FEATURE ARTICLE

Akintokunbo AdejumoTuesday, October 31, 2006
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akinadejum@aol.com
London, UK

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THE URGENT NEED FOR RAIL TRANSPORTATION IN NIGERIA


he recent ADC plane disaster in Abuja, Nigeria, the fourth in just over a year, has again highlighted and exposed our flaw as a serious nation with a serious government ready for development and acutely underlines the urgent need for a Rail Transportation system to be effected immediately in our country. Where are all the much vaunted overhauls, reviews, etc that were promised after the Bellview and Sosoliso plane crashes.


Last month, several high-ranking military officers died in yet another air disaster. All of a sudden, there is a spate of airspace disasters, and the recent one has become one too many. If the Government does not address this issue as urgently and as conscientiously as possible, without sparing any inhibitions and resources, more Nigerians (and even non-Nigerians) will continue to die needlessly as a result of a lack of will on the part of the Government to take the bull by the horn and start rehabilitating the Nigerian rail system.

Furthermore, a coherent, practical and practicable Transport Policy should be drawn up and implemented by well-meaning, knowledgeable, sincere and committed technocrats and politicians and enforced by the Federal Government. The time has come when the Federal Government of Nigeria must take the needs for an operational railway system seriously and stop the implementation of inconsistent policies on the running of the affairs of the railways in this country.

I for one, have always been suspicious of the development of the Aviation Industry in a Third World country like Nigeria, especially taking into consideration our well-known penchant for corruption, cutting corners, lackadaisical attitude, selfishness, lack of duty of care from our leaders to the governed and of course, our well documented absolute lack of maintenance culture.

This is a country where, first of all, we find it hard to produce a pin or to maintain a bicycle and thereby depend entirely for spare parts and machineries from external sources; we cannot maintain our houses, roads, ships, vehicles properly thereby leading to a deterioration of not only the infrastructure, but a total collapse of the system. For example, the rail system in Nigeria left for us by the British is still there as it was left to us, an archaic and museum piece at best, with virtually no effort on the part of successive Governments to upgrade, improve and maintain it. An unwilling, clueless, corrupt, selfish and mediocre political class has not helped. Neither has the selfish and greedy business and professional class. The result is a moribund rail system, which is now proving to be an albatross. It is virtually non-existent and needs to be started from scratch, which will of course cost a vast amount of money and other resources.

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In a way, pumping money to overhaul the rail system is more than welcome. On the other hand, if it is not properly and rigorously monitored, supervised and implemented, with the corrupt vultures hovering about trying to make money for themselves at the expense of the people of Nigeria, this venture might turn out, as they inevitably do in Nigeria, to be money down the drain or money ending up in some favoured people's pocket. This is my fear.

Another fear of mine is the sabotage that might occur from the road transport magnates - the trailer owners and the luxury bus owners - who will think that an effective and efficient, cheaper rail system will infringe on their money-making business ventures. This is one area that the Government of President Obasanjo, and any subsequent government will have to address and ensure that they seek and have the cooperation of this class of Nigerians. They have vested interest. Therefore it is imperative that the Government, after laying down the infrastructure of the rail system and establishing the core venture, need to privatise the Nigerian Railway Corporation using the example of the old British Rail, where rail routes were franchised out to private operators.

We, the people, and the Federal Government of Nigeria have to face it. The task ahead is not easy.

In 1990 the Nigerian rail system consisted of 3,500 kilometres of narrow-gauge (1.067-meter) track. The system's basic elements were two main lines running inland from the coast: one, in the west from Lagos to Kano, opened in 1912, and the other, in the east from Port Harcourt to a conjunction with the western line at Kaduna, opened in 1926. Three major extensions were subsequently constructed. One was a branch line from Zaria to Kaura Namoda, an important agricultural area in the northwest, completed in 1929. The second was a branch from Kano to Nguru, a cattle-raising region in the northeast, completed in 1930. The third, a 645- kilometer branch from the eastern line to Maiduguri, was completed in 1964. A short spur to the mining area at Jos and two short branches from Lagos and Kaduna rounded out the system.

Poor maintenance, total lack of and inadequate government funding, lack of will, inability to take responsibility, putting square pegs in round holes and declining traffic due to over-promotion of alternative transport systems such as air and road travels, all contributed to a deterioration of the rail system. A plan to convert the entire system to standard gauge (1.435-meter) by laying new track parallel to the old was shelved in the early 1980s for lack of funds. Construction of a new line from Oturkpo to the steelworks at Ajaokuta was also halted in the mid-1980s. In 1988 the Nigerian Railway Corporation (NRC), operator of the system, declared bankruptcy. In an attempt to cut an inefficient and oversized staff, the government laid off one quarter of NRC's workforce. The remainder responded by shutting down the entire system for six months. In 1989 some trains were reported running again, but the system still was reportedly tottering on the verge of total breakdown.

Technically the Nigerian Railways System was based on the prevailing technology at its inception early in the last century. There is need for modernization and herein lies the opportunities for investment in the sub-sector.

An efficient and effective rail system has many advantages:

  1. Rail system everywhere in the world is cheap (after the initial costs) and capable of effectively and efficiently transporting large number or amount of people, goods, services, machineries, petroleum and petroleum products, agricultural products, solid minerals, all kinds of raw materials, etc all over the country at minimal costs to the users.

  2. It will help open up rural Nigeria to the rest of the country in terms of development and access to services. Rail system will encourage companies; local and multinational to site their industries in the rural areas thus bring jobs and all kinds of development to that area. The economics of this can only be imagined.

  3. Rail system is definitely relatively safer than air and water transportation, especially with our poor background in maintaining such complicated pieces of technology such as airplanes and ships, and even roads.

  4. Rail transportation will ease the pressure and reliability on our already inadequate, poorly maintained and overused road system, thereby prolonging their shelf life and less government spending on rehabilitating them. It has been estimated that a rail system running from Lagos to Maiduguri will clear the road of over 60% of trailers and will cut the accident rate on the Lagos-Ibadan Expressway alone by 80%.

  5. As with other developing countries, a large percentage of the citizens cannot afford to use planes as a means of transport from one place to the other. In Nigeria, please read 99%. Thus a rail system will encourage the movement of people and goods from one side of the country to the other thereby promoting cohesiveness, understanding of each other's cultures, etc.

  6. The ability of trains to haul large quantities of goods and significant numbers of people over long distances is the mode's primary asset. Once the cars have been assembled or the passengers have boarded, trains can offer a high speed - high capacity service.

  7. Rail transportation has a low level of space consumption along lines, but its terminals are important consumers of space, especially in urban areas and are characterized by a high level of economic and territorial control.

  8. Most rail systems are linked to communication systems as well as electrification. Thus an effective rail system will be helpful in spreading, developing and maintaining rural telephony and rural electrification, for example.

  9. The railway system will definitely create a very wide variety of jobs, thereby easing the pressure on unemployment in the country. In fact, if implemented properly, the Nigerian rail system has the possibility of being one of the largest employers of people in the country. From when the lines are being laid to building stations, assembling roller stocks and carriages to running the system. All categories of jobs are here - engineers, clerks, managers, printers of tickets, lawyers, doctors, accountants, surveyors, casual labourers, teachers, etc. The possibilities are infinite.

Permit me to quote Rose Umoren (Business In Africa Online, Feb 2004)

"Few things degrade Nigerians like domestic transportation; which also is the lynchpin for especially agricultural and industrial development, and national security.

In principle, Nigeria boasts all forms of transportation: marine, land and air, most pre-dating independence 43 years ago. In practice, only air transportation, used by perhaps 5% of the 130 million populations and subject to international regulation and oversight, functions adequately. Marine transportation, outside the oil industry and the leisure boats of the rich, is mostly canoes and battered boats. Land transportation comprises mostly unregulated contraptions passing for trucks, cars, buses, and motorcycles, jam- packed on roads the government acknowledges as barely motorable.

Rail - the global champion - which once served all parts of the country, covering all terrains, from the southern lowlands through the central hills and plateaus and eastern mountains to the northern plains, is comatose after some two decades of development. Historically, for instance, the Nigerian Railway Corporation (NRC) boasts 3,557km of rail -compared with 2,084km for South Africa - but only 52km are up to standard gauge, none are electrified, and most are currently dysfunctional.

The effects are harrowing, in cities and farm villages. The choice for goods and humans has narrowed to either the road contraptions or expensive air flights. In cities, everyone squeezes onto roads. Populations which a few intra-city train journeys would have ferried in 1-2 rush hours, comfortably and safely, spend several hours in daily traffic jams.

Lagosians, for instance, have been known to spend the night in traffic, some never to awake. The economic losses from this are evident everywhere. Agricultural produce perishes on farms while shortages are being experienced in many parts because road transportation is generally unsuitable, insufficient, unreliable and expensive. Manufacturers build the high costs of air freighting and losses to road robberies and accidents into their prices. Workers' productivity suffers while lives are frequently lost in road and boat mishaps. Also, with archaic and ill-maintained automobiles spewing fumes into the atmosphere, Lagos and Port Harcourt especially are becoming environmental nightmares requiring urgent action.

Furthermore, in the absence of an organised transportation system, it is doubtful that security agencies can effectively track movements of savvy criminals, local and international.

The Olusegun Obasanjo government is not short on efforts though. Over the past four years, it has announced a variety of plans. These include considering offers from Canadian consultants and Chinese and South African rail authorities to rehabilitate the NRC. Others have considered dredging waterways to revamp marine transportation. The most concrete action so far, however, is the coming into effect in January of a Nl.50/litre petrol tax, purportedly for the upgrading of roads.

Understandably, the government is confronted with a transport situation so terrible as to be overwhelming. The solution, however, is neither to wring hands and make vague promises as seems the practice these past four years, nor to exploit the situation for quick cash to bridge fiscal deficit as seems the case with the petrol tax. It is rather to focus on a segment with the potential to be the most impactful: rail.

The first step, however, is to accept that there is currently no rail system and that the NRC, according to the government's own website, "is still based on the prevailing technology at its inception" more than a century ago, which is clearly spent. For this reason, the government - which may have its own different reason - is right to have stopped disbursements to the NRC.

The next step is producing a fresh blueprint acknowledging the NRC only in terms of lessons. With rail technologies fast evolving and so much virgin work to be done, a single rail system may no longer suffice. Multiple systems may be needed to develop and manage different market segments: freight traffic with linkages to cargo centres, intra- and inter-city mass transit and international border commute.

The blueprint should robustly address financing, cost effective pricing, market segmentation, agriculture and potential environmental issues. It should be such that it can attract investors with the variety of financing, skills and technology required to develop the various market segments.

The situation will require investors from more than one country, since even among the top ten in rail development - United States, Russia, China, India, Germany, Canada, Australia, Argentina, France and Japan - none has an optimum mix The aim should be to tap each top rail system's comparative advantage and complement this with the most sustainable financing terms". (Rose Umoren, 2004).

Joshua Odeleye (Japan Railway & Transport Review No.23 pp.42-49 2000) further states that "Because railways are very capital intensive, the Nigerian government should encourage competition by allowing private sector participation in ownership, funding and operations. This will help intensify the effort to modernize railway infrastructure and services as we start the next millennium.

It is much easier for private businesses than government to raise funds via the stock market, especially in developing economies. Permitting private corporations and individuals to fund railway operations will usher in modern technologies in specialized areas like information technology, rolling stock and locomotive manufacturing, rail network design, etc.

Moreover, it will encourage healthy competition between various companies, thereby offering the populace the best services along with options. Creation of an environment for developed countries such as Japan, the USA, and Canada, etc., to invest in railway development in Nigeria will enhance both railway development and the economic growth of Nigeria.

The existing national transport policy was signed into law in 1993 but has since remained almost a secret document that is poorly circulated. This dysfunctional policy framework has gravely incapacitated development in the transport sector of the Nigerian economy. The ad hoc approach to addressing vital and urgent transport issues has not contributed to positive railway development.

In view of the foregoing, Nigeria needs a functional national transport policy to guide investment and involvement of public and private entrepreneurs." (Odeleye, 2000)

Furthermore, "The push must be to establish a new culture in the NRC. A culture of efficiency, punctuality, reliability, maintenance and discipline. This culture will need stability in order to prosper and persevere. State ownership can never guarantee stability" (Sulmann ElMammann 2005)

More Nigerians will shift towards using the railways because they are more likely to be able to afford it to move themselves and their goods and also because they will consider it safer and more convenient than existing air and road transportation. Even industries will find the rail system cheaper and more efficient to use. With proper management devoid of corruption and negligence, it will be an unlimited source of vast economic and commercial profitability to the country as a whole.

Establishing a working rail system is certainly one legacy that the Obasanjo Administration can leave to Nigerians apart from fighting corruption, introduction of mobile phones and cancellation of debt.

Akintokunbo Adejumo is the Coordinator of The Marwa Movement, United Kingdom