Thursday, August 10, 2006

Will the Train Run Again in Nigeria?

Flushed with petrol dollars accrued from record-high crude oil price, the Nigerian government has finally deemed it fit to revamp its dinosauric railway system.

The Nigerian railway network consists of a 3,505 km narrow gauge line. The first railroad was constructed in 1898 (Lagos- Abeokuta) in the southwestern corner of the country. Besides the rail lines built around the oil refining and underpowered steel-rolling facilities, the last time the national railway network enjoyed any significant upgrade was in 1964!

It is not unexpectedly, therefore, that the Nigerian Railway corporation (NRC), the government agency that has exclusive rights to run the railway system, has been fumbling and under-performing as these figures suggest: freight is about 60,000 ton/year or less; traffic is less than 2 million passengers per year. This is a far cry from what a national railway system is supposed to be.

Nigeria (government) is notorious for failing to deliver on its promises; the steel rolling mills and the dredging of the Niger River are some projects that never really took off ground. It's also a fact that this is not the first time the country has attempted to revamp its railway system.

It is on record that the third National Development Plan (1975 to 1980) did project a standard gauge rail track "to enhance rail capacity and increase its reliability, safety and efficiency as well as reduce unit costs of railway operations"- it never happened. Other plans, according a retired personnel of the NRC involved India between 1971 and 1982 (Rail India Technical and Economic service Limited) and China in 1995 (China Civil Engineering Construction Corporation), none of these efforts brought significant improvement to the Nigerian railway system.

President Obasanjo states "transportation offers tremendous potentials and opportunities for activating, stimulating and integrating national economies and ensuring national interaction and unity..."as he reveals the $8 billion-capital infusion (yes, China is footing a quarter of the bill) and a 25-year modernization plan for the railway system.

While this does come across as one of the typical policy statements; it is the prayer and expectation of all Nigerians that this project will not go the way of its predecessors and become another worthy venture that got derailed by poor management and sleazy bureaucrats.

Related articles:
+President Obasanjo unfolds bold, new 25-year railway modernisation and expansion plan
+Concessioning of the Nigerian Railways