By Prince Tonye Princewill
People get ready,
There’s a train a coming.
You don’t need no baggage,
You just get on board…
THE train, more than any other mode of modern transport, is an agent of social change. It not only moves masses of people and tonnes of cargo over great distances, but also ideas, attitudes, habits, traditions and values.
Rail systems thus affect both the economy and character of nations. They facilitate trade and commerce (necessary for economic growth) and help break down cultural, regional and ethnic barriers to promote national unity.
Consequently, the recent assurances of Senator Idris Umar, Transport Minister, that the national high speed rail system will be completed by 2015 is profoundly auspicious—a prodigiously promising sign, both for the nation and of course for my very own Rivers State.
The fortunes of Port Harcourt, in particular, are tied inextricably to marine, coastal and inland water transport along with rail traffic—the two economic midwives that delivered us this city.
Nigeria’s once vibrant rail system dates back to 1898. But in the mid-1960s, it went into hibernation and thenceforth ceased to evolve.
“Apart from the Itakpe–Ajaokuta–Warri line… and the Eleme–Onne Port …,” notes the seminal Seven-Point Agenda, “ which remain incomplete, Nigeria has not added anything of significance to the railway system since 1964”.
The Jonathan administration though, has been spending heavily, in its effort to re-activate the system; and it seems to be reaping some returns.
So far, it has invested more than $2 billion; and the outlays continue. The 2012 budget of the Nigeria Railway Corporation, NRC, is N21,528,464,061—down substantially from last year’s N33,753,984,951; but it is hardly groundnuts.
The reduction indicates progress, not lost momentum. Many projects are being completed, including the highly strategic Ajaokuta to Warri railroad, over which iron ore will travel from Itakpe to the Delta Steel Complex.
Last year in March, President Goodluck Jonathan commissioned 25 locomotives, and then took a two-hour train ride from NRC’s Ebutte-Metta (Lagos) headquarters to Abeokuta—covering 98 km of track. According to PM News, within 10 days after this trip, 50 Lagos schools had signed up for excursions.
Some of NRC’s new General Electric engines will haul freight. Others will help power mass transit and long distance luxury coaches which were expected to move 13 million passengers over the revived Port Harcourt to Maiduguri line alone in 2011.
ThisDay’s Olaolu Olusina, reports that the Urban Mass Transit Train System makes several runs daily from Ijoko in Ogun State to the Iddo Railway Terminus in Lagos. Other operational systems, he says, include the Bukuru-Jos Mass Transit, Maiduguri-Duwari, Ilorin Urban and Enugu Urban.
Under the leadership of Adeseyi Sijuwade (Managing Director/Chief Executive Officer) and Ladan Shuni (Chairman, Board of Directors), NRC is truly re-animated—evinced by both its achievements and plans.
One ground-breaking development is its successful negotiations with General Electric Brazil, which recently expressed an interest in assembling locomotives in Nigeria.
NRC’s budget for 2011 funded feasibility studies and consultancy contracts for five new projects—mostly standard gauge rail lines—while allocations for 2012 include N1,085,200,000 for six on-going studies of projected links and tracks.
“New projects” this year, include research on route options for “a coastal rail line in the Niger Delta region”. The train is likely to run along our scenic shoreline, with the Atlantic Ocean visible on one side and luxuriant mangrove forests on the other!
Dear to me, is NRC’s 2011 allocation of N14,583,823,341 for rehabilitation work on the Eastern corridor, linking Port Harcourt to Maiduguri.
This corridor was a major transport artery, before the rail system collapsed; and its reopening must surely add impetus to the Garden City’s continuing resurgence.
NRC’s David Ndanusa Ndakotsu, Assistant Director, Public Relations, explained to Olusina that the Eastern track, originating in Port Harcourt, will pass through Aba, Umuahia and Oturkpo, with a spur extending to Kafanchan, before branching off to Wudil-Gombe, in Bauchi, and terminating at Maiduguri.
Residents of Rivers State have every reason to rejoice. First, the revival of the rail system should greatly enhance the demographic impact of the Mega-City Project which the Amaechi administration conceived to decongest Port Harcourt.
Affordable mass transportation will render business, entertainment, vocational and recreational activities outside the city feasible. Residential life in satellite towns and even rural areas will be a lure to many commuters, anxious to escape the hustle and bustle of the capital.
Secondly, the most intensely used, of Nigeria’s 8,600 km of waterways, are the creeks and rivers of the Niger Delta, along with navigable stretches, running from the Lagos Lagoon to Cross River State.
Ideally, the rail system should channel part of this creek and river traffic around Port Harcourt, further relieving pressure on its streets and roads.
It all depends on how conveniently the stations are for riverine commuters—whether the routing of rail lines has transcended the colonial framework which was designed primarily to cart off Nigeria’s mineral resources rather than to serve its people.
The fact remains though, that NRC is, once again, awake and on the move; and you may soon hear one of its locomotives, rumbling down a nearby track.
So, as the Impressions would say, “People get ready. There’s a train a coming!” Because if by 2015 you don’t see one near you, Jega has assured us you can all express your true opinions via the ballot box. That alone is all the catalyst they need and all the leverage you can want.