By JONAH NWOKPOKU
Following the rehabilitation of the railway by the Federal Government 30 years after it was abandoned, the Nigerian Railway Corporation resorted to the refurbishment of old rolling stocks to return to tracks.
The locomotives and coaches were vestiges of colonial rail infrastructure. And so, despite their efforts, the rolling stocks simply fell short of the expectations of modern train users. The trains were far behind in terms of technological innovations in modern rail transportation.
The implication was that despite the noble efforts, the use of archaic rolling stocks meant that technical hitches became unavoidable, resulting in untold suffering by commuters.
A Lagos to Kano journey which ordinarily should last 24 hours, lasts for 35 hours and sometimes, 40 hours. In addition, due to the nature of the trains and overcrowding resulting from limited rolling stocks, the trains could not help but be brazenly unhygienic and so patronage had to be limited to certain class of people.
In a bid to address this challenge, management of the Nigerian Railway Corporation, NRC, recently acquired two sets of modern trains, Diesel Multiple Units (DMU) and six 68-seater coaches. Vanguard investigations revealed that each set of the DMU is made up of three cars and one motor car at each end.
The DMU is powered by two sets of 1200 HP Cummins Diesel Engine and one 166HP Cummins Generator for auxiliary power. The trailer cars are fully automated with electronic centrally controlled doors, and a passenger information system comprising cameras, LED Information Display and loudspeakers.
They are also equipped with roof-top integral air-conditioning system which produces effective cooling in all cabins. They are also designed for a maximum speed of 100km/hr with an air brake system and carrier-type couplers.
The corporation said it invested about N4.1 billion in the acquisition of the train sets.
NRC Managing Director, Engr. Adeseyi Sijuade described the investment as a major milestone in the corporation’s strategic quest for modern rail transportation in the country.
He also disclosed that five of such coaches are expected by August this year and would be used to flag off the first segment of the Eastern line, running from Port Harcourt to Enugu.
However, industry analysts fear that at the speed with which events are unfolding, the corporation may soon be overwhelmed and relapse to inefficiency which characterised the railway will become inevitable.
Their argument boils down to the fact that without a conscious effort to maintain the infrastructure, the investment would have amounted to nothing; as fleeting investment always meant that little room is left for sustainability. These fears are not unfounded. Over the years, investments in the rail sector have been bereft of any sustainability plans.
The implication is the poor technical skills which results in poor maintenance of rolling stocks. These further lead to poor service delivery, leaving a situation that makes it obvious that although the corporation desires huge investments, they are not entirely prepared for the business of rail transportation.
But speaking to Vanguard recently, Sijuade allayed such fears. He argued that strategic initiatives are being adopted by the corporation to ensure sustainability of its current investment especially in the modern rail infrastructure.
While acknowledging that no substantial arrangements had been made in the past to sustain investments after cutting the red tape, he said part of the arrangement for the sustainability of its recent investment, is the retention of technical skills needed to maintain the newly acquired trains.
According to him, “We have a two-year maintenance deal with the manufacturers of these DMUs and the six coaches, that is, the China Southern Railways, CSR. We have a two-year deal with them for maintenance of these coaches and the DMUs. What makes this deal unique is that it is a residential deal. This means that the company has posted six technicians to NRC to live here with us.
“This is very innovative in that I can tell you that one of the major problems that Nigerian Railway, not just Nigerian Railway but all other sectors that are doing similar things in Nigeria have had, is that in this country, we take delight in celebration of projects.
However, we don’t put much emphasis on maintenance. What happens after? So, you find out that when you move around the various locations of Nigerian Railways all over the country, you see all our rolling stocks littered all over the place.
Most of them were purely on two factors; inadequate provision of spare parts and inadequate provision for maintenance and that is poor maintenance culture. So we all come, eat and dance and then cut the red tape and the project is not given a thought as to how it could be maintained. It is not just the railways; it applies to roads and other infrastructural projects.
“But we have learnt a lot of lessons from such failures and that is why on this particular occasion, we are engaging the company on two-year deal for those six technicians.
“Their duties are simple, they wake up everyday and go into our carriage and wagon workshop, mix up with our technicians and any issues they may have would be attended to by them while our technicians learn. The bottom line is that it is a day-to-day transfer of technological skills,” he added.
He explained that the corporation is working seriously to establish a maintenance facility by partnering with manufacturers who are willing to establish a base in Nigeria.
He said they have been in discussions with General Electric and a number of Chinese firms that are also interested in picking any of their workshops that are underutilized and upgrading them to a standard where they cannot only maintain but also commence assembling of rolling stocks in Nigeria.
He further explained that with the rate at which events are unfolding, the corporation may easily be overwhelmed with challenges but they are adopting an outsourcing strategy that would enable them concentrate on core competencies and leverage expertise outside the corporation to deliver more efficient service.
“Things are moving rapidly and we realised that we need to be on top of the game. I say things are moving rapidly in terms of passenger traffic, types of trains and even cash handling and security.
There are so many things, and it is one thing to say we are making progress but that comes with a lot of challenges that need to be addressed and managed.
And that is why we are not resting on our oars and on daily basis, there are strategic meetings where how to cope with these challenges are discussed. We also have tink-tanks who are engaged to conduct some kind of risks analysis and management. Otherwise we may become overwhelmed.
“One of the strategies we are adopting is outsourcing. Before now, how we handle security and ticket is through raiders who move from coach to coach checking tickets but we have realised that the way things are going, things can no longer be left in the hands of NRC staff because it is not our area of core competence. So what we did was that all the areas that are not our core competence are outsourced,” he said.
He added that the outsourcing strategy is also the corporation’s transitional strategy into concession. “We have constraints with the railway bill that is still in the National Assembly, hindering instant concession but we have realised that railway bill or not, concession or no concession, we can’t just fold our arms, things are unfolding very fast and we need to adopt any strategy that we could to keep delivering better services,” he said.