For decades, Nigeria’s railway system, developed by the British colonialists has been moving at a snail speed despite many promises and huge financial resources spent to revitalise it by successive governments.
The country is said to have spent about N2 trillion in 20 years to revamp the rail system, with little to show for it, as it only recorded less than 1000 kilometres of rail tracks added to the 3000 kilometres of rail tracks inherited from the colonialists.
After reaching peak performance of over 11.28 million passengers and three million metric tonnes of freight in 1964, the Nigerian Railway Corporation (NRC) started its rapid decline in the 70s.This was, however, briefly stabilised in 1976 when the then military administration of Olusegun Obasanjo invited the Rail India Technical and Economic Services to manage the Corporation.
The Indian experts met only 20 functional locomotive engines in NRC and increased the number to 173 by the time they were leaving in the early 1980s. Later, the Shehu Shagari administration brought in Romanian railway experts after the Indians had left and they were reportedly paid $17 million to supply wagons and workshop equipment. It turned to be wasted effort as the supplied facilities are still reportedly rotting away at the NRC workshop in Lagos, not installed due to corruption among others.
Successive governments did not pay attention to revamping the rail transport system in Nigeria which led to its total collapse. However, the late General Sani Abacha’s administration attempted to revive the sector by awarding a $528million in 1995 to the China Civil Engineering Construction Corporation (CCECC) to rehabilitate the already poor rail infrastructure.
Curiously, the Chinese Company was rewarded with more contracts by the Olusegun Obasanjo administration when he returned as civilian president in 1999 and also inaugurated a $13 billion contract for the construction of a new Lagos-Kano standard gauge line, spanning 1,315 kilometres in the twilight of his administration in 2006. The project was later abandoned by the Umaru Musa Yar’Adua administration after CCECC, the contractor had pocketed the sum of $250 million, being the initial payment made by the government for the job. The Jonathan administration was reported to have spent over N1 trillion on development of railway system in the country which did not produce any positive result.
Paradoxically, while many countries that started train services long after Nigeria have perfected that mode of transportation by using it for efficient human transportation and bulk cargo haulage, Nigeria’s railway system remains in near comatose state. For instance, in Ethiopia, the country recently completed its Ethio-Djibouti electric railway. The railway links Ethiopia’s capital, Addisababa, to the Red Sea port of Djibouti – a stretch of 784 km. The standard gauge Ethio-Djibouti electrified double-track railway constructed at a cost of $3.4 billion is expected to slash the journey time between the two countries to under 10 hours.
Considering the importance of functional rail system to economic development of a country, the federal government seems to be working out plans to revolutionise it. As a result, the expectation of the average Nigerian is very high. But funding will determine to a large extent if the plans will come to light. Minister of Transportation, Rotimi Amaechi has revealed that the federal government is seeking a loan in the region of $40 to $46 billion dollars to complete some ongoing rail projects and embark on new ones.
We urge the government to intensify efforts to get funding for its rail project and ensure that the entire system is modernised. There should be a remodelling of all train stations across the country. They should be equipped with modern facilities befitting 21st century train stations with comfortable departure lounges, good convenience rooms and cafeteria.
The narrow gauge track model should be replaced with the standard gauge track model, as this enables newer and faster trains to be procured to replace the old and very slow speed trains which are not passenger-friendly. The journey by train is long and shouldn’t be so.
Passenger trains should be different from cargo trains, as this will save time at different stations. It is also very important for the railway network to be expanded to states that are not yet connected by rail. This will lead to development of more rural communities.
The current rail network was primarily to serve Britain’s economic interest. The Lagos to Calabar rail project proposed by the federal government is a good step in the right direction.
The current rail network of 3,505km is grossly inadequate to meet current realities as population has quadrupled since the last rail line was constructed in 1964. Countries like South Africa and Britain have 20,000km and 15,760km respectively. Nigeria must wake up from its slumber.