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The challenge of a new Nigerian railways II

Continued from Friday.
he 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.

Yemi Ogunbiyi
Yemi Ogunbiyi

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.

Knowledge transfer and the localising of the manufacturing process

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.

FG orders two additional coaches for Abuja-Kaduna route

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.

Lagos-Ibadan rail will be ready in June, says Amaechi


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 Railways! In the end, the real legacy of the onfolding 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 Railways 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 Railways Authority Bill would go far enough.

Emergence of regional railway networks

As one of Nigeria’s renowned economists, Dr. 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 railways 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 Railways 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 are 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.


Dr. Yemi Ogunbiyi, who is a former Managing Director of the Daily Times, is now Chairman of TANUS Books Ltd.

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