FG shouldn’t abandon narrow gauge –Union president

The President, Nigerian Union of Rail Workers, Innocent Ajiji, in this interview with LILIAN UKAGWU, discusses issues affecting the Nigerian Railway Corporation and the workers

The Abuja-Kaduna rail services will resume soon. Do you think adequate security measures have been put in place to forestall recurrence of terrorist attacks along the rail corridor?

Yes, certainly, they have put in place adequate security measures. I think the reason for the shift in dates is to enable them to convince themselves that adequate measures are in place and also to be satisfied with whatever has been done.

We had a train ride on Sunday to Rigasa and back to Abuja. We have seen clearly that they have tried to put adequate security measures on ground.

The Federal Government has lost over N5bn as a result of the suspension of Abuja-Kaduna rail services. Do you think the government will be able to recover the money lost, considering that it took a loan to construct the rail project?

The Federal Government never carried anyone along on whatever they did, especially right from borrowing the money to when the money was given, till the commencement of the construction. What we do is to escort the minister when he comes for inspection. We were not carried along regarding railway construction and the loan.

 They know how much loan they took, the number of years they intend to pay back the loan and their grace period. They do whatever they want to do without informing us. Ours is to put in our best by rendering the services we have at hand that is paying our salaries. On the N5bn loss, yes, they have even lost more than that.  I am not sure we are fully in the picture and can’t say if they will be able to recover or not.

A lot of Nigerians are still sceptical about the security measures put in place to forestall a recurrence. Do you think this may have an effect on rail services patronage?

When we talk about security, it is very obvious it is a problem everywhere in the country and whether you are in your home or train, airport or wherever, nobody is safe as far as we are concerned in this country. The government has not shown real commitment towards ending the numerous issues of attacks and terrorism in the country.

In fact, they are yet to convince Nigerians that they are ready to fight this battle to an end. So, certainly, nowhere is safe and people must travel whether by train or any other means. Whatever will happen will happen, so people should not entertain fears because our train was attacked in March.

I want to assure every Nigerian travelling that rail still remains the safest and best means of transportation as far as this country is concerned, and security measures have been taken to secure our trains not only Abuja-Kaduna, even Lagos- Ibadan, Warri-Itakpe routes. Security has been beefed up there since the attack of Abuja-Kaduna train.

People are still scared to travel by train as a result of this, and we have very low patronage. We usually run eight to nine trips in a day, but now we no longer run them because we don’t have enough passengers to run more trips.

Also, the issue of diesel in the country has affected rail transportation to the extent that to even get diesel sometimes to run the train is a problem. So, these are all compounding issues that are disrupting activities at the corporation. The attacks have also created a huge setback, but I want to assure you Nigerians that travelling by rail remains the best.

 So, they shouldn’t think of any other option when it comes to travel, because even if you are travelling by road, look at the number of people that have been kidnapped on road since the attack on our train that led to our passengers being held hostage. They had to kidnap over 200-300 people only between Abuja and Kaduna road, but have people stopped travelling by road? No, people are still travelling by road, so we encourage them to travel by rail because it is still safer and there is adequate security there to protect them.

Can you say there has been a reduction in rail vandalism?

There has never been any reduction. It is just that for now they have not been tampering so much with the standard gauge, but they have been tampering with the narrow gauge that has been abandoned by the Federal Government. We advised them not to abandon the narrow gauge because it covers 26 states in Nigeria, but I don’t think the standard gauge covers up to 11/12 states.

Yes, standard gauge is a modern railway but the narrow gauge remains important because people patronise it much more than the standard gauge. We have advised them not to abandon it, but they are not buying locomotives, coaches and wagons for the narrow gauge.  In fact, they have abandoned it, which is quite dangerous.

The narrow gauge passes through bushes that you cannot easily access, but you can have people working there that will be giving you daily reports on vandalism. The narrow-gauge vandalism hasn’t been reduced in any way but that of the standard gauge has drastically reduced. Perhaps, it is because of security that has been beefed up recently after the Abuja-Kaduna train attack.

What are your thoughts on the railway modernisation programme of the Federal Government?

The modernisation of the railway is very okay, though we have not got close to modern railway. If we are talking of a modern railway system, they have to bring electric trains and you know that there are different categories of electric trains which, of course, Nigeria does not have. We are still running diesel trains on a standard gauge which has not even covered the whole country. That cannot even take you from Lagos to Kano, Lagos to Maiduguri or Lagos to Port Harcourt.

 So, we are not even close to modernisation at all unless all these places are covered by the standard gauge and the trains are running all through these locations.

For now, we are just a step ahead of the narrow gauge – the old railway that we have in place.

What is the update on online booking and baggage scanners at Lagos-Ibadan station?

They are still working on them. Very soon, they will commence. The ministry said they were waiting for approval from the government.  As soon as the government approves them, contractors will be mobilised to commence work on them.

What security advice will you give to people boarding the trains?

 Security has a slogan which is, “When you see something, say something.” I want to advise our passengers that we have security personnel all over. If you cannot confide in them, you can confide in us or any of our workers if you suspect any movement or see anybody looking suspicious.  We have a way of apprehending them such that they will not even know the source of our information.

So, we advise our passengers not to hesitate to inform either the security or the railway workers inside the train of any suspicious movement because the security personnel on board are not spirits, soothsayers or angels. They only work based on information. If you see something and don’t say it, something bad could happen.

So, we advise them not to be scared, rather they should report any suspicious move.

The union had requested salary increases for its members. Has the Federal Government reached out to the union on this?

We didn’t only request salary upgrade, but we even went on a three-day warning strike precisely in November 2021. Immediately after the strike, the former Minister of Transportation, Rotimi Amaechi, came in and we negotiated with him. However, we all agreed to shift grounds in order to allow them to seek approval for a new salary structure for the railway workers. So, that made us suspend the strike after three days.

However, between November 2021 and January 2023, the minister was able to secure 95 per cent approval of the salary increase and allowances for railways workers, but very unfortunately, till today, we have not received implementation and that is gradually taking us to another level of industrial disharmony if nothing is done about it within the shortest possible time.

 We have got approval, but we have not seen cash. We have been keeping in touch with all relevant stakeholders involved in making this thing achievable for railway workers to start enjoying the new salary structure, but it is not yielding any result. They keep inserting it in the budget and at the end of it, they will remove it and say it didn’t follow due process. The process is too cumbersome to an extent that we are feeling like our patience is getting exhausted. Nothing has improved as far as our welfare is concerned as we speak, but we are still pushing and we are hopeful that the new minister will assist us in achieving that.

Is the union looking at embarking on an industrial strike this year?

Not at all, because we took the matter to the Minister of Transportation, Mu’azu Sambo, just two weeks ago when he visited Lagos. We had a meeting with him before the Lagos-Ibadan train ride. He assured us and pleaded that we give him little time to settle down and he will pursue it rigorously until we succeed. Those were his words. So, we want to give him the benefit of the doubt by giving him a little time to see what he can do, but should our patience get exhausted by then, we will have no option but to declare a total industrial action.

As the president of the Railway Workers Association, how prepared are the workers to resume work? Are they still sceptical about resuming?

Yes, the railway workers are ready to resume operations because the Federal Government has taken security measures and we are satisfied with all they have put in place. So, we have already advised workers to be prepared to resume work and we are encouraging our passengers to come and ride on our trains. We are assuring them that there is nothing to fear any longer.

Article first published on the Punch Website

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