In fulfillment of President Muhammadu Buhari’s campaign promises to unlock the country’s potential through sustainable and effective rail services, the 154km Itakpe-Ajaokuta-Warri standard gauge line will be ready for commercial operations by September, after 35 years of neglect.
The Minister of Transportation, Chief Rotimi Amaechi, gave the assurance on July 27 while inspecting the railway line which connects Kogi to Delta and will later extend to Lokoja and Abuja.
Amaechi, the Managing Director of the Nigeria Railway Corporation (NRC), Mr Fidet Okhiria, and some other members of the NRC management were on an almost 10-hour train ride from Itakpe to Agbor, Delta.
According to the minister, the standard gauge line from Itakpe to Agbor is 80 per cent completed, while the contract for the extension has already been advertised.
The rail line involves completion of 12 modern stations with two to be located between Itakpe and Ajaokuta, and 10 between Ajaokuta and Warri. Other features of the rail project are construction of a railway city and a facility yard.
“While we cannot be sure when this line would be commissioned by Mr President, we are happy that the line has been stabilised and we can commence activities on it by September, after more test-runs would have been carried out,” Amaechi said.
The minister, who took delivery of two double-end-driver’s-cabin standard gauge locomotive engines from China, on July 27, 2017, believes that improved rail system will boost trading and encourage transportation of up to three million tonnes of cargo in the first year of service.
Amaechi is optimistic that effective rail system will reduce traffic pressure on roads. He is convinced that the rail project will create more than 250, 000 jobs during and after completion.
Buhari had in July, 2016, inaugurated 10 coaches and two locomotives for the Abuja-Kaduna rail service in preparation for the standard gauge train service.
During the inauguration, the president promised that his administration would vigorously pursue railway development through implementation of the 25-year strategic railway master plan.
According to him, train will be a preferred means of transportation from Abuja to Kaduna on completion of the project.
“We are also looking forward to a more efficient railway service on the narrow gauge line to be driven by the private sector, creating a conducive environment for participation by strengthening the legal and regulatory framework,” Buhari had said.
Consequently, Vice President Yemi Osinbajo on March 7, 2017, performed the ground-breaking ceremony of the Lagos-Ibadan Standard Gauge Rail Track, saying that a viable self-sustaining rail service was vital for the country’s economic growth. Osinbajo said at the event in Lagos that the improved rail service would cut across the nation.
He gave the assurance that the government would focus more on coastal rails such as Lagos-Calabar rail line with branches to Benin, Agbor and Onitsha; Port Harcourt to Maiduguri standard gauge rail line with branches to Owerri, Akwa, Abakaliki, Yola and Damaturu.
According to Osinbajo, the government will give priority attention to the Kano-Kazure, Daura, Kastina, Jibya rail route to link to Maradi in Niger Republic as part of regional railway inter-connectivity of the ECOWAS sub-region.
“The new standard gauge will also help the country in its economic diversification process and help to ease distribution of goods and services across the country.’’
Sen. Gbenga Ashafa, Chairman, Senate Committee on Land Transport, predicts that the Lagos-Kano and Calabar-Lagos rail project alone will create up to 7,000 jobs.
“On our part as senators holding the mandate of our constituents, we are totally committed to assisting the executive arm in the actualisation of every developmental project within our purview,” Ashafa assures Nigerians.
He spoke during an oversight visit of the committee to the NRC in Lagos. The committee paid the visit together with its Local and Foreign Debts counterpart.
“As requested, the sum of 5.851 billion dollars being the total approved loan would be expended on modernisation of Lagos – Kano, Lagos – Ibadan and Calabar – Lagos segments.’’
According to Sen. Shehu Sani, Chairman of the Senate Committee on Local and Foreign Debts, the senate attaches much seriousness to the successful completion of the rail projects.
He is convinced that the projects will fast-track the nation’s economic growth, provide gainful employment and overall development of the country.
Oba Rilwan Akiolu of Lagos desires that Nigerian workers should be heavily involved in the execution of the projects.
The traditional ruler appeals to the contractors handling the rail projects to employ indigenes while executing them.
The monarch observes that many Nigerian youths are jobless and can be employed by the contractor to carry out the projects.
Alhaji Muhammed Musa, the Chairman of the Road Transport Employees Association of Nigeria, Lagos State Chapter, hopes that, when completed, the projects will reduce annual spending on road maintenance.
“It will give passengers the option of travelling by rail as obtained in advanced countries.
“The standard gauge line will modernise the country’s transport system and boost economic activities of various communities,’’ he says.
Musa is optimistic that efficient rail services will enhance freight services and reduce the number of articulated vehicles on roads.
In the view of the Federal Road Safety Corps (FRSC), standard gauge rail line will address the perennial gridlock on Apapa roads in Lagos, which resulted from indiscriminate parking of articulated vehicles.
“Trains will help in evacuating containers in bulk instead of using trucks to pick them, thereby reducing traffic on roads,” says Mr Hyginus Omeje, the Lagos State Sector Commander of FRSC.
For the NRC, one of the gains of the standard gauge line will be a permanent end to sitting or hanging on train roofs by commuters.
The NRC Lagos District Manager, Mr Jerry Oche, is of the opinion that commuters hang or sit on train roofs because of the relatively low speed of the trains in operation now.
“When standard gauge line starts, it will bring an end to that. If you are in a train with high speed, how will you sit on the roof? The wind will knock you off,” he argues.
Analysts commend the Federal Government for renewed efforts to improve rail transportation and urge it to sustain the commitment to implementation of all rail projects to give Nigerians a lease of life.
They call on states, relevant agencies and communities to support the projects and join hands to tackle challenges that may arise such as relocating pipelines and cables on the routes.
Akande writes from News Agency of Nigeria.