Chiemelie Ezeobi who had her first train ride as part of the entourage of the minister of transportation, during an on-the-spot assessment of the nearly completed 156 kilometer Lagos-Ibadan Standard Guage Railway Project, reports that upon completion, it would offer a viable alternative to the already over burdened roads

Having flown countless times, sailed with the Nigerian Navy to several countries on different operations and exercise, and of course used the road a million times over, it was certainly a shocker never to have boarded a train.

For one who has spent over three decades on earth, and almost a decade in journalism, it was with giddy delight that the last minute invite to join the Minister of Transportation, Rotimi Amaechi on a tour of the Lagos-Ibadan Standard Guage Railway Project was received.

On the said day, the entourage took off from Eko Hotel in Lagos and after a brief stop at Iju at 7.44am, the team drive down to Abeokuta to inspect the ongoing construction at the rail, a journey of less than two hours.

After a physical on-the-spot assessment of the ongoing construction at the rail, the minister led his entourage onboard the train. As I boarded, I grinned  from cheek to cheek with total disregard for the knowing looks from those who were jaded probably having been on plenty train rides with the minister.

As the train rolled out of the yet to be completed station in Abeokuta on its way to Kila in Ibadan, it was gathered that the project was a 158 kilometer rail that stretches from Lagos to Ibadan. Broken down into two segments which are- extension of the Lagos-Ibadan Standard Gauge Rail line from Ebute- Meta to Apapa Seaports and from Ebute-Meta to Ibadan, the contract sum for the extension was pegged at about 90 million dollars.

Candid Talk with the Minister

Onboard, the minister was readily accessible, which explained the deluge of visitors he had in his space. It was also the general consensus on board that the rails even provide a viable alternative to road transportation is a testimony of the doggedness of the minister, whose key derivatives for the rail system has been to connect one city to another. According to those in the know, Amaechi has exhibited passion in supervising the rail system so much so he is known to undertake rail inspection trips sometimes twice a month. This is perhaps not in itself is not surprising given the trust President Muhammadu Buhari has bestowed on him to see that rail development is taken to a higher level.

Stressing that the Lagos-Ibadan Rail was 100 per cent ahead of schedule, the minister said they were getting to the end of the track, which is kilometer  158, adding that what remains is 34 to 35kilometres, which they can cover soonest.

In an interview with the minister whilst the train was heading to Ibadan, he said with nolstagia that when they started, the whole area was just bushes and vegetation as the road was not cleared then. At the  first visit to the site, he said they created roads with their cars, which is a far cry from now that they are at the end of the project.

Reminiscing he said, “There used to be green grasses here, trees, waters and creeks. In constructing the rails, the creek were turned into dry land and some areas where you have valleys we have put bridges. Any area that there was no need to put bridges because it was a normal road, we had to create bridges. Areas we could have just moved straight on, we created valleys just to ensure Nigerians are able to move from Lagos to Ibadan.”

On the state of the rail he said CCECC has confirmed that by the end of May they will complete track activities on this Lagos to Ibadan project, a move he said put the contract ahead of schedule.

Responding to the state of work at the Itakpe-Ajaokuta-Warri rail project, the minister said: “The track has gone to Warri and they are using it now, but they have not finish the station and I expect that by the end of the year they can finish it, infact before July.”

On the issue of inadequate coaches Amaechi said they have placed an order to that effect, adding that to construct the Lagos-Ibadan Rail project, a contract of 500million dollars has been awarded for that.

Addressing the overflow they experience on the  Abuja rail he said: “The issue is because the number outstrips the supply and this is because of the pressure on the Abuja-Kaduna Road. The rail is supposed to carry 300 passengers per day and we have been carrying them until the pressure from the Abuja-Kaduna Expressway made it unbearable.

That pressure has overwhelmed the eight coaches that we have and we are bringing two from the Itakpe-Warri rail to make it 10 coaches.

“The extra two coaches will carry 164 passengers, which will still not solve the problem because we carry about 2000 passengers a day instead of 300.

The implication is that we have to provide for another 1500 because even if we bring the two coaches it won’t be enough. We are going to order for more coaches.The problem with that is that if we order more coaches and the after, the pressure on the road disappears, the coaches will be empty.”

On whether he has delivered on his mandate Amaechi said, “How can I score myself? Have you ever seen where a teacher scores themselves or student, score themselves? I really don’t know. But, all I know is that, the president, you and Nigerians are available and who can score any minister. I don’t know whether we kept to the directive of Mr. President, only the president can say ‘you have kept to my directive’, or Nigerians can say, ‘you have done well or done badly’.”

NRC Board’s Oversight Function

Also in an interview with THISDAY, the Chairman of the newly inaugurated Board of Directors of the NRC, Engr. Ibrahim Alhassan, he commended the quality of the work done. He said: “This project is a very important one for Nigeria and I know right from time, the current president had this project in mind when he was the chairman of PTF. Some locomotives and other things were acquired, but along the line, government changed, priority also changed even the PTF was scrapped and some of these thing suffered a setback but now we retaking the previous steps. Some efforts were made from Abuja which this regime has now completed. We have the metroline in Abuja, from the city to the airport.

“This Lagos to Ibadan line is important because of the overloading on the roads. You know every road have the quantity of load to go on it. If you go beyond that, it results to failure. Go to the Kaduna, Abuja, Lokoja roads, from Lokoja to Ibadan road, there are many failed portions of the road because heavy containers have damaged those roads. In the past we use to have weigh bridges but now they are no longer available. So by extending the rails to the port, we will be able to deliver all the containers to their destinations and that will help a lot.”

Performance Assessment

So confident was the NRC Managing Director, Fidet Okhiria, of the level of work that they did, that he scored the project 100 per cent. According to him, “It’s not good to score yourself but I will score myself 100 per cent because the contract was for three years and we just in the second year and now we are talking about taking it to the end.The government showed commitment and they come for inspection all the time to ensure the contractors and the workers meet up with the proposed level at the time. Last month we got to kilometer 95, this month we are going to kilometer 123 and when we started, people were doubting it possibility, by May 27 or 28, we would have completed to kilometer 158 and we will be getting to Ibadan straight from Lagos because Iju to Ebute Metta and Apapa, we are almost concluding and have started doing the engineering work there.

“We are looking at the new stock to arrive so that Nigerians can benefit from what the government has planned and we will be able to move free from the seaport to Ibadan. We have about eight or 10 train stations that are supposed to be on this track. We have seen two already, Lagos has gone far but we didn’t go to Agege, we didn’t go to Agbado but those has also gone far. But we have been to Abeokuta where we just started  because it took us time to acquire the light of way and enough room for the station, but that does not stop the train from operation.”

Commendations

After the first day of inspection, the minister continued his assessment but this time around it was a steering committee meeting of the Lagos-Ibadan Railway project in Papalanto, Ogun State.

According to the minister’s media aide, Gift Okpara, at the meeting, it was an avalanche of commendations from the contractors and stakeholders.

Mr. Xia Lijan, who is the  Project Manager,  Chinese Civil Engineering Construction Company (CCECC) said Amaechi has without doubts, demonstrated leadership skills in championing the construction of the rail projects, adding that from the track laying  works to the production of beams in the Lagos-Ibadan project, the minister conformed with the contract agreement and demonstrated honesty in totality.

He said,” We wish to recall the great day of  March 7, 2017 when the Vice President of Nigeria, Prof.Yemi Osinbanjo performed the ground-breaking ceremony of the 156 kilometres Lagos-Ibadan Standard Gauge Railway project , that marked the commencement of regular monitoring, supervision and coordination by our amiable Minister, Chibuike Amaechi.

“Appreciating CCECC’s Railway engineering excellence and technological know-how, the minister  without doubts, demonstrated his wonderful leadership skills and workaholic dictates in championing the cause of these great feats we have achieved. From the tracks laying works, production of beams for rail bridges, earthwork solidification and other segments of the railway engineering were excellently monitored by the minister in conformity with the contract agreement which makes me believe that he may not be far from being a hidden railway technocrat. He has really showcased his visionary traits, as he fully demonstrated honesty and total commitment to the development aspirations of President Muhammadu Buhari.”

On his part, Mr. Akinwoye Abdulraouf, Public Relations (PR) consultant, to CCECC, said, Amaechi demonstrated quality leadership by ensuring that the right things were done properly.

“Amaechi has performed wonderfully well. He is a great man , the history of Standard Gauge in Nigeria will not be complete without the mention of his name. He is a quintessential leader, visionary and wonderful minister. He never gets tired of working and he puts his job first. Amaechi was always at the forefront during the track laying processes. Then, we had issues with host communities and Amaechi was at the forefront to handle issues. He is an uncommon personality, he has proved his mettle,” he enthused.

Also, Mr. Saad Loufti, Technical Design Manager, Techniques Engineering and Architectural Marketing (TEAM), who described Amaechi as a courageous leader with so much vigour, said, “You are always ready for the job and you are full of strength .Our prayer is for you. We commend your courage and proactiveness, you have done wonderfully well”.

Amaechi, responding to the accolades thanked the contractors, the media and all stakeholders who were part of the team that worked tirelessly  with him in achieving success in the rail sector.

Amaechi said, “We had an objective to achieve completion of the construction of the Rail from Ibadan to Lagos State before the past election, so we can use the two coaches and locomotives we had to convey passengers from Iju in Lagos State to Abeokuta, and we have achieved that. We have started pressurising the contractors to get to Ibadan, and I hope It will be possible to ride on the train from Iju to Ibadan on May 28. I thank the press and all of you who participated in the process and wish you luck.”

Plans for Apapa Seaport

However, in an earlier interview with the press,  shortly after inspecting the Ebute-Meta to the Apapa end of the Lagos-Ibadan Railway project, Amaechi explained that , until the Federal Government extends construction of the Standard Gauge Rail from Ebute -Meta to the Apapa Seaport , only 300,000 cargoes would be conveyed yearly in the Narrow Gauge which is currently operational.

He said that when construction of the Standard Gauge is extended to the seaport, It would convey about 40 million tones of cargoes yearly.

“We are yet to extend construction of  the Standard Gauge to the Apapa Seaport. The Narrow Gauge is not functioning at its capacity and until those two things happen we cannot move enough cargoes.

Currently, we are moving between two to three hundred thousand tones of cargoes in a year and we have about 40 million tones of cargoes. So, If you have about 40 million tones of cargoes you need to make sure that the tracks function properly before cargoes can be transported,” he added.

According to Amaechi, to extend the rail line, two bridges would be demolished at Costain and Jibowu axis of Lagos State.

” There are two bridges we are going to demolish in Lagos; one is at Costain and the other one is at Jibowu but we have to finish construction before we demolish because Lagos is such a heavy economy that if you demolish without first of all constructing the alternative bridges, you will cause serious crisis with the traffic. So, we will first finish construction before we demolish the Jibowu bridge. They have commenced with Costain; when they finish with construction and get the traffic relieved, then we’ll demolish the old bridge,” he added.

As the ride ended at about 3:27pm, it was certain that if the railway is completed as scheduled, it would provide a viable alternative to the already overburdened road network, especially in Lagos where perennial traffic snarls are the order of the day.