When it was announced that the Nigerian Railway Corporation would commence operations after several years of inactivity, not a few Nigerians commended the efforts of the Federal Government in transforming the Railway system and the transport sector in general. With billions of Naira spent on putting rail tracks back in place, especially where the tracks have been damaged due to lack of use and other factors, the trains were on the move again. People embraced the free excursion offer put in place by the NRC to test run its facilities before the eventual take-off of commercial operations to move from place to place. The new and supposedly improved railway operation was re-launched with fanfare as President Goodluck Jonathan whose transformation agenda it was to bring rail transport back rode from Lagos to Abeokuta on one of the trains.
Street Journal’s findings have however revealed that contrary to what the public is made to believe, all is still not well with the railway system. Investigations have revealed that though there is train movement on a daily basis, passengers go through untold hardship on the trains.
One of Street Journal’s correspondents was at the Iddo Terminus of the Nigerian Railway Corporation in Lagos as early as 6.30 am to catch a glimpse of the trains and wagons that were procured for the use of the corporation. The report was however told that none was available to be seen. The reporter however did not leave without making a discovery. Having seen the list of the routes, the reporter opted to purchase a First Class ticket for a ride to Kano. The only official around however prevented the reporter from making the payment as she stated that the first class coach was not available. She went on to explain to the reporter that first class facilities are usually installed on travel days, which are Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays. A good number of the workers on duty were young ladies some of whose communication in English Language would make one question their educational backgrounds. In one of the offices where the reporter went to make enquiries, one of the staff who had a baby spread a piece of cloth on the floor in one corner and laid her baby there.
Going to the Headquarters of the NRC to make further enquiries, the reporter again met a hindrance as protesting workers of the corporation stormed the place and created a scene. Not until the President of the workers’ union came out to address the workers and instructed them to stay away from work from the following day did it become clear to the reporter that the workers were protesting over their unpaid wages and some other unfavourable conditions of service.
Street Journal’s findings also revealed that the Railway station at Iddo is still in its old dilapidated condition. The one in Ibadan too is not any better. Apart from dirt which seems to be a constant feature, it was found out that some passengers have had to pass their nights at railway stations.
Findings have also revealed that most trains end up being overcrowded, with people at times having to sit on top of the trains.
An undercover reporter who seized the opportunity of a recent public holiday to travel to Lagos by rail from Ilorin gave distressing details of the trip ahead of a public holiday. Just like it happened in Lagos, the reporter’s attempt to buy a first class ticket which cost N 1, 050 proved futile as the lady at the ticketing counter said first class tickets had been exhausted. The reporter thus opted for the economy class at the rate of N 670.
Like in almost every form of transportation, passengers included students, the working class ,arket women and even children.
After the call to board, the passengers proceeded to board the train. Surprisingly lots of passengers could not get sitting spaces in any of the 14 coaches. Each coach was designed to contain 90 people, and all the coaches were filled already. Passengers who approached the staff for a refund of their fares were simply asked to look at the other side of the tickets in their hands where it was clearly stated that the fares they paid were “non refundable”.
All attempts by the aggrieved passengers to get refunds failed as the officials of the NRC began to apologize. Before long, they arrived at an alternative; they apologized for the situation and announced that most of the passengers on board were going to Offa, which was the train’s next stop. Since the aggrieved passengers had been “officially” assured that there would be enough room for everyone when the train gets to Offa, people agreed to “bear with” them as they pleaded. As such, each coach had more than double the number of passengers it should accommodate. Every available space in all the coaches was taken up; people sat on the floor, on the edge of people’s seats, some people opted for the famous “standing”, a position common in Lagos State’s old “Molue” buses, even the toilets were not spared! Every available space was occupied with passengers barely able to move.
The passengers got a shock when the train got to Offa as contrary to the expectation of most people, only about 50 passengers alighted. While many were still grumbling that the status quo would have to be maintained till the train gets to the next stop, it was discovered that close to 200 passengers were on ground in Offa, waiting to board the already overcrowded train. Passengers in Offa had to force their ways in as the people inside were not willing to allow anyone in. It was later found out another version of the story that was told at Ilorin had been sold to the Offa passengers. They were told that most of the people on the train already would alight at Osogbo which was the next stop to Offa. Some people who could not get spaces to sit took the risk of sitting on the train, damning the consequences.
Most, if not all the passengers resigned to fate as more passengers joined the train at every stop. Incidentally, all of them had valid tickets for the trip. Even children had tickets as the regulations of the Nigerian Railway Corporation stipulate that children above three years should pay, the fare for children was found to be half the fare paid by adults.
At a night stop in Abeokuta, passengers came down to at least stretch their legs and bodies after about 13 hours on the tracks, packed in a most uncomfortable manner like sardines. After about an hour, the train moved again and eventually got to Lagos about 21 hours after leaving Ilorin.
From Street Journal’s findings, many things are yet to be put right in the Railway Corporation. Apart from the trains that are still as old as ever, the staff need to be re-orientated to enable them understand the basics of customer relations. The authorities should also look into the remuneration of railway workers who seem to have a long history of being owed, even before the sector went moribund years ago.