The Lagos-Ibadan standard gauge rail line takes off today,signalling the return of the good old days of efficient train services, writes ADEYINKA ADERIBIGBE
oday, history will be made as Minister of Transportation, Rotimi Amaechi opens the Lagos-Ibadan standard gauge rail line.
The project is in fulfilment of the Buhari’s administration’s commitment to bequeath to the nation an efficient, safe, reliable and affordable local train system that would compete with others globally.
Inaugurating the first standard gauge rail line last year, President Muhammadu Buhari spoke of his administration’s commitment to a train system that is “safe, fast and reliable,” pledging that all state capitals would be connected with standard gauge.
It was not an empty boast. It was the corner-piece of the 25-year strategic masterplan of the Nigerian Railway Corporation (NRC). The Lagos-Ibadan train service is part of the bigger component to connect the Port of Lagos to the fringes of Niger border in Kano.
The project was awarded to China Civil Engineering Construction Corporation (CCECC) in 2006 for $8.3 billion. When the government could not secure funds for the project, it decided to build the standard gauge line in segments and rehabilitate the narrow gauge line to meet the transportation needs of Nigerians.
Though only the 187-km long Abuja-Kaduna segment was delivered last year, it took the government 16 years to do so. Its siting is strategic because it is the first time Abuja would be connected to the railway network.
The segment, expected to be completed in December 2014, cost $876 million; it consists of $500 million loan from the Exim Bank of China and the balance from the government.
Though construction began in February 2011, and tracklaying two years later, train operation did not begin until last June, while passenger and freight service took off a month later.
The Lagos-Ibadan segment was awarded to CCECC for $1.53 billion in 2012.
The government promised to complete this section by 2018.
Other segments to which network was broken and on which the government is determined to begin work are: Ibadan-Ilorin (200 km), Ilorin-Minna (270 km), Minna-Abuja and Kaduna-Kano (305 km).
Bye, old trains
Until last year, Nigeria depended on the British-built narrow cape gauge rail system, which has a lower design capacity.
From 11 million passenger traffic in 1964, passenger traffic fell to 1.6 million in 2003, while freight traffic fell from three million tons in 1964 to about 100,000 tons by 2000.
On assuming office in 2015, Amaechi promised to rewrite the railway transportation history.
Blaming the aging rolling stock for the drop in the fortunes of the railway, Amaechi said the government would not be satisfied with a train service that goes on an average of 45 km/h, and takes 31 hours to traverse Lagos to Kano.
Insisting that the government was committed to delivering on a fast-moving and comfortable rail transportation system, Amaechi said having succeeded in the rehabilitation of narrow gauge, attention must be paid to the standard gauge, moreso as economic growth and the urgent needed to decentralise, redistribute traffic and bring relief to the over-burdened roads made a standard gauge line desirable.
Being the oldest corporation, NRC, perhaps, has the largest collection of antiquated rolling stocks that have continued its grinding movements on the narrow gauge built by the British colonial government in 1900.
With its golden era long gone, NRC ran into troubled waters in the twilights of the 20th century, until the turn of the new millennium, when renewed concerted efforts began to bring back the old era and put the railway back on track.
The railway had remained largely on track due to the ingenuity of local engineers and other members of the workforce who have been improvising and fabricating essential component parts of the locomotive and coaches in order to ensure that the train moves, no matter how sluggish.
From its high point when it has about 250 coaches and 55 locomotives, NRC could hardly boast of 10 functioning locomotives named after iconic national figures, while aggressive efforts were on to ensure that more coaches were rehabilitated and added to the rolling stock.
A former NRC managing director who would not want his name mentioned, at a forum, described the trains movement as a miracle. Praising the engineers for this, he said while the government shoped for funds to buy modern rolling stocks, the NRC management was committed to rehabilitating its aging stock to keep the corporation on profitability path.
A passenger on the Lagos-Kano train service Kareem Abubakar noted that the railway would witness an explosion in patronage, especially on the strategic and hugely successful route, if the government was able to deliver on its standard gauge promise.
Experience, he said, had shown that even the thrice weekly frequency of train service on the route was grossly inadequate, and that those who ply the roads would switch over to patronise the railway for its safety, affordability and reliability.
An Offa-based textile trader who uses the shuttle service for his Lagos-Kano trips Alhaja Kadhijat Alebiosu said the standard gauge would boost passenger and freight traffic along the Lagos-Kano-Lagos route. Alhaja Alebiosu said despite the slow pace of the train, she still loved to patronise the railway for its safety, compared to other means of land transportation.
The NRC said the introduction of standard gauge would rejuvenate the economy.
Its Managing Director, Fidet Ohkiria, said the movement of goods and persons on modern standard gauge lines would boost the economy.
“To make Nigeria investment- friendly, and catch up with the rest of the world, the restrictions on the NRC must be removed and our rolling stocks modernised.
“For the economy to be truly competitive, Nigeria must move away from the narrow gauge to standard gauge lanes,” Okhiria said.
CCECC, appointed since 2012 to deliver the Lagos-Ibadan route as well as three other sections on the Lagos-Kano standard gauge lane, was established in June 1979 and has over the years evolved into a global corporation that not only handles railway engineering but also all civil engineering projects with enviable track record.
Among its other projects, according to Wikipedia, are the 8.6 km double track standard gauge Carmel Tunnels in Haifa, Israel, built in 2009, the 4.6-km Gilon tunnel in Northern Israel in 2014 and the construction of the underground stations of the Tel Aviv light rail constructed in 2014, among other projects, scattered all over the world.
A logistics entrepreneur Mr Edeme Kelikume, said Nigeria has the right kind of population to make standard gauge a “hugely successful” venture.
Kelikume, a railway logistics expert and Chief Executive of Connect Rail Services Limited (CRSL), said: “The standard gauge is the way to go, whether for passenger or freight services, adding that the astronomic cost of living in Nigeria and other associated costs would be addressed, once people can move more cheaply and agro-allied and solid minerals can move faster and more freely from the points of production across the country, to the various markets, including international or export market.”
According to him, picking world-class contractors to handle the project would ensure that the best is delivered to Nigerians soonest.
A regular train service passenger said a standard gauge that would connect Lagos with Ibadan, open the area to new vista of life, adding that it would reduce traffic on the nation’s busiest expressway.
Apart from promoting a cleaner environment through a reduction in carbon emission by reducing the vehicles on the road, he said the link would promote greater integration, open up the hinterlands, and ensure faster, safer and cheaper means of transportation, thereby removing the dominance of private commuter bus operators on the route.
Politically, he argued that linking Lagos, the nation’s commercial capital with Southwest’s political capital, would have tremendous impact on the Southwest, the same way that Abuja was connected to Kaduna, the political capital of the core North by the speed train last year.
With an economy in its way out of recession and naira battling to regain its strength, it is debatable whether the government would keep next year’s timeline to deliver on the project.
Ameachi’s body language is that he would not condone further delays, but only time will tell how far he can go.