Nigeria: Boosting the Rail Transport System

Chiemelie Ezeobi writes that in boosting the rail system, the government is determined to ensure provision of an efficient and affordable transportation that would serve as backbone to the economic and industrial development of the various sectors given the viable alternative it offers to road transport

Without gainsaying, the rails provide a viable alternative to road transportation as it connects one city to another. Acknowledging the import of this hitherto neglected sector, President Muhammadu Buhari on assumption of office in 2015 had given premium to the rail transport system, especially to reduce the burden on the roads .

Running with the vision, the Minister of Transport, Chibuike Amaechi, has kept the flames burning right from his first tenure as minister and his recent return for a second term heading the ministry. The doggedness and passion of the minister has seen rail development taken to a higher level.

Undoubtedly, this present administration has consistently pursued the realisation of efficient and effective rail transportation for Nigeria in line with the strategic vision for railway transport revival and development approved in year 2002 and this, Amaechi is pursuing vigorously by completing, building and even rehabilitating new railway lines aimed at ensuring provision of an efficient and affordable transportation that would serve as backbone to industrial development.

Recently, during the 2020 Budget presentation to the Joint Committee of the Senate on Maritime Transport and House of Representatives on Ports and Harbour, Inland Waterways and Maritime Safety, Education and Administration; and at the Budget defence to the Joint Committee of the Senate and House of Representatives on Land Transport on Monday, October 21, 2019, the minister gave account of his stewardship- what has been done so far and what still needs to done to get all the rails up and running.

Update on State of Rail Project

Succinctly put, the minister while giving an update on the state of the rail project said: “We would need billions of dollars to be able to address the rail infrastructure, not all of them, but at least the one that can hold the economy and those ones are Lagos to Kano, Lagos to Calabar and Port Harcourt to Maiduguri. Lagos to Kano is Lagos-Abeokuta-Ibadan, that we expect to finish before the end of April next year. We are actually close to the end, it is just the challenges we are having around Lagos and its cosmopolitan nature. We have finished from Iju to Ibadan. All we are doing now is to complete the stations. We hope that before April we would have finished everything about Iju to the Seaport in Lagos. Now Lagos to Kano is between 8.3 to 8.7 billion dollars. For that we are getting a loan from the China Exim Bank.”

Viable Routes and Funds Sourcing

On the viable routes for the rail project and its inherent economic potentials, the minister said: “Another thing I like to tell the Nigerian public, I come from the South, so I’ll be very interested in Port Harcourt to Maiduguri and at the same time I’ll be interested in Lagos to Calabar because they all in the South. But it is not done based on ethnic interests, it is not done by what I want, it is done by economic needs. The most viable route if we forget about ethnic needs is Lagos-Kano. It has capacity to generate 30million tons of cargo, so when we want to pay back, it’s a lot easier to pay back using money from the revenue. Port Harcourt-Maiduguri is 11million tons of cargo. We are yet to get a study of the Lagos to Calabar.

“Lagos to Kano is Lagos-Abeokuta-Ibadan-Ogbomosho-Ilorin-Minna-Abuja-Kaduna-Kano. At Osogbo it links up to a stop in Ekiti. Lagos to Calabar is Lagos through Ore, we are trying to get it to Akure the capital of Ondo. So from Ore-Benin- Benin that is spur that takes to Agbor, Asaba and Onitsha; and it continues from Benin to Ughelli, Warri, Yenagoa, Port Harcourt, instead of going straight to Uyo, you tee back to Aba, Aba to Uyo, Uyo to Calabar. That is Lagos to Calabar.

“Port Harcourt to Maiduguri, there are two alignments there, Port Harcourt-Owerri-Nnewi-Awka-Enugu-Abakaliki. The second alignment is Port Harcourt-Aba-Umuahia-Enugu-Makurdi-Lafia-Jos-Akwanga, we tee off and connect to Abuja so that there could be a connection between west and east. It continues to Jos-Bauchi-Gombe-Yola-Damaturu-Maiduguri.

“Now let’s look at the funds. Lagos to Kano that we already have funds because it was the first project by Obasanjo, is about 8.7 billion dollars, Lagos to Calabar is 11.1 billion dollars, Port Harcourt to Maiduguri is 14.2 billion dollars, put them all together. So if you ask me, as the minister of transport, I want this thing to pass through my village, but the money is just not there. However, one of the reasons why we are going to Sochi, Russia is to negotiate for loan for either Port Harcourt to Maiduguri or Lagos to Calabar.

” So we are not forgetting South-east. I just told you that we have sent it to Russia now, since the Chinese government is saying they don’t have enough money for other projects. They’re trying to finish the ones they started. So we’re looking for money to fund the rest of the projects. If we do get them, believe me the president is desirous of completing infrastructure projects because he believes that that is the first step to economic growth.

“But like you know, there’s a difference between want and need. So we are fighting for resources. I come from the South I can’t be denying myself and facing North. But I give you two reasons, the first reason is economic viability, there’s 30 million tons of cargo from Lagos to Kano, don’t forget that project was started before we came. It was handed over to China Exim Bank though they didn’t fund it until we came. When we came, that’s what they chose to fund. They also chose to fund Lagos to Calabar, but I’ve been pursuing them everyday, but money is not forthcoming. We plead with Nigerians to be patient with us and allow us to look for the money, whatever money we get, we’ll do it.”

Considerations for Rehabilitation

Since one must make use of available resources, the minister revealed that they might have to consider rehabilitating some of the rails instead of constructing new ones because of funds.

He said: There’s another proposal coming up, the difference between standard gauge and narrow gauge is speed. So the speed for standard gauge in Nigeria is 120km/hr, the speed for narrow gauge is 100km/hr. So if we don’t have 14 billion dollars to build Port Harcourt to Maiduguri, we could as well rehabilitate the old one. Rehabilitation for us this time is not like the one they did in the past government.

“Rehabilitation is actually removing the tracks and replacing them with new ones. What makes narrow gauge slow is that when it gets to a hill, it avoids the hill and when it avoids the hill, it slows down. For standard gauge, it will break through the hill. So what we are doing with this proposal is to possibly rehabilitate the narrow gauge pending when we get money to do the standard gauge in Port Harcourt-Maiduguri axis is to say anywhere we meet those hills, let’s not avoid it but break through the length of the track to increase the speed.

“So we have two proposals. The first one is we’re pursuing the loan for standard gauge, if we don’t get the loan, we should look for a shorter and cheaper loan to rehabilitate the old ones and this rehabilitation requires total removal of the narrow gauge track, replace it with new ones, building of new stations, new communication equipment and others. And I want to remind Nigerians that in South Africa, they have about 35,500kms of tracks, only 500km is standard gauge, the rest is narrow gauge.”

Concerns for Speedy Completion

One of the concerns for the rail system is the issue of speedy completion. Allaying fears, the minister said: “With the money available to us, they are done in what they call ‘gangs’. A gang will take Ibadan to Osogbo, another gang will take Osogbo to Illorin, another gang will take Illorin to Minna, another gang will take from Minna to Abuja, another gang will take from Abuja to Kaduna, another one from Kaduna to Kano. I’ve gone to the field, all of them are working at the same time, the problem will be, more machines, more human beings working at the same time, leaving at the same time.

“We are yet to get the money, we just went to China, allow them, when they sign the agreement we’ll come to the National Assembly to give us what they call borrowing plan, when they approve the borrowing plan they’ll give the money to us. If you look at Lagos-Ibadan they’ve been completed. We are removing water pipes, gas pipes, sewers and community problems. The only problem I have with Lagos-Ibadan is Lagos, we are removing flyovers and place to build flyovers, there’s sewers… another problem we might have is Kaduna to Kano, but if you check the design, its behind the city.

“We don’t go inside the city, we try to work outside the city so that we don’t demolish too many houses. Just like you’re worried, I am also worried; we must make sure that we must finish and the prey will commission before he goes. We’ve not said we want to maintain narrow gauge. If we want to maintain narrow gauge, the one that we may likely have to rebuild would be Port Harcourt to Maiduguri, because we don’t have 14 billion dollars to begin to impress standard gauge now. We hope that the next or any other government can come and raise $14 billion to impress the standard gauge.”

Safety

On the issue of safety, Amaechi said the first thing they address on the railways is safety because once it happens, the number of persons that will die will not be like road accidents. “If it happens in railway it will be about 500 persons. In fact each coach for now is 87 persons; we have 10 coaches for now, multiply 87 by 10 coaches, imagine the amount of persons that will die or be affected. The instruction is that no driver should move if there’s a safety problem.

“The same for our tracks, we watch our tracks. Somebody told me that it’s circulating on social media that they shot at our train, I didn’t reply because I know its not true. There are air force planes following the train as it is going. There is a police vehicle on the side. There are policemen in the vehicle and when anything happens, they report to the minister even when there is a stop.”

Maintenance and Sustainability

On this he said: “If you saw the pictures of my trip to China, you will see some black men with the Chinese. I told them(the Chinese) ‘you learnt from America and you copied the Americans, today, you’re producing your own trains, coaches and others; because when I went there, they were teaching them leadership and management of rail resources and I told them, let’s not manage only, also teach us how you build these trains, we want to know, so that when it breaks down, we don’t have to make a telephone call for you to come down and fix it. So they have agreed to redesign the curriculum and train all those people out there.

” Secondly, we have sent over 150 persons, children, to two universities in China, funded by the Chinese government to go and study railway engineering. They’ve gone, we hope that in four years they will graduate. Those who will do masters and PhD will do that and come back and teach in the university we are establishing here. We are establishing a transportation University in Daura. The project is also not funded by us. It will be managed by the company building it for years before we have lecturers to take over. We are making sure that we have manpower to take over from the Chinese.

“The Kajoula project, we got them to sign an agreement with us that they will produce subsequently in Nigeria, so we are building a factory at Kajoula in Ogun state. The Vice President will lay the foundation stone very soon. We are waiting for the President to give us a date he will lay the foundation stone of the University of Transportation in Daura. I’ll just say that we are doing a lot to localise the railway technology.”

New Coaches from China

Upon his arrival from China this October, Amaechi said 20 new coaches will be arriving within six weeks. The new coaches have been billed for the Abuja-Kaduna and the Lagos-Ibadan rail lines.

Explaining the thrust of his official visit to China, where he took delivery of some new trains, Amaechi said, “We went for two items- basically to get more locomotives and coaches. They’re all ready. It will take six weeks to get to Nigeria and maybe one week to clear them. For the Lagos trains it will be easy, it will take a day or two to get it to the track, but for the trains coming to Abuja, it will take one week or two to get it here.

“To my surprise, the coaches we released two or three weeks ago to go to Kaduna arrived just within two days. So, we hope that when these trains arrive Lagos seaport, we should be able to get them fast.

We are expecting twenty coaches, ten for Abuja-Kaduna and ten for Lagos-Ibadan as a temporary measure, more will then arrive in the second batch as we complete Lagos-Ibadan,” Amaechi said.

The minister while taking delivery of the newly built trains in China, did a test run of the locomotives and motored cars. He confirmed that these trains were better improved and of higher technology than what obtained previously. He added that more trains are still being built for Nigeria and the next batch would be delivered as soon as they are ready.

On maintenance, he said he’s making sure that every contract comes with a maintenance contract, while rail engineers from Nigeria are being trained in China to take over the maintenance from the Chinese. The reason for these maintenance contracts he said is that, “as Governor of Rivers State, I made sure that everything I did in Rivers State was maintained, I kept a maintenance contract going, what is happening there now, I won’t know.

“So when people ask me, what do you do about maintenance? The answer is, in all our contracts, you have a maintenance contract. Like now, the one for Abuja has expired and I’ve just directed them to renew the contract. Though I’m going to seek approval from both the president and the cabinet, but the Chinese should not leave the site for now.

“Also, what is critical to the sustenance of our railway system is what we are doing in China. We are training our people, the Chinese won’t live here forever, they have to go, so our own engineers will take over; and I met with some of those Nigerian engineers during my China trip. We hope that in the coming years, they will come back and then we can stop the Chinese maintenance contract in both Kaduna-Abuja and Lagos-Ibadan.”

For Warri-Itakpe, the minister assured that it would be completed early next year. “That one is nearing completion. It should be completed by January/February, March latest, but that’s not the problem, the problem is Abuja to Itakpe with the Seaport in Warri. We’ve signed all the documents, we are waiting for the Chinese”, he added.

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