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Stakeholders fault FG’s plan for southeast rail system

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•Rehabilitation of narrow gauge line is interim arrangement – NRC
There are concerns over the move by the Federal Government to rehabilitate the existing narrow-gauge line of the southeastern corridor of the Nigeria Railways Corporation (NRC).

The government had last month approved $3.02bn for the reconstruction of the rail line with trans-shipment facilities and branch lines from Port Harcourt to Bonny and Port Harcourt to Owerri.

Minister of Transportation, Rotimi Amaechi, had explained that FG would rehabilitate the narrow gauge due to the paucity of funds. Amaechi’s disclosure jolted some stakeholders who queried the rationale behind the choice to rehabilitate the eastern line as against reconstruction as being carried out in other parts of the country.

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A team of experts from the Federal Ministry of Transportation, Environmental and Social Impact Assessment Unit of the Federal Ministry of Environment, NRC and the contractor, CCECC, was in Enugu this week on environmental impact assessment and interface with stakeholders on the project.

The stakeholders who included traditional rulers, officials of the state government among others told the delegation that they would not accept rehabilitation of the existing narrow gauge when that standard of the ongoing railway programme is the construction of standard gauge lines.
They had insisted that the narrow-gauge line was no longer fashionable in rail service, adding that locomotives the line was designed for are not easily available.

“Report to the minister that it does make sense to talk about narrow gauge lines in the east when the federal government is constructing standard gauge tracks to the Niger Republic. Also, the narrow gauge line is outdated and cannot be compared with the modern standard gauge line which we have in other parts of the country”, one of the stakeholders, Chief Justus Opara, told the delegation.

The delegation told the stakeholders that they were in Enugu on environmental and social impact assessment of the rehabilitation/reconstruction of the existing Port Harcourt-Maiduguri narrow gauge railway and its accessories, Bonny-Onne- Elelenwo-Ubima-Owerri, Bonny Deep Seaport and Ubima Industrial Park.

They stated that the exercise involved site verification, stakeholders’ engagement workshop, data gathering and witnessing. The team said it would visit communities in Benue, Ebonyi, Abia, Nasarawa and Rivers states.

Emeritus President General of Aka Ikenga, Chief Goddy Uwazuruike stated the southeast had been treated unfairly by the administration.

He said: “When we complain, we are told that we did not vote for President Muhammadu Buhari or that we complain too. To be sincere, the marginalization is too blatant to be ignored. This administration had so much money that it is building a standard gauge line through a barren desert to the Niger Republic. It is still rich enough to see to the completion of the Lagos – Ibadan – Kaduna standard gauge lines. But it does not have enough; hence, the eastern railway will be rehabilitated on narrow gauge lines.

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“For record purposes, the Federal Executive council (FEC) recently announced approval for this eastern line with glee. Only the discerning person will understand that it said nothing. The Transport Minister is daily inundating us with completion dates for railway projects. But in the case of the eastern line, there is no financing.”

A former National Chairman of the defunct United Progressives Party (UPP), Chief Chekwas Okorie, however, said he was excited to hear that the dilapidated eastern narrow gauge line was being considered by the federal government.

He added: “The rehabilitation of the narrow gauge rail line from Port Harcourt to Maiduguri, which has been out of use for over 30 years, will be delivered faster and more cost-effective. I cannot wait to see that rail line functional again. The contribution of the rail project, when completed, to the economic and social development of the country, is huge. I was scared that the project might be dropped because of the economic downturn triggered by the COVID-19 pandemic.

“I do not want to be weighed down by the sentiment or the politics of where the standard gauge and narrow gauge lines are being constructed. The proportional usage of the railway transportation in Nigeria either for haulage of goods or for commuter services is not determined largely by the part of the country the lines traverse but by the commercial and business activities of Nigerians who make use of them.

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“The transportation agenda of the Buhari administration is near revolutionary. I have watched with frustration a government that lasted for 16 years in a democratic dispensation without any consideration for the Port Harcourt – Maiduguri rail line and the nation suffered immeasurable economic reverses as a result of the unconscionable neglect. I hope that a very important railway link will be made functional.”

When contacted, Managing Director of NRC, Freeborn Okhiria, told the Guardian that the plan to rehabilitate the existing narrow gauge on the eastern corridor was an “interim” arrangement aimed at returning rail services to the area, pending the availability of resources to do a modern standard gauge as approved by the government.

Okhiria said: “The standard gauge programme of the government is still on and has been approved for that axis. The challenge is that the economy is not good and that is why we are talking about the rehabilitation of the existing narrow gauge to return rail services to the axis, while we are looking for money to embark on it. The government said it cannot wait and not run trains in that area.”

“So, it decided to reconstruct the narrow gauge. What we want to do is to ensure smooth train services on that corridor by reinforcing bridges that cannot carry heavy loads and replacing the tracks that have been removed. It is an interim programme because the standard gauge is already approved”.

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