The death of five persons riding on top of a train in another accident in Lagos has provoked fresh calls for a lasting solution to the problem, writes ADEYINKA ADERIBIGBE
But for an impending probe by the House of Representatives, the accident would have been swept under the carpet.
Five persons died and four others were injured at Fagba level crossing in Lagos last month when the train on which they were travelling collided with an articulated truck.
In a motion passed last Tuesday, the lawmakers said failure to investigate the November 16, derailment would amount to negligence, as several other accidents like that had gone unreported in the past.
?We can?t go forward without looking back,? was the way the House Majority Leader Femi Gbajabiamila put the lawmakers? intervention, adding: ?Doing nothing about it will be tantamount to negligence.?
Last month?s accident came barely a year after scores of passengers fell to their death at Agege, as a Mass Transit Train Service (MTTS) carriage collided with a truck at the level crossing.
In another instance, several rooftop riders were also killed when the brakes of a Kano-bound train failed at the foot of the River Niger at Jebba, in Moro Local Government of Kwara State last year.
The Green Chamber?s further mandate to its Committees on Police Affairs, Information, National Orientation, Ethics and Values and Land Transport to interface with the Nigeria Railway Corporation (NRC) on how to provide railway level crossing barriers, highway codes and alarm system arrangements at level crossings across the country, to curb incessant deaths, is not, therefore, misplaced.
The resolution followed a motion sponsored by Hon. Akinwunmi Nurudeen Olaitan and Hon. Jimoh Abdulraheem Olajide, both of APC Ifako-Ijaiye Federal Constituency, Lagos, on the need to curb incessant deaths at railway crossings.
By insisting that the rail?s 2018 budget should focus on the need to provide security and ensure safety of passengers and pedestrians, the lawmakers may have been goaded to protect the right of every Nigerian to life, irrespective of their economic status.
There has been growing concern over the increasing train accidents over the years, leading to avoidable deaths, especially of rooftop riders, who find their way to the roof of the rail cars because of the congestion of the coaches and other spaces inside the train.
Between 2013 and 2016, no fewer than 1,000 deaths were recorded nationwide on the major arterial trunk ? the Lagos-Kano line, better known as the western line ? with over 70 per cent of them unreported.
Even when they were reported, the Nigerian Railway Corporation (NRC) soon dumped them into trash bin without baiting an eyelid on how to prevent a repeat of same.
That explained the happiness of transportation experts on realising that the lawmakers are keen on getting to the root of such incidents, with the intention of preventing the frequency of reoccurence.
The need to prevent derailment is not unconnected with the huge net effect such usually have, depending on the the size and type of train ? cargo or passengers ? involved in the incident.
Most of the accidents involving trains and vehicles are caused by failure of vehicle drivers to abide by highway codes and the absence of railway level crossing barriers, given that most crossing locations are among the busiest points on the transportation network in most city centres across the country.
This explained why the lawmakers said an alarm system to appropriately signal the approach of a train needed to be put in place to alert vehicles to clear out of the train?s right of way.
The right of way is granted to the train because of its peculiar breaking system which, depending on its weight and speed, requires a long distance, longer than that of the vehicle to prevent an accident.
Most times, it is the roof top riders, who suffer heavy casualty during a derailment. Unfortunately, these set of travellers are, according to the ?standard practice?, not covered by any insurance policy of the Corporation in case of an accident.
?All our passengers and goods are insured. Anyone, who bought our tickets, is covered against any form of accident,? a top official of the Corporation said at the weekend.
He, however, declared that the policy does not extend to anyone who is not inside the train?s coaches. In other words, roof top riders are not covered under such policy.
?In fact, they are regarded as criminals out on illegal, suicide mission,? the official declared as a matter of fact, adding that the Corporation had over the years been sanitising its systems to ensure that it eliminated the practice.
On most days, the coaches on all the MTTS are usually filled beyond capacity, with passengers spilling to occupy all available spaces, including the locomotive gangway or the fire coach (generating set).
Despite regular raids by men of the Nigerian Railway Police Force and other security agencies, the hikers, banking on the relative affordable rate and the stress of road congestion, usually flood the train for a ride to their destination.
?It is a menace we are at a loss on how to really tame,? another top official, who refused to be mentioned said. Despite spirited efforts to sanitise the rail system, the rooftop rider seemed set to continue their suicide mission.
While it is normal to assume that the practice subsists because of the lure to enjoy a free ride and to most often escape the eagle eye of ticketers and scouts patrolling the coaches to fish out illegal riders and prosecute them, many of the riders, The Nation discovered during a recent investigation, actually have valid tickets, yet enjoy riding on the roof of the train coaches for other reasons.
One of the reasons riders often choose to ride on the roof of the coaches are the unhygienic conditions of the coaches. Many of the coaches used for either the MTTS or the Lagos-Kano intercity shuttle are not conducive for human transportation.
To avoid the stuffy interiors of the coaches, many passengers, therefore, make their way to the roof tops where they are certain of enjoying ?fresh air,? or get themselves exposed to pilferers, who targets unsuspecting victims to disposses them of their belongings, especially cash.
There are, however, those other set of riders, who are regarded as hardened rogues who ride on the roof of the coaches to take hard drugs as the train speeds along its rotted rail.
Transportation Minister, Rotimi Amaechi, has never hidden his concern to see the Corporation tackle the menace. Rooftop riding is a world-wide phenomenon identified as pervasive among the poor. The majority of those, who opt for this illegal and risky ride are assumed to be poor and unable to pay their fare by rail to their destination.
Generation at risk
The Nation?s recent investigation showed that 70 per cent of those involved in this risky ride, especially on the Iddo-Agbado route, falls within the ages of 21-35 years. It was also discovered that 60 per cent of them are either artisans, hawkers, or those learning a trade and over 90 per cent of them are gruff. Interestingly, about 50 per cent of those who sit on trains? rooftops have valid tickets on them.
Though risky, riding atop trains has become the acceptable way of life for majority of people in this class. Whether on the Lagos-Ogun MTTS, or those riding between border communities on the inter-state Lagos-Kano shuttle.
The Ijoko-Agbado-Iddo train, which leaves the Ogun State suburb at about 6am, as well as the Iddo-Alagbado-Ijoko trains, which returns at about 6.00 p.m., are usually filled to capacity. For them, the train is the cheapest means of transportation. That explains why on many occasions, the Ijoko bound train, which leaves the sleepy town at dawn for Iddo, are usually filled beyond capacity before getting to Agbado, with many passengers, who cannot secure a seat hanging on any available space for the bumpy ride.
The menace of rooftop riding is, however, usually minimised in the mornings due to the fear of arrest by men of the NRC Police Command. Hell, however, is usually let loose in the evenings, when the security agents are expected to have ?officially closed? for work, as scruffy-looking ?boys?, suspected to be returning from ?work?, take over to display this menace, which begins from 6.00pm as witnessed recently untill the last shuttle at about 9.00 p.m.
Some of those, who spoke with The Nation insisted that the uncomfortable nature of the train coaches supplied by the NRC on those routes might have been responsible for the sustained surge in the number of riders, who sit on rooftops. Muftau, a motorcycle mechanics, who plies his trade at Iddo, said he would most times leave his seat on the second class coaches to sit on rooftop to escape suffocation inside the stuffy coach.
Muftau said the Second Class coaches are no better than a manger, with many of the passengers, including beggars, and all manner of stench oozing out of the coaches. ?I ride on the roof to escape the odour that comes out of the coaches at times, and though it is unsafe, I found out that I could breathe better each time I ride on the rooftop of the train,? Muftau, who has been using the MTTS train since 2011, said.
Despite the prevalence of roof top riding, the NRC Police Command said, last year alone, no fewer than 1,000 rooftop riders were arrested and prosecuted with offenders facing the full wrath of the law. The Command said it would not be intimidated by anyone or group of hoodlums in maintaining law and order on the train.
But riders point to the fact that many times police officers collude with illegal riders to perpetrate their act. The Police said the long arm of the law would soon catch up with the bad legs tarnishing the image of the Force. The Police said it would continue the onslaught on roof riding even as the Corporation comes up with a blueprint to arrest the trend.
?The NRC knows what to do to abate this menace and we can only assure Nigerians that the Police is ready to put this menace in check,? a Police source, who would not want to be mentioned said.
The NRC sources said the solution may just be at hand with the impending takeoff of the General Electric (GE) and the takeover of the narrow gauge for the running of the corporation?s entire rolling stock.
The GE is expected to roll out this month, with about 100 wagons and 20 locomotives on the narrow gauge, a field it expected to jointly run with the NRC in the first 12 months until a more permanent agreement is further sealed. With the GE coming with many wagons in the first instance and coaches much later on, the problem of inadequate numbers of coaches, a result of demand outstripping supply, would be adequately addressed.
NRC Managing Director, Mr Fidet Okhiria assured that the management, under his leadership, would not rest on its oars until the issue of rooftop riders is erased on all its routes.
Okhiria, said the NRC would be embarking on enlightenment campaign to combat the menace.
?The NRC had in the past embarked on enlightenment campaigns to drum the awareness of the dangers inherent in rooftop riding to all its intending passengers. We would also strengthen efforts to secure the train stations and tracks to ward off hoodlums.
But perhaps the most enduring solutions would be the development of a more robust intervention being canvassed by the lawmakers. Maybe that can put a stop to the wanton loss of innocent lives, most of who might be caught in the web of experiencing train alternative for the first time before meeting their death.