CCTV cameras at Edo train station not functional – NRC MD
Managing Director, Nigeria Railway Corporation, Fidet Okhiria, shares his thoughts with LILIAN UKAGWU on the recent kidnap of train passengers in Edo State and the challenges facing the corporation, among other issues
Do you think there is hope for train service in Nigeria considering the current economic challenges and the level of insecurity in the country?
There is never a time where there won’t be economic challenges. The government has never had enough money. Before we were born, the government did not have enough money. Even in your family, money is never enough; the only thing is that you drive your priority; ‘Will I pay my child’s school fees? Yes! Do I need a room to lay my head? Yes! I want to go here, should I bring out money to go there? Yes!’ Money is never enough; the government can never have enough money and it can never be enough. You only drive the priority and do what is necessary for us to have the basic conveniences of life. Now, this government came and said we want to make sure rail is available and they took the bull by the horns, which was very courageous.
You can see the acceptance of people using rail, and we are not there yet till we start moving freight. That is when people will start to know the benefit of a functional rail. When all the rail freight is organised to come by rail, the road will be safer. Accidents occur on the roads as a result of stress on drivers. You see a driver taking the road from Lagos to Kano to get somewhere to sleep. Some of them don’t know where to stop and sleep. In the developed world, a driver does not take a vehicle for more than four hours without stopping; you must stop and rest, but we don’t have that in Nigeria.
In our train operations, you drive for four hours and the next time, another driver takes over from you, then you rest so that you avoid fatigue. That is what we do on the train services. The train can carry many containers of loads. So, if that is off the road, you know the road will be freer. Traffic will be lighter; accidents that happen on the road will reduce. You may not get the benefits in terms of naira and kobo, but the impact will be on commerce in the country. The right way is to link all our places by rail.
In the United States, you have them all over. That is why their economy is growing; they move more than 100 wagons at once and dangerous chemicals are moved by rail, because you can monitor it properly. Also, you can time yourself when you use the train. For instance, a train is to leave at 8 o’clock, it will leave at 8 o’clock and it will get there at the right time. There is nothing like an operational problem; it is not like air where you will wait for six hours to fly. They will now say operational reason is the cause of the delay. We don’t have that in rail. I think we should talk about whether the economy can withstand development. What the government is doing right now is the right way to go. We borrow for the project; they don’t borrow and keep in the bank and use it for another. Money doesn’t come to the railway; it comes to the Ministry of Finance. Those of us supervising will do the level work and pass it to (Ministry of) finance, then the ministry sends consultants and the institution giving the loan sends their consultants here to ensure that the work is properly done and assesses it before they pay; it is not the loan you take and drop in the Central Bank of Nigeria.
What do you think can be done to ensure a speedy growth of the rail transport sub-sector?
We have a deliberate plan; every year, we must do 50km (of rail). That is how the Chinese did it. Every year, we say we must increase our rail, and this is not negotiable. If you do 100km every year, in 10 years, you have done 1,000km. So, it is to have a deliberate policy to develop the rail system in Nigeria. When you do that, there are direct and indirect jobs to be created and you have people working and operating the trains. At the train station, people will come and trade there, the surrounding stations will attract people who will sell their wares there and there will be development along that route where you have the rail. If you go to Rigasa or Idu, it was not like that before the train operation. You see development sprouting up and down. If you go to Kubwa, it is the same thing. The present day Dugbe developed because of the rail there. If you go to Kano, the centre of Kano State, it is because of rail; you go to Enugu and Port Harcourt, people want to stay there; they want to stay where they can move their goods. So, it brings development and there are a lot of job opportunities; direct and indirect.
How will you rate the Nigerian railway system now?
To be frank, we are not there yet, but we are heading there. At least, it is better than how it was in the past when we were talking about closing down the rail, which nobody is talking about now. Everybody is appreciating the rail apart from these attacks by bandits. When we started operation on the Abuja-Kaduna rail, we were wondering whether people would come, but we saw that when we started, people came; even when we came back after that train attack, the response was quite positive and it is still rising, which means you do what the people want; you see that the people want rail service because you can park your car and use the train and when you come back, you pick your car. So, if we can link Abuja to Lagos, Enugu to Lagos, people will use the train; you get there, do your work in the day and you go back again in the evening. What is happening now; vandalising and attacking the train is not good because it will even discourage the investors. However, it is not only the rail that is being attacked, other sectors too, but we should wake up to the responsibility to stop this.
You said last week that the security measures the Federal Government put in place were not restricted to the Abuja-Kaduna train station. Why then did terrorists attack the Edo train station, which led to the abduction of 32 persons?
As I said earlier, no matter the security that is installed, it is not enough; it is to reduce potential threats. You can say this time, they did not go to the train but came to the station, and there is nothing that cannot be sabotaged. Every day, they go to schools and supermarkets in the United States and shoot people; is it that there is no security? Even in the UK, they attack trains, but we do not say that we must experience it. Just pray that nobody is after you. If people are so determined, they can kill you, but we are operating the trains and are also determined to stop them, and it requires a lot of funding to get to that peak, which is not also readily available.
How did you feel when you got the news of the attack on the train station and what did you do immediately?
They kidnapped people from the station. No glass was broken, nothing got missing apart from the fact that they came in and took people, who had business to do at the station. I felt bad and as usual, my greatest worry was that we had security men present, then we had the police, civil defence and the community vigilantes that we engage and pay money just to deter criminals from coming to our stations. I felt bad till I left; the impact on our train when such things continue is quite negative; the impact on the revenue, appreciation of what the government is doing. Also, it has a negative impact on business because sometimes, people travel not just for fun. They travel to do one or two businesses. It is not good news for such a thing to happen at the beginning but of the year, I think it is not good news.
How will you react to reports that there were no CCTV cameras at the Edo train station when it was attacked?
There were CCTV cameras and there are CCTV cameras up till today. CCTV cameras are part of the installations at the station. The only thing is that at the time of the incident, there was no light and if you ask why there was no light, the government commissioned the engineering unit of the Army to provide public light, and by the time of the installation of the CCTV and the inverter, we thought that by now, it should have been done, but unfortunately, some Nigerians, not outsiders, went to court to obtain an injunction to stop the Warri-Itakpe train route from having power and it is still pending. That injunction was over three to four years ago; we are just trying to see how we can provide light by generator and at this time, it is quite a difficult thing because the cost of diesel is on the high side. The generators have been supplied; 400KVA.
We are about installing those generators. So, the CCTV is there, the generators have been supplied and the powerhouse station has also been built. The installation of the generator and commissioning have been done, and not just commissioning; it is another headache for me to be able to fuel the generators at this high cost and make the CCTV really work perfectly. We are also looking at the option of how we can provide minimum solar power so that we can reduce the cost of diesel. We have CCTV in all our stations. Some people, who talk, do so out of ignorance and do not know how the rail system works. The rail system in Nigeria is not different from the rail system in China, the US and the UK, but there are guiding principles for rail. You cannot do something out of the UIC (International Union of Railways) standard.
For Instance, if the Nigeria Railway Corporation subscribes to the UIC standard; every other person we bring to work for us subscribe to the UIC standard. Like the Chinese, we give them that specification. The Chinese standard must be in compliance with the UIC standard in Nigeria, because that is what we subscribe to. So, what takes off our security safe operation is what we call signal and telecommunication. Signalling is the ability to control the train and we are upgrading our signalling to mechanical aspects and electronic signalling instead of human for safe trade operations. That is what we are doing and when you have that, you have to have what we call electric fencing on our train so that it doesn’t run and collide with another train. You can also, at the same time, be able to track where your trains are at a particular time.
Those are the immediate things we are providing. For instance, if a train leaves Kaduna and you go to our monitoring platform, you will see as it is going; the driver has a radio and the GPS (Global Positioning System) signal can be monitored with the radio. A station like Igbueben where you are supposed to have six armed men and two civilian security personnel; I think that was enough. So, people talk about not having enough intelligence; the intelligence cannot be different for Nigeria and for rail and we have to know that I’m a managing director and CEO not chief security officer. There is no vote in my budget for security vote unlike the states. I believe that if every state governor provides security for his state, the rail that is in that state will be protected. The day we went to the station after that incident, people were still kidnapped not on the rail station, but in villages and in their houses in the same state. I think it is beyond just rail.
What security measures are the Federal Government putting in place to forestall a recurrence of the incident?
We are putting security measures in place to deter reoccurrence. I don’t know, but it will limit it because right now, we have what we call the medium and long term measures. In the medium term, we try to see that we monitor our train real time. At least, the driver will be able to see two to five kilometres ahead of time so that if there are suspected attackers, because it takes about one kilometre for a train to stop if the train driver sights something. We are trying to improve on what the driver can see by installing panoramic cameras, and as the driver goes along, he is seeing it, and at the control office too, we will be seeing it too. We pray that the personnel will be attentive enough to notice anything strange.
We are also deploying hunters; the police have deployed a counter-terrorist unit, an ordinance group that deals with bombs and all. We have been trying to deploy sniffer dogs that can smell. All these things being deployed come at a cost, which is going to be impacting seriously on the cost of operating rail in Nigeria. Apart from buying diesel, which is the common one, as well as lubricant, brake pads and filters, you are now going to be boarding with extensive security people. We will now talk about fencing the stations completely in Nigeria. We have about 2,000 stations, and the cost of fencing the stations is huge; we are not going to fence some and leave others. So, the thing is to provide that general security for either markets, schools, rail stations and houses, because they (kidnappers) still go to people’s houses and abduct them. Those people released in Edo State were not all taken from the station. I know one who was not picked up in the train station, but was released with the passengers. They picked him from his house.
Reports have it that the remaining two victims have been released. Was there any form of negotiation to ensure that the victims of the Edo train station kidnap were freed?
We know they have released those two people; we are happy that nobody died. They are at home now and at peace with their people. The only thing I will add is that we just have to be telling the people the correct position; the kidnappers released them, nobody rescued them. Whether there were negotiations or not, I don’t know. That is left for the family to decide, but I know that the families took their people and went with them.
Reports have it that the kidnappers demanded N620m; that is N20m for each victim. Did the Federal Government concede to this and how much was paid?
The government is not involved; if there was any negotiation, it was by the individuals. I’m the government as far as that one is concerned. So, the individual families did what was possible to get their people out. God forbid that you are kidnapped today and you are waiting for the government; the government will not pay ransom, but your people can pay to save your life. Most times, the people will say, ‘Avoid collateral damage; we know where they are but cannot attack them’. I can tell you that 14 people got released and not rescued. Nigerians should know the truth so that we don’t keep people in case it affects another person. They may know where they are, but they can’t attack them. But to negotiate them out, that’s for the security people to do. Thank God that in less than 10 days, everybody was out and nobody was injured; nobody was killed.
There seems to be an increase in passenger traffic on the Abuja-Kaduna route. Are there plans to increase the number of trips per day?
We are following that and we are studying it. We have the infrastructure to do that. Before now, we started doing 10 trips, but we reduced it to four for an introductory monitoring. When we are done, we will now increase the number of trips done and we also want to limit the ridership to only daytime, but that is not the proper way to go. Train services are running both day and night, but because of the present situation, we are only running during the day. So, as we see the passengers go, we will bring in more trains to service the route. Apart from that, another critical factor leading to that is also the diesel that we use in operation because of the increase (in price).
The Railway Workers’ Union demanded an increment in salary. What is the management doing about the demand?
The management has done its own. We have got the necessary approval and we are following up to ensure that it is implemented, and we are taking the workers along on the route. Our salaries come from the government, and we must follow the government’s guidelines first. We are going through the Salaries, Incomes and Wages Commission and I can assure you that all things are properly done. I think we are close to arriving at that. I think there is hope. If the government comes and goes, what the government has approved cannot be cancelled except for serious reasons for that to happen.
In December last year, the Principal Accountant of the Nigerian Television Authority Channel 5, Abuja, was crushed to death by a moving train on the Kubwa train tracks. What plans have been made towards putting a bridge across the tracks?
Sorry it happened; it happened here and there. The rail track permanent way doesn’t change, it is not like the road; it is there permanently and I’m also sorry to say that where the accident happened is not an approved level crossing. It is an illegal level crossing and all efforts to block it were resisted by those communities. If you go there, just a little from there, we have an underpass on the left. People should learn to use it. By our law, if there is an accident on a track, the person who passed the track should be held responsible and it can lead to jail sentence, and if that person dies, you arrest the corpse. The family of the deceased has to pay a fine for the corpse to be released. That is what our law says; otherwise, the government will bury the corpse. If not that the person is dead, the person will pay for the delay of the train and also pay for the repair of the train.
Between Abuja and Kaduna, there is a complete separation between the rail and road; there is no place rail and road should meet. Anything you see there is illegal. There is an underpass less than 100 metres from that point, which people should use. You can say it is not tarred, that place she was passing was not also tarred. People should not be in a hurry, because life is like that. At that particular point, we are not going to do anything about it; we are not going to provide signalling for people to pass. We have directed; what we want, with God helping us, is to block off that place.
You said recently that the Edo train attack was deliberate. Can you throw more light on this?
The person who left his house to come to the station to carry out that act was not by accident; that is what I mean. Someone asked whether the train attack was a coincidence; it was a deliberate thing because they took time planning it.
What is hindering the Federal Government’s railway modernisation programme?
Funds! Simple and short.
With the incessant attacks on railway transportation, can the sub-sector contribute significantly to Nigeria’s economy?
If you say incessant, I don’t think it is incessant. We have had two experiences. When the rail was attacked, because it is a big thing, everybody talked about it because it is carrying a large number of people. I can swear that there is no day that there is no kidnapping in the country, but being rail, once it happens, it affects a lot of people, and it will be big news. As we speak, somebody is being kidnapped somewhere, but nobody will talk about it. So, I don’t want us to scare people. The rail is still the safest means of transport in Nigeria till today. Find out how many people are being kidnapped on the road.
On the train, we have enough security now that no mad person will attempt to attack it. People using it can attest to this, and now that it has happened in the station, we have told our state Commissioner of Police and he is liaising with the Inspector-General of Police and the Nigeria Security and Civil Defence Corps that the idea of people (the police) going to the station without guns should not happen. The uniform cannot deter people; it is the gun that can. We are already meeting with our security team. It is the same security that we have that will protect the railway stations and we are talking with them seriously and they have been supporting us.
In terms of revenue generation, how much does rail transportation generate annually?
As I tell people, I don’t put money on my head. I can tell you we are not breaking even; we were coming close to breaking even until diesel that we were buying for N200/N300 went over N1,000. Nigeria Railway Corporation is in debt to our suppliers of diesel, and we are finding a way around it.
What are some of the challenges you are encountering as the managing director of NRC?
There was never enough funding, but as for encouragement we got from the government, we’ve never had it so good. If they say they are giving us N10 from the budget, we get the N10 and we plan towards that. We thank God that we have this present government because I think by now, we would not have had something like a railway. I think it should be better when the next administration comes in because we cannot stop the progress.
On the issue of railway vandalism, what has been done to tackle the menace? Has there been a reduction in the level of this crime?
We can say there is a reduction. We have been trying to find a way out of it. What we are trying to say is that all over the place, we have staff members. What we are now doing is that anywhere they vandalise, we see how the staff members can get involved and we make them go back to work because. I have also told the NSCDC commandant that they are with us to provide protection of government infrastructure. They should take it as their business to protect government infrastructure and not the other way around of protecting people who vandalise such infrastructure because of what they will benefit.
Throughout last week, I didn’t receive any news of vandalism. I don’t know whether they are now hiding it from me. Unlike before, we got the news regularly. At one time, we went to the media to say, ‘Anybody you see with rail materials is not authorised to do that’.