Thirty-five years after it was first constructed, the Itakpe-Ajaokuta-Warri standard-gauge rail line may be headed for commercial operations come September this year. Going by the revelations by the Minister of Transportation Rotimi Amechi during an inspection of the project, the project’s level of completion is 80%, while all that the line needed was a few test runs to be serviceable, even as he did not mention any specific date for commissioning. Amaechi attributed the uncertainty over the commissioning date to the non-completion of the 12 modern stations that would service the line. The outstanding stations comprise of two between Itakpe and Ajaokuta as well as ten others that are designated between Ajaokuta and Warri. Meanwhile the contract for a new line that will link Lokoja was in the pipeline. The Minister spoke after he undertook an almost ten-hour rail trip, on the line with the management of the Nigeria Railways led by its Managing Director, Engineer Fidel Okhiria.
The Itakpe-Ajaokuta-Warri rail line was conceived and developed in the 1980s as an integral part of the country’s iron and steel development project, and specifically for moving steel billets from the main Ajaokuta plant to Aladja steel rolling mill in Delta State. The country’s steel development project as nurtured thenand comprised the main steel plant at Ajaokuta along with a constellation of steel rolling mills located at Aladja, Osogbo and Katsina. However, the failure by the country to progress with the full implementation of the entire project and address the dream of local production of steel for self-sufficiency by Nigeria, led to the abandonment of the various aspects of the project, leading to the disuse of this particular rail line, even after the rail track had been laid. It has therefore remained in that state until this new break in its fortunes.
In support of the Minister’s promise the MD of the Railways Engineer Okhiria stated that operations could start with even one train as long as they have signaling equipment, especially in the light of the challenge of avoiding further damage to the existing track through vital maintenance. Incidentally, an early test drive of the train by the corporation into Delta State caused significant excitement as many Nigerians in that part of the country saw a train for the first time in their lives.
The foregoing notwithstanding, the planned deployment of the rail line under less than permissible conditions as envisaged has some drawbacks that need to be considered. Primary in this respect is the absence of the rail stations, without which it remains outrightly dangerous to operate commercial train services on that line, as unsuspecting passengers would remain sitting ducks for slaughter in the face of security breaches. Given the understandably uncompleted state of the stations the September date for launch of commercial services may therefore be unduly ambitious.
The present state of compromised security in the country is common knowledge as on a daily basis criminally minded elements attack, rob and even kill unsuspecting travelers along any isolated stretch of the country’s highway. Even the strategic Abuja-Kaduna highway that enjoys significant attention by the security agencies is not spared the outrage of these miscreants, not to talk of a rail line that lies in the middle of nowhere near any viable response in the face of untoward contingencies.
Hence, while the start-up of the line will definitely earn some political points for the administration, the imperative of guaranteeing public safety far outweighs any other, and should determine when and if the line can and should be open for passenger traffic no matter how skeletal such may be.
In the light of the fore going its commercialization and eventual commissioning should be postponed until public safety along the route is guaranteed.