When will Nigerians ride on decent trains? – The Nation Nigeria – The Nation Newspaper
Rail transportation, which once occupied a pride of place in Nigeria, lost steam between the late 1970s and ’80s. Calls for its revival have remained strident since the return of democracy in 1999 but commuters are still awaiting the day Nigeria will boast of having a modern day rail transport system. In this report, Associate Editor, Sam Egburonu, takes a look at the efforts made by the current government to revive the rail system and asks how far it can go, given the level of decay
Only a few brave elderly men in the crowd could look steadily at the hot blood rushing out of the right hand side of the commuter. Within seconds, his shirt and the grey pair of trousers he put on had been fully soaked. Children and women, horrified by the sight, were screaming and running away from the station, even as curious bystanders pushed desperately to ascertain whether or not he was still alive.
Just in his mid-20s, the young man’s cry was swallowed up in the confusion as a railway policeman and two other concerned people hastily carried him away in search of a nearby hospital.
That was way back in 2014, when the young man lost his right hand at the Oshodi Railway Station while jumping off a crowded and moving train. What followed that tragic incident was mass outcry in Lagos both against the attitude of desperate commuters either sitting atop moving trains or jumping into or out of moving trains and against the miserable condition of railway transportation in Nigeria in general.
Just before that incident in Oshodi, some early morning traders in Pen Cinema area of Lagos were horrified when they discovered mangled remains of a man on the tracks of the rail line in Agege.
Coming after both Chief Olusegun Obasanjo and Dr. Goodluck Jonathan-led Federal Governments reportedly took bold steps to revolutionalise Nigeria’s rail transportation; it became obvious that so much still needed to be done.
So, since the Muhammadu Buhari-led Federal Government came on the scene in 2015 and former Governor of Rivers State, Rotimi Amaechi, emerged the Minister of Transportation, the government has come out with grand plans to revolutionalise the rail system. As a result, the expectation of common Nigerians has been very high.
But given the huge capital required to carry out the envisaged revolution, some observers are wondering how far the minister and the current federal government can go.
For example, just last year’s October, Amaechi said the Federal Government will need $36bn to fix rail lines in some parts of the country.
He made the explanation when he appeared before the Senate Committee on Local and Foreign Debts to defend the $5.5 billion loan request of President Muhammadu Buhari.
Senate Committee had drilled Amaechi, the Minister of Finance, Mrs. Kemi Adeosun and the Minister of State for Aviation, Hadi Serika, over the loan request.
According to Amaechi, the rail projects the government wants to embark on and whose total cost will amount to $36 billion include Lagos to Kano Costal rail line, Kano to Kaduna, Lagos to Calabar, Port Harcourt to Warri, Onitsha and Aba.
Explaining it in details, Amaechi said, “If you put it all together, the total cost of the entire rail projects will amount to about $36billion. Actually we don’t have the money. But it’s an ambitious plan. We really have to start something somewhere and see how far we can go…
“We have something that is going to happen between now and December. We have almost concluded arrangements with General Electric to take over the narrow gauge.
“And after the assessment by GE, the narrow gauge cannot take up to 17 locomotives. Before December, they will bring in between four and six locomotives with 100 wagons. We are also making arrangements to bring in coaches so that we can convey passengers from Lagos to Kano so that our economic activities will improve.”
In response to the outcry of some people that the proposed rail projects did not cover the South-East and North-East axis, the minister said Buhari had directed that the rail line projects be extended to cover all the 36 state capitals.
When he paid a visit to Lagos last year, he told journalists that: “We are fixing all the narrow gauge, which is about 3,500 kilometres. General Electric, the consortium, is expected to bring $2.7 billion to fix the old rail line from Lagos to Kano, to Funtua. They will also fix from Port Harcourt to Maiduguri, and they will recover their funds for 20 to 30 years depending on what we agree on. But when it comes to construction, which private company will bring $1.5 billion for the construction of the Lagos-Ibadan railway line for instance? So, usually, the government bears the brunt so that the economy can grow.”
Earlier, he had explained to the Senate Committee that part of the $5.5 billion loan would be used to fund the Itakpe to Warri, Kano to Kaduna and Port Harcourt to Calabar portions of the rail projects.
The big vision
Senator Gbenga Ashafa, the Chairman of the Senate Committee on Land Transport, in January 2017, gave an insight into current vision of Nigerians on how to revolutionize the railway system when he said: “Nigerians will recall that the Nigerian Senate on July 21, 2016 passed the Nigerian Railway Corporation Bill, 2016. The new bill is poised to replace the antiquated Railway Corporation Act of 1955.
“Basically, the passed bill is a departure from the old order, which shut private investors out of the railway business. The new bill, among other things, seeks to open up the railway business to private investors, and to distinguish the regulator, which is the government, from the operator.
“I remain a strong believer in the primacy of the railway. It is my belief as well that the railways remain a critical infrastructure that will extenuate Nigeria’s motley transportation problems. Hence, I am dedicated to leading the charge for revolutionising the system,” he said.
Oni, S. I. and Okanlawon, K. R, of the University of Lagos, in their assessment of the historical development of Nigerian Railways also said: “Unfortunately for the railway, there has’ been a continuous decline in its performance over the years with attendant operating deficits in its accounts… Hence, the railway system no longer exerts a strong influence nor plays a competitive role in modem Nigeria. During the last 30 years, there have been significant changes in railway systems throughout the world. There have been considerable modernising and upgrading of equipment to enable railways fulfill their roles more effectively. However, in Nigeria, rail transport has hardly developed at all over the past 100 years when compared to railways in the’ developed world. The 3,505 km coverage of rail services in Nigeria is low in a country with a land area of 924,000km and a population of over 140 million. The colonial masters who began the construction of railway lines in the country adopted the narrow gauge that does not allow speedy transport of goods and services. At the time the railway track was built, speed was not considered important. The purpose of the railway was to ensure the haulage of the country’s agricultural and mineral resources to the port for eventual transportation to Britain and the rest of Europe. However, with the current huge number of commuters in Nigeria begging to be served, it is high time the country developed its rail system as a means of mass and fast movement of people and goods.”
The Chinese option
Chinese interest in Nigerian rail revolution predated the Muhammadu Buhari-led Federal Government as former President Olusegun Obasanjo’s government reportedly awarded huge contracts to Chinese firms in 2006. During the Goodluck Jonathan’s tenure the tempo was sustained. Reports show that the current government has also consolidated the relationship. The effort to continue with the Chinese did not however gain roots without serious opposition and criticism.
But we observed that the government has continued to rely on China to realise its planned revolution in the rail sub-sector. It would be recalled that in August last year; China Railway Construction Corporation (CRCC) got the government’s approval to construct a rail line in Kano with a total length of 74.3 kilometres at the sum of $1.85 billion
Also, the first light rail project currently being constructed in Lagos is being handled by China Civil Engineering Construction Corporation (CCECC), a subsidiary of CRCC.
At the groundbreaking ceremony for the Segment II, Lagos-Ibadan Rail Project, with extension to Lagos Port Complex, Apapa, held at the Nigerian Railway Corporation compound, Ebute-Metta, Vice President Yemi Osinbajo, who was the Acting President then, said Buhari had, during his visit to China in January 2016, “reopened negotiation on the Chinese support for the project under the Lagos-Kano modernisation project.” With these, observers said the revival has actually commenced; it only remains to be seen how far this administration can go.
How far can Amaechi go?
Nigerians who want immediate results are already expressing concern over the delay in bringing to reality the long held dream of traveling on modern trains. Some of them are even wondering if the Minister of Transportation, Rotimi Amaechi, and the Buhari-led Federal Government have the capacity to deliver on the rail revolution. But one of the respondents who believe Amaechi has what it takes to revive Nigeria Railways is Engr. Nwabueze Onwuneme, the Executive Director of ENAP Builders Nigeria Limited. He told The Nation, “I know he has what it takes taking cognizance of his antecedents, his passion and commitment to issues that will alleviate the standard of living of the populace as can be seen by the way he turned dilapidated schools infrastructure to modern day standards, leading to upsurge of enrollment of pupils and students in public schools in Rivers State when he was the state governor. Also though he was not able to finish the monorail project he embarked upon in Port Harcourt, he took it to an appreciable level before leaving office, an effort that makes rail transportation business not entirely new to him.”
But Engr. Solomon Edet of E & T Consult is angry as he alleged that Nigerian engineers and local construction firms had been sidelined in preference to Chinese firms. Responding, Onwuneme said “there’s no way local contractors will be totally shut out because like all engineering projects, there is always a need for periodic and, as the case may be, emergency repairs which our local contractors can always be contracted to carry out; so basically, the Chinese, who has cut a niche for themselves as having expertise, competence and relative cost effectiveness in the ever evolving engineering profession, is our best bet,” he said.
Maintaining that time has come for improved rail system in Nigeria, he said, “rail system is a big facilitator of making food readily available to Nigerians, leading to a high drop in the cost of food and other essential services.
“So, I believe Nigerians are ready for improved rail system, including the standard guage rail lines and fast trains. For emphasizing these, I think Amaechi has the right vision. The new technology will eliminate incessant breakdowns and loss of huge revenues associated to the old technology in use,” he said.