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Nigeria’s free train rides

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Nigeria has what it takes to be great — Agric Minister

THE world is watching to see how investing in Nigeria’s seriously-deficient infrastructure can pay off based on our tottering experiments in the railways sector. From the look of things so far, we do not seem to be on the right footing to encourage massive foreign investments.

Apart from the moribund Itakpe – Ajaokuta standard gauge rail line, the Abuja – Kaduna and Lagos – Ibadan standard gauge railway lines are the only meaningful additions that independent Nigeria has added to the colonial legacy railway network.

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The effort to rebuild our railway system has depended mainly on foreign borrowings. The Federal Government borrowed $500m from China to build the Abuja – Kaduna rail.

Even the proposed $30bn foreign debt the Muhammadu Buhari government is seeking will reserve a large portion for the construction of new railway lines.

The question is: Can we run the rail business profitably to enable us pay back the huge sums we have been borrowing? This question is germane in view of our experiences so far.

For instance, the Minister of Transportation, Hon. Chibuike Amaechi, disclosed in July 2018 that the Federal Government was spending N56m and realising N16m every month to run the Abuja – Kaduna rail line before the tariff was increased to enable the business “break even”.

Again, on the commencement of the Lagos – Ibadan service in November this year, Amaechi also announced free train rides from the Iju station in Lagos to Ibadan until March 2020.

The questions for Minister Amaechi and the Federal Government is: If they were business owners who invested their resources on these two rail corridors, would they have approached this business with the same giveaway mentality?

We do not see why the two functional standard gauge service should not start from almost the first day to show their promise as profitable businesses.

All that is required is to put enough trains on these lines since there is a surfeit of eager passengers waiting to use them.

There is nothing that stops state governments, Labour and private companies from buying operating train services on these lines.

It is frequency of departures that sustain the investment while keeping the cost of services at fairly affordable levels.

The far and few between departures which keep passengers waiting for hours can never recoup the investments. People should not suffer just to travel by train.

If we are to make progress in our efforts to re-join the comity of nations successfully operating train services we must be business-like about it.
Part of the lessons we must learn from our teething problems so far is to put emphasis on viable corridors such as Lagos to Kano, Port Harcourt to Jos/Maiduguri and Lagos through Benin, Onitsha to Calabar.

If we allow political decisions to interfere with our business sense the debts may never be repaid.

Vanguard

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