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Towards completion of old rail, road projects in another four years

By Benjamin Alade
14 June 2019   |   4:16 am
The main achievement of the current administration in the transport sector is perhaps a rash of road and rail rehabilitation projects...

Workers at the construction site at the Fagba section of the ongoing Lagos–Ibadan standard gauged rail line PHOTO: AYODELE ADENIRAN

The main achievement of the current administration in the transport sector is perhaps a rash of road and rail rehabilitation projects that are still ongoing. But stakeholders want more of private sector, and less of government, to speed up the process just like modern trains. BENJAMIN ALADE writes.

The Federal Ministry of Transportation has the mandate of coordinating rail, marine and inter-modal transport nationwide. This is via the implementation of policies, programmes and budget to create a world-class transportation system in Nigeria and position the sector as a hub in West and Central Africa.

Indeed, a world-class transportation system today suggests some high-speed bullet trains, with the latest now in the making in China. A sleek prototype of the train unveiled recently, is designed to transport passengers at a speed of 600 kilometers per hour – an equivalent of Lagos to Lokoja within an hour.

That’s more than 150 mph faster than the world’s fastest passenger trains now in regular intercity service, which touch 217 mph on runs between Beijing and Shanghai.

The new faster-than-airplane-train, under development by the state-owned China Railway Rolling Stock Corporation (CRCC), is designed not to run on rails but to float above the track using a technology known as magnetic levitation, or maglev.

The reality in Nigeria and several African countries is entirely different. The rail travel experience is nightmarish and a non-starter when compared with the Chinese example. It is clear to all, including President Muhammadu Buhari that Nigeria grossly lags behind in modernity.

Recall that Buhari, in the buildup to the 2015 general elections, pledged to fix the infrastructure to rev-up a new efficient transportation network and improve the living conditions of the Nigerian middle and lower class.

It was an ambitious campaign promise that caused many to daydream. But after six months of operating without a cabinet and in silo, Buhari’s choice of Rotimi Amaechi to head and deliver the world-class transportation mandate, quickly brought many back to reality.

Indeed, Amaechi, the former Rivers governor and the then Director General of Buhari’s 2015 presidential campaign, has a C.V. that aligns him more to political struggle than leading a modern transportation renaissance in West Africa. The former minister’s modest achievements in the last three and a half years say as much.
A ‘policy’ to complete old projects

A critical aspect of any major development is the right policy direction, to lay the foundation and network it to a strategic framework for implementation. That critical groundwork has more often been missing in the transportation sector.

Amaechi in October 2017 expressed similar concerns when he hinted that the sector had no national policy for development; it had always been at whims and caprice of sitting administration.

And to change the narrative, a policy document was sent to the Federal Executive Council (FEC) for approval of one. Till date, none has been passed and much less for its implementation.

But in the absence of policy headway, the current administration assumed an unspoken direction of completing either ongoing or abandoned projects.

While rehabilitated roads are countless and spread across the federation, some of the projects are indeed as notable as those ones still unattended.

Abuja-Kaduna rail-line
Call it the major achievement in the rail transport sector in a long while and you will not be wrong. After years of lips services by successive administration, a standard gauge rail from Idu in Abuja, to Rigasa, in Kaduna fully came alive in 2016.

The project that was intensified by the Goodluck Jonathan’s administration was speedily completed in about a year of Buhari’s administration.

The president at the flag-off remembered the good old days. It is on record that between 1963 and early 80s, Nigeria had a vibrant rail system which conveyed agricultural produce, livestock and solid mineral resources to Lagos and Port Harcourt Sea ports from where they were exported to other parts of the world.

It is our vision and hopes that those good old days will soon be back with us and, indeed, in a more prosperous way, with the restoration of rail transport system which today’s occasion symbolises.”

Though it had taken 16 years and three successive administrations to complete the $1.457 billion project, but in the end, it presented to Nigerians a Standard Gauge Railway Train Service with two locomotives and 14 coaches offering service that is safe and reliable for over 2000 passengers a day.

Amaechi recently remarked that the railway line is not at its high speed yet because of the Fulani herders, who engage the spot for grazing. “The design speed which is 120 but it is currently on 90 because of herdsmen who graze there. Once it is completed, we will put it at its normal 120 design speed.”

Itakpe-Warri rail-line
In 2017, Amaechi announced the rehabilitation of the central rail line, but this time, for passenger services. The vandalised section of the rail line was given to China Civil Engineering Construction Company (CCECC), and disclosed that Julius Berger, the original contractors, would handle the construction of 99 bridges and flyovers, and also refurbish the 178km yard in Agbor.

The history of Itakpe-Warri rail line is almost as old as the popular Ajaokuta Steel Company. And as an adjunct facility to the steel complex, they have shared same fate of huge economic potential but perpetually in the making.

Ajaokuta Steel Company, now in Kogi State, is built on 59,000 acres of land and the largest mill in the country. So too has been its troubles with gross mismanagement and still non-operational till date.

After several failed attempts at privatisation of the albatross, the current administration picked part of the pieces – the Itakpe-Warri rail line – for a turnaround, as part of its agenda to revive rail transportation nationwide. But the concern is: a passenger rail transport for which traffic?

As at the last check, the Nigerian Railway Corporation (NRC) had test-run the passenger service on the 320 kilometre rail-line, connecting Warri in Delta State to Ajaokuta in Kogi State.

Amaechi said the government was funding the revival of the rail line at a cost estimate $200 million (N72 billion). The stations include Itakpe, Eganiy and Adobe. Others are: Itogbo, Age Ebode, Uromu, Egehen, Igbanke, Agbor, Abraka, Okpara, and Ujewu.

Agbor station had been completed, as at July 2018, while construction work was ongoing at the others. The plan was to get the Itakpe-Ajaokuta-Warri rail line ready for commercial operations by 2019.

Lagos-Abeokuta-Ibadan rail-line
The 156km Lagos-Abeokuta-Ibadan railway is the first railway in the Southwest since 1896, when the first line, which was the backbone of what is now known as the NRC’s western line was laid.

With a contract sum of $1.5 billion, the Lagos-Ibadan standard gauge was originally penned to be delivered by the China Civil Engineering Construction Corporation (CCECC) in 36 months.

At the groundbreaking ceremony held at the NRC premises on March 7, 2017, the Acting President Prof Yemi Osinbajo (as he then was), restated the Buhari administration’s commitment to revert to the train culture and change the narrative of transportation architecture in Nigeria.

“Our ultimate goal is to restore a railway culture for cargo and passenger traffic. We are confident that the national rail project will create up to half a million jobs and facilitate the movement of up to 3.2 million tons of cargo per annum,” Osinbajo said.

The speed train line is to have 10 ultra-modern railway stations with four in Lagos (Apapa, Lagos, Agege and Agbado), three in Ogun (Kajola, Papalanto and Abeokuta), and three in Oyo (Olodo, Omi Adio, and Ibadan).

As part of the package is also four extra-large bridges, 11 large bridges, four medium bridges two steel bridges, 10 frame bridges, 207 culverts, 40 railway crossing-no level crossing and 31 pedestrian overpasses.

The Executive Director of CCECC, Jacques Liao, recently said the project is 79 per cent completed. He said though the track-laying was challenging, but the project would be delivered in April 2020, as promised.

However, the Lagos-end of the project has been a hurdle, with water mains, gas and petroleum pipelines, high tension power lines, overhead bridges, and several structures standing in the way of the rail tracks.

While this was ongoing, President Buhari further directed that the rehabilitation of the existing narrow gauge line be speeded up. Some of those projects include the Lagos  Jebba 480km line, the Jebba  Kano 624km line, the Port Harcourt  Aba  Enugu  Makurdi 468km line, the Kuru  Bauchi  Gombe  Maiduguri 640km line, and the Makurdi  Kafanchan  Kaduna Junction  Kuru line.

The lawmaker, who represented the Lagos East senatorial district at the last Assembly, and the then Chairman Senate Committee on Land Transport, Gbenga Ashafa, said it was clear that the government had been able “to work strategically as partners, to achieve a transformation of the Nigerian Rail landscape”.

Quite notably, Ashafa said: “we have seen the completion of the Abuja-Kaduna rail line, the commencement of the Lagos-Ibadan Standard Gauge line, which is nearing completion, the complete overhaul of the Itakpe-Ajaokuta- Warri rail line, which had been moribund for 35 years, the commencement of the conceptualisation of the Calabar-Lagos rail line and a host of other remarkable achievements.”

Lagos-Ibadan Expressway
But more like the rail projects, the construction exercise on some major roads have also continued ad infinitum. A key example of these endless constructions is the Lagos-Ibadan expressway that has been in the works in the last seven years.

The clamour for the reconstruction/rehabilitation of the expressway dates back to the tenure of former President Olusegun Obasanjo, who was in the saddle from 1999 to 2015. However, the project did not see the light of the day. An attempt to also concession the road was stalled and dotted with several court cases.

Relief came the way of motorists and users of the road in July 2013 when former President Goodluck Jonathan flagged off its reconstruction. The contract was awarded to Julius Berger Nigeria Limited and Reynolds Construction Company (RCC) Limited at a sum of N167 billion, covering two sections of the expressway.

Since Julius Berger and RCC were mobilised by the former administration of Goodluck Jonathan, the contractors have been on and off the sections allocated to them, a development that made last year’s delivery date impossible.

The administration of President Muhammadu Buhari breathed life into it by remobilising the contractors back to site in June 2016. At the moment, the contractors are on site, and this has resulted to the traffic gridlock being experienced by motorists on a daily basis, as the road is till between 60 to 70 per cent done.

Amaechi recently said the government was pushing hard to finish the road by December, “as we are working to get a loan of 6.8 billion dollars for the completion.”

“The cost is really heavy on us, but if we later know we cannot manage the situation, we would do a cost alternative.”

Stakeholders chart path to faster development
Concern stakeholders are unanimous that the current administration had been remarkable, but were also quick to demand an improvement and change of strategy in rail project deliveries in the next four years.

The former Managing Director of the Daily Times, Dr. Yemi Ogunbiyi, reckoned that the real icing on the cake of Buhari’s administrations achievements to date is the about-to-be-completed 156.5km double track Standard Gauge line between Lagos-Ibadan, which, by the way, is a part of the longer Lagos Kano line.

Ogunbiyi, who is also the Chairman, TANUS Books Ltd., said the project is historic for one key reason: it is the first time a sitting Nigerian government would start from the scratch to completion stage, a rail project while in office. The last time it happened was in 1964; and that last time was when the construction of the 302km Bauchi  Maiduguri line begun in 1961 and completed in 1964.

Ogunbiyi, in a paper, titled: The challenge of a new Nigerian-railway was emphatic: There is work to do here and President Buhari needs to sustain the momentum of the past three years. But the Transport Minister and his team would also have to do a lot more. The ultimate objectives must be to modernise the entire rail sub-sector, no matter how long it takes.

In the era of speed trains, we should be looking beyond the refurbishment of antiquated narrow gauge trains and the construction of slow moving Standard Gauge lines. And fast trains are already here with us. We should take full advantage of the latest rail transport technology and be driven by the same objectives that characterise the best prototypes of modern rail travel today: speed, comfort, safety and cost-effectiveness.

Chief Executive Officer, Connect Rail Services Limited (CRSL), Edeme Kelikume, concurred that there had been improvement on the rail sector since the inception of Buhari’s government.

Kelikume said the standard gauge project is a step in the right direction, ditto for the completed Abuja-Kaduna rail and the upcoming Lagos-Ibadan rail.

But going forward, he canvassed for the privatisation of the sector, through government’s liberalisation to allow private investment come on board.

Chief Executive Officer, West Atlantic Cold-Chain and Commodities Limited, Henrii Nwanguma, said the Buhari’s administration had been fair to the sector, seeing that it is still government-driven and, therefore, dependent on government wherewithal to conceive, fund, execute, and operate.

He said notable developments include rehabilitation of the two major narrow gauge lines, especially the Western, which saw resumed long distance passenger and cargo service after more than 25 years.

“There is commendable activity on the Eastern axis. The Central area saw action with the standard gauge Itakpe-Ajaokuta-Warri line, as well as the Abuja-Kaduna Light rail (both being the newest addition to our rail line).
Nwanguma said although the latter is in dire need of attention, it is currently the star. There are some efforts at executing a new Lagos-Kano standard-gauge line with some progress between Lagos and Ibadan.

Ongoing reconstruction of Shagamu-Ibadan axis of the Lagos-Ibadan Expressway PHOTO: TWITTER/PODE

“Could it all have been improved upon? By far! What would have been the poster child for new non-FG investment into the rail sector is the embarrassingly slow Lagos State Government-led Light rail. It is yet to see light of day. Their Rivers State counterpart attempted and woefully failed to execute its version. So far, no private sector conceptualised project has been initiated.

“This is because the enabling environment has yet to be created to spur participation as we have seen in port development and telecommunications. At the centre of this are a new Railway Act and an overarching national logistics policy driven by an intermodal/multimodal framework.

“Bring in the private sector and introduce a professionally-run autonomous regulator to drive liberalisation and privatisation with good laws that reflect our development aspirations,” he said.

The Dean, School of Transport, Lagos State University, Prof. Samuel Odewumi, added that Nigeria has failed in keeping her side of the bargain and it is a problem of our transport planning.

“We don’t look at all other modes for what they can contribute but have concentrated on the road. Railway is a long way from rising to its potential. We need to get even the old narrow gauge running smoothly, get the stations working and more coaches,” Odeyemi said.

The Don said further that the only rail running well is Abuja to Kaduna and it has become the sole rail line for both the elite and the masses.

“From Ibadan to Lagos, it is still under construction. The one in the Eastern wings is also under construction. It is done by the Chinese loan. They are doing their beat but there are some aspects that I find disconcerting. For example the communities along Lagos-Ibadan road are demanding that they pay for every sand, that they retain the two palaces along which the rails pass,” he said.

Secretary General, Nigeria Union of Railway Workers (NUR), Segun Esan, said the Buhari-led administration has been very committed and patriotic in its drive to drastically reduce the rail transport infrastructure deficits, which has been with the nation for a long time, by completing rail transport infrastructure started by its predecessor.

Esan said the only worry of Nigerians, especially the railway workers, is the not-too-open way the Ministry of Transportation is going about the whole projects.

He noted that until the Railway Act of 1955 is completely revoked or unbundled, the Nigerian Railway remains the only institution authorised to do railway business in Nigeria.

“But as it, the Federal Ministry of Transportation as the owner and major implementor of railway projects while the end-user, Nigerian Railway, hideaway in the shadows of the ministry. This is not too good if we should be taken seriously.

“The truth and implication of this phenomenon is that Nigeria Railway will not be practically familiar with the system it runs and that will make the corporation to be too subservient and ignorant and incapable to work without continued interference from outside the Corporation.”

He said the rail transport sub-economy can be made better only if it is allowed total autonomy, strong and unrelenting budgetary backups, and democratic accountability. The existence of NRC under the supervisory purview of the Federal ministry of transportation need be reviewed by legislating its nationalisation and making it an
Authority or Federal ministry of railways.

According to him, the best way to pull the rail transport system out the wood is for the government to do all suggested and few more.

“The government can trigger a national discussion on this issue and we will all be shocked that no railway workers or any true rail transport enthusiasts will not toe the line of privatisation or concession or continued stay of NRC without true autonomy to be derived from its gravitation to Railway Authority or Commission or Ministry of
Railways just as we have for Aviation.

“Buhari government, however, is commended for building and developing infrastructure for a better railway. The truth is that as the infrastructure is developed so should the human capital be encouraged through good and special salary scale, incentives, etc. A worker given multi million naira equipment to work without a reasonable level of sense of belonging on the part of the worker does not correlate at all. We must bring back the experience of the railway workers and the type of commitment to service excellence and performance when the RITES of India were here,” he said.

Further to the foregoing, Esan said the railway industry deserves a special salary regime and other fringe and motivating welfare package that will encourage employable Nigerian youths to pursue career in the industry.

“As it is, NRC workers are the most poorly paid of all the parastatals under the ministry of transportation. Presently, Nigerians in the employ of NRC leave for greener ventures in other places as opportunities come to them. They don’t want to pursue a career here because of the poor working condition that exists here,” he added.