May 10, 2019

The challenge of new Nigerian railways

The challenge of new Nigerian railways

Passengers at the Departure of Nigeria Railway Corporation, Terminus Ido, Lagos Board Omoluabi Free Train to Osogbo, for Eid-El Kabir Celebration Provided by Osun state government; Pix: Some Passengers Entering Train, on. 10/09/2016. Photo: Bunmi Azeez

The direct impulse to the writing of this piece came from six separate inspections 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.

Passengers at the Departure of Nigeria Railway Corporation, Terminus Ido, Lagos Board Omoluabi Free Train to Osogbo, for Eid-El Kabir Celebration Provided by Osun state government; Pix: Some Passengers Entering Train, on. 10/09/2016. Photo: Bunmi Azeez

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 Railways 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 hintherland 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 to 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.

Supervision of an efficiently-run civil service

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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 $528 million 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.

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Then enters 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.

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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.

Two major by-products of  the two projects

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.

Continues on Monday.

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