By Evelyn Usman

Three weeks ago, this reporter flew to Warri, Delta state for an official engagement     but decided to travel by road to Benin, from where she was to fly back to Lagos.

I would have missed my flight. The journey which ordinarily should not be more than one hour, took five and a half hours, owing to ongoing repairs along   the Sapele –Benin expressway, which forced vehicles coming from opposite directions to make use of one lane. The lane was   also in a deplorable state.

This situation is peculiar to several other major expressways in the country . From the Benin/Shagamu expressway, to the Lagos/Ibadan, Enugu-Onitsha Express way, and Abeokuta expressway, the sorry tale is same. The harrowing experience of the ripple effect of these bad roads on Nigerians is second to none, as travelers spend hours on the road , at the mercy of criminals who cash on the situation to cause mahem.

It will not be out of place to state that Nigerian roads are progressively falling into a state of disrepair, with the resultant traffic gridlock, which has become a major   concern.

The   Apapa/Oshodi expressway, Lagos, for instance is a gut-wrenching portrait of total neglect that has   spanned   for a decade and caused both human and economic losses.

Railway as solution

There have been several calls on the Federal Government to improve on the rail system, which is considered as the only situation to ameliorating the plights of Nigerians, owing to its ability to    move a large number of people   and goods at once,   as well as  create job opportunities for the teeming unemployed youths.

But hope for those  living in the South West states to bid good bye to traffic gridlock, soon, following earlier assurance by the Federal government to complete the Lagos-Ibadan rail may be dashed.

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This is because the Minister  of Transport, Chibuike Rotimi Amaechi, disclosed   during the 2020 Budget presentation to the Joint Committee of the Senate on Maritime Transport and House of Representatives on Ports and Harbour, Inland Waterways and Maritime Safety, that the rail system   project would gulp billions of dollars which was not available at the moment.

According to him, “We would need billions of dollars to be able to address the rail infrastructure, not all of them, but at least the ones that can hold the economy. They   are:   Lagos to Kano, Lagos to Calabar and Port Harcourt to Maiduguri.

“Lagos to Kano, is Lagos-Abeokuta-Ibadan and   we expect to finish it before the end of April next year. We are actually close to the end, it is just the challenges we are having around Lagos and its cosmopolitan nature. We have finished from Iju to Ibadan. All we are doing now is to complete the stations. We hope that before April we would have finished everything about Iju to the Seaport in Lagos. Now , Lagos to Kano is between 8.3 to 8.7 billion dollars. For that we are getting a loan from the China Exim Bank.

“Another thing I like to tell the Nigerian public, is that I come from the south so I’ll be very interested in Port Harcourt to Maiduguri and at the same time I’ll be interested in Lagos to Calabar because they are all in the south. But this   is not done based on ethnic interests but by economic needs.

“The most viable route if we forget about ethnic needs, is Lagos-Kano. It has capacity to generate 30million tons of cargo, so when we want to pay back, it’s a lot easier to pay back using money from the revenue. Port Harcourt-Maiduguri is 11million tons of cargo. We are yet to get a study of the Lagos to Calabar.

“ Lagos to Kano is Lagos-Abeokuta-Ibadan-Ogbomosho-Ilorin-Minna-Abuja-Kaduna-Kano. At Osogbo, it links up to a stop in Ekiti.   Lagos to Calabar is Lagos through Ore, we are trying to get it to Akure the capital of Ondo. So from Ore-Benin- Benin, that is spur that takes to Agbor, Asaba and Onitsha; and it continues from Benin to Ughelli, Warri, Yenagoa, Port Harcourt, instead of going straight to Uyo, you tee back to Aba, Aba to Uyo, Uyo to Calabar. That is Lagos to Calabar” .

PH to Maiduguri

From port Harcourt to Maiduguri, he said   there were two alignments there: Port Harcourt-Owerri-Nnewi-Awka-Enugu-Abakaliki.

The second alignment according to him, was Port Harcourt-Aba-Umuahia-Enugu-Makurdi-Lafia-Jos-Akwanga, which      connects to Abuja, in order for there to be a connection between West and east.   It also continues to Jos-Bauchi-Gombe-Yola-Damaturu-Maiduguri.

Loans

Giving a break down of what it would cost to complete the project, the Minister, said, “ For   Lagos to Kano,   we already have funds because it was the first project by Obasanjo, it is   about 8.7 billion dollars. Lagos to Calabar   is 11.1 billion dollars, Port Harcourt to Maiduguri is 14.2 billion dollars.

“If you ask me, as the Minister of Transport, I want this thing to pass through my village, but the money is just not there. However, one of the reasons we are going to Sochi, Russia, is to negotiate for loan for either Port Harcourt to Maiduguri or Lagos to Calabar.

“ We are not forgetting South-East. I just told you that we have sent it to Russia now, since the Chinese government is saying they don’t have enough money for other projects. They’re trying to finish the ones they started. So we’re looking for money to fund the rest projects. If we do get the funds, believe me the president is desirous of completing infrastructure projects because he believes that that is the first step to economic growth.

Priority

“But like you know, there’s a difference between want and need. So we are fighting for resources. I come from the south, I can’t deny myself and face the   North. But I give you two reasons, the first reason is economic viability, there are 30 million tons of cargo from Lagos to Kano, don’t forget that project was started before we came. It was handed over to China Exim bank though they didn’t fund it until we came. When we came, that’s what they chose to fund. They also chose to fund Lagos to Calabar, but I’ve been pursuing them everyday, but money is not forth coming. We plead with Nigerians to be patient with us and allow us to look for   money. Whatever money we get, we’ll do it”.

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There’s another proposal coming up, the difference between standard gauge and narrow gauge is speed. So the speed for standard gauge in Nigeria is 120km/hr, the speed for narrow gauge is 100km/hr. So if we don’t have 14 billion dollars to build Port Harcourt to Maiduguri, we could as well rehabilitate the old one. Rehabilitation for us this time is not like the one they did in the past government.

“. What makes narrow gauge slow is that when it gets to a hill, it avoids the hill and when it avoids the hill, it slows down. For standard gauge, it will break through the hill. So what we are doing with this proposal is to possible rehabilitate the narrow gauge pending when we get money to do the standard gauge in Port Harcourt-Maiduguri .

Proposals

“We have two proposals. The first one is we’re pursuing the loan for standard gauge, if we don’t get the loan, we should look for a shorter and cheaper loan to rehabilitate the old ones and this rehabilitation requires total removal of the narrow gauge track,   replace it with new ones, building of new stations, new communication equipment and others. And I want to remind Nigerians that in South Africa, they have about 35,500kms of tracks, only 500km is standard gauge, the rest is narrow gauge.

Concerns for speedy completion

“  With the money available to us,   they are done in what they call ‘gangs’. A gang will take Ibadan to Osogbo, another gang will take Osogbo to Illorin, another gang will take Illorin to Minna, another gang will take from Minna to Abuja, another gang will take from Abuja to Kaduna, another one from Kaduna to Kano. I’ve gone to the field, all of them are working at the same time, the problem will be, more machines, more human beings working at the same time, leaving at the same time.

“ But we are yet to get the money, we just went to China. When they sign the agreement we’ll come to the national assembly to give us what they call borrowing plan, when they approve the borrowing plan they’ll give the money to us.

“ If you look at Lagos-Ibadan they’ve been completed. We are removing water pipes, gas pipes, sewers and community problems. The only problem I have with Lagos-Ibadan is Lagos is we are removing flyovers and place to build flyovers.

“Another problem we might have is Kaduna to Kano, but if you check the design, its behind the city. We don’t go inside the city, we will   try to work outside the city so that we don’t demolish too many houses. Just like you’re worried, I am also worried; we must make sure that we   finish it for the President to   commission, before he goes.

Safety

“ The first thing we will   address on our railways is safety because once it happens, the number of persons that will die will be more than what obtains in   road accidents. If it happens in railway,   about 500 persons will be invved. In fact each coach for now is 87 persons and we have 10 coaches for now, when you multiply 87 by 10 coaches, imagine the amount of persons that will be affected.

“The instruction is that no driver should move if there’s a safety problem. The same for our tracks, we watch our tracks. There are Air Force planes following a train as it is going. There is   a police vehicle on the side. There are policemen in the vehicle and when anything happens, they report to the Minister even when there is a stop.

Maintenance and sustainability

“We have sent over 150 persons, to two universities in China. They are   funded by the Chinese government to go and study railway engineering. They’ve gone and     we hope that in four years they will graduate. Those who will do Masters and PhD will   come back and teach in the university we are establishing here. We are establishing a transportation University in Daura. The project is also not funded by us. It will be managed by the company building it ,for years before we have lecturers to take over. We are making sure that we have manpower to take over from the Chinese”

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“  For the Kajoula project, we got them to sign an agreement with us that they will produce subsequently in Nigeria, so we are building a factory at Kajoula, Ogun state. The Vice President will lay the foundation stone very soon.   I’ll just say that we are doing a lot to localise the railway technology”.

The minister had earlier disclosed that 20 new coaches for the Abuja-Kaduna and the Lagos –Ibadan rail lines would arrive Nigeria soon.

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