Rail Transportation: Nigeria’s Abiding Albatross

Rail transportation in Nigeria, rather than get improvement, is gradually receding into antiquity in most parts of the country while millions of Nigerians in the hinterland also see it as largely illusory, something akin to a fairy tale. Though billions of Naira had been sunk into railway projects, the whole votes seem to have gone down the drain pipes. What is really wrong? Tayo Adelaja, Head of Investigations, attempts to unravel the mystery.

Despite over N104 billion budgetary allocations to the Nigerian Railway Corporation (NRC) in the past five years, the rail transport system in the country is still far from what it used to be.

For now, the country’s rail system has about 3,557 kilometers of 1,067mm (3.6ft) narrow gauge tracks. It has two major rail lines: one connects Lagos on the Bight of Benin and Nguru in the northern state of Yobe; the other joins Port Harcourt in the Niger Delta and Maiduguri in the north-eastern state of Borno.

In the past, successive governments’ efforts at reviving the rail system had not seen the light of the day. The proposed new tracks as at then were not completed, and the rehabilitation and refurbishing of tracks and coaches had almost always come short of expectations.

Former military head of state, the late General Sani Abacha, awarded about $500 million (N79 billion) rail rehabilitation contract aimed at resuscitating the Lagos- Kano rail line, while former President, Chief Olusegun Obasanjo, during the second republic also awarded contract for the same Lagos-Kano line to the tune of $8.5 billion (N1.34 trillion), the result of the huge sum spent on the rail system is the same.

The inefficiency and ineffectiveness of the Nigerian Railway have made it unable to serve as a veritable and effective means of transporting passengers and freight from the nation’s major commercial cities to the hinterland.

A breakdown of the annual budgetary allocations in the past five years since the government picked interest in reviving the sector, shows that in 2012, a total of N20.3 billion was approved for the NRC, out of which N16.3 billion was earmarked for capital expenditure. The sum was targeted at rehabilitating the Jebba-Kano, Port Harcourt-Makurdi- Kaduna, Kuru-Maidugiri and Zaria-Kaura-Namoda rail tracks, as well as to procure and rehabilitate rail wagons, coaches and tanker wagons.

In 2011, a total sum of N29.6 billion was budgeted for the construction and rehabilitation of most of the aforementioned rail tracks, out of which N5.5 billion was set aside for the construction of Ajaokuta-Warri rail line.

Available data shows that a total of N31 billion ($207 million) was approved on a special request in the supplementary appropriation bill of 2010 for the construction of Lagos-Ibadan rail lines.

In 2009, the sum of N23.3 billion was budgeted for rail transport, out of which N20.7 billion was reserved for capital projects that included the rehabilitation of 120 coaches and wagons, rehabilitation of the Ajaokuta-Warri rail line, which was also catered for in 2011 budget.

According to an Industry analyst, Chidi Nwankwo, Nigerian rail transport has huge potential in a country of over 150 million population. In the highly populated cities like Abuja and Lagos alone, the rail transport has the immense opportunities such as daily business of moving over one million passengers in each city within the inter and intra city transportation, generating huge revenues, decongesting road traffic as well as reducing road accidents.

Managing Director, Oilfield Facilitators Limited, a Marine Engineering company based in Rivers, State, Akeem Afinni, said that the ineffectiveness of the rail system is a by-product of high level corruption among the cabals within the system who have remained a clog-on-the-wheel of progress of rail transport.

“The Federal Government in 2013 budget, allocated over N10.7 billion for rehabilitation of key rail tracks, as well as to procure coaches, wagons and locomotives, in order to revive rail transport. But at the end, the Nigerian Railway has continued to lie economically dormant as it has been in the past because this is not different from what has happened in the past,” he said.

National President, National Association of Government Approved Freight Forwarders (NAGAFF), Eugene Nweke, affirmed that the railway system is an important component of the Nigerian economy. He stressed that the country cannot attain meaningful economic reformation without a well connecting and functional rail system.

According to him, the N2.5 billion China was supposed to invest in the Nigerian rail sector coupled with government’s annual billions of Naira allocation to the NRC have not had any significant impact on the nation’s transport system such that cargoes from the seaport cannot be moved directly to the approved Inland Container Depots (ICDs) across the country using the rail line.

Nweke called on the Minister of Transport to come up with national transport developmental plans for NRC. He lamented that the country was supposed to have witnessed a tremendous shift in her rail network such that there would have been an all-state rail connection, given the huge investments in the system

Chief Operating Officer, Abdul Fleet and Haulage Company, Ibadan, Oyo State, Mr Kenny Abdul, in a chat with Sunday Mirror said it is pertinent to put it in right perspective by looking at what transportation is, the effect of a good transport system and the advantages of a rail road in comparison to others.

“Transportation is an essential part of human activity, and in many ways form the basis of all socio-economic interactions. Indeed, no two locations will interact effectively without a viable means of movement. In many developing countries, inadequate transport facilities are often the norm rather than the exception.

“Thus, a good transport system is essential to support economic growth and development. Since the attainment of independence in 1960, the problems of Nigerian transport system include bad roads; inadequate fleets of buses or trucks; irregular, inadequate and overcrowded trains and airplanes and congested ports. These are common features of the developing world. In line with these are physical problems such as dearth of suitably-trained transport managers and planners, capital restructuring bottlenecks, serious issues of institutional reforms and ineffective traffic regulations. The share of transport in the Gross Domestic Product (GDP) is in the neighbourhood of three per cent, if not less,” he said.

Abdul stated that transports are classified into four basic categories, namely, Rail, Road, Water and Air.

“Rail Transport is usually the most suitable mode of transportation for heavy traffic flows, as speed is also an advantage because of the lower cost per person per load as the train load increases. Nigeria’s single-narrow-gauge railway line constructed in the colonial period was for many years the only mode of freight movement between the northern and southern parts of the country. In Nigeria, rail transport accounts less than a half per cent to the gross domestic products of the transport sector. Although rail has always contributed a tiny proportion of value added in transportation, its share of value-added continues to decline because road transport (freight and passenger) has virtually taken over all the traffic previously conveyed by rail,” he explained.

Abdul lamented that the relegated status of the Nigerian Railway is a classic illustration of a transportation policy which has sidelined an important and cheap means of transport to foster the growth of privately-owned long haulage transport services. This policy, according to him, has made NRC a lame duck with total reliance on the government for subvention. This led to disorganised, unregulated private sector-owned road transport system providing freight and passenger services. The effects of these are traffic congestion on urban roads, increasing rate of fatal road accidents emanating from bad roads, poorly-maintained vehicles and careless driving.

Railway service was the major means of transportation in the country in post-independence era, up to the 1980s. It was much more convenient and cheaper for commuters and haulage purposes. There were so many rail lines linking big cities across the country with commercial activities in its major routes. Fifty years later, the tracks simply disintegrated owing to years of neglect.

Administration of the railroad also staggered along under the revolving coups and military rulers that ruled Nigeria since independence. Leaders from deposed President Shehu Shagari in 1980, to military rulers like Abacha, Ibrahim Babangida, Muhammadu Buhari, Obasanjo and Abdulsalami Abubakar made promises to revamp the system. They brought in the Romanians, Indians and later the Chinese to manage the promised improvements. Yet, there was nothing concrete that came out of the pledges. Obasanjo even signed an $8 billion deal in 2006 with the Chinese to again revamp the lines, with no visible effect.

However, travelling by train was preferred by millions of Nigerians as means of transport at the time of the country’s independence through the eighties. The project to restore Nigeria’s rail system was launched about a decade ago, which led to the reopening of Lagos-Kano line.

According to onetime acting managing director of the Nigerian Railway Corporation (NRC), Mazi Jetson Nwakwo, “the rail system is suffering from the lack of political will by the nation’s politicians.”

He pointed out that no new wagons had been bought since 1993, and that some wagons dated back to 1948 while tracks condition limit trains to a speed of 35 km/h.

Perhaps, this parlous condition moved the government into action to rectify the situation by pursuing a strategy of partial railway privatisation by way of opening the doors for private operators so as to improve the quality, facilities and operations of railway transportation in the country.

President Goodluck Jonathan, on Saturday, March 12, 2011 gave a breath of life into the hitherto comatose rail sector when he re-launched the railway services in Lagos by commissioning the newly acquired locomotive engines.

“Today is a unique and important day because we know the importance of rail transport to the economy of any nation. I am highly honoured and pleased to commission the newly acquired locomotive engines,” he had said.

Prior to the re-launch, President General of the Nigerian Union of Railway Workers (NURW), Comrade Ben Okoro, in December 2011 catalogued the importance of a good railway system for efficient transportation. He maintained that the development of the railway sector remains “the only unfailing tool and panacea through which economic growth, great nationhood, and economic prosperity can be attained”. Okoro did not stop there, but added that, “rail transportation, of all existing modes of movement, guarantees the mass mobility of people and safe carriage of freight. It, therefore, becomes imperative to see railway development as significantly responsible for the growth of any nation because railway transportation naturally and effortlessly brings to reality a myriad of socioeconomic derivatives.”

He believes that the courage, political quest, and heavy financial commitment of the Federal Government to the resuscitation and repositioning of the nation’s rail transport industry through the ongoing rehabilitation of all its fixed and movable assets since 2009, was motivated by this fact.

“It is, of course, no secret that government must have saturated its mind with the conviction that railway development is a sure and unfailing panacea to sustainable economic growth and national prosperity,” her stated.

One year later, NRC began full services on Lagos-Kano line. NRC’s Managing Director, Seyi Sijuade, said the successful rehabilitation of 117 engines and coaches enabled the corporation to resume haulage and passenger services on the Lagos-Kano line.

The Assistant Director, Public Relations, NRC, Mr David Ndakotsu, speaking with Sunday Mirror, disclosed that the successful restoration of train services in the country can be attributed to the ingenuity of the corporation’s engineers and technicians. He said that they were able to refurbish the engines and coaches locally, which had helped to save cost.

His words: “We are going back to the good old days, where everything was done in-house. A lot of these equipment are specialised ones acquired by the corporation, but we are looking forward to a time when our staff will produce these things locally and we are starting now. Compared to contract cost, these in-house refurbishments saved us a lot of money. It’s not just about the immediate savings; we are also talking about the long term benefits when we learn to do everything in-house.”

A commuter, Sola Agali, travels constantly with the train from Ijoko to Lagos and back every day. He said that the rail has helped a lot as he was able to meet up with his time of resumption among other advantages.

“The reason why I prefer train is because of the roads. We have bad roads for vehicles except if somebody does not feel concerned about his car. I cherish my car more than any other thing; that is why I board the train. Moreso, it helps me to avoid the traffic jam from Sango to Oshodi,” he said.

Agali stressed, “A combination of potholed roads, poorly maintained vehicles and questionable driving habits have transformed Nigerian roads into death traps. All this makes train travel a much safer option for the majority of Nigerians, who can’t afford to take intercity flights. From one station to another, there is a struggle to board the train even before it comes to a halt. With demand far outstripping supply, the coaches are filled to the brim. Many passengers have to stand because there are not enough seats. The disadvantage is about the rowdiness of the passengers. There is no limitation in accommodating the passengers into the coaches.”

A businesswoman, Mrs Bolajoko Adedoyin, strongly believes that the rot in the railway sub-sector should be frontally addressed. She said that with a population of about 170 million people, the country can no longer continue to rely on a single mode of transportation.

“Over-reliance on road transportation, via the use of trucks and articulated vehicles (for freight haulage) and buses (whether mini, midi, or maxi) or private cars, for passenger transit, experts argued, have put more pressure on the roads, leading to the wearing off of the roads, and has resulted in high rates of fatalities,” Mrs Adedoyin observed.

Though the NRC has a very rich history dating back to the early part of the 20th century, having been introduced by the British colonial powers, in 1904, rail transportation fell out of favour as a preferred means of movement in the 1950s as motorised vehicles, which became the new social symbol of affluence by the emerging crop of elite, took over. Thus, government’s attention was gradually shifting from the rails until the once booming sector became desolate” Bolajoko said.

However, successive administrations paid not more than a passing attention to the train services, with each, leaving it to continue to struggle for life.

A transport analyst, Ibifuro George, said one of the reasons for the low patronage is the poor infrastructure with which the trains have continued to operate.

The railway would remain unattractive and less patronised, according to him, unless efforts are made to modernise its operations.

“How can one explain that at this age; you would spend not less than 18 hours to commute between Lagos to Kano, when you can make same distance in less than one hour by air and about eight hours by road? No businessman, marketer or business executive who valued time would bear with such huge loss in man-hour. This is coupled with the fact that the trains are still running with old rickety coaches and wagons. Imagine what would happen if any of those old engines break down on a desolate part of the country. With the growing cases of insecurity, the trains will continue to record low patronage until it improves its operations,” George said.

That perhaps led to the rejection of the increase in the fare from Lagos-Ijoko, from N150 to N230, while executive services are expected to cost N750.

Some commuters using the Ogun-Lagos mass transit system questioned why the NRC did not improve its services before increasing fares. They complained of poor services and lack of adequate coaches. They said that failure to keep to time and congestion on the MTTS was an issue that should first be addressed before fare increase.

A Lagos civil servant who uses the services of the NRC, Babatunde Fatoyinbo, said: “Commuters are ready to pay higher fares if they have improved services. The kind of services we are getting is bad. I’m sure that no NRC management staff will want to subject himself to what we are getting. Rail system all over the world is purely for the masses. We should have value for our money.” He pointed out that the coaches are about 20 years old. As expected, the majority of the factory-fitted facilities on many of the coaches have broken down, leaving the corporation with no options other than to improvise. For instance, the air conditioner, which is the only luxury available to passengers on the first-class coach, is no longer there, according to Fatoyinbo. “I opted for the economy because I didn’t see any major difference in it. I believe that the Nigeria Railway Corporation can do better than this. It is already over one year since it began the inter-city rail transport operations but things don’t seem to have progressed,” he bemoaned. He lamented that passengers go through harrowing experiences as almost all the coaches on the train, particularly the economy class, are in shambles. “The population of passengers on each of the economy class coaches leaves much to be desired. The facilities are usually crowded, as the coaches are where railway officials cramp travellers whenever they carry passengers more than the train’s sitting capacity. It is like the olden days ‘molue’ from Lagos to the Mainland where you have 49 sitting and over 99 standing,” Mr Fatoyinbo said. He captured the feelings and what the passengers that patronise the rail system are going through thus: “Apart from the overcrowding, the majority of the overhead fans were not functional. On one of the economy coaches, only two of the fans were working, forcing travellers to throw open the windows of the coaches to forestall suffocation. But the travellers’ self-help discretion also comes with its disadvantages. As the train covers distances, specks of dust soon takes over the coaches, with many passengers forced to cover their noses in a bid to stave off the dust. Frequent travellers like me come prepared for the challenge, as we put on face masks. However, the first timers who we refer to as JJC are always at the mercy of the dust.

“I wear face mask not only for preventing dust but to also contain the offensive odour emanating from toilets. The state of many of the toilets and bathrooms on the coaches are nauseating, to say the least. Apart from their dirty state, some of them have their doors damaged, depriving users any form of privacy,” Fatoyinbo bewailed.

While the Federal Government is rehabilitating the railway lines, the Lagos State Government is undertaking a lightrail project for the subsector. Yet, it is still far from clear whether the rebirth of the sector would be a success or just another fantasy in a country with a long history of broken promises.

Assistant Director, Public Relations of NRC, David Ndanusa Ndakotsu, confirmed that the corporation had made significant progress in its rehabilitation work and the resuscitation of the rail system in the country. He said the train services that are currently operating across the country are just one of the many successes recorded by the corporation in recent times. These include the Lagos Urban Mass Transit Train Service (MTTS) that runs eight times daily from Ijoko in Ogun State to the Iddo Railway Terminus; Enugu Urban Mass Transit Train Service, Minna-Kaduna Mass Transit Service, Kaduna-Riga-Chikan Mass Transit, initiated and supported by Vice-President Namadi Sambo when he was governor of Kaduna State, Kaduna- Kano Mass Transit Train Service, Kano- Challawa Mass Transit, as well as the Kafanchan- Kaduna Train Service.

Others are the Bukuru-Jos Mass Transit, Maiduguri-Duwari Mass Transit, Ilorin Urban Mass Transit, and the Lagos-Ilorin Express Passenger Train Service. Ndakotsu disclosed that the N25 billion Lagos-Kano track rehabilitation being handled by the China Civil Engineering Construction Corporation Company (CCECCC) and Costain West Africa, is fully funded by the Federal Government. The Lagos-Jebba stretch of the project, he also said, was awarded to CCECC at the cost of N12.3 billion while the Jebba-Kano axis is being handled by Costain. He disclosed that the rehabilitation of the eastern track, which will run from Port Harcourt through Aba, Umuahia and Oturkpo with a spur in Kafanchan before branching off to Wudil-Gombe, Bauchi and terminating in Maiduguri, will cost N77.33 billion.

Ndakotsu explained that the current effort to revive the sector began in 2003 with the ex-President Obasanjo-led government playing a major role at the revamp.

“We have been getting some attention from the Federal Government, which has been releasing grants for the purposes of handling our capital projects; repair of tracks, purchase of locomotives, wagons and refurbishment of coaches. The efforts, starting from 2003, have pushed NRC back to life,” Ndakotsu said.

He disclosed that the corporation was exploring opportunities in collaboration with the private sector operators just as it was doing with state governments.

He said the collaboration had resulted in the commencement of three freight services for the transportation of cement from Agege-Ewekoro, Ewekoro-Osogbo, and Ewekoro-Ilorin under an arrangement with Lafarge WAPCO Cement Company.

“Lafarge is helping us with the refurbishment of wagons dedicated to transporting their products while we are also into container movement from Lagos to the various inland container depots in Ibadan, Jos, Aba, Maiduguri and Bauchi, in collaboration with importers. We are also working with Oando in the lifting of petroleum products from Lagos to the northern parts of the country while we collaborate with Peugeot Automobile of Nigeria (PAN) in the area of vehicle movement from the port in Lagos to Kaduna,” he stated.

Remi Odunsi, who works with a private company at Apapa ports, said that the contribution of an efficient rail system to the nation’s troubled economy could be enormous. “Haulage of bulky goods across the country, which at present is done with articulated vehicles, could be better undertaken by rail. If one locomotive can pull 30 wagons, each of which is equivalent to the capacity of a trailer, then the menace constituted by oil tankers and other heavy vehicles, would be reduced by an efficient rail system” he added.

Historically, in 1895, the Lagos railway line began its march from Iddo to Ibadan. It was opened six years later, on March 4, 1901. The first generation trains consisted of three locomotives manufactured by the Hunslet Engine Co. Ltd., of Leeds in the United Kingdom. The original line ran Northwest along the waterfront, from a point near Government House and the European residential area around the Race Course, to Customs Wharf, where it turned Northeast towards Ereko Market and Idumota, Lagos. After the commencement of a 2ft. 6in. gauge line over Carter Bridge in 1901, the Lagos Steam Tramway was opened on May 23, 1902. Although these tracks ran between Zaria and Jos over a distance of 194 kilometers (121 miles) in the past, they have since been closed and removed.

The Federal Government last year approved an investment worth N1.61trn for the modernisation of the railway system in a bid to revamp the ailing railway corporation. About 15 different railway projects were penciled down for completion between then and 2015. The railway investment, according to reports, would involve the construction of new rail lines across the country and rehabilitation of the existing narrow gauge lines.

A non-profit and non-governmental organisation, Centre for Social Justice of Nigeria (CSJN), however, carried out a detailed analysis of the development projects undertaken by the Federal Government for NRC and commented thus, “There was a difference of over 50 per cent between what was proposed in the Transformation Agenda for railway in 2013 and the amount prepared for the transport mode in this year’s budget. Of the sum of N98.2bn projected in the Transformation Agenda for railway investment in 2013, only N44,353,673,724 was budgeted for the transport mode in the budget.”

This showed, according to CSJN, “a funding gap of about N53.9bn and, therefore, demonstrates huge inconsistency between the Transformation Agenda projections and budgetary proposals. Let us give two examples of the performance pattern of government in railway project execution.

“The rehabilitation of the rail track from Lagos to Jebba commenced in October 2009 and was expected to end in October 2010 at a cost of N12.29bn. There was a time overrun but despite the new completion time of July 2011, as at September 2011, only 90 per cent of the rehabilitation had been completed.

“We recalled that N1.09bn was allocated to the project in the 2011 budget; N626.69m was released but only N195.47m was utilised as at the end of the third quarter of 2011. That it was listed in the 2013 budget suggests that it will not be completed in 2012. The impact of inadequate releases and poor utilisation of released funds on this project, as in others, informs poor implementation leading to time and likely cost overruns, which unduly inflates the cost of projects.”

Similarly, CSJN recalled that the Jebba- Kano track rehabilitation commenced in December 2009 and was expected to end in February 2012.

It said, “N7.6bn has been committed to the project since inception and had N2bn allocation in 2011 budget with N1.6bn released as at the end of the third quarter of 2011, achieving only 67 per cent level of completion. A time overrun is noticed in this project, which was supposed to have ended in February 2012 but still receiving budgetary allocation in 2013.”

Ndakotsu noted that rail lines had been rehabilitated while work had begun on the second phase of the development which was the provision of the standard gauge that would eventually take Nigeria to the next level where faster engines and modern coaches would be introduced

The corporation, he said, planned to move away from the narrow gauge inherited from the colonial masters to the standard gauge, which would enable it to modernise its operations and provide modern train service to Nigerians yearning for a change. He stated that there was the need to look beyond the government for the huge funding the railway required to enable it get to its destination.

Corroborating his views, NRC’s chief executive, Prince Sijuwade, said the need for fresh funds outside the government informed the public private partnership option his management proffered to the government as the way out of the quagmire the corporation found itself, as it struggles to satisfy Nigerians’ yearning and move to complement other modes of transportation

He said though the Federal Government would continue to invest in the provision of the basic backbones necessary for the continuous operation of the services, the private investors would be encouraged to come on board with the provision of basic services in line with global best practices.

According to him, the proposed PPP framework would introduce private funders to the National PPP framework and the overall concession plan as it concerns the corporation. He said the corporation’s transaction advisors would interact with key stakeholders and willing investors as well as build private sector’s confidence in the NRC and the PPP processes.

Sijuwade said there was a need for the foundation for effective financial intervention from the private sector for the ailing corporation.

He added that the workshop held recently had equally afforded the transaction advisors the opportunity to interact with General Electronics (GE) which has signed an MoU with the Federal Government to set up a locomotive assembly plant in the country. It would as well select potential providers to partner with the corporation for the build, maintain, operate and transfer (DBMOT) of warehousing for a suitable, safe and secured storage spaces for goods. Also, the finance, supply, and operate (FSO) of modern loading and offloading facilities of goods and the finance, supply and jointly management of railway coaches with the NRC to enhance passenger carriage capacity.

The workshop, according to him, had also addressed the outsourcing of station remodelling, redevelopment, property and facility management and development.

Other areas the corporation is addressing are the on-board cleaning of passenger trains, cleaning of major train stations, on-board catering, ticketing services and park and ride, especially for intra-city shuttle services.

Sijuwade said the corporation under his watch has refurbished about 500 wagons and 120 coaches, while it procured 20 oil tank wagons last year.

The corporation, he said, has also procured additional 20 oil tank wagons this year, procured and installed two 100 tons telescopic cranes at the Apapa port for trans-loading of containers, bought four 60 tons of overhead cranes, and three rail inspection vehicles.

Also procured by the corporation are five rail recovery vehicles, four CNR locomotives, six 68-seater modern coaches, which would be delivered in December; two set of Diesel Multiple Units (DMU) engine and three wheels lathe machine, which has been fully installed.

He described the PPP as a step in the right direction, which would revitalise the rail transport system in the country.

“While we are working to address the other areas of challenges, we believe this PPP initiative will help in increasing our capacity, efficiency and the delivery of better service to Nigerians,” Sijuwade affirmed.

First published in National Mirror on July 20, 201