Railway transportation in Nigeria dates over a century to 1898.
|On modernising Nigerian railways|
• Thursday, Nov 2, 2006
Railway transportation in Nigeria dates over a century to 1898. In its hey days, this mode of transportation was both convenient and economical for heavy haulage, mass transportation of passengers, movement of agricultural produce and even the promotion of tourism.
Since inception, the Rail system in Nigeria was both viable and vibrant and grew progressively to become central to the economic and social life of the nation before its gradual decline led to its comatose state today.
The running of the nation’s rail system was vested in the Nigerian Railway Corporation (NRC) which was established by an Act of Parliament in 1955 for the main purpose of carriage of passengers and freight haulage in a cost-effective manner.
At independence in 1960, the railway was the pride of the nation and a choice establishment to work for, employing over 45,000 Nigerians. It was the hub of the nation’s land transport with a total network of 3,505 kilometres of narrow gauge rail line, which was adequate at the time for the haulage of agricultural products from the north to seaports in Lagos and Port Harcourt.
Groundnuts from the North, Palm Oil from the East and Cocoa from Western Nigeria, each contributed to the flourishing Nigerian economy at the time and are reminders of the good old era when the railways connected the country and contributed significantly to the growth of many ‘railway towns’ that later transformed into industrial and commercial cities, such as Kaduna, Bauchi, Kano, Oshogbo, Ibadan, Lagos, Enugu, Kafanchan, and Port Harcourt.
The railway could also be said to be a fore-runner to the development of tourism in the country as it lured domestic tourists to the nation’s beautiful landscape and lush vegetation across its varied geographical zones from north to south.
Designed primarily to link the sources of agricultural produce and mineral deposits by the colonial authorities, subsequent administrations neglected the railways and failed to redesign and modify its obsolete narrow gauge network to serve the new economy that became dependent on oil.
Rail development was abandoned by successive governments in favour of road with some highways running parallel to rail lines as if they were in competition rather than being complementary to each other. Thus, the final death knell for the railway was sounded as the nation consciously pursued this course of developing road and air transport systems at the expense of the railways.
Available data show that while there was a progressive increase in the total length of roads from about 72,000 km in 1962 to about 150,000 km in the mid-1980s and a similar increase in airports from two in 1970 to 25 today. By contrast, the length of railway network stayed constant at 3,505 route-km over the last 100 years.
A truism today is that Railways are the backbone of any mass transit system the world over. If nothing else, the statistics are indicative of the compelling need to redesign, expand and renovate the Nigerian railway into an efficient nationwide network to serve the economy and facilitate national development.
So many reasons can be adduced for the uncoordinated development of the railways, but at the centre is the lack of an effective Transport Policy to serve as a framework and guide to all stakeholders in the sector, including clearly spelling out the place an complementarities of every mode of transport. For instance, in the country today, road haulage operators see an effective rail system as a threat, rather than a complementary means of transport.
For too long, the transport policy was not dynamic and hence did not respond to changes in rail technology and transport sector in general.
In the 1970s, the federal government invited Indians to come and manage the railways in conjunction with Nigerian engineers after which Nigerians will take over the management of the railways. This initiative failed. Since then the Chinese were also invited in a similar fashion to rehabilitate the railways but with little success.
Oftentimes, te arguments proffered for these failures point at the fact that these attempts were predicated on the rehabilitation of old narrow gauge lines which are not standard and as a result made their rolling stock difficult to source. For this reason, the operations of the NRC remained paralysed. Its staying power to date has been ascribed to its monumental asset base in real estate, rolling stock, albeit obsolete, and less than subsistent subvention from the federal government, its sole owner and financier.
Industry analysts, in fact, blame the deplorable state of the railway system on government’s direct involvement in running it as a social service, rather than the global trend of allowing it to be private sector driven.
This realisation led to government’s plans to sell off the NRC like other money losing government enterprises, this has proved a hard sell for the Bureau of Public Enterprises (BPE). Whilst the bureau did a wonderful job of packaging the corporation for off shore investors, including influencing the review of the transport policy as well as formulating investor friendly legislation; an existing rail route concession plan for investors to bid exists only on paper, but little else has so far been seen in terms of investor commitment.
A comparism of rails systems in developed and developing nations reveal that new funding strategies and patterns, like public-private partnerships, and Build-Operate-Transfer (BOT) arrangements, as well as old strategies such as privatisation, are being adopted in an attempt to enhance railway safety, punctuality, and reliability.
Writing in an industry journal recently, Joshua Adetunji, a Transport analyst, who works as Senior Traffic and Commercial Officer (Trains) at the headquarters of the NRC in Lagos suggested the choice of a public-private partnership as a remedy for Nigeria’s ailing railway system with a view to bringing it to international standards.
Recent federal government’s commitment has clearly shown a change in the right direction as it seeks the modernisation of the railways. In an interview, the Minister of State for Transport, Malam Muhammad Habibu Aliyu explained that in collating its proposals for the modernisation of the railways, the government approached several countries including South Korea, India, US, Canada, Britain, France and Germany, among others before settling on China.
The attraction was because the Chinese are seeking to partner with the government on the project with novel contributions of both financing, worth an initial $2 billion, and training; in addition to establishing workshops for the local manufacture of spares Some analysts interpret this as a win-win situation for Nigeria Railways especially given the fact that the federal government’s investment of about $8.3 billion will largely be spent on constructing new standard gauge for the country rather than the previous efforts of rehabilitating old lines.
Under the 25-year plan to revitalise and modernise the railways, new standard gauge rail line will be constructed under the first phase to run from Lagos ports to Kano (1,010 km), which will be broken into Ibadan-Ilorin (200 km); Ilorin-Minna (270 km); Minn -Kaduna and Kano (360 km) and Minna-Ahuja and Kaduna (305 km).
The contract for the project will be awarded before the end of the year and work is expected to commence immediately. Phase II of the project, which will be the second spine of the backbone, will run from Port Harcourt to Maiduguri based on the same design riteria.
Already, the federal government has inaugurated “Sub-Project Engineering Teams”, comprising NRC engineers and staffers of the Federal Ministry of Transport, to facilitate the rehabilitation and modernisation of the country’s rail system by providing technical input to the contractors. The teams are Old Tracks Rehabi Iitation, New Lines, Rolling Stock and New Acquisition, Signals and Communications, Security and Safety and Procurement.
The project teams are expected to work with the ministry’s consultants, Messrs TEAM Nig. Ltd., in analysing the various submissions needed to put the rail system back on track. “We want a functional rail system to reduce pressure on our roads and also boost socio-economic activities in places were the rail lines passes,” Babangida Aliyu, permanent secretary in the transport ministry, said at The teams’ inauguration.
According to the former transport minister, Abiye Sekibo, the modernisation, expected to be completed in 2009, will be funded from budgetary appropriation in two instalments in 2006 and 2007.The project, he added, will be implemented on “a fast track approach using the design, construct and maintain contract system”.
So far, kudos for the government’s modernisation plans have come from NRC workers that had been rendered redundant by the comatose state of the rail network. They, however, counselled on the need for government to overhaul the railway administrative system, as well as put in place a Rail Maintenance Agency for the sustainability of the new initiative.
They said the absence of such an agency in the past contributed to the collapse of the railways.
Traders and transporters, on the other hand, have expressed optimism That government’s plan to modernise the rail system will boost economic activities in the country, especially the reduction in the cost of goods and services.
Alhaji Umam Maidala, an agent of Dangote Group of Companies in the transport section, said: “with the reduction in the cost of transportation of goods and services, prices of commodities will certainly drop’.
According to him, the measures taken by the government will also improve the living standard of the people once prices of food items and cost of production are reduced.
A Jos-based grains dealer and transporter of essential commodities, David Ali, also told NAN that other economic linkages, such as petty trading and other services, were expected to spring up in most railway junctions and stations thereby providing employment opportunities for youths presently roaming the streets.
On the downside, however, major challenges remain. For one, given our deplorable national record in lack of continuity, the pledge of funding for the project coming in the twilight of the present administration’s gives room for anxiety to even the most optimistic observer.
Other challenges likely to face the new railways is that of human resources; given the aged workforce trained on the narrow gauge rail technology having to adapt to the new standard gauge rail technology.
The management of the network will have to choose between retraining the aging staff with experience in the obsolete technology or recruiting and training new personnel. It is obvious that recruitment and training of personnel on the new technology will take a while.
Nwakama wrtes for the News Agency of Nigeria.