Efforts to resuscitate the moribund Nigeria’s railway system by the current management of the Nigeria Railway Corporation (NRC) are already yielding results despite obvious challenges. NRC’s managing director, Engr. Adeseyi Sijuwade, in this interview with SAMSON ECHENIM, says it has become imperative for the National Assembly to pass the Railway Bill to activate government's partnership with the private sector as that is the only way to ensure rapid development of the nation’s railway system as expected by Nigerians, and as obtainable overseas.
Reviving Nigeria’s railway no doubt presents daunting challenges. With this task on your shoulders, how has it been?
Yes, the challenges are very daunting, but at the same time they are also very encouraging - encouraging in the sense that since we started this process of revitalising the railway system in this country about two years ago, I think we have actually made very significant progress. This is a railway system that for several decades has been moribund, but as a result of hard work and support from the federal government we have been able to rehabilitate the track from Lagos all the way to Kano, and at the same time we actually embarked on rehabilitation of tracks from Port Harcourt to Maiduguri. The contract has been awarded and the contractor has actually started work. After so many years of being idle we can now boast of services - both passenger and freight services in various parts of the country. As we speak today, we run passenger services from Lagos to Ilorin twice a week. We run metro services in the Lagos area and we now have a total of eight trips running on a daily basis. We also have intra-city trains running from Minna to Kaduna, from Kano to Kaduna, from Kano to Kaduna, from Kafanchan to Kaduna, from Kano to Kalawa. Down south, we have got freight services again moving cement from Lagos and stopping at Ibadan, Oshogbo and Ilorin again on a weekly basis. So, looking back, I will say the challenges have been daunting, but again the results are beginning to emerge and I will say it has been very encouraging.
How would you compare NRC of the 70s with that of now? How many passengers do you lift per week?
Looking at historical performance records, I will say in the 80s was when we actually achieved the peak. In the mid 80s, we were moving a total of 13 million passengers in a year on the average. In terms of freight tonnage, we achieved an average of about three million tonnes per annum. But like I said, you can’t really compare the level of service now to those of the 70s and 80s because, at the moment, most of our tracks are still under rehabilitation, so it wouldn’t be fair to start comparing at this stage. The good news for us is that the long awaited Lagos to Kano service is now very imminent, as the missing link in the track, which is that part of the track in Akerri, is now being completed. As we speak now, the deck of that Bridge 47, which has been the missing link, is being constructed. We expect that by the end of this month it would have been fully completed so that, by April, we start our trial runs following which we will then flag off both passengers and freight services from Lagos to Kano. The interesting thing about this is the enormous demand we have at the moment from potential customers. We have the likes of the Nigeria Flour Mills eagerly waiting to commence movement of goods from Lagos all the way to the north by this line. We have also got Dangote Cement and we are at the verge of concluding the arrangements. We have Lafarge Wapco, which at the moment is already moving products from Lagos to Ilorin. The company again is now very keen and plans are underway for it to actually establish a massive depot in Minna. The train depot will be the hub of its services and distribution network in the north. Again, moving from its plant at Ewekoro to Minna, Lafarge has commenced arrangements in that direction. All these can only happen on completion of this bridge. We are talking about a situation where by the second half of this year, we expect to see a huge change in the level of services both for passengers and freight. That is when we can now start carrying out a comparative analysis of what we are doing now to what we used to do the past.
When you start, how much will it cost a passenger to travel from Lagos to Kano?
Tentatively, the existing tariff is N2,000 - that is the old tariff. But we are still working on the review of the rate. So, for now that is the price we have in mind. When compared with travelling by road, it will take about N5,000 or more to go to Kano from Lagos. I think this is exactly one of the benefits of going by rail. It is affordable, safe and reliable.
Recently, the corporation received 20 pressurised tanker wagons for the purpose of fuel haulage by railway. Now, that is very few if you really want to make an impact in this regard. Specifically, what is your plan regarding fuel haulage by train?
We want to acquire more tank wagons. We are awaiting the outcome of the budget review and are hopeful that significant funding will be appropriated within 2012 budget to enable us procure more tank wagons.
How many more?
It depends on the budget. From what is approved we will be able to buy what it covers. What we are actually proposing should enable us buy may be another 50 units.
So, are we talking about expending about N1.3billion on these tankers - because the first 20 cost N30 million per unit?
It’s not just tank wagons. We are talking about procurement of more passenger coaches, more container wagons, rehabilitation of more coaches and wagons. There is quite a lot that is required to enhance the level of service. Again, I will be quick to say that the government alone cannot meet all these requirements, and that is why, ultimately, the plan of the government is to actually engage the private sector in the running of the railways. Like you know, the present railway Act is one which does not permit private sector participation in the nation’s railway, and that is why we are very keen to ensure that that the new railway Bill is enacted in a very short period of time. That is what will actually bring the solution in terms of the inadequacies in the number of wagons and coaches that are required to meet the demand of the market today.
According to the minister of transport, the initial 20 tank wagons cost N600 million. Speculations from some quarters are that the tankers are overpriced at N30 million per unit and that the initiative presents an opportunity for local content development agenda of the federal government. What is your plan to ensure that the next set of tank wagons are produced in the country?
These tank wagons were actually manufactured in China and when you talk about the price of the tank wagons, that price includes the manufacturing, shipping and clearing, commissioning here in Nigeria and training of our staff in the maintenance and operation of the wagons. So, it’s what I will call the total package cost. You are right in that, at the moment, we are actually looking into what it takes to have such equipment manufactured in Nigeria towards promoting local content within our industry. Part of the initiatives we are looking at now include having manufacturers coming into Nigeria to actually establish plants for assembling of such wheel rolling stocks and locomotives in partnership with NRC, starting by upgrading the major workshops that we have in various parts of the country. This will involve upgrading them to that level where such rolling stocks can actually be assembled in Nigeria. So, yes, that is one of the initiatives we are working on now.
You were in China recently with the transport minister, possibly for the purpose of seeking investors in the country’s railway, despite the fact that the railway Act has yet to be amended. What is the outcome of that visit?
Yes, the enactment of the railway Bill is what we are actually working very hard on and we are very optimistic about its success, and so, in going out to China to speak to investors, we had done that in anticipation of the Bill being passed in a speedy manner. The visit to China was a fruitful one. We did meet with quite a number of investors and they were quite keen in coming to invest in Nigeria. But like I said earlier, the passing of the railway Bill for now is still a major concern for most of these investors. That is why we are very hopeful that the National Assembly pass that Bill soon.
What are your priorities in taking NRC to the next level? Where do you expect the country’s railway system to be in the next 10 years?
My priorities are basically having a railway system that is safe, reliable and affordable, and being able to provide a level of service that is very attractive to our customers, thereby enabling much migration of customers from road and other modes of transport to rail. That is what we stand for in nutshell and my stand for NRC.
How long will it take Nigeria to achieve modern rapid railway system, the kind seen in the western world and even in some second world countries, like Brazil?
Modern rapid railway system is very much achievable in terms of speed and that is one thing that can be achieved through the ongoing construction of standard gauge railway lines, with the first segment from Abuja to Kaduna. We are going to award the second segment, which is the one going from Lagos to Ibadan, and the intention is to have other segments constructed as the funds become available, so that, ultimately, will have a high speed line going from Lagos to Kano for passengers and freights while the existing narrow gauge lines will be restricted to freight services. So, that again is something which we are very passionate about, and until we get to that level, that is what will be comparable to the sort of services we see abroad.
Some of the potentialities of the NRC include the vast lands on which the various branches, terminals and headquarters are sited. Now that there is dire need for development funds, are there plans to sell part of the lands which are largely unutilised?
The plan is to regenerate most of our stations in strategic locations and to redevelop our lands and properties, which we have all over the nation. We have recently commissioned consultants to carry out feasibility studies for areas where there is a potential for development. The outcome of the feasibility study is what will then inform the development of these properties, which we intend to carry out in partnership with private developers.
In addition to dearth of funds and passage of the Railway Act Amendment Bill, what are your other challenges?
Yes, those are our two major concerns now, and once these issues, especially that of passage of the railway Bill, have been resolved, we can actually look forward to a very robust and developed rapid rail system.