By Yemi Ogunbiyi
• The challenge of a new Nigerian railway
The direct impulse to the writing of this piece came from six separate inspection trips of the new 158.5km, double-track Standard Gauge railway line from Ibadan to Lagos which is about to be flagged off for use in May. Those inspection trips, which were spread out over a one-year period, were in the company of the Minister of Transport, Rt. Hon. Rotimi Amaechi.
The construction of the rail project itself, with extensions to Apapa Sea Port and associated railway stations, commenced in March 2017. Those inspection trips, taken together, had a tremendous impact on me and opened up for me vistas of new possibilities in my assessment of the future of our country. To fully understand the impact of my experience and put it in proper perspective, we would need to back-step a little into the history of the Nigerian Railway Corporation.
When the British decided in 1898 to construct the first railroad in Nigeria, that is, the 32km narrow gauge line from Iddo in the Lagos Colony to Ota in today’s Ogun State and subsequently to Ibadan, it was conceived purely as a commercial venture designed to ease the movement of goods from the hinterland to the coast for export. It took four years to complete that very first line in 1901. Thereafter, rail construction continued incrementally, with the Ibadan-Jebba line, between 1907 and 1911. Urged by the British Cotton Growing Association, a single track narrow gauge, with a speed of 12 miles per hour, was constructed in 1907 from Baro to Bida, Zungeru and Zaria to Kano, to ease the evacuation of cotton for export. Following the discovery of coal in Enugu in 1914, the 243km Port Harcourt – Enugu line was constructed to facilitate export of coal through Port Harcourt. Then, by 1924, several other lines were added, among them the Enugu – Makurdi line, the Kaduna – Kafanchan, and Kafanchan – Jos lines. In the 1920s and early 1930s, the Zaria – Gusau – Kaura Namoda lines were built. Then two final extensions, Kano – Nguru and Ifo – Idogo were added by 1930.
In all those years, the railways were run efficiently because the institution was then under the supervision of an efficiently-run civil service. Then on October 1, 1955, it became a public enterprise by an Act of Parliament (No. 26). By 1964, the old Nigerian Railways Corporation reached its peak performance when it was said to have conveyed some 11.2million passengers annually and about 3million tonnes of goods. In the 1963/64 Financial Year Report, the Corporation had a financial performance of £16million and a handsome working surplus of £2million. As a young high school boy, who had to shuttle during school holidays between Kano and Ibadan and later Lagos, I testify that during those years rail rides were superbly joyous.
Then, gradually, the rot set in, compounded by poor infrastructure maintenance, derelict and antiquated rail tracks, outmoded locomotives and wagons and, of course, corruption and poor management. Ironically, the neglect of the sector started with the British, who became, it seemed, more interested by 1960 in emerging markets elsewhere. For instance, for thirty-one years between 1927-1958, apart from two minor extensions to the rail network, namely, Kafanchan – Bauchi and Bauchi – Maiduguri, not a single rail sleeper was laid anywhere in the country. And then, for over fifty years between 1970 to only a few years ago, the sector laid comatose and became, with possibly one exception, a cheap dispensable pawn in the hands of successive Nigerian administrations.
To be sure, some efforts were made to revive the sector. In 1970, under the Obasanjo military regime, an Indian group, the Rail India Technical and Economic Services, were brought in to manage the corporation. When they left ten years after, there was little to show for their effort. Thereafter, another group of Romanians were paid $17million to supply wagons and workshop equipment. Again, it came to nothing. Then, in 1995, General Sani Abacha brought in the now famous China Civil Engineering Construction Company (CCECC) to rehabilitate the entire rail infrastructure. That $528million contract was also poorly executed. Then, again, in 2002, the Obasanjo civilian administration came up with an ambitious twenty-five year Strategic Vision for the corporation, one that would build a modernised 8,000km of railway network, linking all state capitals and industrial centres in the country. Indeed, in the dying days of his administration, Obasanjo re-engaged CCECC in 2006 to build the Lagos – Kano 1,315km Standard Gauge line for $8.3billion. But again, not much happened, until President Yar’ adua took over and cancelled the contract.
Ironically, the more noticeable transformation of the sector occurred during the Jonathan administration. In a move that appeared to have learnt a few lessons from the hiccups and false starts of previous administrations, Jonathan deployed a two-tracked strategy to rehabilitate the existing old narrow gauge and later commence the construction of new Standard Gauge lines; which was exactly what he did. The rehabilitation of the old lines led to the reactivation of a number of inter-city train services, such as the Makurdi – Port Harcourt line, through Aba and Enugu. Simultaneously, the administration commenced work on the new 187km Standard Gauge line between Abuja (Idu) and Kaduna (Rigasa). But the most remarkable of the Jonathan effort was the signing of a $11.9billion contract with the CCECC to build a coastal 22-stop Standard Gauge railway track that would stretch for 1,402km from Lagos, through Ijebu-Ode, Benin, Port Harcourt to Calabar, with a maximum travelling speed of 120km/hour. It was CCECC’s largest overseas contract up until that time.
Building on gains
Then enter the Buhari administration in 2015, with Rotimi Amaechi as Transport Minister. Handicapped, both by an antiquated 1955 Act which still guides the development and operation of the sector and the paucity of funds, President Buhari directed his new Minister to build on the gains of the past, while also charting a new, more radical path for the sector. Under a more radical approach that was now designed to increase the sector’s contribution to GDP from its present 20% to 70% by 2040, existing abandoned projects were to be completed, while also embarking on the design, construction and deployment of new, Standard Gauge lines. Accordingly, the Abuja (Idu) to Kaduna (Rigasa) Standard Guage project which had been crippled for lack of funds and almost abandoned by the previous administration was promptly completed and flagged off for commercial operation by President Buhari in July, 2016. As part of this scheme, and under Amaechi’s watch, the Itakpe – Ajaokuta – Warri railway Standard Gauge project, which was first conceived thirty-two years ago, was completed. This important line, complete with a modern Locomotive Depot at a Facility Yard in Agbor, would eventually be extended southwards to terminate at a new Warri Port and Abuja in the north. Incidentally, this line is going to be concessioned to a preferred bidder, CRCC, who would partner with government to construct and operate the line.
Also read: Transport, education and the rule of con men
While these were going on, President Buhari further directed that the rehabilitation of the existing narrow gauge line be speeded up. Some of those projects include the Lagos – Jebba 480km line, the Jebba – Kano 624km line, the Port Harcourt – Aba – Enugu – Makurdi 468km line, the Kuru – Bauchi – Gombe – Maiduguri 640km line, and the Makurdi – Kafanchan – Kaduna Junction – Kuru line. In between these rehabilitations, huge sums were expended, for the first time in a long time, on the upgrade and modernisation of key railway components and equipments, and on the procurement of Rolling Stock (wagons, coaches) and an assortment of parts for operational use. Not surprisingly, intra-city and inter-city mass passenger transit services resumed on the refurbished narrow gauge lines, as evidenced, for instance, in the deployment of 12 trains that carry some 13,000 passengers daily in Lagos and the Aba to Port Harcourt line which operates two daily services. Also, the intercity service between Lagos and Kano operates once a week, moving freight and passengers. The Offa – Kano –Offa line also operates, once a week.
As part of its Economic Recovery Programme, there are a number of other key projects that the current government has embarked upon under a PPP model that deserve to be mentioned, if only in passing. There is, for instance, the 284km Kano – Katsina – Makurdi Standard Gauge line. There are other such achievements as the installation of the Enterprise Resource Programme (ERP) to promote efficiency and the upgrade and modernisation of the antiquated communication and signaling system of the entire rail system. Not to be forgotten here is the revolutionary Transport Sector Reform Bill, which includes the Nigerian Railways Authority (NRA) Bill, designed to open up the sector for the first time, to private sector participation.
But, perhaps, the two projects in the category of planned railway projects for which the administration will be long remembered might well be the 2163km Port Harcourt – Maiduguri single-track Standard Gauge rail-line and the Coastal Railway Project, which was mentioned above. The proposed Port Harcourt to Maiduguri rail-line would traverse major industrial cities along the Eastern corridor, South-South, South-East and the North-Eastern geo-political zones of the country. Due to be completed in three years’ time, the rail network would pass through Aba from Port Harcourt, to Umuahia – Agwu – Enugu – Otukpo – Makurdi – Lafia – Akwanga – Kafanchan – Jos – Bauchi – Alkateri – Gombe – Bajoga – Damaturu – Maiduguri, with branch lines from Port Harcourt – Owerri – Akwa; Port Harcourt – Bonny; Enugu – Abakaliki; Akwanga – Keffi – Abuja and Gombe – Yola – Jalingo. This line would not only link the oil-producing South-South regions with the North and the rest of the country, but would also do what rail transportation does effectively, and that is, facilitate the transportation of agricultural products and livestock, and support industrial development, while also creating jobs and employment.
The two major by-products of these two projects are the proposed Bonny Deep Sea Port, as conceived by Rotimi Amaechi, with a capacity for 100,000 Dead Weight Tonnes (DWT), and the Industrial Park project in Port Harcourt on a land mass of some 54.4 square kilometres for the purpose of trans-shipment. For the concession purposes, Messrs. China Shandong International Economic and Technical Corporation group has emerged as the preferred partner, while Messrs. China Railway Evyman Engineering Corporation (CREEC) is the reserved bidder.
But many would argue that the real icing on the cake of the administration’s achievements to date is the about-to-be-completed 156.5km double track Standard Gauge line between Lagos –Ibadan, which, by the way, is a part of the longer Lagos – Kano line. This project is historic for one key reason. It is the first time that a sitting Nigerian government would start from the scratch to completion stage, a rail project while in office, since the last time it happened in 1964; and that last time was when the construction of the 302km Bauchi – Maiduguri line was begun in 1961 and completed in 1964. The second key factor of the project is the scope of its beauty and modernity. The sheer joy of watching, before our very eyes, Chinese and Nigerian engineers ploughing through thick and swampy equatorial forests, cutting down giant vegetation, and painstakingly laying state-of-the-art rail sleepers with skill and dexterity, and then proceeding to roll out air-conditioned passenger coaches in a record two year time was a sight to behold.
The raw details of the project, quantities and all, testify to an engineering feat of considerable proportion. The entire project involved some 24.26million square metres of earth work. There are thirty-one different categories of bridges in all, made up of extra-long bridges, frame bridges and steel structure bridges. On its 156 kilometre stretch, it has 207 culverts, 40 other Railway-Crossing bridges and 31 pedestrian overpasses, 708 32m-beams, 168 groups of single drive turnout and one huge 110m tunnel underpass bridge at Abeokuta. Apart from the Apapa Habour Station, there are nine stations along the line: Lagos, Agege, Agbado, Kajola, Papalanto, Abeokuta, Olodo, Omu-Ado, Ibadan and Apapa Port stations. Although, its design capacity is for a 150km an hour speed, it could conveniently travel at 120km an hour. So fully equipped are the trains that some of the Executive and VIP coaches come with conference rooms and modern counter bars. The specially manufactured refrigerated freight locomotives and livestock locomotives and wagons are as modern as any, anywhere. Details of the contract include the supply of adequate spare parts for the Rolling Stock and the supply of maintenance equipment for a substantial period of time.
The contract details even go further. In order to ensure knowledge transfer and the localising of the manufacturing process, President Buhari, on the advice of Rotimi Amaechi, insisted on the immediate implementation of two other aspects of the contract from inception, namely, the take-off of the training of young Nigerian undergraduates in Railway Engineering and other important Transport-related disciplines, in China, under a scholarship scheme to be paid for by the Chinese, and the establishment of a Transportation University in Nigeria. As the Lagos – Ibadan line rolls off its tracks in December, the first batch of young Nigerian graduates would be preparing to return home from China to gradually begin the task of taking over the eventual running and maintenance of the industry from the Chinese. And as part of its Corporate Social Responsibility, but essentially also in response to government’s aforementioned demands for local capacity building and adequate knowledge transfer, Messrs. CCECC Nigeria Ltd has established a Transportation University in Daura, Katsina State. Again, the first intakes into the University would resume later in 2019.
The economic benefits of these programmes, indeed, of railroad infrastructure are too numerous to be recounted here. As the example of India teaches us, economic miracles come with expansive rail-road infrastructure. Obviously, rails can carry larger volumes of goods, over greater distances, unhindered by traffic jams or even weather conditions, making it more economical than road and even water. In our own unique case in Nigeria, the savings to be made by radically reducing the carnage on our roads cannot be quantified in naira and kobo. It is also significant to note that the benefits of railroad access far outweigh the infrastructure costs. It is even far more significant to note that World Bank studies demonstrate that the arrival of rail roads in many developing nations causes real Gross Domestic Product (GDP), especially in the agricultural sector, to increase by about 20 per cent. Understandably, 20 per cent of all monies lent from the World Bank to developing nations is earmarked for transportation infrastructure projects, which is more than for Education, Health and Social Services put together. Therefore, money expended on the development of rail transportation in Nigeria is money well spent.
But there is a consequential sub-text to the success so far, of the Buhari government’s attempt to radically revamp the rail subsector and that is the Rotimi Amaechi factor which manifests itself in two ways.
There is, on the one hand, the palpable synergy at play between the local Nigerian Railway team, led by its Managing Director, Mr. Freeborn Okhiria, which is a welcomed departure from previous projects, where the local Railway’s staff were side-lined, often to the detriment of the project. On the other hand, there is the passion with which Amaechi has driven the project from inception. Relentlessly impelled, at all times, by a desire to make an impactful difference, Amaechi has directed and managed the affairs of the rail sub-sector in a practical, down-to-earth style that has become the hallmark of his exemplary public service.
Never a man to drift with the tide, Rotimi Amaechi approaches public service with passionate convictions and a unique style and courage that are a counter to cheap populism. Under his watch, the Chinese contractors working on the Lagos – Ibadan project, agree that they have been driven to meet deadlines as never before in the execution of that contract. For instance, barely, months after the commencement of the project, Amaechi initiated monthly inspection tours of the project, with each inspection exercise ending with a Steering Committee meeting, held, not in the cozy confines of the Minister’s office in Abuja, but on the project’s site office at the Ibadan end of the rail track. At each of those sessions, thorough reviews of the project were undertaken, with specific references made to targets, timelines and scheduled outputs. During the six sessions where I was present, the issue of capacity building and the effective knowledge transfer recurred again and again. Firmly, but politely, the Minister put the same question at the Chinese contractors: “How many more Nigerians have you recruited since we last met?” “Are you making sure that our Engineers are being carried along?” “Are you sure those young Nigerians we saw at kilometre 81 site are qualified engineers and not artisans?” It was clear at these sessions that the Chinese were quite unfamiliar with such direct frontal engagements from a Nigerian Minister! They seemed usually rattled not only by the Minister’s practical methods and approach to these matters, but also by his grasp of the fine details of the sub-sector!! Apparently, that method seemed to have yielded results, because, (again, by their own admission) the Chinese affirm that that approach practically pushed them to their limits and ensured that the rail line was completed within the two year schedule. Amaechi, as the Chinese were to learn, never stops pushing!!!
Unfortunately, Rotimi Amaechi’s methods and relentless push for results sometimes presents the erroneous image of a man who is abrasive, arrogant or even pugnacious! But the truth is that Amaechi has always been a man of passionate forthrightness and deep convictions. When I first met him some thirty-five years ago, he was a young nineteen-year old at the University of Port Harcourt, where I had been invited by my friend, Dr. Chidi Amuta, to deliver a lecture to his undergraduate Literature class. Although, suffused as he was then in his half-baked leftist ideologies, he stood out, challenging, with almost combative forthrightness, some of the tennets of the literary canons I had thrown at the students!! It is an encounter that I have never forgotten!!! I recall that former Bayelsa Governor, Timipre Sylva was also in that class and reminded me of that lecture a few years ago.
In a society where lethargy and obsequiousness have been elevated to virtues, being a non-conformist, with the courage and conviction to sometimes stand alone, could be equated with recklessness. In such situations, being brutally frank and passionately outspoken are viewed with suspicion. Professor Wole Soyinka captured this essence of Rotimi Amaechi’s being better than I could ever do. In his Foreword entitled “The Tyranny of Courage”, to a book on Rotimi Amaechi, Soyinka celebrates Amaechi’s courage to stand up, almost alone (at least, so it seemed at the time) to Jonathan’s corrupt-riddled administration, even as some castigated Amaechi for being a “reckless spoiler”. Writing about the ‘courage of principled minority’, Soyinka affirms: “In a nation where the meaning of courage is the very act of daily survival, this is perhaps understandable. But it is necessary also to remind the thinking part of any electorate that there exist others in the ranks of leadership who refuse to pander to the lowest denomination of public expectations. They lay the foundation for a viable future, even at the risk of earning the hostility, even of a violent nature of others on their, or other rungs, of the shared ladder of power”.
But back to Rotimi Amaechi and the railway! In the end, the real legacy of the unfolding revolution in the rail sector might not merely be in the ability of the Buhari administration to actualise the revolution, but in laying a solid foundation that can sustain the achievements for all time. The future of the sector lies in its full privatisation. The very idea of a national railway corporation is archaic and outmoded. The place of the rail industry in the development of our economy is far too important to be left to the vagaries of politics. And one is not even sure that the proposed Nigerian Railway Authority Bill would go far enough.
As one of Nigeria’s renowned economists, Dr. Ayo Teriba, had argued in the past, the government must carve the country into zones, allow private firms to bid for the rights to build and operate railway under a new regulatory body. That would lead, hopefully, to the emergence of regional railway networks. Again, the Indian example is helpful here. The Indian railway networks, which is one of the most complex in the world, is managed at regional levels, with the complex divided into seventeen zonal railways that are semi-autonomous. In Great Britain, where our current model came from, under its 1993 Railway Act, the old integrated structure was broken up, paving the way for passenger trains to run under either open franchise or an open access basis. And although the Secretary of State for Transport still has overall responsibility for rail transportation within the United Kingdom, neither freight train operators, nor passenger train operators have any contracts with government. Even the Rolling Stock is owned by leasing companies.
There is work to do here and President Buhari needs to sustain the momentum of the past three years. But the Transport Minister and his team would also have to do a lot more. The ultimate objectives must be to modernise the entire rail sub-sector, no matter how long it takes. In the era of speed trains, we should be looking beyond the refurbishment of antiquated narrow gauge trains and the construction of slow moving Standard Gauge lines. And fast trains are already here with us. We should take full advantage of the latest rail transport technology and be driven by the same objectives that characterise the best prototypes of modern rail travel today: speed, comfort, safety and cost-effectiveness.