Challenge before new transport minister

As the nation awaits tomorrow’s inauguration of President Muhammadu Buhari’s cabinet, ADEYINKA ADERIBIGBE writes on the challenges before the new Transportation Minister

The atmosphere inside the boardroom of the Papalanto works yard on May 24, 2019, was charged. It was former Transportation Minister Mr Rotimi Amaechi’s last official engagement, and he had led the team on the inspection of the $1.5 billion Lagos-Ibadan Standard Gauge rail line. It was a day of tributes, drama and prayers. Emotions were high. Even Amaechi was misty eyed, and once or twice, had to mop his eyes with handkerchief. “You people are being unfair to me. I never expected this,” he told the crowd made up of Ministry officials, the contractor – CCECC, representatives of the governments of Ogun, Oyo and Lagos and transport reporters.

At a meeting with the then leadership of the Nigerian Railway Corporation (NRC), led by its Managing Director, Eng. Oluseyi Sijuwade, Amaechi said the government is determined to give Nigerians a new railway architecture in line with President Muhammadu Buhari’s vision of making it the backbone of public transportation.

According to Amaechi, the government would continue with the ongoing rehabilitation (of the narrow gauge and its eventual concessionairing) and the modernisation (construction of standard gauge) agenda of its predecessor in line with the Nigerian Railway’s 25 year-modernisation masterplan.

The Buhari administration, he said, is determined to connect the Federal and each of the 36 states capital by rail.

Four years ago, the nation was yet to have standard gauge. What existed was the narrow gauge, with its aging coaches and rot wagons which operated in fits and starts.

“Our desire is to bring back the lost glory of this corporation, which was one of the legacies of our colonial heritage. By the time we finish and connect all capitals with standard gauge, we would be able to attract the middle class back to be patronising the railway,” Amaechi had said.

First he concentrated on the quick wins, by ensuring the Buhari government capped the ongoing Abuja-Kaduna standard rail line, which though started in 2005, but was bogged down by avoidable delays.

By February 2016, he ensured the test run of the rail line and commenced commercial activity on the line two months after.

He also pushed for the completion of the Itakpe-Ajaokuta-Warri standard gauge, (the nation’s first standard gauge experiment though as an exclusive industrial line) to service the Ajaokuta Steel plant by November of same year.

The Buhari administration altered the original plan of the Itakpe-Ajaokuta-Warri standard rail line meant to exclusively feed the nation’s steel needs and answer to its export via Warri sea ports at Onne.

The alteration necessitated the Ministry of Transportation taking over the line from the Ministry of Solid Minerals Development, which was financing the project for the Steel Mill. The result of the alteration to the masterplan necessitated the construction of 10 new rail stations and two worksyard. All stations have park and ride facilities to improve travel experience of Nigerians.

The change in rail line’s masterplan is in line with the administration’s vision to link all capitals with modern rail.

Government is already collating bidders for a rail link from Ajaokuta, in Kogi State, to Abuja, the nation’s capital.

Grand Vision

Was he able to achieve such grand vision? Transportation and logistics experts agreed he did within four years.

By December 2015, he announced the decision of the Federal Government to concession the narrow gauge to American Corporation General Electric (GE) and much of 2016 was spent trying to smoothen the cracks and get the concession off the ground.

By 2017, based on festering hitches the Federal Government appointed Technical Transaction Advisors (TA) to handle the government’s side of the transaction. Though the deal met a brickwall from the staff, who resisted the concessioning, government seemed determined to go ahead and eventually entered a truce to include workers’ representatives on the TA as observers.

Among other agreements reached with GE was the construction of University of Transportation to train all classes of manpower for the emerging specialized needs of the railway corporation, and the smooth train technology transfer to qualified Nigerians, re-fleeting of rolling stocks such as locomotives, coaches and wagons.

The deal however sailed into stormy waters when GE opted to handle only cargo business alone against Fed Govt’s insistence on cargo and passenger traffic. The hiatus eventually led to GE’s disengagement, hinging in the global streamlining of its corporate activities which had removed transportation away from its core priorities.

For the first time, Nigerians are seeing a massive capital project taking shape and performing within its first life cycle.

While Nigeria’s first experiment was not achieved until after 38 years, and the second, made it after 12 years, Nigerians are seeing a government attempt to complete a 157 (originally 156 km, but extended to accommodate the new Ibadan International Cargo Dry Port), within four years.

Amaechi had only 23 months of hard work to transform the nation’s rail corporation’s history.

Experts said Amaechi has worked hard to return to his desk.

“Amaechi has raised the bar. Through him, we can now see that nothing is impossible to be achieved by Nigerians. If he is retained, it would mean the President is committed to transforming the railway in line with his promise. If he is changed however, the new Minister must learn the rope fast and ensure he does not go lower than the standard Amaechi is leaving,” one of the representatives of the Ogun State government who preferred not to be mentioned said on a telephone interview on Friday.

Quick Wins

One of the quick wins for the new minister would be the completion of the Lagos-Ibadan standard gauge, within the completion cycle. It was reliably gathered the project would be completed in May 2020.

Already, the two legs of the rail have touched Ibadan. What remains  is the construction of the 10 railway stations and the completion of the Lagos end of the project from Iju to Apapa Ports, where the federal executive council last year approved an extension to link all the five terminal operators both at Apapa Wharf and the Tin Can Island Port.

Completing the Lagos-Ibadan project, would signal the take-off of the Ibadan to Kano standard gauge line, thus completing the modernisation of the Western Line (Lagos-Kano). The project, with a siding into Abuja from Minna, is expected to be completed in 2023.

The new minister would be expected to midwife the ambitious Lagos-Port Harcourt coastal rail line, which would link all coastal states, south of the country by rail.

Also on the master plan is to develop a standard gauge line to Niger Republic, from Kano, thus creating a route for the nation’s landlocked neighbours to meet their import needs through the nation’s ports down south. This would boost Nigeria’s import competitiveness in the sub-region where importers routed their imports through Ghana and Benin Republic Ports

Beyond the linkages that the railway offers is the opportunities for employment. Between eight and 10,000 jobs were created on the Lagos-Ibadan standard gauge alone, while the Ibadan to Kano is projected to generate between 10,000 to 20,000 new jobs as either direct or auxiliary jobs or services.

A new reinvigorated rail service would undoubtedly free up the nation’s economy. Not only would there be a drastic reduction in man-hours lost to traffic congestion, with its attendant improvement in outputs, the linkage of the rail service with the agricultural and industrial belt of the nation would jump start the otherwise comatose industrial sector.

Maritime Sector

The Minister of Transportation will also be expected to continue the strides of the Amaechi leadership in the task of establishing a new window for indigenous shipping lines.

Amaechi battled in the last four years to sanitise the maritime sector, with the enthronement of a single tariff window for operators and indigenous ship owners.

The new minister will continue with reforms aimed at birthing for Nigeria a shipping line that would return the nation’s lost glory as the leading and biggest economy in the sub-region and in the African continent.

The new minister hardest task on the maritime sector would be infrastructure. All access roads to all the nation’s ports are deplorable. Most guilty are the Eastern Ports, which are mainly redundant as a result of poor access.

Same applies to Lagos where poor access roads have compounded the congestion crisis, leaving a huge toll on the residents.

Also to be addressed are the issues of bringing all terminal operators under strict control. Achieving this has been a major challenge in the past.

There is also the need to streamline the areasa of conflict between NPA and the Nigeria Shippers Council and other agencies in the maritime sector.

At the core of the assignment before the new minister is to berth intermodal transportation. A corollary of this is the strengthening of the ports capacity to develop dry ports across the country. Besides helping to develop local economies of host states and zones where such are established, dry ports would greatly enhance the capacity of the rail system and reduce drastically pressure on the roads, thereby reducing the wear and tear and cost of repairs.

Removal of Legal Webs

The minister will also be expected to lead the reformation of the nation’s transportation sector. He will be expected to birth a national transportation policy. Transportation pundits such as Dr Tajudeen Bawa’Allah insisted Nigeria is ripe for a transportation policy. He challenged the new Minister to make its actualisation a priority.

Bawa’Allah had been at the forefront of various committees set up to birth such policies by previous governments. He said such a policy would better sanitise the sector and make it more productive.

The new minister may also need to activate the ministry to push for the quick dispensation of all outstanding bills relating to the sector still hanging at the National Assembly. Six bills, among them; the Nigerian Railway Corporation Act 1954 Amendment Bill, the Nigerian Transportation Commission Bill, the Nigerian Shippers Council and Nigeria Ports Authority Amendment Bill among others must not be allowed to die with the eighth National Assembly.

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