By Chris Onuoha
“But for the rail transport coming as a viable alternative, we would have all been doomed, or at best, we would completely avoid going back home”, says Hajia Bilikisu Sanusi, a senior female civil servant, who works in Abuja, but comes from Kaduna State. Hajia Sanusi, who spoke to Sunday Vanguard newspaper, at the Idu train station in Abuja, was obviously elated as she heaved a sigh of relief on stepping out of the train station, at the Abuja end of the journey.
Hajia Sanusi is just one of the many hundreds of passengers who have literally abandoned the Abuja/Kaduna highway for fear of being kidnapped, robbed or, worse, killed by the army of marauders and bandits who have practically seized the soul of the road. In recent times, the Abuja-Kaduna road had been reduced to highway of horror, what with the daily reports of kidnapping, torture and robbery.
The senior civil servant was also full of praise for the Buhari-led government which has ensured that the rail transport between Abuja and Kaduna is fully functional and indeed, coming to the rescue of many Nigerians who commute between both cities.
According to her, “ we are grateful that, at least, the railway transport between Abuja and my home state, Kaduna, is working effectively; and we have Mr President to thank for this, without forgetting the Minister of Transportation, Mr Rotimi Amaechi who has been very passionate about rail development in Nigeria”.
Although the Abuja/Kaduna rail was started and somewhat commissioned by the administration of President Goodluck Jonathan, it was the President Mohammadu Buhari administration that completed the rail system between the two cities.
Sources in the Ministry of Transport had explained to Sunday Vanguard that the Jonathan administration stopped the rail tracks at Kubwa, in Abuja, because of the Catholic hospital which was on the right of way.
It was the present Minister of Transportation, Mr Amaechi who had to negotiate with the Catholic authorities to relocate the church’s hospital before the rail tracks were completed, leading to the rail connection between both points – Abuja and Kaduna. The federal government provided the funds for the building of another hospital, just so the rail line was not obstructed.
However, the ministry source remarked that the fact remains that the Jonathan administration initiated the project and drove it to the point it was before the present administration came into office.
Completing the Abuja-Kaduna rail had gulped $500 million and it is running.
And the Minister of Transportation insists that the government is committed to connecting all state capitals in the country with rail, adding that “it is aimed at making mass movement of people and goods easier across the country”. It is in the pursuit of this agenda, according to Amaechi, that the Calabar-Kano, as well as the Lagos-Calabar rails are conceived and being pursued.
The beauty of this will be better appreciated with the plan to extend all rail lines to all the seaports in the country so cargoes and other goods can be picked directly from the seaports and taken to other parts of the country, thus saving the roads of the impact of heavy haulages, and at far cheaper cost.
Already, the Lagos/Ibadan rail is near completion, even as the Lagos-Abeokuta rail has been completed and running.
Amaechi explained that “by the end of the year, the Lagos-Ibadan rail will be up and running. By June, this year the entire tracks would have been laid up to Ibadan. Indeed, work had continued on that corridor, literally, day and night.
It is the same passion that also led to the resuscitation of the Itakpe-Warri rail line which had been abandoned for over 34 years.
According to Amaechi, the Federal Government’s decision to revisit the Itakpe/Warri railway is to sustain the dream behind the project at the time it was conceived. Both towns are steel-producing communities, one in Kogi State and the other in Delta State. The rail was thus meant to connect both companies for the ease of transportation of goods and equipment.
Already, the Itakpe/Warri rail has fully commenced operation as it daily lifts 100 passengers per trip between both points, even as plans are afoot to increase the number of coaches on the corridor.
To ensure that the rail system runs with maximum efficiency, the Managing Director of Nigerian Railway Corporation (NRC), Engineer Freeborn Edetanlaen Okhiria explained that “Nigeria is gradually tackling the railway challenge as this government (of President Muhammadu Buhari) has shown deep commitment to rail development in the country and with the deep devotion of the Minister of Transport, the sky will be our limit in rail development”.
The zeal of the minister in driving the rail project may have received recognition even outside the country.
About three weeks ago, the Ghanaian government, sent a team to Nigeria to understudy the strides the Nigerian government is making in rail development. Led by its Minister of Rail Development, Hon Joe Ghartey, the team joined in the tour of the rail construction between Lagos and Ibadan. Hon Ghartey commended the devotion and commitment of Mr Amaechi in the pursuit of the rail project in Nigeria.
Commenting on how Amaechi has totally given his time and passion for the rail development, Dr Omenazu Jackson, a consultant with the UNDP and Chancellor, International Society for Social Justice and Human Rights noted that whenever he (Amaechi) is convinced about a project, he gives it his all and that is what we are seeing in his strides in the rail development of the country.
Convinced that the rail transportation is headed for better days ahead, Eng Okhiria also explained that the Itakpe/Warri railway transportation will be further boosted soon as the Railway village and Railway yard are completed in Agbor, Delta State.
The Railway village was burnt down some years ago but it is about being rehabilitated and will have to boot, facilities like school, hospital and residential quarters for rail workers and their families.
In the same vein, the railway yard will cater for the maintenance need of the rail system within that axis.
The Itakpe/Warri rail revitalised at the cost of $200 million, was wholly and solely funded by the federal Government. “We did not borrow a kobo to fund the Itakpe-Warri rail project, Amaechi said.
Being built by the China Civil Engineering Construction Corporation (CECC), the rail infrastructure in Nigeria is being funded by loans, largely obtained from China. The cost of the rail projects have accounted for a good chunk of the debt Nigeria is owing.
Speaking on the many benefits of the rail transport system, Amaechi noted that in the areas where the rail has been completed, the economies of those localities have improved significantly citing the cost of land and other landed properties in the Lagos –Ibadan rail corridor, which he said, have remarkably appreciated.
Despite the funding challenges facing the infrastructural development in the country, one thing certain is that the rail development under the management of the present Minister of Transportation is bound to change the narrative of mass transit schemes in Nigeria, if the same level of devotion and commitment is sustained in the years ahead.