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‘Freight movement by rail will ease pressure on road’

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Managing Director of the Nigeria Railway Corporation (NRC), FIDET OKHIRIA, spoke with journalists in Katsina during the groundbreaking of the Kano-Maradi standard gauge railway line. He spoke on plans by the corporation to transport fuel and gas by rail among others. BENJAMIN ALADE was there.

What is the significance of the Kano-Maradi rail line?
We hope that by the time Lagos is connected to Kano, it will link up to Maradi. And because of lot of potential freights movement between Niger and Maradi to the ports, then ports to Niger, which are landlocked countries, there is much enthusiasm about it. It is going to create employment whether direct or indirect. That’s the beauty of the project. All the railway projects we have been doing are handled by Chinese. This is our first time to be executed by Europe to support rail development. The fund is coming from Portugal and it is organised by a company. Let’s hope they complete the 284 kilometres length in 36 months.

How optimistic are you that the project would be delivered within the stipulated time considering the challenges of COVID-19, among other factors?
Right now, we are finding a way around COVID-19 and we are hopeful. It is a 284 kilometers project and the company handling the project is hopeful to make a landmark in Nigeria. They projected three years for the project but we are hoping they complete it within two years.

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Any plans to involve Nigerians in the process of construction?
Definitely! As usual, at least 80 to 85 per cent of the work force would be Nigerians. We are not going to bring white men from Portugal. It is Nigerians that would be employed, they will learn from it.

We are used to the Chinese technology, but we are switching to European tech. Is there any difference?
As far as we are concerned, we are open to offers as long as our interests are protected. Whether it’s African country or a company that wants to partner with us, we are opened to them. We ensure Nigeria and Nigerians interests are protected.

Is this project based on counterpart funding like we have in the past?
The feasibility study was done and attractive, that’s why the contractor decided to come in. As usual, we would make our own contribution and also provide the right of way, which is already being done.

How optimistic are you that the Ibadan-Kano rail work would commence soon?
The acquisition of the right of way for the Ibadan-Kano has started, which is the initial stage and we are working with our contractors to ensure that they start work on time.

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What does these milestones translate to having a rail line from Lagos to Kano and Kano to Maradi?
As for me with the number of people coming up and using the train, we are happy that we can make people travel by rail comfortably with peace of mind and at the same time, what we have done is saving time. What we have done is saving money that the government has been using whether on road repairs. Now people park in Ibadan and make use of the train to Lagos and by the time we start developing where we can move freight, the road would be an affiliate to the freight. So those monies would be used in repairing the roads and would be kept in the government’s purse.

Can you give us an update on the Eastern railway projects?
At least the contract for the region has been awarded, I can confirm that but we are looking for money for Calabar to Lagos and Port Harcourt to Abuja. What I can say now is we want to reconstruct Port Harcourt to Maiduguri. For that, N3.2 billion has already been earmarked for the project. I think if not because of COVID-19, work should have started.

What of the Apapa port’s linkage?
The Apapa Ports have been linked. We are just hoping that by this weekend, the narrow gauge would have been restored. Once we start moving from the narrow gauge, we will want the consultant to certify the track for use. So with that we would be using both narrow and standard gauge in conveying goods and people.

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How far with the talks of cargo operators?
The Minister has set up a committee headed by the Permanent Secretary and another committee headed by Nigeria Port Authority (NPA). We are working out to see the best way we can utilize the rail within the Port. There is also a plan targeted at trying to link the Apapa Ports with the Tincan Port. With that done, just imagine moving freight by rail, 60 trailers off the Apapa roads, what relief it will be. If the terminal operators cooperate with us in downloading and offloading, nothing stops us from moving about 10 trains out of the Ports. This would ease traffic on Lagos roads as trailers can easily go to the rail end in Kajola or Abeokuta in Ogun State or Ibadan to pick up their containers, which would also enhance quick turnaround.

Has there been any talk of fuel carriage by rail on the standard gauge to avert the menace of tanker drivers on road?
We are meeting with some people and encouraging others to invest in rail transport for fuel. We have had two meetings, we are currently discussing with Osun State on how to move fuel from Osogbo, and there is another company we are discussing with on how to move fuel and gas from the Port to the North, both on the narrow and standard gauge.

There is an observation that a lot of old coaches and locomotives are abandoned at the EBJ in Lagos, are you doing anything on these assets?
They are not abandoned because of the construction that is ongoing, we would refurbish them one by one as the construction elapses. You know we have started running two trains instead of one.

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