The Challenge of a New Nigerian Railways

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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 December. Those inspection trips, which were spread out over a one-year period, were in the company of the Minister of Transport, The Rt. Hon. Chibuike 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 thatexperience and put it in proper perspective, we would need to back-step a little into the history of 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 Ogunstate 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 – Makurdiline, 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.

In all those years, the Corporation was run efficiently, reaching its peak performance in 1964 when it was said to have conveyed some 11.2million passengers and about 3million tonnes of goods, annually.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. To be sure, there were efforts between the first Obasanjo administration, through the Abacha years to revive the sector, but they came to nothing. Ironically, it was the Jonathan administration that seemed to have done the most by reactivating the rehabilitation of the old narrow lines, while also initiating the construction of the new Standard Gauge lines. So, when the Buhariadministration came in in 2015, with Rotimi Amaechi as Transport Minister, it wascompelled to build on the gains of the past, while at the same time charting a new, more radical approach to the sector. President Buhari directed his new Minister toimmediately complete all existing abandoned projects, while also embarking on the design, construction and deployment of new Standard Gauge lines. Accordingly, the Abuja (Idu) to Kaduna (Rigasa) Standard Gauge project which had been crippled for lack of funds and almost abandoned by the previous administrationwas 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 also completed. In addition, the rehabilitation of a number of existing narrow Gauge lines was speeded up, leading to an upsurge in intra-city and intra-city transportation.

But, perhaps, the two projects in the category of planned railway projects that stand out are the 2163km Port Harcourt – Maiduguri single-track Standard Gauge rail-line and the Coastal Railway Project, which was mentioned above. The proposedPort 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 goods, and support industrial development, while also creating jobs and employment.

But many would argue that the real icing on the cake of the administration’s achievements to date is the almost-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 stagea 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. The 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.

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 ApapaHabour 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 would 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. Other details of the contract include the supply of adequate spare parts for the Rolling Stock, the supply of maintenance equipment for a substantial period of time, the establishment of a Transportation University in Nigeria and the training of young Nigerian undergraduates in Railway Engineering and other important transport-related disciplines in China.

The economic benefits of these programmes, indeed, of rail-road 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 situation 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 rail-road 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. Therefore, money expended on the development of rail transportation in Nigeria is money well spent.

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 RotimiAmaechi factor, which manifests itself in two distinct ways. There is, on the one hand, the palpable synergy at play between the local Nigerian Railway’s 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 Amaechi’s watch, the Chinese contractors working on the Lagos – Ibadan project openly admit that they have been driven to meet deadlines as never before in the execution of the 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 site office at the Ibadan end of the rail track. Throughout the two year construction period of the project, the tour inspections took place every month, without fail.

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 to the Chinese contractors: ‘’Are you sure you are complying with the terms of the contract in the area of technology transfer?’’ “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 persons we saw at kilometre 81 site are fully qualified Nigerian 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 would be 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 great 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 by this government would go far enough.

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 ofslow 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 Book Ltd.