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Exclusive Interview With NRC MD

By Israelc Ibeleme
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Sir, There Were Several Activities In Railways In 2016. Could You Give A Recap Of Them?

2016 has been very eventful. Recall I took over the mantleFebruary 16 as an acting MD. Immediately the takeover, I tried to sensitize the staff to know why we are working at the Nigerian Railways. The main focus is to move passengers and freight safely in an efficient manner. We have been doing this for the past 8 months successfully. We have increased our freight from almost zero to a point where we can’t even meet demand.

Before now, when we move freight from say from Lagos to the North, we come back with empty wagons. As I speak now, the demand for wagons from the South to the North is almost as the demand for wagons from the North to the South. This is because the management decided to give a little incentive on goods coming from the North to South because most of the goods are livestock and food. The discounts we give on the freight from the North also go also way to ensure prices of livestock and food from the north is relatively cheap when it gets to the South.

Can we have figures as per the volume of cargo you’ve done?

We are working on the numbers. When it’s ready, will make share with you. But suffice to say, we have huge cargo operations from the South to the North and from the North to the South. We move 20 wagons of cargo per train. We are also trying to link Jos with our mail lines because the Grand Cereal in Jos is putting pressure on us to help them move their products from Jos to Port Harcourt and Abba. We are hoping that in the next one month, we will link Jos. We move fertilizer, cement, containers etc. we move containers for ICNL to Kaduna and Kano. We move fertilizer for Dangote from the port and we also move goods for Flower Mills. We move cattle, grains and animal feeds from the North. On passenger trains, we still maintain what we met but we are making it more comfortable as train transportation is the most comfortable and safe. Our flagship, Kaduna-Abuja is doing well. As a professional, I am not happy because we need to run our train on time basis. We are running on schedule but we need to run say train services on hourly or every 30 or 15 minutes services. I am not happy that we run only two return trips on a track that is designed for 6 trains at a time within the 186km length of the track.

From the above, it does appear our railway is busy but recently you told the Senate committee that Nigerian railway is not profitable, can you explain why?

You have to get the maximum input to get the maximum output. I just say at least, every one hour, there should be a train leaving the station but that hasn’t happen. If that happens, we will process more passengers and make more money. Here is the thing, whether you run one trip, you keep the minimum number of men on the track, at the station and keep perhaps same number at the workshop to maintain the rolling stock. Imagine using same number of staff to run one train and using same to run six trains. Imagine if you deploy $25 million to do one kilometer of track and you still maintain it yet you are not maximizing the tracks. By standard, at every 6km, you should have 10 men to maintain the tracks, whether you have one train or ten 10 trains. So we have to maximize our tracks to be profitable. But Nigeria has to be in serious production to maximize the tracks like other countries. Other countries move coal and other raw materials by train. They move huge cargo and we need to be heavy on manufacturing to fully utilize our trains. We still subsidize our railways. Well, even the USA, the government still invests heavily in the rail system. It’s a matter of time, we will get there.

When are we having the new locomotives on the Abuja-Kaduna service come in, at least to help us maximize our tracks to some extent?

The engineers just returned two weeks ago for the final inspection and test of the two locomotives designed for the standard quage. By next week, we will get their final report and then we will ship. We hope that by February 2017, the new locomotives will be here and we will commission them for use. But then, we can now talk of getting to 150km per hour because the new locomotives can give us that.

The proposed 2017 estimates has been presented by Mr. President. Transportation is one of the sectors with reasonable votes -N262 billion out of which some N213.14 billion has been allocated as counterpart funding for the Lagos-Kano, Calabar-Lagos, Ajaokuta-Itakpe-Warri railway, and Kaduna-Abuja railway projects. This suggests that NRC will be busy. Beyond the estimates, what do we expect and the timelines?

In 2017, the Lagos-Kano project will continue, starting from Lagos to Ibadan. The Lagos-Calabar will also continue starting from Calabar to Port Harcourt. Extending the Lagos-Kaduna to Kano will also come on stream. We also expect to have standard gauge coaches. Coaches can arrive within six months. We have two locomotives now but if the two that we have ordered come, we can use them with the new coaches that we will order. It will take a minimum of 18 months to have a meaningful track commissioned, so we don’t expect to commission any of the tracks in 2017. Lagos-Ibadan and Port Harcourt-Calabar counter fund has been paid, we are just waiting for our partners, the Chinese to get their counterpart funding. Once they get it, the work will start. The ChineseEXIM Bankis the ones delaying that project.

Still talking about the Abuja-Kaduna flagship train service, how much do you make on that route and is it profitable yet?

We get an average of N15 million a month butthat is low compared with how much we spend to maintain it. When you talk of diesel and other expenses, we spend about N50 million monthly to maintain the service. There is a deficit of over 35 million, still subsidized by the federal government. What we normallydo in railways is to balance up with freight services but for now, there is no freight on Abuja-Kaduna standard gauge. Perhaps when we extend the service to Kano, we will begin to have freight. And we hope there will be sufficient goods to carry at the time.

We once had a conversation about branding the coaches on the train to generate additional revenue, where are we on that now?

Adverts have been placed and bids have happen. There are winners and losers. Letters have been sent to them. We hope that by January 2017, those who emerged winners to brand our stations and coaches will come on stream so we can earn more money to support our operations.

Recently you advertised for recruitment but it went quiet. When is the employment going to happen?

By standard, we have to have minimum people to operate a train service. It is the love my staff have for me that they have been working themselves for me and for country. Perhaps again, it’s based on the training they’ve received. We are supposed to have 8 hours shift, off days and weekend staff. But the staff have been working for more than 8 hours and even weekends they come. Though we give them little additional incentives.We expect that by January the junior staff (level 4-5) that will maintain the tracks should be employed. By February the other staff should also come. We have about 350,000 applications for 200,000 jobs. So it’s taking time to short list. They shortlisting now and we hope that in January, 2017, we will call for interviews.

Christmas is round the corner. Your facilities would be busy. I recall you suspended services at Easter, should we expect another suspension?

The last Sallah holiday we ran. But if we have information, security or otherwise that will make us not run, we won’t because we are concerned about our passengers. We don’t just sit down and decide not to run. We work with the security officers. We can assure the passengers that our locomotives are good and rolling stock sufficient to run. Before now, one of the locomotives we inherited was done but we have fixed it. We have put the two locomotives so if there is a failure, the other locomotive can take over.

What’s your end of the year message to staff and passenger?

To our staff, I appreciate them and thank them for the understanding. If we can’t pay you enough, God will reward you further. We appreciate the government for taking the bull by the horn to revitalize the railways again. Without good transportation, development won’thappen and the railway is critical. We thank our client for behaving well. Our clients should also appreciate that government property, is our property and they should also protect them rather than vandalise them. If you vandalize rail facilities, the money that should have been used for other infrastructure will still be used to fix it.