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OPINION: Warri-Itakpe Train Service, a disaster waiting to happen

Passengers plying the Warri-Itakpe Train Service (WITS) route might be seeing an end to train services on that route. Recent events, bothering on safety of passengers, indicate train services on the route could come to an end.

Recall that the Warri-Itakpe rail line, a 326 kilometres railway facility, was inaugurated by Muhammadu Buhari as Nigeria’s president in September 2020. However, commercial transportation of passengers did not commence until October 2020.

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The Warri-Itakpe rail line, which runs from Ujevwu in Delta State, through Edo and Ajaokuta and terminates at Itakpe in Kogi State, was conceived more than 30 years ago. The rail line was conceived to connect Nigeria’s iron ore mining in Itakpe and Ajaokuta, and steel production belt in Aladja, Delta State.

Since the inception of full commercial operations, the rail tracks have suffered from the activities of serial vandals, and the train has derailed on several occasions.

In August 2023, management of the Nigerian Railway Corporation (NRC) announced suspension of the WITS as a result of a derailment at the Ajaokuta station.

Earlier, about 148 passengers and 38 crew members had escaped death as a result of a derailment inside Kogi forest in January 2023. Train operations were suspended for about 3 months until April 2023.

In a recent development, it was gathered that the train operating the WITS route derailed again on Thursday, 4th of July 2024. All passengers and crew members notwithstanding arrived at their various destinations safely. Despite the derailment being said to be minor, train services along the route have been suspended until further notice.

No official statement has been released by the NRC on the derailment yet. However, a source in the Corporation, who refused to be named, disclosed efforts were ongoing to restore the affected track to normal traffic.

Meanwhile, as a frequent user of the train service, riding on the train from Ujevwu to Itakpe on Wednesday, 3rd of July 2024, I practically had my heart between my teeth when the train wobbled along its track at several locations; one, on top of a valley crossing.

Riding on the train on Wednesday, something told me the Warri-Itakpe Train Service is a disaster waiting to happen. Passengers on the trip reported how the train had earlier overshot a station it was supposed to stop due to brake failure.

Raking in over N1.4 billion in Q1 2024 alone, the NRC cannot procure spare parts for the turnaround maintenance of the train and coaches. Delays, it was learnt, are usually due to NRC engineers struggling to fix brake pads. On Wednesday, NRC engineers struggled to fix brake pads from about 6:00am to 10:32am when the train departed Ujevwu.

“We usually carry out routine checks on the train. We carry out the checks before the train departs every morning. Usually, we change brake pads, where they have worn out. But the one of today was just overwhelming,” one of the engineers [names withheld] said.

Every time the train delays in departing Ujevwu, it means passengers, who left Abuja as early as possible, and patiently waiting at the Itakpe station, are doomed to arrive at their destination in Warri late into midnight. This is not to mention how passengers suffer without seats to wait for the arrival of the train.

Needless to say the interiors of the coaches and the seats are now filthy. The curtains to keep off sunlight have worn out. The conveniences on the coaches have all stopped working. The sockets for charging phones have all gone bad. Coaches detached for maintenance are never returned. Coaches are no longer enough and when there is high volume of travellers, passengers are made to stand all through the duration of the journey. The 8:00am train operating from Itakpe to Ujevwu has long stopped operation.

To make matters worse, is the activities of vandals. The spate of rail tracks vandalism along the route and across the country has reached an alarming rate. It is inconceivable that some unscrupulous persons would use their hands to destroy what they are supposed to protect. It is wicked, evil and an act of murder to remove rail tracks and expose train passengers to danger, which in some instances can be fatal.

Recall that troops of 1 Division, Nigerian Army in Kaduna recently apprehended 47 suspected rail track vandals while on routine patrol along Kakau Daji-Anguwan Ayaba in Chikun Local Government Area of the State.

The suspects had loaded two trucks with the vandalised rail tracks before their arrest. On a visit to the crime scene, more vandalised rail tracks were found concealed in the nearby bush waiting to be evacuated by the criminal syndicates.

Similarly, operatives of the Nigerian Navy School of Armament Technology in Kachia, Kaduna State, also recently intercepted three trailers loaded with vandalised railway track materials, discreetly concealed in animal feed.

Plying the WITS route, one is quick to observe that some rail tracks have been tampered with. This is readily visible at a section immediately after departing the Itakpe train station, and at several sections along the rail line. The tracks and concrete work visibly litter everywhere along the sections.

Although arrested suspects have confessed to having gang leaders, a reliable source alleged collusion by railway workers. Because, how do you explain vandalised railway properties littering everywhere with no actions taken to retrieve them for safekeeping. They are not reported?

The source also alleged sabotage, stressing that, denied personal gains, railway workers can abandon duties, at the detriment of the travelling public.

It is sad how the NRC puts the lives of people at risk without necessary mechanisms put in place to checkmate vandalism and to check the excesses of railway workers.

One no longer wonders why the Nigerian Senate is pushing for the amendment of the Nigerian Railway Corporation (NRC) Act to include insurance fee, thereby providing adequate insurance cover for railway passengers.

We might be seeing an end to train services on the Warri-Itakpe Train Service corridor. If this lack of maintenance culture persists, normal train operations on the route could be grounded.

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