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We need local know-how to sustain investment in railways – Akpoviroro

By Kingsley Jeremiah
09 December 2018   |   4:04 am
The current effort by the Federal Government to rejuvenate the railway system in the country is the right and best thing to happen to Nigeria.

London-based Nigerian railway expert, who spent decades working with London Underground James Akpoviroro, told KINGSLEY JEREMIAH Nigeria’s railway development is not sustainable since local content is not considered. Akpoviroro, currently the Managing Director and partner of two railway engineering solution companies, Jeerea Nigeria Limited and James Salmon and Partner Limited, U.K, discussed the many challenges militating against railway development in the country.

What is your appraisal of current efforts to overhaul rail transportation n the country?
The current effort by the Federal Government to rejuvenate the railway system in the country is the right and best thing to happen to Nigeria.

But it has to be a win-win for everybody and the economy. The Federal Government and those advising it should not overlook the economic benefits of the railway because they are too much to ignore. The rejuvenation in term of proper planning and management, particularly in ensuring that we recoup money invested will not only point at a new direction for the country’s economy, it will also create a name for this government.

Another angle the government should look at is how to incorporate transporters, individual businessmen and women in its plans because most of them could be pushed out of business, and bringing them back into the railway will offer them something to leverage on.

There are criticisms that local content is being undermined in the process. Do you share this view?
This is of a huge concern to everybody, especially those of us, who are experts in railway. We do agree that railway is a little bit technical and that for generations it has been neglected in Nigeria, and that the technical knowhow remains at the developing stage. However, the Federal Government should know that there are Nigerians, who are world-class experts in railway. Some of us have been working in the railway sector and have capacity to sustainably contribute to the growth of the sector.

In my case, I have been with London Underground for the past 23 years. A lot of us are willing to come back to contribute to the development of this nation. If the government wants its efforts of revamping the railway sector to continue for generations to come, we need to involve Nigerians, who have capacity to deliver and pass on experience to younger Nigerians. Nobody on earth will be more interested in seeing Nigeria grow in this field than Nigerians abroad that have the needed skills. I am not saying that foreigners are not welcome, but we have seen viable industries collapsing because foreigners, who no longer have interest in the country built them.

Again if you look at the local content, it also includes our local steel manufacturing sector, as well as, young and old Nigerian welders and engineers, to mention a few. We can begin to create jobs, if local content is prioritised in the sector.

Some financial analysts have raised the alarm on the rate of borrowing from China to finance rail infrastructure and other projects. Should Nigerians be worried about this? Are there other ways to finance such projects?
In relation to other ways of funding these projects, I will say that it is important to plough back money realised from the few lines that are working, and this can only happen with proper management and accountability. Economically, you can’t continue to borrow and borrow for every construction without making or using money from previous ones that are on and running. Another point I also want to make is for the management to look internally for finance.

Nigeria has a lot of rail experts like you across the world. What are you doing to help the process at home?
It’s true, there are lots of us outside Nigeria, experts and well trained for that matter, but you should also remember too that to break into the Nigerian system is not easy, takes time and also requires you to be around. These reasons make it difficult for us to come back home. However, some of us, like me have been trying since 2011 to break into the system. I have been trying to bring home my expertise and put my experience at the disposal of young Nigerians, which is what I planned from the first day I entered The London Underground. The management and staff of Nigeria Railway Corporation know me, but their hands are tied in relations to how the funding was secured from the Chinese. I have approached the Chinese and will still continue to. One thing I want to say here is that most of us want to come back home, but the process is difficult.

In what area of the railway value chain do you specialise?
My area of specialty is track. Jeerea Rail builds new railway track, refurbishes old ones and maintains existing ones. Our sister company J. Salmon & Partners UK Ltd and Jak Pos Venture, Ireland, specialises not only on track, but construction of stations and railway management, which deals on the ticketing and general station and train management.

I got my first degree in International Relations. It was my romance with The London Underground that brought me into engineering, in other words, I was practically trained by The London Underground on engineering track and I felt since I know the practical aspect, it would be better to add the classroom knowledge and this made me to go back to the classroom to study Civil Engineering.

How are we faring if you compare your experience when you were with London Underground with what is going on currently in Nigeria’s rail sector?
Considering when we started revamping our railway system after a long neglect, one can say Nigeria is not doing bad yet. I think it will only be sustainable in the long and short term if the government considers local experts like us, who know every aspect of the system. In other word, we should be considered for some of the works being carried out, they can do this by also telling the Chinese to consider our people at home for some of the technical aspects of building the railway, this will ensure transfer of knowledge to the country. My company is looking at setting up a system, which will ensure sustainable railway engineering and management in the coming years.