By Yusuf Odejobi
Train service is not entirely new to Nigerians, especially Lagos residents with the Rail Mass Transit operated by the Nigerian Railway Corporation (NRC). The Lagos-Ibadan rail corridor is significant to Nigeria’s economy, albeit realizing this, the federal government plans to connect it to the rest of the country and there have been commensurate efforts to actualize this in recent years.
Meanwhile, in the last few weeks new operational challenges have emerged in rail operations following heavy rainfall causing colossal damages and flooding in many communities of Lagos and grossly affecting railway activities. In the penultimate week, many commuters were stuck in gridlock in different parts as train movement became chaotic. Some railway passengers were stuck around Oshodi for over three hours on a spot as rain moved debris into the gauge clogging the train’s movement while another scenario around Ikeja saw a train move out of the track and almosting claiming lives of the passengers and passers-by.
Speaking on a viral video which captured a train moving slowly in Oshodi due to the flood, an eye-witness commenting on the video said, “See the way the train is moving, see as dirt is slowing down the train movement, everywhere is flooded in Oshodi. The train has been on standby for over two hours, so unfortunate.”
Another video of a derailed train in Ikeja also surfaced last week, although no lives were lost but the trauma lives in the heart of the victims as the train ran off the track and almost crushed commuters in the area.
It is important to note that train accidents aren’t as common as other transportation modes, which is perhaps the reason they aren’t viewed as a major threat. Nevertheless, there are a variety of reasons that lead to train accidents. Every case is unique, the most common causes include: negligence, human error, reckless pedestrians and drivers, mechanical failure, speedy trains, defective tracks, derailments, unprotected railroad crossings etc.
Recall that during a recent tour, the Minister of Transportation, Hon. Rotimi Amaechi had identified the need to address the issue of flooding which he posited could lead to accidents.
At that time, he noted that the Ministry was keeping its eyes on possible areas along the Lagos-Ibadan rail line to ensure the uninterrupted running of train services which flooding could disrupt.
In a bid to get reactions and solutions to solve this menace, MMS Plus reached out to experts in the transport sector to address the rising challenge as the nation promotes railway transport as an alternative to reduce gridlocks on roads and easy movement of people, goods and services.
The Director-General, Chartered Institute of Logistics and Transport (CILT) Nigeria, Mr. Paul Ndibe, speaking from his wealth of experience in the rail transport sector opined that the train driver should be given an award for relying on that standard precautionary measure to have slowed down as the flood submerged the rail tracks.
According to him, during a flood, if a train driver particularly a train carrying passengers is not certain and not seeing the end of the rail line to ascertain if the tracks are firm on the ground, then such driver must either slow down or request for the tracks to be inspected before he approaches the place.
He explained that erosion might have removed the soil ballast leaving the track hanging and if the train driver approached the hanging section of the track with its weight, it’ll be pressed and may result in a derailment and even capsizing of the coaches.
Ndibe, therefore, stressed the need for NRC to conduct regular checks on the tracks and clean up the track’s drainage and culvert particularly during the rainy season to safeguard the fittings of the tracks.
Attributing the flood to the various road constructions and rehabilitation going on in the state, he urged the government to be mindful of the drainage system and see to it that they are not blocked.
While commending the engineers on the new designs of the tracks built slightly above the ground as measures to mitigate flood, he called for the reduction of human activities on the rail tracks and also the use of polythene bags and plastic usage as these are contributing factors to blocked drainages.
“I expect Lagos state to encourage LAWMA to have a schedule to open up drainages and manholes so that water can have its part to flow normally when it rains without causing any operational challenge.” He said.
On the derailed train in Ikeja, he noted that NRC is in a better position to ascertain the cause after a careful investigation but highlighted some human factors peculiar to the Nigerian state.
“Some thieves may have stolen some components of the tracks such as fastenings and the clips holding the rail. If this happens and the tracks are just there in the sleeper without any proper alignment of the gauge and a train runs over it, the train running over it of course would want to seek its balance and by doing that under a loose alignment, the integrity of the track may alter and might result in an accident. Also, the criminals might forget metals on the track and if a train runs on it, it will tilt the flange of the train’s tyre and in that case, it might lead to derailment.”
“If a train driver is going on un-authorised speed on a major rail line and suddenly applies the automatic brake, the tendency is that the coaches which are connected via couplers may begin to bounce on each other and can throw up the coach and when that happens the flange of the wheel can mount on the edge of the rail and lead to derailment.” He said.
Meanwhile, a Director at the Nigerian Institute of Transport Technology (NIIT), Dr. Danjuma Ismaila stressed the need for NRC to understand and identify areas and obstacles that can affect train operations during the rainy season and tackle it ahead.
“This is a new project and their first operation in the rainy season so, normally they would be learning operational challenges which are synonymous to Nigeria because we don’t have waste management. NRC must learn from this and make it an additional responsibility to do away with debris, clear the rail tracks and where there are possible logs of water that may tamper train operations.” He said.
Danjuma added that the nation can also learn from India which has a similar environment and challenges of dirt.
Speaking on rail vandalism, he noted that such practice usually affects areas that haven’t been operational for a while. He, however, described such operations as illegal and an act of unpatriotism.
His words: “If the tracks have not been used for like six months upward then it’ll attract criminally minded people and allow them to vandalise it. But that doesn’t mean what they’re doing is right. The government cannot be spending money and some people would want to vandalise it for their selfish interest. It is the responsibility of every citizen to protect such a kind of government investment because it’s for the use of society.”
Attempts to reach Lagos District Manager, NRC, Mr. Jerry Oche to get the Corporation’s official angle on these incidents proved abortive till press time.
Following cases of vandalism in Port Harcourt-Maiduguri, Lagos-Kano, Itakpe-Warri and Kaduna-Abuja rail line, Amaechi had recommended stringent measures and harped on the need to apply the nation’s law to curb the habit. Meanwhile, some industry stakeholders had recommended the use of indigenes of communities along the rail line as guards.
When trains are delayed or accidents happen, NRC must provide clear, accurate and useful information to help passengers alleviate fears, doubts and build trust in the system.
Online media is awash with damning remarks regarding the videos, the authorities have not yet come out to address the general public or give an official statement. The corporation needs to review its operational procedures with best international practices.
Although these operational challenges are peculiar to rainy seasons, they underscore the need for efficient regulation by NRC because railways wouldn’t only be utilized during dry seasons. If the federal government has identified railway as a must-have, the transport mode should be made available all year round.