BY ANAYO ONUKWUGHA
…. the single decrepit mass transit, intercity train, designated for the Port Harcourt-Aba route and known for its leaking roofs, flooded coaches and dirty thread bare seats has been off the tracks for about three weeks now, leaving passengers on the route with more tales of woes.
The Port Harcourt-Aba mass transit system of the Eastern rail corridor of the Nigerian Railway Corporation (NRC) became operational in late 2015, after it was flagged-off by the minister of Transportation, Chibuike Amaechi.
The NRC, had in a statement issued before the flag-off, said the commencement of the operations was “sequel to the substantial progress on the rehabilitation of the existing narrow-gauge network of Eastern rail line, traversing Port Harcourt to Gombe.”
It further stated that, “The NRC earlier this year commenced intercity train services from Port Harcourt to Kano and Port Harcourt to Gombe respectively. In furtherance to the federal government’s quest to providing affordable and reliable train services across the country, the minister of transportation will be flagging off Aba-Port Harcourt mass transit train services.
“For the comfort of passengers and operational efficiency, the newly introduced Aba-Port Harcourt train is scheduled to run four trips daily from Monday to Saturday.
“Going by the economic potential of Port Harcourt and Aba in commerce, tourism and industrialisation, there is hope for proactive economic growth and virile positive change in the lives of the citizenry of the two benefitting states.”
Amaechi, in his speech at the flag-off ceremony in Port Harcourt, the Rivers State capital, which was attended by top government officials, including Abia State Governor, Okezie Ikpeazu, gave an assurance that the administration of President Muhammadu Buhari would revive the railway sub-sector.
With the commencement of operations of the mass transit rail service, traders from Port Harcourt who go to Aba, the commercial nerve centre of Abia State, to buy their wares on daily basis jettisoned road transportation, due to the sorry state of the Port Harcourt-Aba Expressway and began patronising the train in earnest.
Unfortunately, the mass transit rail service, which was the delight of every Aba-bound trader and travellers, halted it’s operations in May this year, less than 18 months after it became operational.
The cause of the breakdown in operation, our correspondent learnt was as a result of vandalisation of it’s only engine at the Port Harcourt Railway Station, by yet-to-be identified persons.
When our correspondent visited the station, located in the heart of Old Port Harcourt Township, several traders, mostly women were seen lamenting their loses as a result of the halt in the operations of the train service.
One of the female traders, who identified herself as Aisha, said they were tired of getting same response from officials of the station anytime they enquired about when the operations will resume.
According to her, “Every day you come here, they (NRC officials) tell us the same story, that the train will start running next week. It is more than one month now since they made the promise and nothing seems to be happening.
“Since I started joining the train to Aba, I developed hatred for road transportation, especially when I remember the bad state of the Aba-Port Harcourt Road. I know how much I have lost since the train service stopped.”
Another female trader, who gave her name as Oobiabin, wondered why the management of the Port Harcourt Station cannot repair the broken down engine on their own considering the amount of money they make from traders and other travellers on daily basis.
I want to say that for over three weeks now, the train has not operated and it has caused a lot of challenges for traders because a lot of traders actually use the Aba-Port Harcourt mass transit train. It is not just because of the low transport fare, but also because of speed, considering the bad shape of the Port Harcourt-Aba Road.
“But for three weeks now, the train has not operated and we heard that it is as a result of a breakdown. There was a day passengers actually slept on the way and there was another day from Port Harcourt to Aba, we left here in the morning and got to Aba 7:00pm.
“I want to express regrets because I don’t know why the issue of maintenance is always neglected. Is it because it is a government property? Despite the fact that the train service is actually helping traders, these people are really making a lot of money. For instance, the amount they write on the receipt for every load is not actually the amount the collect.
“Apart from that, the number of passengers that use the train per day should be able to give them substantial amount of money they can use to maintain the train. Regrettably, that is not how it is. The least the train carries is about six coaches and each of the coach is supposed to carry about 97 passengers.
“So, approximately, they don’t have anything less than 500 passengers going and another 500 coming back. The train operates two times in a day. For a train to run for about two years and now has broken down to the extent that over three weeks, they could not repair it is regrettable,” Oobiabin stated.
Oobiabin reveals that apart from the VIP Section and first coach of the mass transit rail service, other coaches are in tatters, ranging from leaking roofs to flooded floors.
Oobiabin said, “As traders, we see a lot of things. Apart from the maintenance of the engine, all the coaches are in tatters. The chairs are too dirty and you see passengers looking for rags to clean the chairs whereas there are cleaners that are actually employed to do that. The cleaners only go to clean the VIP section.
“Now that is rainy season, all the coaches, apart from the VIP and the first coach are always flooded and nobody is cleaning it. Then, the roofs are broken, the floor of the coaches are broken and they are not thinking of replacement and now, the engine has broken down.”
She called on the federal government and the authorities concerned to assist in rehabilitating the coaches so as to make journey in the mass transit train bearable.
This rail system is a source of income generation for the federal government because I know the number of passengers that use the Port Harcourt-Aba tran service per day. Most of the people traveling to parts of the South-east prefer to join the train to Aba, then continue with their journey, just to cut off some expenses. To allow this train to break down for this number of weeks is appalling.
“I am calling on the minister of Transportation and the federal government and the concerned authorities to come to our aid, so we, the traders can also feel the impact of the federal government,” she said.
A staff of the NRC, who spoke to our correspondent in confidence, disclosed that the enigne for the mass transit rail service was vandalised where it was parked within the complex few days after a change of guard in the management of the station.
He further disclosed that the engine and another engine meant for Port Harcourt-Kano rail line are currently undergoing repairs at the Eastern Regional headquarters of the corporation in Enugu.
Efforts made by our correspondent to speak to the newly posted station manager in charge of Port Harcourt proved abortive as she was said not to be on seat.
owever, a top official of the station, who also preferred anonymity, said it was only the engineers of the corporation that know when the long-awaited repairs on the broken down engine would be concluded.
It is like a taxi driver whose tyre got punched. He has to fix it. The cause of the halt in our operations is because we are working on the engine. I am not an engineer,” she said.