Finally, Lagos-Ibadan rail line begins commercial operations
Yesterday, President Muhammadu Buhari commissioned the Lagos-Ibadan rail line, after a chequered construction period and process. The project must have been verily valued by Mr President to have physically come to Lagos to do the flag-off ceremony. In many previous instances, President Buhari would simply adopt the virtual option of commissioning whatever project online. At other times, he would send either his deputy, Vice President Yemi Osinbajo or even his Secretary to the Government of the Federation, Mr Boss Mustapha. But in this case, he personally came over and rode in the train, before cutting the tape to flag off the commercial operations of the train service within the Lagos-Ibadan corridor.
Beside the value President Buhari attaches to the rail project, his physical presence at the ceremony yesterday, has also been interpreted to be a way of honouring his Minister of Transportation, Chibuike Rotimi Amaechi, who has shown uncommon devotion and passion to the execution of the rail projects across the country. Many have compared Amaechi’s commitment to the rail project with the deep care with which a mother nurses an only child.
That President Buhari is overtly excited about the rail project is not unexpected. It is one project that has gulped huge resources in the country. The rail project has been largely financed through loans from China. A debt is a debt. They have to be repaid someday. The consolation is that Nigerians and the world can see what the loans have been used for, unlike in many other instances. The good news also is that the train services have the capacity to pay off the loans by which they were procured, over time.
Laying the tracks for a standard gauge rail for the stretch from Lagos to Ibadan was not a run-of-the-mill task. It was as complex as it was challenging. It was even more so trying to lay the tracks across a burgeoning urban city like Lagos. The complexity and sensitivity of all kinds of pipes, cables, wires etc., that had been buried underground demanded more than enough care to avoid causing a major environmental disaster. It was worse that there was no technology of having a seismic scan of all that lay underneath. An Italian technology had to be procured and deployed to be able to surmount that hurdle.
The various state governments, like Lagos, Ogun and Oyo had to be fully and persistently carried along to get their buy-in plus their support in ensuring that the constructions went on smoothly. Many of the sub-regional governments nominated their staff into the larger operations committee that oversaw the construction and completion of the project.
Indeed, one of the major tasks that confronted the Nigeria Railway Corporation (NRC) was how to settle the very many people, communities and organisations whose properties and hearths were to be affected as a result of the laying of the tracks. Needless to say the compensation cost was huge. In some cases, schools had to be relocated to a newly built facility, ditto other public facilities like hospitals, clinics, police stations, churches and mosques etc. There were some cases that even an entire community had to be rebuilt and relocated.
But in all the challenges, the minister is full of praise to the people of the region whom he said, had given the NRC maximum co-operation. He is excited that not once, through out the period of the construction, was there a community uprising or protest or attack or upheaval of any sort. “ They have been very supportive and have shown the greatest understanding so far”, Amaechi told reporters. He added that whatever agitated the minds of the concerned communities, they always formally put it in writing. And that the ministry on its part ensures that the complaints of the various communities along the said corridor were very promptly attended to, “and the result is what we are having: that there has never been any case of theft, kidnapping or other forms of unrest around the construction sites, even when workers worked late into the nights”, Amaechi enthused.
But for the COVID-19 pandemic, which ravaged the world, the rail line would have long been commissioned. The advent of the pandemic not only delayed work at the various construction sites, as works were suspended, fewer workers had to be engaged even when work resumed, to make for some kind of social distancing. In fact, one of the chief supervisors of the construction works, in the TEAM, an Italian, died as a result of COVID-19 infections. That altogether dampened morale and slowed down the work pace.
Those who say Amaechi is the poster boy minister may not be far from the truth. For so long, it had appeared like the entire Buhari administration was anchored on the shoulders of the Transportation ministry. The running seasons of construction was breath-taking. At least, once every month, the minister along with his usually large team of reporters, (the new Permanent Secretary in the ministry, Dr Magdalene Ajani, now joins in the inspection) and friends, sometimes with his wife, Judith, embarked on routine inspection of the construction work. And at every train station or significant construction sites, the team would stop, review the level, quality of work, pace of work, just as the Chinese company, CCEC, the contractors handling the project, would explain why certain things are as they are. On many occasions, Amaechi would get into arguments with them on certain technical engineering issues, and often times, his views were proven better.
In the much earlier days before the tracks were laid, inspection team usually went by road, driving through the length of the construction corridor. Sometimes, there were practically no roads in the forests. The SUVs had to be rammed through bush paths, valleys and hills to get to the other side of the track line. On one occasion, the minister, who usually drives himself, drove through what looked like a small pond, filled with water, in a determination to continue the inspection, as there was no alternative route to continuing the inspection.
The minister soon drove through the small body of water, unknown to him that there was a large boulder clay inside the water. It hit hard the engine of the car. And that was it! The car only managed to roar out of the pond, but could not go further.
Too many times, those early days, the inspection rounds lasted long into the nights. The team had to drive from Ibadan, arriving Lagos far into the night. Getting the train service ready for commissioning yesterday, was indeed a product of chequered journey.
Perhaps, it is also remarkable to note that the insistence of the minister to ensure that Nigeria does not perpetually depend on China for the expansion and maintenance of the train service in Nigeria led to the establishment of the Kajola Factory in Ogun State. The factory shall be producing wagons and coaches and other ancillary parts to service the trains as time goes on.
In the same vein, plans have been concluded to establish Universities of Transportation in Daura (Katsina State) and Ubima (Rivers State) to train and produce specialized manpower that will gradually run and take over the operations of rail service in Nigeria. The ground-breaking ceremony for the Daura campus has been carried out.
It is also very significant to add that courtesy of the minister’s insistence, the rail lines have to be extended to the sea ports, either in Lagos, Warri or Port Harcourt. The idea is that the cargo trains will be able to carry out freighting services right from the ports to any part of the country. Already, the cargo trains have commenced services between Warri port and Itakpe in Kogi State.
In Lagos, the rail tracks have been laid right into the Apapa port, with some terminals connecting the loads to the trains. This will in no small measure save the life span of the roads as well as reduce the port congestion caused by the long queues of trucks waiting to carry loads out of the ports. Perhaps more importantly to Lagosians will be the reduction of the number of trucks and tankers that cause long hours of annoying traffic snarl in the city.
Three weeks ago, when the minister and his team ramped up the inspection of the train stations between Lagos and Ibadan, it was clear huge work had been done, with the Ebute Meta station serving as the flagship station, what with the huge state-of-the-art facilities, including even the structure.
In all the stations, there are shopping malls, shopping outlets, depending on the size of the station. They are fitted with cooling systems, elevators, large sitting lounges, large car parks to assist park-and-ride services, and such other provisions that make for overall comfort and safety of passengers.
The technology, finishing, IT equipment and fixtures, communication channels and platforms, all combine to pass it as meeting a global standard. It is a great pride not only for the Buhari administration, but to all Nigerians. It is equally remarkable to note that many of the station have been named after past and present Nigerian leaders, including former President Goodluck Jonathan.
The Managing Director of Nigerian Railway Corporation (NRC), Engnr Fidet Okhiria explained that the technology and information/communication equipment have to be modern and up to date because of the complex network of train service. He maintained that “NRC has insisted that we get the best and ensure that in offering this service, Nigerians will not only get value for money, but also enjoy the kind and quality of service offered even in foreign countries”. Efforts are being made now to even add data and internet services to train rides.
Some passengers have however complained that the trains are not exactly as fast as it still does about 60 kilometers per hour. That explains why it yet takes about three hours between Lagos and Ibadan. But this slow speed is discounted for by the safety and security which the ride guarantees, aside the great comfort and assurance it offers.
As the commercial operations of the train service (in the Lagos –Ibadan corridor) takes off in earnest (even though it has been running commercial rides since October last year), Nigerians expect that the malaise of ticket racketeering which has been a challenge in the Abuja—Kaduna rail corridor, does not arise in Lagos. Plans are said to be underway to create train ride Apps that will help curtail the activities of fraudsters.
In the same vein, there are concerns about the sustained maintenance of the trains and its services. It was gathered that there are plans to retain the Chinese firm that built the trains and the stations to maintain an acceptable standard, until such a time that enough expertise and capacity have been built among Nigerians to handle same.
In all, Nigerians expressed satisfaction and excitement at the provision of the train service to the Lagos-Ibadan corridor, even as they demanded that the same service is expanded to connect other state capitals in the country.
Ibechim, a rail service engineer, wrote from Ebute Metta, Lagos.
Get the latest news delivered straight to your inbox every day of the week. Stay informed with the Guardian’s leading coverage of Nigerian and world news, business, technology and sports.