2018 may no longer be the year of the rail

Nigeria Railway Corporation

By LakinbofaGoodluck

The popular catchphrase in the transportation sector for the most part of 2017 was essentially coined around the on-going rail projects across the country. The Minster for Transportation, RotimiAmaechidisplayed enormous confidence at every forum he attended reiterating the government’s plans to make 2018 the year of rail lines for Nigerians. Tuesday 20 June, 2017, the minister during a facility tour of the Kaduna inland dry depot told newsmen that the Lagos-Kano rail line and Lagos-Port Harcourt standard gauge will start running before the end of 2017.On Monday 7 August, 2017 the minister duringanother inspection tour of rail lines said that the Itakpe-Ajaokuta-Warri rail project had been budgeted for in the 2017 appropriation billand would be completed by June 2018. In his words: “We have a directive from the Federal Government that we must complete the rail line and it was put in this year’s budget. By the end of December last year, we had disbursed some money to the contractors, Julius Berger and others, to commence work. So, we have come to see how far.” “We are hoping that the CCECC would be able to finish before May 2018.”

Exactly three months after that declaration, on Tuesday November 7, 2017, in a statement by the Director, Press And Public Relations, Ministry of Transportation, Mrs.YetundeSonaike, the minister restated: “The president is very passionate about the rail projects and has insisted that the country must be connected by rail and so, by December 2018, the Lagos-Ibadan standard gauge rail line must be completed and delivered to Nigerians.” The statement also disclosed that the Nigerian Railway Corporation (NRC) had procured two Locomotives and 10 coaches for Abuja-Kaduna rail line.

Earlier in June 2016 at a Lagos Traffic Radio lecture series held at the LTV complex, Agidingbi, the minister had told the gathering that the mission of President MuhammaduBuhari’s administration “is to establish a safe, efficient, affordable and seamless intermodal transport system.” In pursuit of this mission the minister stated that the government was assiduously working “to complete the Lagos-Ibadan segment of the Lagos-Kano railway in two and half years. [And] in another two and half year, we will try and complete the Port Harcourt-Calabar segment of the Lagos-Calabar rail project.” The minister has not been the only high ranking government official echoing the completion date for the rail projects. At the inauguration of the Lagos end of the Lagos-Ibadan-Kano railway project on Tuesday 7 March, 2017, the then Acting President, Prof. YemiOsibanjo did promise that the project would be delivered on or before December 2018. He also highlighted the economic benefits of rail projects across the country. “We are confident that the national rail project will create up to half a million jobs and facilitate the movement of over 3.2 million tons of cargo per annum. It will also reduce the burden on national highways, thus reducing deterioration of the road networks” said the Acting President. Effectively, judging by the statements from the minister, some rail projects should have been completed last year.

In addition to the on-going rail lines scheduled for delivery in December 2017, June and December 2018, Managing Director of Nigerian Railway Corporation (NRC), Engr. FidetOkhiria, in his Rail Development Plan Report added another verse to the rail chorus with the announcement of new lines under review. The report noted that plans are in top gear to construct 10 new standard gauge rail lines across the country. The standard gauge rail lines, which will traverse Lagos, Oyo, Osun, Ogun, Benin, Abuja, Kogi, Onitsha and Sokoto, among other states, will cover a travelling distance of over 3,421 kilometres when completed.

And just last month the minister again hinted that the President recently gave approval for six new rail projects. The newly approved rail projects are Kano-Katsina-Jibiya to Maradi in Niger Republic; the new standard gauge rail from Port Harcourt to Maiduguri through Enugu, Lafia, Makurdi, Gombe, with outlets to Owerri, Onitsha, Awka, Abakaliki, Yola, Jalingo and Damaturu. The minister also revealed that the ministry is concluding feasibility studies started in 2013 for other lines including Illela-Sokoto-Yelwa-Makera-Kontagora-Minna; Ilorin-Okoyi-Batigi-Baro to link Itakpe-Abuja line, among others; and Kano-Dayi-Katsina-Jibiya-Maradi in Niger. Others are Port Harcourt-Aba-Umuahia-Lafia-Kuru-Bauchi-Gombe-Biu-Maiduguri; Calabar-Ikom-Obudu-Ogoja-Wukari-Yola-Maiduguri; and Aba-IkotEkpene- Ibiano- Itu-Uyo-Odukpani-Calabar.

Undeniably, the government has seized every opportunity to express its desire for a rail connected Nigeria. There is no gainsaying that the current administration has echoed and re-echoed the importance of railway, perhaps, more than any other administration before it. In actual fact if rail lines were constructed and forced into operation by mere statements, the entire country would have been covered by high speed rail lines. Sadly, rail lines do not appear by merely wishing for them; it takes consistent strategic planning and a steadfast commitment to the plan. Many analysts had thought 2018 would be the year of rails for Nigeria going by the emphasis the government placed on the completion of on-going projects. The government had even set December 2017 for the completion of the Lagos-Kano rail line. However, the reality is not only contrary to the desired; the desired seem to be many kilometres away from the present reality. It is no news that the Lagos-Kano rail line has not been completed. The Lagos-Ibadan segment, which was earlier scheduled for completion in May 2020 but now revised to December 2018 currentlyholds no prospect of timely delivery.

Interestingly, the reason for the contrariness is not funds related because the Lagos-Ibadan rail line is to be funded jointly by the federal government and the Chinese government. And on Monday 23 January, 2017, at the Second Presidential Business Forum,the minister disclosed that the government had released NGN72billion as its counterpart fund for the construction of the rail project. In actual fact, during the inspection of the project in December 2017, the minister reassured Nigerians that the project would be completed on schedule. “Rest assured that we are chasing the Chinese to finish in 2018. Don’t forget the contract is three years, and that is their argument, but our own argument is that we need it before 2019 January.”

However, contrary to the rhythm in government circles the contractors handling the project, Chinese Civil Engineering Construction Company (CCECC), havedisclosed that the December 2018 deadline given by the federal government for the completion of the project might not be feasible due to the many unaddressed challenges before them. In an unusual acknowledgment of the reality and in contrast to earlier posture of the government, the Minister of Transportation, after the monthly meeting of the Project Implementation Committee with the CCECC in January,admitted that the government is “battling with time schedule”.The minister then went on to express his worry over challenges that they did not foresee, which include houses, companies, gas pipelines, water pipes and overhead bridges, causing obstruction on the right of way of the rail line. “We have about 43km of water pipes to be replaced. “We have the sewage to deal with, we have bridges to demolish and rebuild, we have an army barracks to relocate, and we have gas pipelines to relocate and other challenges. However, we are discussing with the Lagos State Government on how to deal with these challenges,”said Amaechi.

The foregoing evidently shows that issuing presidential and ministerial directives cannot ensure the completion of the rail tracks across the country. Resolving the enormous challenges with strategic planning is the only solution to actualising the desire of connecting the entire country by rail. Inasmuch as the commitment of the government is appreciated, it is questionable that a rail project was commenced and completion date was set and repeatedly announced without taking into consideration the challenges now stalling the project. The houses, gas pipelines, bridges, barracks definitely did not spring up suddenly. These are elements that a proper feasibility study would have revealed, and strategic planning would have addressed. And all these challenges should have been taken into consideration before raising the expectations of the citizenry.

Nevertheless, the current situation requires the government to step up efforts at addressing the challenges in order to make the work easy for contractors. Nigerians are anxiously waiting to see the entire country connected by rail. The minister has hinted that paucity of funds is stalling other rail projects in the country; but it will be embarrassing to delay the completion of the one without financial challenges because of some tardiness in planning. It is clear that the 2018 deadline for the completion of many of rail tracks may no longer be visible, but this government would earn a pass mark in rail transportation if significant work could be achieved on all the lines mapped out for completion this year. It is only 9months to the end of the year, and the projects are still far from completion. However, until the government says otherwise, we look forward to inaugurating Itakpe-Ajaokuta-Warri and the Lagos-Ibadan-Kano rail lines by June 2018 and December 2018 respectively as repeatedly touted by the minister.

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