When former President Goodluck Jonathan, on 22nd December 2014, flagged off the Enugu-Port Harcourt train service, residents of Port Harcourt, the entire Rivers State and neighboring states were elated on sighting fully air-condition railway coaches.
The glamour and fanfare that heralded the flag off of the train service was electrifying. Residents trooped out in their numbers to witness the event. President Jonathan, who was represented at the occasion by the then Vice President Namadi Sambo, described the project as a landmark achievement that would enhance the transport system and boost the nation’s economy. Jonathan had said his administration was gradually and steadily transforming the rail system which had been abandoned for the past 30 years and that the modernization of the rail system would address some key issues in the nation’s ailing economy.
Shortly after the flag off of the train service, the fully air-condition train resumed transportation services conveying passengers from Enugu to Port Harcourt. But the service was short-lived as it stopped operation two months after.
Train services from Kano to Port Harcourt also started about twelve years ago after the Nigerian government launched a revitalization project of the railways. At the commissioning ceremony of the new train in Kano then, the Managing Director of the Nigerian Railway Corporation, Adeseyi Sijuwade, said train services in Nigeria was back on track.
The Port Harcourt train service has remained dormant with no meaningful activities going on at its expansive terminal point located at Station Road axis of Port Harcourt. When our reporter visited the terminal, the entire premises looked desolate with few staff of the corporation seen loitering around.
Virtually all the offices in the complex were under lock and key. Despite the presence of two policemen at the entrance gate, movement in and around the premises is very porous. The entrance gate was widely open just as movement of people was not restricted. At the right wing of the administrative block were clusters of restaurants and beer parlours where staff, visitors and outsiders eat and drink.
At the left wing of the administrative block are debris of makeshift bar that was pulled down. Our reporter gathered that the bar was pulled down by thugs working for two top managers of the corporation who are fighting over who controls the proceeds from illegal trading at the corporation.
One of the proprietors of the bar told our reporter that “Some group of boys engaged by one top Oga came here and pulled down our bar. They asked us to lock up our shops and not to transact any business. The boys were very violent as they threatened to beat up anybody that contravenes their order. Two of them are fighting over who collect fees for the stores. As you can see all the stores here are under lock and key. We are afraid to open for business,” the source who pleaded anonymity told our reporter.
He said that they paid yearly tenancy fees to one of the managers but added that another manager who wanted to have a fair share of the money is behind the crisis.
The corporation’s parameter fence has been taken over by food vendors, car dealers and other small scale businesses who display their wares round the fence.
Inside the premises are broken down locomotives haphazardly packed on both sides of the rail track while a large chunk of the premises is overtaken by weeds.
A staff of the corporation, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said that the staff have been redundant for two months since the two locomotives that transit between Port Harcourt and Oyigbo broke down. “As it stands we are not doing anything now. Two of our trains are broken down and have not been on transit. That is the reason why everywhere is looking like this. Previous administrations had done many things to transform this place.”
“The coaches as at that time were fully air-conditioned and functioning very effectively until it packed up two months after. Since then nothing serious has happened here as we were left with only two locomotives which has just broken down,” he said.
At the corporation’s transit camp at Imo River, the expansive land that belongs to the Nigerian Railway Corporation has been taken over by land speculators.
A resident who identified himself as John said “I bought the land where I built my house from the railway authorities. One top manager of the organization sold the land to us in the late 1980s and since then we have been living here. If you look around, you will see houses. All the houses you see here are built on the land belonging to the railway.”
Daily Trust investigations revealed that the lands were given out without valid documents.
John said the houses were acquired through leasing, saying that no other valid documents were given to them.
A food vendor at the corporation’s headquarters, Jane Oboromi, said she started selling food within the premises of the railway corporation ten years ago. She said the station was a beehive of activities because of the number of passengers that besieged it on a daily basis to board train.
She said “I have been doing business here for the past ten years. In those old good days things were very fine and business very wonderful. At that time there were many trains that convey passengers from Enugu to Port Harcourt.”
“The number of passengers that turned out daily was very wonderful. There was inflow of passengers who troop in and out to board the train. But it’s no longer business as usual as the corporation is no longer what it used to be.”
“We used to sell food day in, day out because travelers would always come to buy food and other items. There was no dull moment because we were always busy. Apart from food, vendors of other products equally made brisk business as travelers would always buy one thing or the other.”
She called on the Ministry of Transportation to provide more trains to the Port Harcourt railway station to boost transportation business in the South South and South East regions of the country.
The rail tracks that crisscross the popular Sangana Street have been taken over by petty traders who display their wares on the serviceable track. Until the recent demolition of makeshift shops built in between the tracks by the Ministry of Transportation, traders displayed their wares on the rail rack and remove them when a locomotive approaches.
Some of the traders said they cannot afford the high cost of renting shops in the market. “We used to have stores at Mile 1 Market but we were displaced when the market was gutted by fire. Since the incident happened, it’s been difficult to afford the high cost of renting shops. We have no option than to display our goods on the rail track,” stated John Okey, a trader at the Sangana rail track.
Efforts made to speak with the Public Relations Officer of the Port Harcourt Railway Station proved abortive as our reporter was unable to see him after visiting his office twice.