When will railway development project pay off?
When will there be real testimonies concerning protracted stories of railway development project in Africa’s most populous nation, Nigeria? When will even state governments be serious with even light rail development to enhance mass transit system in most cities in the country?
The non-completion syndrome plaguing the railway revamping project clearly underscores shoddiness in government’s involvement in development projects in the country. It is therefore not surprising that the railway revamping effort over the years has not made recorded success rates more than 20 years after the Federal Government began the multi-billion naira projects nationwide.
The question is when would the railway revamping adventure end for the nation to reap the fruits of a rejuvenated transportation sub-sector? No fewer than four ministers have handled this portfolio since 2000 when the idea of rehabilitating the comatose railway system was first introduced and yet it has been the same old story from one administration to the other.
Since the much publicised Abuja-Kaduna standard gauge rail line came on stream in July 2016 with much fanfare, government has been celebrating only that meretricious achievement. The rail line is insignificant against the backdrop of the size of the country and the expansive railway transportation demand.
The Lagos-Kano and Lagos-Ibadan railway lines have remained in the pipeline year-in year-out. The Lagos-Ibadan axis was advertised before the election. And since that time, there has been only one test-run that generated only heat without fire. The Eastern rail line from Port Harcourt to the north appears not to be a pipe dream yet it is a critical route through which goods and people can be transported.
While effort is being made to get the other rail lines on stream, there have been reports that the operating Abuja-Kaduna rail line, which is not a modern system anyway has been running at a loss.
The Nigeria Railway Corporation (NRC) claims that the Abuja-Kaduna railway transport service generates over 100 million naira monthly, which is spent largely on diesel, security and on cleaners, while the Federal Government pays for track maintenance, staff salaries and others. This is not how to run a system.
But some experts have claimed that the corporation might be realising more than N200 million monthly from its services considering the number of seats on each coach and the soaring patronage that the route attracts. But government’s direct involvement may be responsible for the losses, which may be from unedited transactions in the transport system. There has been some suspicion that the actual figures generated by the NRC from its operations on the Abuja-Kaduna route have always been shrouded in secrecy. With this scenario, the commencement of the repayment of the $500 million Chinese loan used for the construction of the rail tracks may take generations, which is why experts are stressing the need for the appropriate commercialisation of the services to ensure competitive pricing and sustainability.
There is no doubt that the country needs a functional railway system. An efficient transport system is a key factor in socio-economic development. In the past, people travelled by rail from one part of the country to the other. The railway lines led to the development of new towns along the tracks. Those towns flourished because of their vantage location. But today, with the demise of railway transport, those towns have either disappeared or failed.
Furthermore, the railway is strategic in military operations for the movement of hardware and equipment. Without a functional railway transportation, it will be difficult to move military equipment when necessary.We also need a railway to reduce road carnage. Bulk cargo is better hauled via the railway to save the roads. Railway is the cheapest form of transportation. The dilapidation of the country’s road network is largely as a result of passage of heavy trucks on the roads instead of haulage by rail.
The time has therefore come for governments at all levels to take the issue of more investment in the railway system more seriously. We need to invest heavily in the railway, put more coaches on the tracks and run hourly before the system can be reliable as part of a functional mass transit system.
Meanwhile, one way of handling these challenges is to decentralise the railway system. Not long ago, the Lagos State Government and O’dua Group of Companies expressed interest in rail transport but were refused participation because of the extant archaic NRC Act of 1955, which confers absolute monopoly right on the Federal Government and forbids private participation in railway service delivery.
A bill seeking to repeal the Act was some time ago tabled before the Senate and it passed only the second reading. This is unfortunate for a nation in dire need of critical infrastructure. The repeal of the obnoxious Act would open the way for the private sector to come in. But the starting point is commercialisation to prevent poor management of the system. Government h as no business in that business. That is what our experience has shown.
All told, the year 2020 should be a year of commitment to the development of transportation infrastructure in Nigeria. It is a big shame that governments at all levels have been good at calling for direct foreign investment in the country without considering the impact of dearth of transportation infrastructure as a factor. The transportation ministers should also freeze partisan politics in their states and face the critical assignment of developing the transport sector. It will be a shame on them if we get to 2023 and we can’t discuss more than Abuja-Kaduna railway as a going concern.
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