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FG’S GREAT TRAIN ROBERY-1

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By Dele Sobowale

“It was beautiful and simple; as all truly great swindles are.”

 O. Henry, 1862-1910, VANGUARD BOOK OF QUOTATIONS, VBQ p 239.

 This article could be titled BUHARI YOUR LEGACY IS THREATENED BY LAGOS-IBADAN RAIL PROJECT. While Buhari’s reputation is being shredded by the Lagos-Ibadan rail project, and that should concern all Nigerians, that is the subsidiary issue. The major point of raising alarm about the rail project is the irreparable harm it will cause Nigerians using it. The Minister of Transportation has been deceiving Buhari and Nigerians with his utterances and conduct regarding that rail line. Unless Buhari is forced to launch an uncompleted project, there is no way that rail line can be completed by  2023.  Buhari’s only major legacy after eight years in office is already unachievable.

WHEN TALKING TOO MUCH CAN BE DANGEROUS.

“Beware! When Fortune would elect to trick a man, she plots his overthrow / By such a means as he would least expect.” Geoffrey Chaucer, 1342-1400.

 This preliminary investigation was instigated by Mr Rotimi Amaechi talking too much about the Lagos-Ibadan rail line under construction. Incidentally, I was once a great fan of the Minister; after he announced plans to establish new and modern rail lines, namely. Lagos-Ibadan, Lagos-Kano and Lagos-Benin-PH-Calabar. In 2017, after reading what he said, I arranged a meeting through an Elder Statesman; and he convinced me that he meant business. Then I wrote an article; the most relevant portions of which is reproduced below.

“Lagos-Ibadan rail project to start this month” News Report.

AMAECHI STARTS A LASTING REVOLUTION IN THE SOUTH WEST

When Buhari announced his cabinet members and granted the Ministers portfolios, nobody could have selected the Minister for Transport, Rotimi Amaechi as the minister most likely to succeed in the first term. Compared with appointees from the Southwest and Southeast who had received rave reviews as governors of their states or prolific National Publicity Secretaries, Amaechi apparently had no chance to top the class of 2015 Ministers. To make matters worse, the controversies over the 2015 budget, the frustration over power supply and crazy bills, exchange rate which seems to be flying higher like a kite, loan requests, security issues, and now officially acknowledged food scarcity have all combined to make Nigerians forget the fact that transport is still one of the three most vital services governments provide and it is the second most powerful glue (money is first) binding all economic activities. It deserves more attention than it is getting from most economic and social commentators.

 Fortunately, not all of us have lost focus. When the Buhari administration clocks its second year in office on May 29, 2017, one Minister will be able to beat his chest that his Ministry has made significant progress. More than that Amaechi and Buhari are about to leave one of the longest lasting legacies in the Southwest and South-South corner of Nigeria – starting with the West.

 It is quite possible that neither the President nor the Minister is aware of the scope of economic, social and political transformation that will eventually occur as a result of the proposed rail lines. At the moment, the positive changes that will occur over the years are immeasurable because this writer is still grappling with finding the metrics needed to measure the impact of the changes which are inevitable. The conclusions reached in this first article are therefore tentative. More research will have to be conducted to determine the scale and scope of the economic, social and political benefits that Nigerians will enjoy when the rail lines between Ibadan and Lagos and Lagos to Calabar start rolling.”

“Yet, the basketful of benefits has not been exhausted. The first people to grasp the enormity of this revolutionary idea are people from Ibadan working in Lagos ……– especially those renting houses in Lagos. Shortly after the Honourable Minister announced the plan to introduce the Lagos-Ibadan rail service, a series of interviews were conducted with people from Ibadan working in Lagos. Unanimously, they are planning to return home to Ibadan and commute everyday to work in Lagos.”

That column ended by stating unequivocally that “Mark my words; in ten years time, people will be asking why nobody ever thought of this before. May be they will then erect monuments for Buhari and Amaechi.” Rail is the future of Nigeria; Buhari and Amaechi have grabbed the present.”

“If it is too good to be true; then, it probably is not true.”

 Then we had a second meeting in the Minister’s office. He was attending to several people at once – including me. I cannot recall exactly what he said to another visitor which set the alarm bells ringing in my head. As a guiding principle, I am always on my guard when something is too good. But, like most economists, the belief had been strong that sustainable economic growth at 6-10 per cent had eluded us because  past leaders had neglected the railway as the primary transport system. Suddenly, Buhari was going to embark on establishing this missing link. Furthermore, the President had appointed someone committed to this project; or so I thought.

Lagos-Ibadan bound train on duty

 I sang their praises everywhere – until that day in Amaechi’s office. In a flash, it occurred to me that something is wrong. This first project might not be delivered in 18 months; and the others might turn out to be another set of politicians’ promises; which might never be redeemed. There, and then, I started paying attention to the Lagos-Ibadan project. My instincts seldom fail me. Unfulfilled promises about the project followed in rapid succession. Here is the history.

 First, the deadline for August 2018 was missed by wide margin. Instead of admitting failure and apologising to Nigerians, the Vice President was taken on a ride (that is not supposed to be complimentary) by Amaechi in late 2018 during the campaigns. Poor Osinbajo, after the tour of the project, said  Buhari will launch the rail line before the end of his first term. Nothing of the sort happened. By that date less than 40 per cent of the project was completed. The VP had been inadvertently sucked into the web of deceit surrounding the Lagos-Ibadan line.

Second, around October 2019, some Very Important People, VIPs, were taken on another ride. Among them was the former Managing Director of DAILY TIMES of NIGERIA, DTN, (name withheld). At the end of their tour, it was announced that the project will be finished in early 2020. Nothing of the sort happened.

 Third, and we are now getting to the source of this article. The Minister recently announced that he would put pressure on the contractors to finish the project this year. That was too much for me. Everything I have heard from those who had been unfortunate to try the new Lagos-Ibadan rail line suggests it is already a major disaster. So, it was time to go and find out for myself and our readers what the true situation is. So, I went; and here are my preliminary findings. Let me summarise by calling it a fraud. Below is the evidence.

 On Thursday, April 15, 2021, I took one of my Personal Assistants with me to board the Lagos-Ibadan new train line not knowing what to expect. The unfolding drama started from locating the train station in Lagos. It was not at Iddo; so the taxi had to carry us to the Railway Headquarter at Lagos Mainland opposite Hughes Avenue. From N3,000 the taxi fare jumped to N5,000. We arrived at 12.30 pm; only to be told that ticket sales will not start until 2 pm. We were fortunate to have arrived so early. There were seats for only about twenty four people in a station expecting several hundred passengers. So, the first lesson for all intending passengers is this: this is not a train service for old people with weak legs. Standing for three hours is not the only obstacle facing old and young travellers. Fare price is another one. The train will leave at 4.00 pm; not before.

 All over the world train fare is the cheapest among all alternative means of travelling. Amaechi’s Nigerian Railways had turned logic on its head. The fare for Economy Class is N3,000; and N6,000 for First class on the Nigerian Rail Service to Ibadan. Several intending passengers confronted with the unexpected fares have turned tail and fled; transport to station totally wasted.

Two lessons should be learnt from the facts made available so far – even if you are young and agile. One, the rail is not a cheaper alternative to your road transport. On the contrary, right from the start, it is far more expensive. Two, if it is your intention to reach Ibadan early and return the same day or continue from there, then forget the train service. It will not crawl its way to Ibadan until 6.30 pm. And, if you fear being abroad after dark, then forget Amaechi’s train.

 In return for your N3,000 or N6,000, you get nothing more than a seat in an air-conditioned coach spartanly equipped – but no other services. That means, no food, no drinks, no water and you are even instructed not to drink or eat. Strictly speaking, this is not a service for those with kids.

 The next obstacle, after collecting your ticket is getting on the train. The 250 metres between ticket gate and train includes climbing up two rail tracks – which few people over 60 can master without assistance. My PA carried me up twice; otherwise the ticket would have been useless.  Mercifully, the train departed at 4.00 pm. That was the only thing good about the entire experience. Like all trains it started at low speed; we expected it to increase velocity. We were wrong. Unlike most trains it continued to crawl. There are two scheduled stops before Ibadan – Mrs Funmilayo Ransome Kuti Station at Papalanto and Professor Soyinka Station at Abeokuta. There is a strict and serious warning for those going to the two places. The new stations are not in the towns; they are located far away from Papalanto and Abeokuta. One passenger who gave me his phone number paid N3000 to get to town. So, if you plan on going to Abeokuta by rail, add N3000 to your cost of travelling.

 The final stop is Ibadan; and more nightmare awaited us. Ibadan’s train station is located at Moniya – 22 kilometres on the Ibadan-Oyo Road. That means passengers from Lagos are driven right past Ibadan metropolis to be deposited in a town about the distance of Ikorodu to Lagos Island. Depending on how you choose to find your way back to Ibadan, you should be prepared to spend at least N1,000 for bus and up to N10,000 for taxi chartered. My own trip to Old Ife Road drilled a N5,000 hole in my pocket. A fellow going to Apata, near Government College, Ibadan, had to beg to be allowed to pay the N10,000.

 The trip to Old Ife Road lasted another 45 minutes; to Apata, almost two hours were required. So, let me summarise the ordeal faced by anybody lunatic enough after this article to try the Lagos-Ibadan new rail line. Starting from about 1 pm from your house, you will not arrive at Moniya until 6.30 pm. Then, you will need from one hour to three hours to get to your ultimate destination in Ibadan. You would have spent at least N5,000 and up to N20,000 for the ride. That is the truth; and those facts which can be verified constitute the reasons why this project is already a huge economic disaster. As it is, the rail line will never enjoy sufficient patronage to repay the debt. It might even become an uncompleted project. It certainly will not be launched by Buhari before May 2023; for reasons to be disclosed in part two of this fact-finding report…

Dele Sobowale


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