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Friday, April 12, 2024

Sijuade’s NRC: Repositioning Nigeria’s Iron Ribbon



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The railroad engine has a peculiar way of announcing her metallic presence. It is by means of intermitent long notes that habitually pierce the silence of the night, and in the day time, audible enough to stand out of the ever rumbling noise of city life. In Lagos as in Kano, Kaduna, Jos, Ibadan, Enugu, Port Harcourt and in other railway towns in Nigeria, this used to be a constant feature that reminded the railway community of the arrival and departure of the train. Unfortunately, when bankruptcy, huge deficits and total neglect by the Federal government apparently forced the Nigerian Railway Corporation, NRC out of mainstream transport business, passenger journeys as well as freight movement dropped. Consequently, the usual rumble of the railway engine with its trademark warning device was reduced to an uneven distant drone; steadily fading out of urban and suburban consciousness.

Of recent, however, residents of Iddo, Ebute-Metta, Yaba, Oshodi and numerous other railway communities along Ilorin-Lagos and Ewekoro-Ilorin routes have testified that the orchestra is playing again. The train and her fabled air horn alongside their ferrous ensemble are becoming louder, much more frequent and steadier than usual.

Prior to the decay in the Nigerian railway industry, which began in the mid 70’s, the NRC was a leader in the Nigerian land-based transport system. The locomotive rolling stock of the NRC was noisy, congested, slow and cheap. It was the way the world moved bulk. It was a vestige of a colonial past, which the new indigeneous order was supposed to build on. The trains worked and were reliable to the extent that passengers could telephone a railway station to find out when the train was due. The railway espoused the development of new towns that ultimately became large industrial and commercial cities. It also helped develop early potentials for tourism.

Following the failure of NRC, traffic moved from the railways to the roads leaving loss of jobs, loss of revenue, infrastructural decay, over-capacity and bankrupcy as its telltales. The road network totalling 194,000km and crisscrossing the country’s hinterland however, proved grossly inadequate as huge volumes of freight and passengers still could not be transported in time. Above all, there have been problems of poor road network, road pavement failure, unstandardised vehicles, lack of professionalism and general ugliness pervading the road transport industry.

While previous administrations had blamed the failure of NRC on underinvestment, and as a response had come up with mearsures that further deepened the situation, the present administration is being more practical and indeed more realistic in its approach to resolving the issue of underinvestment and other underlying problems confronting the NRC. In the short run, we’ve come to see that the reasons why there has been underinvestment in the railways is the failure of Strategic Management, Project Management, and the lack of political will on the part of the political class. There is also corruption which undermines the best efforts of providing for Nigerians an infrastructure on which they can build a robust transport system for the generations to come.

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It would be recalled that efforts to revive the ailing rail system dates back to the days of the military when General Sanni Abacha, in 1995, contracted China Civil Engineering Construction Corporation, CCECC for track rehabilitation and procurement of locomotive and rolling stock for the NRC. By 2006, Chief Olusegun Obasanjo also engaged CCECC for the modernisation of the Lagos-Kano rail line in commencement of the first phase of the proposed three phase line upgrade. It is believed that some 125 billion Naira was spent between 1999 and 2008 on railway rehabilitation project.

As part of the on-going efforts of President Goodluck Jonathan to launch Nigeria into the realm of the 20 most developed economies by the year 2020, railway transport has been identified as one of the areas where Nigeria must continue to invest. Accordingly, the Federal government has since 2010 embarked on numerous capital projects aimed at restoring NRC’s lost glory. The projects range from rehabilitation of workshops, training schools, railway stations, wagons and coaches to procurement of workshop equipment, railroad cranes, wagons and coaches, and upgrading of signalling and communication systems. Other projects include procurement of locomotive engines, pressurised tank wagons for movement of Petroleum products and the on-going rehabilitation and provision of special wagons for the movement of agricultural produce to boost rail services in Nigeria.

The expectation of Nigerians is captured in the mission statement of the NRC; “To emerge as the leader in the Nigerian land-based transport system, using well-motivated work force with modern technology to offer high quality and reliable rail transport services with guaranteed customer satisfaction. To be a world-class rail transport organisation, which provides efficient, affordable, reliable, widely connected and customer-oriented services.”  Incidentally, the NRC management team is headed by a Technocrat with experience in the cognate field of Engineering, Business Management and Project Management Consultancy.

British rail was the model on which the Nigerian railway was built. The strategic objective was to create access to the natural resources in the hinterland to the ports.But it is noteworthy here that the British did not restrict the model to the conveyance of raw materials ftom the hinterland to the ocean corridors. The model allowed much room for Nigeria to extend the frontiers of rail transport to make it more flexible and adaptable for both freight and passenger transport. Evidently, though, railway extension programmes were in progress until the oil boom days in the 70’s when the economic game plan changed. Spending on the roads more than trippled against the rail. The road network increased from about 70,000km in the early 60’s to 150,000km in the 80’s. Airports also multiplied from 2 in 1970 to about 16 by the end of 1980. In contrast, the rail network had seen little or no investment. Sadly, though, while advanced nations like Canada, China, USA, Japan, India, UK, France, and Russia invested more on railway, Nigeria resorted to the importation of Tankers, Trailers, Buses and Cars and the expansion of roads without considering the attendant effects of congestion, pollution and high mortality incidents.

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It is not a coincidence that Engr. Adeseyi Sijuade had served at various high profile capacities in the British Railway industry before joining NRC. That is just what professionalism calls for. His appointment as Managing Director for NRC was possibly an experiment in President Umar Yar’Adua’s seven-point agenda which, though naturally, metamorphosed into President Jonathan’s Transformation agenda. Epectedly, this experiment has been observed to be impacting positively on the fortunes of NRC. Perhaps, by induction, the states are adopting railway project initiatives as a means of alleviating the problems of mass transit and also delivering the dividends of democracy to their people. At present, Guangdong Xinguang International Group is at the verge of completing the 357 billion Naira, Abuja Light Rail Project. This project is aimed at decongesting the Abuja City traffic by providing a rail option for Commuters and Freight. The need for railway transport in the FCT is so urgent as a recent report by the Nigerian Institute of Transport Technology, NITT Zaria reveals. Accorrding to the report, FCT attracts an average of 700,000 cars and 9 million passengers each week. In the same vein, Lagos State government is vigourously pursuing the completion of the first phase of its light rail project while Enugu State has completed plans for her 256 billion Naira light rail project.

Engr Sijuade should look beyond the primary task of reviving the existing railway infrastructure, which unquestionably, is on course. He should consider the light rail dimensionm which the states are providing as complimentary to his overall task of relaunching Nigeria into the sphere of railroad passenger and freight transport. His readiness to effectively coordinate these interests as they emerge would, over time, stimulate much more investments in rail transport. Above all, he should continue to see his appointment as a call to contribute to the transformation of Nigeria by way of putting his experiences to good use as NRC goes through total and aggressive repositioning for improved productivity.

Chigozie Chikere

Member, The Chartered Institute of Logistics and Transport, CILT Nigeria

7 Samuel Ladoke Akintola Boulevard, Garki II, Abuja.

e-mail: grandefather@yahoo.com

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