BY Olumide Israel
For many years, railway transportation in the country was dead. Almost buried! But it is obvious from the recent achievements of the Nigeria Railway Corporation (NRC) that some revival has taken place. And rail transportation is breathing again.
Rightly so, the NRC used to be a strong social and economic live-wire for all the sections of the country in terms of commuter traffic and volume of cargo from the regions to the ports. The role of railway transportation in the development of the country was pervasive.
Indeed, the catalytic role of the corporation was so significant and integral to national development and growth that it served a pivotal role in the struggle of Nigeria for self-determination.
The importance of rail transportation peaked in 1964. But shortly after, the NRC entered a long period of decline, inept management, and, eventually, a complete lack of maintenance of rail and locomotive assets until NRC declared bankruptcy in 1988.
Attempts to restore the corporation to its pride of place as a driver of social and economic development?were epileptic and hampered by what its one time acting managing director, Mazi Jetson Nwakwo, described as lack of political will by a succession of leaders.
By 2002, passenger service was discontinued completely and cargo service shrank to insignificance.
When the NRC became comatose, the impact on the road network and the increased presence of articulated vehicles were far reaching in terms of maintenance cost and hazard to lives and properties. All the major roads between the ports and business hubs in Nigeria fell into disrepair.
Increased dependence on roads to transport heavy goods saw trailers, tankers and heavy trucks competing with commuter traffic everywhere, resulting in fatal accidents, infrastructural damages and insupportable cost of road rehabilitation.
Perhaps the most televised and reported of the wreck of social economic assets was the Lagos-Benin Expressway which became a nightmare until its redemption recently.
Also the NRC, which was at one time the employer of first choice, engaged about 45,000 people between 1954 and 1975, but employment plunged to only 6,516 in later years.
In an attempt to revive the corporation, some wagons were bought in 1993, but the effort was fruitless because most of the existing wagons were old; some dated back to 1948 and the track conditions limited trains to a speed of 35 km/h. Consequently, no serious economic activity could rely on the corporation as a service of first choice. NRC was literally abandoned as dead.
In 2006, the idea of rebuilding the entire existing 1,067 mm (3 ft 6 in) network to standard gauge was mooted but the missing political will observed by Mazi Nwakwo came decisively “with the transformation agenda of 2011”. Where there is a will, there is a way. Thus the railway system has been undergoing a steady and confident restoration process.
According to latest figures from the NRC:
* About 90% of existing narrow gauge rail lines are being rehabilitated across Nigeria.
* Abuja – Kaduna & Ajaokuta – Warri standard gauge lines are nearing completion.
*The 1,124km Lagos – Kano Western Line rehabilitation completed.
* The 1,657km Port Harcourt – Maiduguri Eastern Line rehabilitation near completion.
* Rehabilitation of the Mainline from Ebute Metta Junction to Apapa Local Station by Nigeria Railway Corporation has been completed.
* Operation of 6 weekly express passenger train trips on Lagos -Kano and Offa – Kano.
* 40 new oil tank wagons already lifting petroleum products.
* The Eastern line, Port Harcourt-Maiduguri, 1,657km is nearly completed. Passengers and cargo services will be flagged off soon.
The rehabilitation of the narrow gauge lines is the first segment of the 25- year railway strategic plan, while the second segment is the modernization programme.
The Lagos – Kano Line is being executed in six segments on standalone basis in order to effectively? fund the projects. The segments are as follows:
* Abuja (Idu) – Kaduna (187km)
* Lagos – Ibadan (181km)
* Ibadan – Ilorin (200km)
* Ilorin – Minna (270km)
* Minna – Abuja (145km)
* Minna – Kano (360km)
Also, the construction of Lagos – Ibadan standard gauge line (double track) (180Km x 2) has commenced.
Feasibility studies on proposed standard gauge lines in various locations across Nigeria are nearing completion.
In further modernisation of the railway system, the corporation has procured 25 new locomotives , 40 oil tank wagons from General Electric and refurbished 366 coaches and wagons.
It has also taken delivery of two sets of Diesel Multiple Units (DMUs) with 540- passenger capacity each and six modern air-conditioner 68-seater coaches. Also purchased are 4 new CNR locomotives.
Today, the railway is a song worth singing, one of the post marks of President Goodluck Jonathan’s Transformation Agenda. The following are some of the immediate benefits of the railway revival process:
* Movement of wheat owned by Flour Mills Ltd from Apapa to Kaduna and Kano.
* Freight haulage for Connect Rail Limited (A freight Logistics Company)
* Weekly movement of 1,500 tons (equivalent to 50 trailer loads) of cement for Lafarge Cement Plc? from Ewekoro to Ibadan, Oshogbo, Ilorin, Minna and Kano.
* Movement of laterite from Otukpo – Makurdi covering 100,000 tons (3,333 trailer load equivalent) for Messrs SCC Nigeria Limited.
* Weekly movement of petroleum products equivalent to 30 tankers from Lagos up to Kano.
* Haulage of Heavy Materials for NRC Contractors: Lagos – Kafanchan and Various Destinations.
In total, from 2011 to date, about 561,883 metric tons of cargo have been conveyed by rail.
Also millions of commuters have availed themselves of the following NRC passenger services.
* Lagos -Kano Express Train Services, once per week.
* Offa – Kano Express service, once per week.
* Lagos – Ibadan – Ilorin- Lagos Train (thrice per week, moving an average of 6,188 passengers weekly)
* Minna – Kaduna – Minna Train (thrice per week, moving an average of 3,450 passengers per week)
* Kano – Nguru – Kano Train (twice per week, moving an average of 850 passengers per week.)
• Excursion Train: Highly patronised during festivities. E.g. Osun State utilised it during Easter.
• Intra –city Mass Transit such as the Lagos Mass Transit Train (16 Trains per day- an average of 16,000 passengers per day); and the Kaduna Intra-city Mass Transit Train (10 Trains Per Day- an average of 10,000 passengers per day).
To ensure the sustainability of the transformation agenda with regards to the railway revival, an investment Incentive Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) between General Electric (Transportation) and the Federal Government was signed to accommodate the upgrading and development of a multi modal Locomotives Assembly Facility in Nigeria to handle an initial target Assembly of 200 Locomotives over 10 years under a Special Country to Company Relationship.
According to the NRC, these are strategic gains that do not exclude similar other companies taking advantage of the resolute revival of a once iconic national network.
Commuters are looking to NRC for safe comfortable rides and our network of road will eventually be rid of heightened hazard and rapid degradation. The reversal of 50 years of undermined capacity is on course. And it is expected that the strong momentum the nation is witnessing will be sustained.
The world over, railways and roadways are complementary means of transport over the land. The advantage of railways over roads is that they can carry large number of passengers and large and heavy loads to long distances. A vast country like Nigeria cannot do without an effective railway system.
*Israel, a public affairs commentator, lives in Ilorin