Even though the trains recently seen on the rail lines are nowhere near what things were in the past, it is nevertheless something to be hopeful that progress is now being made in the revival of this key transport sector, which would have a revolutionizing effect on the national economy and society once it is fully revived and modernised.
The rail revitalization project, as outlined recently by Transport Minister Senator Idris Umar, is part of a 25-year programme to rehabilitate, modernize and stabilize rail transport in Nigeria. This ‘strategic vision for railway development’ includes the rehabilitation of existing narrow gauge lines, construction of standard gauge lines and linking all state capitals by rail, much like the Trunk A road system. When fully achieved, the impact that these could have on the national economy would be tremendous.
So far, there are signs of progress in this plan, though a lot still needs to be done. It is perhaps in this sector that intervention by SURE-P has been most noticeable. According to Umar, so far 90 percent of the existing 3,505kms of narrow gauge rail line in all parts of the country are at various stages of rehabilitation. As a result, the Western rail corridor of Lagos-Kano saw the kick-off of passenger and freight services in December last year while rail services are expected to kick off in the Eastern corridor of Port Harcourt-Maiduguri by year’s end.
Currently, intra-state mass transit rail services have begun in Lagos, Kaduna and Kano-Challawa routes, while inter-city passenger services operate in Lagos-Ibadan, Kaduna-Minna, Kaduna-Kafanchan and Kano-Nguru. An Offa-Kano Express Train Service is also started. Rehabilitation of Apapa port rail line has been completed while other ports are to be linked by rail. In the last two years, Nigeria’s rail carried 4 million passengers and 561,000 tonnes of cargo. This is a small figure compared to what things were decades ago; but it is an encouraging sign at least that the traffic may improve.
This country has been proposing the building of a standard gauge rail line for four decades now. The plan was actually incorporated into the Third National Development of 1975-1980 but was never done. This time, construction of the 187km Abuja-Kaduna standard gauge line is underway and is expected to be completed by the end of next year, according to the government’s projection. Construction of the 274km Lagos-Itakpe-Ajaokuta-Warri standard gauge line is 80% complete while Lagos-Ibadan standard gauge work was recently started as part of what the Transport Ministry said is a long-term Lagos-Kano standard gauge line. All these projects are welcome signs that there is positive movement in the rail sector for the first time in two decades.
In recent weeks, controversy has trailed the award of contracts for conducting feasibility studies for the national network of standard gauge lines. The purpose of the feasibility studies, as government officials explained, is to attract private investors under the terms of a Private Public Partnership [PPP] project. This is understandable because the costs involved and the demands of other equally important sectors. The studies will establish the technical, economic and viability models of the projects; provide proposals for alignment and connections to urban and commercial settlements and identify potential train stations and workshops all leading to submission of preliminary and final engineering designs.
The problem, as critics have alleged, is that these rail feasibility studies contracts were on the high side, even though officials have explained that they were advertised in 2011, that the bids were evaluated by SURE-P, Infrastructure Concession Regulatory Commission and Transport Ministry; the Bureau of Public Enterprises [BPP] issued ‘no objection’ certificates before the Federal Executive Council approved them. However, such controversy should not derail these all-important national projects. If there are corrections to be made, the National Assembly through its relevant committees should step in to examine them. In all cases the rail modernization programme should be pursued as a top national priority. Much of Nigeria’s future economic and social life rests on it.