Eromosele Abiodun writes that the Nigerian government’s effort to ease the cost of doing business at the seaports by moving cargo via the rail network is yielding results

In 2013, the then Transport Minister, Senator Idris Umar, flagged off a regime of movement of containers by rail from Apapa port to the northern part of the country. During one of the initial trips in the deal brokered between the Nigerian Ports Authority (NPA) and the Nigerian Railway Corporation (NRC), a haulage train transporting 20 units of containers from Lagos port to ICNL depots in Kano and Kaduna states broke down at Mopa, a town in Kogi state.

In 2017 as well, before a cargo train, which took off from Lagos to Kano reportedly got to Oshogbo, about three of its last coaches detached from the rest. Eyewitnesses alleged that the three coaches started moving backwards until they got to the interchange at the terminus in Oshogbo where the wheels got off the track and the coaches fell on their side.

That has been the story of cargo evacuation via the rail over the years, making experts to conclude that the Nigeria’s rail system is bedevilled by a technologically restrictive narrow rail gauge with questionable integrity due to prolonged years of neglect.

Many efforts at revving up rail transport to make it the pivot for the evacuation of goods from the ports to the hinterland have met with frustrating challenges. The history dates back to post-civil war Nigeria.
After the massive cargo and ship congestion of the immediate post-civil war period when up to 500 vessels were anchored, waiting to berth at Apapa port at the peak of the congestion, the military government began an ambitious port development programme.

Unfortunately, the planning was devoid of a futuristic concept. Unlike the older terminals at Apapa and Port Harcourt ports which had rail lines running the length of the quayside for direct delivery of cargoes onto coaches, there was no such thing in the design for the Tin Can Island, new Port Harcourt, Calabar and Warri ports that were touted as modern facilities.

New Step
A major effort to revamp the ailing railway sector in Nigeria was conceived during the administration of former President Goodluck Jonathan to complement existing modes of transportation in the country.
In 2013, Jonathan, promised to invest over N1.6 trillion in the country’s railway sector for a period of two years. The projection was that by 2015, about 15 different railway tracks would have been completed and delivered nationwide. The routes in view included: the Lagos – Calabar stretch at the cost of $11.12 billion, the 1657 km Port Harcourt- Maiduguri route, the Port Harcourt – Makurdi route (463km) and the Makurdi – Kuru route (1016 km). Others included the 640 km Kuru – Maiduguri axis and the Jos- Kafanchan stretch spanning a distance of 640 km.
About N12 billion was pencilled down for the rehabilitation of some other major routes. These included the light rail tracks for Lagos – Jebba, Abuja – Kaduna, Iddo Station in Lagos, and Kaduna Station. Others are Kano, Port Harcourt, Enugu, Jos and Gombe.

NPA Intervention
As customary to Nigeria, the promise to evacuate cargo from the seaport never materialised leading to the traffic gridlock in Apapa that paralysed business activity and untold human suffering along the Apapa axis.
Concerned by the Apapa situation and the need to drive ease of doing business, the Nigerian Ports Authority (NPA) stepped in outlining plans to ensure cargo are evacuated from the port via the rail way.
Speaking during her maiden visit to the Lagos Port Complex, Apapa on familiarisation tour, Managing Director of the NPA, Hadiza Bala-Usman emphasised the need to move cargo in and out of the port by rail so as to lessen pressure on the road.

She said that because of the exigency of the times, the NPA will work with the NRC to facilitate this by ensuring that the tracks are in place and provision made for rolling stock.
The disclosure came on the heels of several calls by stakeholders for shift from emphasis on road haulage to intermodal transport especially as access road to Lagos and other ports are highly dilapidated.
At ENL Consortium and Apapa Bulk Terminal Ltd, Bala-Usman tried to find out how they’ve been able to make use of rail to move cargo.

Executive Director Operations of ENL, Mark Walsh, explained that the use of the rails has not been very popular with port users, but since the terminal started making use of it, others have seen the need.
The NPA boss encouraged port users to adjust to more frequent use of the rail, urging them to get across to NPA concerning any challenge in this regard which will be sorted out with the NRC.

Improved Cargo Evacuation
Though not as much as would be expected, available numbers revealed that about 5,948 containers load of cargoes were moved out of the Lagos seaports in the last five years. Notably, the Lagos Port Complex, Apapa is the only port in the Western Zone connected by rail.

Available, statistics showed that 5,948 containers out of 2,847,000 were received in the years under review. The data showed that in 2013, 625,000 containers were discharged at Lagos Port while, 613,000 were discharged in 2014. In 2015, 604,000 were discharged while 505,000 and 500,000 were discharged in 2016 and 2017 respectively. But, 650 containers were moved out of the port by rail in 2014, and 412 were moved in 2015. In 2016, the number dropped to 273 and moved up to 2,760 in 2017. In 2018 alone, 1,853 containers have been moved so far from January to April from the Lagos port.

Before the NPA intervened, inability to move containers by rail out of the seaport put much pressure on the roads and bridges in Lagos leading to dilapidated state of the port access roads.
Vice Chairman, dry cargo section of the National Association of Road Transport Owners (NARTO), Lagos State, Inuwa Abdullahi, believes the initiative for moving goods out of the ports via railway lines would ease traffic on the roads.

He said: “The NPA’s involvement to ease the cost of doing business at the seaport through cargo movement via rail network needs to be properly streamlined with the NRC for it to succeed. It was also gathered that inefficiencies on the part of the NRC has also contributed to the poor numbers of cargoes moved out from the port.’’
On his part, the National Publicity Secretary-elect of the Association of Nigerian Licensed Customs Agents (ANLCA), Joe Sanni said rail remains the only alternative for movement of cargoes out of the seaports.

He, however, charged government to invest heavily on railway infrastructure saying that would help decongest the nation’s roads.

“There is no doubt about the fact that the only way out of decongesting the ports fast and ease movement of goods out of the ports is to move cargoes through rail which can carry as much as possible and can go the distance and is the safest in view of our bad roads for now,” he said.

Sanni, a foremost clearing agent, said movement of goods by rail would also help reduce freight cost and by extension reduce price of goods.

NRC Steps Up
Meanwhile, the NRC, in a bid to speed up the process, has announced plans to deploy between 15 to 20 locomotive wagons to the nation’s seaports to ease cargo evacuation processes.
In a statement signed by the General Manager, Corporate & Strategic Communications of the NPA, Abdullahi Goje, the top echelon of the NPA and the NRC has inspected terminals in the Apapa port to look at ways of reviving full rail evacuation of cargoes at the ports.

Speaking during the facility maintenance inspection of the rail lines in the ports recently, the Managing Director of the NRC, Fidet Okhiria, stated that the working visit was to assess the present state of the rail lines in order to further collaborate with the NPA in the area of rehabilitation.

The Director of Operations of the NRC, Mr. Niyi Alli, who stood in for the MD of the corporation explained that the rail service would be optimally utilized for cargo evacuation in line with the federal government’s policy of Ease of Doing Business in the country.

He stated that plans are being concluded by putting into operation between 15 to 20 Locomotive Wagons with each evacuating 20 units of 40 footer container at a go from the Terminals to the hinterland.

The General Manager MD’s Office, Iheanacho Ebubeogu, who represented the NPA boss informed stakeholders and port users of the renewed vigour and determination of management at improving the present state of infrastructure to meeting world-class standards towards ensuring the swift evacuation of cargo from the seaports across the country to the hinterlands through the rail lines.
According to her, management was fully aware of the state of congestion in the ports caused by the bad roads within the port axis.

This, she regretted, has led to a reduction in revenue accruable to the Organisation as well as the inability of the nation to maximise her potential as a major player in the Maritime sector within sub-Saharan Africa.
“Management would collaborate and improve on the existing synergy with the NRC at addressing the challenges facing the Corporation with a view to increasing the market size of the country in the area of Cargo evacuation,” the NPA MD stated.

Exporting Solid Minerals
As part of the effort to enhance cargo evacuation, the NPA recently flagged off the first export consignment of manganese, a solid mineral resource from the Ikorodu lighter terminal.
Bala-Usman said the NPA under her management is keen to drive inter model transport as part of efforts to further decongest the traffic gridlock on Apapa Port axis.

She disclosed that the NPA is ready to partner any agency or private investor who will give priority to intermodal transport, “as the continuous reliance on our road is no longer feasible and should be discouraged.”
Bala-Usman added that the flag off event is of huge economic advantage to the country adding that using barges to ferry containers of solid mineral across the waters to the APM Terminal within Apapa Ports will help to elongate the life of, “our roads as this mode of export will be most encouraged.”

Furthermore the NPA boss stated that the occasion is an eye opener and also serves to generate more revenue for the nation and provide employment opportunities.

Calling on stakeholders to key into the window of Public Private Partnership (PPP), she stated that the occasion further deepens NPA management efforts at complying with the federal government’s directives on the Ease of Doing Business at the nation’s sea ports whilst the rehabilitation of the ports access roads are ongoing at Apapa.
In partnering with and encouraging private initiatives, the MD NPA added that the authority would ensure the deployment of Standard Operational Procedures (SOPs) with the view to complying with international best practices.
The Chief Executive Officer of Connect Rail Services Limited (CRSL), Edeme Kelikume representing the service provider, appreciated the NPA’s role in the provision of the enabling environment for the take-off of the project.
The NPA had from inception the present management made bold that it would promote the stimulation of export trade through the nation’s sea ports.