Containers on rail
The federal government spends billions of naira rehabilitating the nation’s roads, which frequently break down, sometimes not just because of the poor quality of work but also because of the fact that they are not designed and built to carry the heavy load they are compelled to bear in the absence of rail transportation system. Thus, discerning business people, particularly those who had the benefit of using rail in the past, view the resuscitation of freight rail last week as indispensible to the nation’s socio-economic development, writes Bennett Oghifo
Interestingly, the horns of trains as they glide to and fro the terminus at Iddo/Ebute Metta do not disturb but draw smiles to the faces of those who could reminiscence on the important role trains played in their lives in the past.
Most people want trains back on track and, for various reasons too, but particularly for timeliness. “In those days they were prompt and safe. We timed some activities to the arrival of trains in our town each day,” said Mr. Modestus Ajunwa, 72, who lived in Umuahia, Abia State. “It was our dependable means of transportation,” he said with a look of nostalgia.
The flag off of the resumption of cargo freight was an opportunity to do a little bit of time-travel. Mr. Akinyemi Fapuro, a retired Central Power Controller with the Nigerian Railway Corporation NRC stated that the Operating and Commercial department oversees the rail bulk cargo. They lift petroleum products, coil usually very heavy, containers, cement from Ewekoro, etc. NRC usually lifts for companies who demand for their services.
He said, “Once you have your commodity, move them to the nearest point of loading and they do the rest. With this, goods are safer and on time at its destination. NRC ensures safe and smooth journey with no delay enroute. Should there be any problem with the locomotive, we provide substitutes and ensure the cargo gets to its destination.”
He said NRC supply Oil Tank Wagons (OTW) to fuel depots for loading, clear the sidings and send it to different states for distribution.
He stated that road tankers were not in vogue then due to the risk involved, but that this came up when NRC was almost grounded. “The present revitalisation will make the road tankers pack up as they cannot meet up the ever increasing demands as the rail cargo does.”
Fapuro explained that one oil tank wagon (OTW) can accommodate three to four trailers and they load about 20 of these on OTWs.
On the issue of healthy competition between the NRC and drivers employed by haulage companies, he said there should not be any form of revolt from road tanker drivers as the company transporting the goods and services would have to decide. “The deal is that NRC does the haulage, lifting from the petroleum depot source to its collection point while tankers pick from these collection points to the designated filling stations.”
The rail freight system needs a good stock of locomotives and wagons. The federal government launched four locomotives at the cargo train ceremony and more are expected to be added to the fleet to free some parts of the nation’s roads from heavy duty trucks used for haulage of bulk cargo, including petroleum products.
Managing Director of NRC, Adeseyi Sijuwade sees the event as historical in the life of the corporation because it is “a day we recommenced NRC’s active participation in the lifting of container cargoes from the ports to hinterland and in enhancing the ports decongestion drive.”
During the week, the Nigeria Railway Corporation’s Deputy Director, Public Relations, Mr. Ndanusa Ndakotsu said the container traffic and petroleum haulage, cement and other bulk products were being hauled by train as far back as six years ago and the service was suspended “because of the rehabilitation work that was going on the stretch between Lagos and Kano that took that long. Specifically, it took about three years to get that stretch of track completed by two Companies, Costain and CCECC. That track was opened to passenger traffic on December 31, last year.”
Ndakotsu said after some trial-run of the rehabilitated stretch, NRC started the freight train service, beginning with cement for Lafarge and Dangote from the Lagos Port and Ewekoro, Benue State, traveling to Kaduna. “There after, we started receiving patronage demands from companies that we should resume lifting of petroleum products for them. So, we hope to start very soon.”
Lifting petroleum products by rail, he said would not create any problem for them, particularly with tanker drivers. “We have been saying that we are not competing with them and they are not competing with us. It is just based on false notion. If anything I think it is the road tanker trailers that need us most.”
He said Dangote and Flour Mills in Lagos approached the NRC “as far back as four years ago that they want us to lift their products by rail because they find it cheaper and more economical. So, there is no issue of competition at; we complement each other. As we always say, the truck owners can takeoff from where the rails terminates, because the country is very big and not every part of the country is covered by rail.”
According to Ndakotsu, the commercial department charge prospective customers tonnage per kilometer and that the rate was far cheaper than haulage by road. “Worldwide, countries that know what it means to sustain their economy will not toy with railway; they put more emphasis on railway. For instance, countries like the United States, Canada, China, Russia, India, Pakistan and other countries with large land mass. Their dominant means of transportation is by rail. There is a saying that if you remove rail transport in China or India, then the whole country will collapse, because they move billions of tons of freight daily by train.”
The goods on the trains, he said are offloaded where the owners want them, explaining that they could be taken to any of the towns and cities between its route from Lagos to Kano and back.
The east-north railway tracks are being rehabilitated, he said and that it started in February this year between Port Harcourt and Maiduguri. “We are hoping that that stretch will be completed by December. Thereafter, we will resume passenger traffic and then freight.”
On the rail link between Lagos and Onitsha/Port Harcourt, he said there are plans to build this rail road. “They are going to be in stages. There is what we call the 25-year strategic vision for the railway and we are still on the first phase, which features the rehabilitation of the entire narrow guage. The second phase will be expansion to other states that do not have rail.
Status of Railroad
Records show that railways in Nigeria are operated by the Nigerian Railway Corporation. As at 2003, Nigeria’s poorly maintained rail system had 3,557 kilometers of 1,067 mm (3 ft 6 in) narrow gauge track. The country has two major rail lines: one connects Lagos and Nguru in Yobe Sate in the north; the other connects Port Harcourt in the Niger Delta and Maiduguri in Borno State. In order to remedy the poor condition, efficiency, and profitability of the nation’s railroads, the government is said to be seeking to privatise the Nigerian Railroad Corporation. Under the privatisation plan, three separate concessions of 25–30 years would be granted to private-sector companies to run railroads in the western, central, and eastern regions.
As at the beginning of this year, however, the only operational segment of Nigeria’s rail network is between Lagos and Kano, consisting narrow gauge: 3,557 km of Cape gauge; standard gauge: 329 km of 1,435 mm (4 ft 8 1⁄2 in) gauge.
Years of neglect of both the rolling stock (wagons) and the right-of-way (tracks) have seriously reduced the capacity and utility of the system. A project to restore Nigeria’s railways has been underway since 2009. A project to convert the gauge of the system to 1,435 mm (4 ft 8 1⁄2 in) has also somewhat stalled. Couplings of the chopper kind, vacuum brakes and non-roller bearing plain axles are also obsolete.
On the 21st of December last year, the federal government inaugurated the Nigeria Railway Corporation’s Lagos-Kano intercity passenger train services and haulage of petroleum products. The revitalised Lagos-Kano intercity train services will complement the existing Lagos-Ilorin and Minna-Kano intercity train services.
The Managing Director of the NRC, Mr. Adesey Sijuwade, said the Lagos-Kano Route covered a stretch of 1,126km, adding, “Today, we celebrate a successful completion of track and signaling rehabilitation of the Western Rail Line and the re-commencement of passenger and freight rail services on the Lagos-Kano corridor.”
The Rail Rehabilitation Process
On October 30, 2006 former President Olusegun Obasanjo signed a contract with China Civil Engineering Construction Corporation (CCECC) to modernise the Lagos to Kano railway line. This is the first phase of the proposed 3-phase line upgrade. The project has been split up into 5 sections; Lagos-Ibadan (181 km), Ibadan-Ilorin (200 km), Ilorin-Minna (270 km), Minna–Abuja–Kaduna (360 km), and Kaduna-Kano (305 km). Construction started, but the project was suspended in 2008 following a dispute. A supplementary agreement was signed in September last year and may now restart.