third leaves at about 6:20am for Ebutte-Metta. By 6:20am, all three trains would have left.

In the evening, the first train leaves by 5:00pm, the second 6:00pm and the third 7:00pm. All of them take off from Ebutte-Metta. For now, the services only cover Ebtte-Metta to Ijoko in Ogun state.”

The trains move from Ebutte-Metta, through Yaba, Oshodi, Ikeja, Agege, Agbado to Ijoko, the final terminal point, which is about 30 kilometres. The economy class costs N120 flat while the business class costs N500 flat, irrespective of the bus stop you would alight.

Esan also told our correspondent that the economy coaches carry about 90 seated passengers and 50 standing, which gives you about 140 passengers per coach. Given that each of the trains has 10 coaches, you can have 1,400 passengers at a time.  The business class he said, carries about 90 seated passengers but no standing passengers.

On the complaint about low speed, he said all the locomotives have the capacity to run at 150 kilometres per hour but for now, they are doing 30 kilometres within the metropolis. But this is in line with the speed regulation the corporation set.

The Managing Director of the NRC, Mr Adeseyi Sijuwade, had told newsmen that the locomotives have the capacity to increase passenger carriage as each can pull 50-passenger coaches at once. This implies that with an average of 90 passengers per coach, it can conveniently move 4,500 passengers at once.” Sijuwade appealed to commuters to be patient as things will improve.

The air-conditioned business class, intended for executives or corporate customers, was launched last month by the Minister of Transport, Mr Yusuf Suleiman, but has really not attracted a lot of patronage.

After the test-run, the minister expressed satisfaction with the air-conditioned coaches saying that it will disabuse people’s mind that trains are for the poor.

He said the service will not only ease traffic in Lagos, but will provide opportunity for workers in Lagos to get to their places of work in good time without having to wake up too early to beat traffic jam.

However, the marketing of the business class appears to be poor and Lagos residents appear not aware of it, hence the low patronage.

“I am not aware there are air-conditioned coaches,” said Esther Fashe, a banker. She wondered what stopped the NRC from advertising it.

“I want to believe a lot of people may want to start using the trains given the traffic. Indeed its exciting that the trains are coming back but some of the things you are telling me now, I am not even aware of them,” she told our correspondent, adding that the NRC must commence serious public enlightenment over the services it is providing now.

Nsikak Essien who works in an insurance company also claimed ignorance of the availability of the business class.

“I know trains pass around once in a while but I don’t know a business class exists. That is good to know,” he said but was quick to added that the N500 being charged was rather too high. “N300 would have been appropriate since the economy is N120,” he observed.

Though the NRC couldn’t provide details of how much investment has been put into the mass transit, the chairman of the board of directors of the NRC, Dr Bello Haliru Mohammed, had hinted that each of the locomotives cost $3 million (N450 million) and 20 deliveries have been taken so far. This is outside other expenses like refurbishing the coaches and doing the tracks. The investment is in billions of naira.

Mohamed had told newsmen in his office that “a lot of money is being invested and when the tracks are finished and all the locomotives delivered, revenue accruing to the railway will be more than enough to repay government’s investment.

“The business plan is being worked out and you know business is developed gradually because our customers have all left us and gone back to road transportation. We have customers like the Flour Mills. We have the cattle traders; we have the kola nut traders; we have the farm produce merchants; all this used to be the traditional customers of the railway and have all now left us and are now using road or water transportation. In the business plan, we plan to bring all of them back to patronize the railway. We have the various food industries, the Nigerian breweries, the Nigerian Bottling Company; they all used to be our customers. We will bring them back,” he assured.

But industry expert has told the NRC to focus on long distance train services (haulage) and forget the intra-city mass transit because it lacks the capacity to run profitably.

Mr Roland Ataguba, a London-based rail project management specialist and member, Infrastructure Policy Commission of Nigeria Economic Summit Group, did not only question the viability of the project, but also questioned the integrity of the infrastructure.

“The public should not be put at risk by the operation of trains on unsafe infrastructure and a recently rehabilitated line in Lagos should not be flooding unless there is a damned good reason. The reports that I have seen suggest a design failure. Where is the railway inspectorate and who authorised operations on an unsafe infrastructure? We will continue to have these sorts of infrastructural integrity issues if the railway inspectorate is not at arms length from the operator,” Ataguba enthused.

According to him, “the mass transit services being contemplated may meet some needs but honestly speaking, it is not economically sustainable. Such services do not make money and as soon as money gets tight and fiscal deficits start to mount, these services will suffer under funding. It appears to be intended to show trains moving rather than fulfil the purpose of delivering a sustainable rail service on the narrow gauge lines.”

He explained, “the lines we have are essentially freight lines and are more suited for long haul movement of cargo. There is a good business case for developing a freight logistics business on them but we do not seem to be prioritising this. Instead, we keep talking about commuters from the rural to already congested urban centres.”

He concluded, “the imperative should be to urgently reinstate the long haul capabilities of the infrastructure. A passenger service on the existing lines is really a social service. Before you can provide that, the economics have to be right. It should come in the form of a PSO (public service obligation) to a freight operator after you have provided an underlay of a sustainable railway economy. The way we are going is akin to putting the cart before the horse.”

Ultimately, the die is cast; the railway mass transit service has begun; whether it will be viable or sustainable, only time will tell.

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