Chiemelie Ezeobi writes that given the increase in danger on the highways, especially on the Abuja, Kaduna, Zamfara, and Nasarawa corridors that are prone to kidnapping and armed robbery, the rail transport system offers a viable alternative

When the Nigerian Police launched Operation Puff Adder, it was targeted at curbing the alarming spate of criminalities like armed robbery and kidnapping along the Abuja-Kaduna Expressway. For months unending, that corridor including Zamfara and Nasarawa had been plagued by these gangs, who held sway.

Although the operation has recorded many successes including the recent arrest of nine notorious criminals on the Abuja-kaduna Expressway meet their waterloo, such acts of criminalities still thrive.

In that operation, the police recovered six AK47 rifles, one Pump Action Gun, 1,206 rounds of Ak47 Ammunition, seven magazines, 28 cartridges and 158 expended shells.
However, despite the security measures constantly put on ground, the Kaduna-Abuja corridor, as well as highways like Zamfara and Nasarrawa States have been battling with the menace of kidnapping and armed robbery, which perhaps explains the huge crowds often recorded at the Abuja rails.

That the rails even provide a viable alternative to road transportation is a testimony of the doggedness of Minister of Transportation, Rotimi Amaechi, whose key derivatives for the rail system has been to connect one city to another. He is known to undertake rail inspection trips sometimes twice a month, showing how passionate he is about the process. This is because under this administration, rail development has been taken to a higher level with greater dedication and commitment.

Meanwhile, in line with FG’s desire for the best, the minister was recently directed that all rails in the North should be double-track rail lines, even though research had indicated the volume of passengers upcountry will not require double-guage tracks until sometime in the future.

It was not always like this. The rail system of transportation had virtually almost ground to a halt until the last administration under former President Goodluck Jonathan, who gave initial life to the system, before the rest was continued by this present administration under the President Muhammadu Buhari-led government.

Although the cost of building a rail is higher than roads, its maintenance however is lower and reduces the intense pressure on the roads. Again, besides relieving the roads of pounding and traffic snarls, rail transportation has proven to be a highly economical and energy efficient means of transit.

World over, the rail system of transportation is the most common mode of mass transit for either conveying persons or goods from one point to another. While some still make use of the usual rails,
some nations on the other hand have even gone above and beyond in advancing to high-speed trains.

History
According to Wikipedia, the history of the rail system in Nigeria can be traced to the British government, who began the construction of a railway from Lagos Colony to Ibadan in March 1896. The Lagos Government Railway began operations in March 1901 and was extended to Minna in 1911, where it met the Baro–Kano Railway that was built by the government of Northern Nigeria between 1907 and 1911. The two lines were amalgamated in 1912 into the Government Department of Railways, the predecessor to the Nigerian Railway Corporation. The railway reached its North-east terminus of Nguru in 1930.

After coal was discovered at Udi, the Eastern Railway was built to Port Harcourt between 1913 and 1916. This railway was extended to Kaduna in 1927, connecting the Eastern Railway to the Lagos–Kano Railway. The Eastern Railway was extended to its northeastern terminus of Maiduguri between 1958 and 1964.

Years of Neglect
During the years of plenty, the rail was used to convey commercial goods like groundnut, cocoa and other food produce. But lack of maintenance struck, relegating the rail to the background. Although the Nigerian Railway Corporation was still in existence, by 2013, the only operational rail network was between Lagos and Kano and it purportedly took 31 hours to complete the journey.

Given that the rails in Nigeria were gradually neglected and later abandoned, subsequent attempts to rehabilitate the rail lines have not been cost effective, yet without any tangible results. In 2009, moves to restore the railways began with the Port Harcourt to Maiduguri flank. That success has since spread to other corridors under this administration.

Therefore, for many who cannot afford to fly, especially in areas where water transportation, another affordable means of transit, is practically non existent, the rail readily comes in handy. The positives associated with the rail cannot be overemphasised. In overly populated areas like Lagos where trucks compete for space with cars, coupled with the bad road networks, the beauty of the rail speaks volumes.

Economies of Rail Networks

Around railways, economies have been created. At the Lagos -Ibadan railway, over 10,000 people have been employed. Now, to feed these people lies on petty traders, bukas and local canteens, a process which ends up improving the economy of the surroundings. It has been proven that through outlets like food vending shops, shop operators and motor parks, thrive, including property owners around rail corridors, who experience increased valuation of their properties.

About this Amaechi said: “with the coming of the rail, there is bound to be improved economy for those around the rail stations as there will be food vendors, shop operators at the train stations, motor parks to offer connecting road transport service for train passengers, as well as opening up several other business corridors in the Nigerian economy.”

He cited the example of the Lagos-Ibadan rail project which presently has employed about 10,000 workers, pointing out that they have to be fed and taken care of, by food vendors and the like. Amaechi further noted that the cost of land and other properties on the rail corridor have all gone up as many people are already scrambling to buy lands and properties along such places in anticipation of the economies that will be built within those areas.

Safety Guaranteed
Unlike the roads and highways, which are prone to attacks, the railway somewhat guarantees one safety. Although petty thieves might take advantage of the mammoth crowds that throng the rails, bigger acts of criminalities like kidnapping and armed robbery are rarely recorded.

Itakpe-Warri Rail

Abandoned for 36 long years, the Itakpe- Warri has now been given new wings to fly. For Itakpe, which 20minutes from Lokoja, the idea of the railway was to connect the two steel communities in the country—DSC(Delta Steel Company) Ovwian, Aladja, in Delta State and Ajaokuta Steel Company, in Kogi State

Also, the Rail Village in Agbor, Delta State which was burnt, is now being rehabilitated, since many facilities and equipment were stolen following the abandonment of the project for many years. When completed, it’s now to include a school, hospital and residential quarters for staff etc. In the same way, THISDAY gathered that the Railway Yard is also being built in Agbor, for the ease of maintenance of the rail system.

It is truly laudable that the cost of Itakpe-Warri rail is $200million, and not a dime was a loan, as it was fully and solely funded by the FG. Already, the Itakpe-Warri rail now carries 100 passengers per trip daily, although plans are on top gear to build motor parks at all the rail stations, just like the motor park in Rigasa station, Kaduna.

According to Amaechi, the Warri-Itakpe Standard Gauge line had commenced operation for passenger, commercial and freight services. The train corridors involved Itakpe in Kogi, Aghenebode in Edo and Agbhor in Delta with 12 railway stations along the corridors.

On plans to link the Itakpe Rail to Abuja axis, the minister was quoted as saying that it would cost the government $3 billion. If done, it would include a seaport in Warri.

The minister added that “it is one rail project that we did not borrow a dime to complete”, adding that “President Muhammadu Buhari was and is still enthusiastic in driving the rail project in Nigeria as a way of improving the nation’s economy”.

Commenting on the progress the rail is bringing to the area, Chief Madu Agboifo, a traditional chieftain in Agbor, remarked during the recent rail inspection project in the area that “life is bound to pick up again in this area when the rail comes fully operational”, adding that “already, some of our boys are being offered some jobs at the Railway yard and at the Railway village. So we are looking forward to a round of robust economy again”.

He commended the passion and commitment the minister of transport has shown in the execution of the abandoned rail, enthusing further that “we cannot wait to start enjoying the full benefits of railway transportation”.

Hope for Lagos-Ibadan Rail

Determined to deliver on the rail project, the minister assured that by early June this year, the Lagos- Ibadan rail transport system would have been ready. Although it’s already 70 per cent completed, the laying of tracks is expected to be completed, while the entire rail will start running from Lagos to Ibadan in December 2019. On the other hand, the Ibadan-Kano Rail, although it cost $5.3billion, it’s yet to commence.

Completed Rails
The Lagos to Abeokuta Rail on the other hand was ready over three months ago and that entire stretch is already operational. It’s operational cost was pegged at $1.6 billion. Also, the Abuja-Kaduna Rail has been completed with $500million loan and has since been running.

That is not to say nothing was done under the previous administration. Then, the tracks were merely laid but there was no rail transport up to Kaduna, rather, the rail was between Idu and Kubwa. It stopped in Kubwa because of a Catholic Hospital which was on the right of way. The Catholic church refused to release the facility for demolition and that stalled the continuation of the rail project.

But under this administration, the minister of transportation negotiated with the Catholic authority and the latter agreed to relocate the hospital. Thus, the government funded the rebuilding of the hospital elsewhere. Again, what the previous administration did was
to use construction locomotives to showcase rail transport at the time, not using the real coaches. Now, it is fully running just as plans are being made to increase the coaches so more passengers will be carried between Abuja and Kaduna.

Amaechi who spoke to some journalists over the weekend noted that his commitment to the full take off of rail transportation in Nigeria is aimed at making life easier and better for Nigerians.

It is pertinent to state that the Ghanaian government recently sent a team led by its minister of Rail Development, Hon Joe Ghartey, to come and understudy the progress being made in Nigeria’s rail projects. One of the successes is the Lagos-Ibadan rail project, which is being executed at the cost of $1.6 billion, and is being funded from the loan from the Chinese government.

Linkage to Seaports

One of the truly unique features about the rail project is the fact that all rail lines in cities where there are ports will terminate in the seaport. This is applicable for cities like Lagos, Calabar, Onne and Warri etc. The essence is so the cargo rail can lift goods directly from the ports and spare the roads from pounding, traffic snarls and all the baggages involved with road carnages.

This will also go a long way to decongest the traffic situations always recorded around the ports.

Panacea to Gridlocks

That Lagos and other big cities are synonymous to gridlocks is not news, neither is the fact that such traffic situations drain manpower. One of such traffic-prone areas is Apapa, where heavy duty vehicles have taken over every aspect of the ports, thus holding the town hostage.

In providing solution to this anomaly, the minister has repeatedly stressed that the establishment of an efficient rail line would be solution to the gridlocks around Lagos ports. Again speaking during an inspection of the ongoing Lagos-Ibadan rail project, the minister said the major challenge at Lagos seaports was not clearing but inefficient rail line.

He said: “The problem at the Lagos seaports is not clearing because goods are cleared on time. The problem is movement of those goods out of port. I am not under pressure from anybody. Part of the solution to Lagos seaport is an efficient rail line. You can argue that the narrow gauge is there but it is not efficient. The moment we fix this, those goods will be transferred to the rail and the logjam will disappear.”

Adding that the Lagos-Ibadan rail line would be extended to the port once the Iju section in Lagos was completed, he said once that was done, he would push them to go to the seaport.

Elimination of Road Carnages

It’s no gainsaying rails eliminate road rage and carnages. In Nigeria alone, incidents of road carnages by heavy articulated vehicles thrive. From one mishap to another, these accidents often take lives and properties in their numbers. According to the National Bureau of Statistics (NBS), there are 11,363 road accidents recorded nationwide in 2016, leading to a total of 5,053 Nigerian deaths. These sad statistics explain why Nigeria has been known as the country with the most dangerous roads to travel.

Available statistics on road crashes have shown that about 85 per cent of the road mishaps are human triggered. At a recent forum in Lagos, the Federal Road Safety Corps (FRSC), in a document made available to THISDAY on articulated vehicles involved in RTCs in Nigeria has been on the high side. In 2016, the data for truck, tanker and trailer accidents were 1637, 359 and 657 respectively. In 2017, the data for truck, tanker and trailer accidents were put at 1732, 308 and 624 respectively.

Also in 2016, the number of RTCs recorded and RTCs involving articulated vehicles were put at 9,694 and 2,653 respectively with a percentage of 27.4 per cent, while in 2017, the figures were put at 9,383 and 2,664 with a percentage of 28.4 per cent. Therefore, the FRSC has estimated that Nigeria loses three per cent of its GDP to road crashes annually. This translates to billions of naira lost in human and capital resources.

At the event, the Corps Marshal, Oyeyemi Boboye, listed some of the causes of road carnage by articulated vehicles to include non-adherence to road traffic safety practices, inadequate driver’s training/certification and re-training leading to drivers’ errors, inadequate provision of tanker/trailers parks across the country, non- adherence to safe laden/haulage practices /standards (including vehicle’s) by stakeholders; inspite of practice guidance and non-functional weighbridges to assist in enforcement of axle load compliance, including overload with sundry goods e.g. Tomatoes, firewood.

He cited others as aging trucks and lack of fleet renewal programmes, heady and non-cooperative attitude of drivers and other stakeholders, security challenges and lack of clear-cut policy on tanker/truck transit in Nigeria, non- adherence to standards by operators and by tank constructors, alteration of original design value of truck heads and/or trailer, state of the nation’s roads (though this is being tacked head-on currently), parking on unauthorised location along the road, failure to install speed limiting device and lack of cooperation of private tank farm owners on Safe-To-Load programme.

Although road carnages are not restricted to such heavy articulated vehicles, they often take the larger chunk of statistics.

Need for More Coaches
Every good thing usually faces its share of challenges. For the rail transit, one of the challenges usually faced is the number of available coaches, which explains the long queues often recorded at some stations. As part of measures to ameliorate this, the minister once disclosed plans to move two additional coaches from the Itakpe Warri railway corridor to decongest the mounting pressure on the Abuja-Kaduna train service.

During the inspection of the Lagos-Ibadan railway in Abuja, he admitted to being aware of the ongoing racketeering at the Idu and Rigasa stations as coaches that usually take 200 passengers now carry 500 persons.

About this he said: “We also discovered that some people will buy tickets and resell to the public. We’re going there. We’ll put policemen there to arrest them. Even if you put policemen there, that won’t solve the problem. The queue is because the coaches are not enough; people are standing. The reason for which we bought those coaches was for people to sit down. So, I have directed that they should move two coaches from Itakpe-Warri to Abuja-Kaduna.”

Also, the minister while admitting that it would be difficult to manage when passengers will stop standing because the upsurge is high he however said the trip to China is meant inspect the new coaches and locomotives meant for Lagos-Ibadan, adding that some of the coaches would be deployed to the Kaduna-Abuja rail.