Rail Modernization Project: Viewing The Collapse From The Lapses

The Nigerian Railway was constructed between 1898 and 1927 and extended to Maiduguri between 1955 and November 1962. The track network was built essentially for the transportation of produce from the hinterland to the port during the colonial era. The existence of severe gradients, which is compounded by sharp curves over long stretches, has restricted maximum speed. Most of the locomotives, coaches and wagons are over-aged with exorbitant maintenance cost. Prevailing problems are compounded by critical shortage of spare parts and materials for the maintenance of railway infrastructure.

Before the 19th century, the single-track narrow-gauge rail network ran diagonally across the country, it was well able to haul all the agricultural products grown in the far north to the seaports at Lagos and Port Harcourt. The contribution of groundnuts from northern Nigeria, palm oil from eastern Nigeria and cacao from western Nigeria to the flourishing Nigerian economy at the time is reminders of the good old railway era.

However, further development of the railways was abandoned in favour of road transport by successive governments. Roads were expanded without any consideration of the attendant effects such as road traffic accidents, pollution, congestion, parking, etc. Some highways were constructed parallel to railway lines, resulting in competition rather than a complementary role between road and rail transport. The differences in allocation of funds for railway and road transport by the government, and this trend still haunts railway development today.

Railway construction further increased between 1901-1910, Ibadan-Jebba (295 km); 1907-1911, Kano-Baro (562 km); 1909-1915, Jebba-Minna (252 km); 1914-1916, Port-Harcourt-Enugu (243 km); and 1922-1927, Kafanchan-Jos (179 km). The general objectives of the Nigerian Railway have been the carriage of passengers and goods in a manner that will offer full value for money, meet cost of operation, improve market share and quality of service, ensure maximum efficiency and meet social responsibility. As indicated in the Nigerian Railway Corporation Act of 1955, the main purpose of transforming the Nigerian railway from a government department to a corporation was to maintain an efficient rail transportation system for effective bulk carriage of goods and passengers. But, unfortunately, successive governments, thus making it impossible for the management to achieve its set goals, have grossly neglected the railway system. A few weeks ago, about 7500 employees of the Nigerian Railway Corporation were retrenched to pave the way for effective reconstruction of the old parastatal. Since then, expectation has been high on the preparations for revamping the rail mode as matter of urgency. But, very little has happened. Apart from the comprehensive renovation of the headquarters offices at Ebute Metta, Lagos, operational activities have not witnessed any visible transformation.

Unfortunately, in spite of the obvious benefits of railway transportation, The technical problems of such as tight curves, steep gradients, rail buckling with associated track/speed limits appeared, again, Poor communications, Government interference with management structure, Lack of freedom to set tariffs, under-funding, Falling rolling stock levels, Plummeting traffic levels (freight and passenger), Inflexible bureaucracy, Volatile and militant labour union, Irregular staff training, Worn-out infrastructure and Lack of maintenance killed our rail transport system. It was observed that further development was more or less stultified between 1927 and 1958- a period of thirty-one years. It was not until 1958 with the construction of Kafanchan to Bauchi line (238 km) that work resumed on the rail system. This was followed within 1961–1964 with the Bauchi-Maiduguri line (302km). This brought the total rail route of the Nigerian Railway Network to 3505 km (and if sidings are included, to 4,332 km), the broaden construction went with a 32 km line of 1067mm gauge from Iddo (Lagos State) to Otta (Ogun State), which was further extended to Ibadan covering a total of 193 km in 1901.

Between 1995 and 1999, a whooping contract of $500 million was awarded to a Chinese firm, China Civil Engineering Construction Corporation to rehabilitate the existing rail, supply 50 locomotives, 150 coaches, 400 wagons and 20 rail buses and provide technical training for the railways staff. The substandard rail locomotives, wagon and coaches supplied by the Chinese firm, however, were not fit for later use. The same China Civil Engineering Constriction Company has again been awarded a whopping $8.3b contract to rehabilitate the rail system. Despite the shoddy work done and substandard locomotives supplied, China continues to make in road in the development of rail system. In 2006, a deal was struck between Beijing and Abuja. Under this deal, China would provide a concessional loan of $1 billion while Nigeria will come up with matching funds. The fund would be used to fix old lines and buy new rolling stock and equipment. General Sani Abacha’s administration in 1995 started the transformation of the corporation when $528million was approved for the rehabilitation of the railways and acquisition of rolling stock and locomotives through a Chinese company, China Civil Engineering Construction Corporation (CCEC). Of the 50 locomotives supplied by the CCEC in 1995, only 10 are currently serviceable, as others have since been grounded owing to lack of spares parts. Sourcing parts for narrow gauge locomotives and coaches may almost be impossible because they have been discontinued in Europe, Americas and Asia. The corporation as a result, placed public tender, calling on interested entrepreneurs to supply it with batteries, microwave equipment and microwave network management system among others. What an insult!

Again, when Nigeria hosted Chinese President Hu Jintao , Newspapers announced that the MoU reached by the two nations, an offshoot of bilateral talks, was aimed at improving railway infrastructure in Nigeria. The reconstruction programme ratified by the Federal Executive Council on June 18,2006, to be financed through a $2.5 billion Chinese soft loan, could pass through seven major towns of Lagos, Ibadan, Ilorin, Abuja, Kaduna and Kano covering a distance of 1010 kilometer of rail line.

Ex- president Olusegun Obasanjo flaged off the first phase of the estimated N325billion or $2.5b modernization and expansion programme for Nigerian Railway Corporation (NRC), the one-century old hemorrhaging corporation would have gulped more than N400billion in the last ten years of its operation. The initiative was aimed at fostering rapid technological change through a three-way alliance, involving the federal government, private sector and China in a concession strategy expected to reduce government investments in the sector and enhance the railway corporation’s competitive edge in providing safe, reliable and efficient rail services for the country. The blueprint of the award included; 3 Nos. Longitudinal Lines, Lagos – Up North, Warri – Up North and Port Harcourt – Up North, 4 Nos. Latitudinal Lines; and Branch and Extension Lines.

Prominently attention was dedicated to railway transformation during the recent visit of the Chinese leader to Nigeria. The scheme should be followed up to accelerate the programme of railway development. However, adequate caution must be exercised in entrusting railway management to the so-called foreign experts who had disappointed this country in the past. Recent experiences with India and China were indeed deplorable. The former military government invited the Rail India Technical and Economic Service Limited [RITES] to manage the Railway from 1979 to 1982. The purpose of bringing the Indians were to revitalize the rail system, restore its competitive advantage, enhance public confidence and enable the Nigeria Railway Corporation to fulfill its obligations as a meaningful and worthwhile public enterprise. This achievement was however short lived as a result of NRC bureaucratic bottlenecks that eventually led to the loss of several billion of naira. However the Indians neither trained Nigerians nor improved operational services. The unsuccessful completion of the project and resultant failure of the railway to work proficiently recently informed the call for the modernization and expansion of the railway from antiquated narrow gauge to a dual-standard gauge rail track with a travel speed of between 120km/h – 150km/h.

Similarly, and in furtherance of the programme to develop the rail sector, Romanian Project for the supply of Rolling Stock and Workshop equipment (1986 – 1996) but inconclusive; before a bilateral pact was signed in 1995 with the China Civil Engineering Construction Corporation [CCECC]. Under the agreement, the Chinese experts were expected to rehabilitate railway lines, renew signals and reinforce bridges. The contract awarded at a cost of $528 million, about N45 billion, also involved the supply of rolling stock, locomotives and other essential railway equipment. The assignment collapsed. The reasons for the failure of both the Indian and Chinese rail reconstruction contracts have been attributed to the Nigerian factor of corruption at the apex of government.

A fundamental action in the reactivation of the Nigerian Railway is the desirability of repealing the Nigeria Railway Act of 1955 which confers absolute monopoly right on government to run the railways and forbids any form of private sector participation in rail services delivery in the country.

In 1980, the railway under the NRC comprised a total of 3505km route of 1067mm gauge. This was considered narrow when compared with the broad gauge that measures 1435 ton or 4ft 81/2 inches. The aim of the NRC was to promote Nigeria’s economy and provide efficient rail transportation through the provision of efficient and reliable goods and passenger train services. Its functions include but not limited to producing a technically complete transportation services and providing limited (stopping at limited states) local and commuter passenger train services. In this sense, NRC was expected to operate as a veritable means of transporting passengers and goods at a relatively cheap cost comparable to other modes of transportation, giving reliable, safe and efficient services with relative comfort.

Written by
L.Chinedu Arizona-Ogwu
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