Opening the South with Itakpe-Warri Rail Line

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Kasim Sumaina examines the newly-built Itakpe-Warri rail line and how its economic impact will open the oil-rich region of the South-south and industrious South-east with the agricultural and solid mineral hubs of the North-central and North-west linking the nation’s Federal Capital Territory, Abuja

In 1987, a contract was awarded to build the central line, a standard gauge railway to connect the iron ore deposits at Itakpe to the Ajaokuta Steel Mill and the Atlantic Ocean port of Warri.The railway was originally planned for completion in five years, but sporadic funding stretched out its construction period over 30 years.

In August 2017, the Minister of Transportation, Mr. Rotimi Amaechi, announced that the railway would be completed by the China Civil Engineering Construction Corporation and Julius Berger. Trial runs began in November 2018, and another recently completed.

In October 2019, the government signed a $3.9 billion contract with the China Railway Construction Corporation Limited to extend the railway to the national capital of Abuja.

The realisation of the railway dream of over many years and the completion and test run of the Itakpe-Warri phase of the project by President Muhammadu Buhari administration will bring succour to low-income earners in the axis.

The protracted railway project started in 1987 by military junta under former Military President, Gen Ibrahim Babangida (rtd), has been marred by one controversy or the other and chief amongst them is the prolonged abandonment by successive administration, but, 33 years down the lane, the project has seen the light of day.

During the recent test run of the rail project along the Itakpe-Warri corridor, THISDAY observed the followings. One, that it was imperative that government build high communication network along the corridor or liaise with the Nigerian Railway Corporation to engage telecommunications giant, which can take advantage of non-availability of network coverage to build and install same along the axis. This will enhance efficiency and encourage passengers to use the train and if possible, government can provide internet services to the passengers.

This railway corridor is very timely especially this period government is thinking of the way forward in the post-COVID-19 era. Hence, commercial activities should be deliberately boosted to generate revenue and also to galvanise commercial potential of the communities, young people, existing businesses, and economic blueprints of various states.

Now is the time to look at the enormous potential of this new vista of our railway industry which cuts across all sectors. The rail corridor should be seen as a major investor opportunity, which they can collaborate with the federal and state governments to explore existing investment windows.

Small businesses can be encouraged to spring up in order to create jobs and create wealth for the locals, which would reduce criminality in order to safeguard lives and property.

It’s also of essence that both public and private sectors collaborate to add value to the historic railway corridor connecting the oil-rich region of the South-south and industrious South-east with the agricultural and solid mineral hubs of the North-central and North-west linking the nation’s Federal Capital Territory, Abuja.

On the Itakpe – Ajaokuta – Warri corridor, the Minister of Transportation, Mr. Rotimi Amaechi, recently said, “I have just been briefed that Julius Berger has packed out, CCECC is maintaining just a little presence they want us to take over so that they can also leave, NRC/ Ministry will take over and the director of railway will be managing director for now until they do their final inspection and take over from CCECC, the contractor and then Julius Berger then we move on from there.”

Amaechi expressed satisfaction with the quality of work. “When you see a good job, don’t ask questions. The camera will show that this is a good job. This is the Goodluck Jonathan Agbor Station, which incorporates the railway facilities. Both Julius Berger, CCECC and team have all done a good job.

“We will know if NRC has done a good job when they manage it properly because the issue is maintenance. I don’t want to come here in the next four, five years and it looks worn out. I have seen the toilet facilities they look good, but typical of us, I hope in the next five years it will be intact because in Kubwa now, those things look worn out, if you break anything, replace it or repair it. I think we should learn to maintain the infrastructure that we inherit.”

Continuing, he said, “Railway is about cargo and the MD has just told me that they will bring their pipes from Warri port and we transport it for them. That’s money! Any production from Ajaokuta will be conveyed by this rail track and I’ve been told they are discussing with Dangote and BUA cement.

“The essentials for this will be cargo and it will start immediately the rail starts working. We will be ready, but I don’t know if they will be ready.”

On timelines of completion of all rail projects, Amaechi hinted that it is difficult to deal with timelines now. “We were determined to complete Lagos-Ibadan by May, I don’t know when we will start Lagos- Kano, but when we start, we will be requiring more than 10,000 workers, Kaduna-Kano 10,000 workers, Ilorin to Ibadan 10,000 workers how can we do that when we are trying to maintain social distancing. If you can’t get that number and you get 1000 workers you will be reduced by 90% then we are in trouble.”

It pertinent that states where the rail corridor passes through should take advantage of the terminals located in their communities to establish cottage industries, plazas and recreational facilities that could generate revenue for the government.

Also states can use the terminals as tourism attraction that would generate revenue and make them as business hubs. Stakeholders have also raised concerns on what government should do in terms of safety for farmers and herders along the corridor to prevent encroachment.