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Barrister Hannatu ,Musawa

In July last year, President Muhammadu Buhari commissioned the Abuja- Kaduna rail service even taking a train ride from the Idu to Kubwa station in Abuja. With the flag of and the opening of the Abuja – Kaduna train route, train travel is back in fashion again. The closure for repairs of the Nnamdi Azikiwe International Airport in Abuja doubled the number of passengers in the months that followed. Even after the airport has since re-opened, traveling via the Abuja-Kaduna train is still popular and on the rise.

In its first two weeks of operation, the Abuja-Kaduna train service recorded an impressive N5 million income. The Abuja-Kaduna rail line is one of the first standard gauge railway modernization projects (SGRMP) undertaken in Nigeria. The standard gauge line links the Federal Capital Territory with the commercial capital Kaduna, enabling faster movement of goods and people between the two cities.

For decades, Nigerians had dreamt of a crisp transport system, built around the railway technology like what is obtainable in developed countries for mass movement. Railway service was the major means of transportation in Nigeria since the country’s independence in 1960 to the 1980s. It was much more convenient and cheaper for commuters and haulage purposes. There were so many rail lines linking big cities across the country with commercial activities in its major routes.

However, during the military era, the railways lost its glorious past due to neglect and maladministration. Coaches were subpar and several rail renovation projects began and ended without results. As such, many Nigerians began taking to other means of transportation. Since then, the mode has only existed in the shadow of its past glory due to the uncountable problems surrounding the organization such as bureaucratic diseconomy, inefficiency, marketing myopia, etc.

The recent determination of the federal government’s towards the revitalization of the railway system is indeed a welcome development. The current zeal by the administration to return inter-state rail transportation and introduce inter-city railway networks and transportation is very commendable. However, it’s been a year since Mr President flagged of the commencement of the Abuja – Kaduna rail service; commuters have begun to decry its poor services.

When the service first began, it recorded stellar performance. Many passengers have been left behind because the train departed right on time. The waiting lounge at the Idu Station is literally similar to that of an airport. Within the cabins, there is excellent leg room for the seats as well as comfortable seats with decent upholstery. Clean air-conditioned cabin, phone charging ports are also available in the cabin as well as other facilities.

However, many of these facilities have currently been found wanting. For instance, the service point for snacks is largely non-operational. Many of the two toilets per cabin do not flush. Departure times are regularly rescheduled and you may encounter difficulties buying tickets for others travelling with you. There is also the problem of inadequate communication and inefficient services from personnel particularly at the train station in Abuja. There is hardly any form of communication on the arrival and departure of the train or whether the train is going to be delayed and how long passengers will wait.

With the increased spate of insecurity and kidnappings on the Abuja – Kaduna expressway, the rail service has been witnessing an influx of commuters. Most people including top government dignitaries and public officials have been patronizing the rail service. This has led to overcrowding as many passengers who are unable to secure seats would have to stand for hours until they get to their destination. Corruption has also reared its ugly head in the sector. Those in charge of the sales of tickets have begun hoarding them (especially first-class tickets) only to sell them at an exorbitant rate to top public officials and influential members of the public.

There is also the problem of government bureaucracy. Railway organizations are usually very large single organizations which have to be run through a system of laid down rules and regulations (protocols) which have to be rigidly adhered to. Delays in decision when faced with new situations and officialdom usually combine to hinder the progress of organizations run in this way. A highly dynamic and competitive industry such as transportation in which promptness of service is a major issue cannot succeed much with a bureaucratic form of administration.

There have also been several complaints by commuters that most of the Nigerian Railway Corporation (NRC) staff members are rude to passengers. They are impatient and lack proper customer service etiquettes. In addition, commuter’s luggage often gets missing or tampered with on transit. Commuters in first class coaches do not receive many of the services promised. Cargoes are also usually delayed, stolen and damaged on transit. There is an increasing lack of proper management and poor services are currently churned out by the NRC management.

Tackling this, the management of the NRC should note that passengers’ welfare should be paramount. There is also the need for the NRC to improve on its condition and ensure proper communication channel. There should be constant information from the management to the passengers, especially on the movement of the train. The need for the station to also improve on its time management and communication cannot be overemphasized. The NRC personnel should also be immediately trained on proper customer service relations.

More coaches and seats should also be provided for in order to meet the demands of the influx of commuters. A situation where passengers would have to stand throughout the duration of their journey from Abuja to Kaduna or vice versa is not acceptable. Unnecessary government bureaucracy and hoarding of tickets need to be urgently forestalled by the authorities. Undoubtedly, the current administration has done a good job by reintroducing this cheap and relatively safe mode of transportation. However, the operators need to be adequately trained so that they don’t frustrate government’s efforts and good intention because many commuters have begun getting frustrated and discouraged.

Nonetheless, good news has begun filtering in. Since the commissioning of the Abuja-Kaduna train service one year ago, the service has been operating on the construction locomotives, a situation that has made the service slow. However, with the arrival of new locomotives designed to do 150-kilometers per hour as against the present 90 kilometres per hour, commuters will travel faster as they can now get to Kaduna in about 1-hour 30-minutes from Abuja.

It is important to commend the present administration and the management of the NRC thus far. And in this regard, I enjoin fellow Nigerians to say, well done! However, it should be noted that our problem in Nigeria has never really been in starting something laudable but rather in sustaining it. We must not only sustain this positive development but also ensure it expands and does not toe the line of previous rail services in the country. Because otherwise instead of having the Nigerian Railway service we will have the Nigerian ‘Derailway’ service.