Beyond the ports, the rail form of transportation is critical to moving goods and people more cheaply and efficiently across the country; hence, the need for renewed focus on the rail sector by government to boost the economy.
As at 2003, Nigeria's rail system had only some 3,557 kilometres of single gauge track largely not functioning. The country had just two major rail lines: Lagos to Kano and Port Harcourt, River state to Maiduguri, in Borno state. Both lines were relatively in a state of disrepair until in 2009, when some significant investments began to flow into resuscitating the sleeping economic giant.
Thus the country has had to rely on road to transport heavy goods across the country, a situation that has left many roads in worse conditions with huge human and economic losses.
The only operational long haul segment of Nigeria's rail network is between Lagos and Kano and it came alive in 2013; refurbished by the China Civil Engineering Construction Corporation (CCECC) and Costain West Africa.
Railway transport is doubtless the most important and effective means of land transportation, and plays an un-substitutable role in the socio-economic development of all economic powers. Thus, a focus on railways is critical to Nigeria' becoming one of the top 20 global economies in 2020.
Already the building of the standard gauge tracks has commenced. The first leg of the line - the Abuja-Kaduna service was completed and unveiled in July 2016 by President Muhammadu Buhari. The second leg, the Lagos-Ibadan has commenced and should be delivered by 2020.
The standard gauge rail system is coming with huge economic benefits to Nigeria. It is also coming with transfer of new skills and technology.
To underscore the benefits of the new gauge, a feasibility study showed that the coastal rail project alone is projected to "create 50,000 direct job opportunities for Nigerian professionals and non-professionals and 100,000 indirect jobs during its execution."
The study also projected that "after completion, the operation, maintenance and management of the coastal railway will provide more than 20,000 permanent jobs as well. Among the 50,000 direct jobs, 26,000 will be for professional cadre, such as management staff, engineers, foremen, operators and artisans etc and 23,800 for non-professionals."
Other intrinsic benefits include easy and efficient transportation of farm produce from the farms to markets and decongesting the roads thereby saving more for the government and prolonging the life span of the roads; increase in the value of land along the route of the railway thereby increasing national wealth, accessible to all citizens being the cheapest mode of transportation; ease of movement of labour and raw materials thereby enhancing industrial development.
There are also stability of market process of goods and services due to efficient movement of people and goods and bulk transportation of food and clothes in times of emergencies such as floods and famine. This value also transcends to the Lagos-Kaduna standard gauge train services.
Already, the Abuja-Kaduna standard gauge train service is having a positive impact on the Nigerian economy and the Nigerian Railway Corporation. Whilst a lot of commuters now travel quickly from Abuja to Kaduna, the NRC is now benefiting from new skills, trainings and technological transfer.
The NRC Liaison Officer in Abuja, Mr. Pascal Nnoli, told our correspondent that the CCECC trained a number of NRC technicians on the Abuja-Kaduna train service and same will be done on other new lines being built.
He said "62 Nigerian railway professionals were trained in the first instance. The training cuts across civil engineering, signalling and telecommunications, mechanical electrical, operations and commercial. Subsequently, more people were trained by the CCECC as they were deployed to the corridor."
He explained further that, "between July 2016 and July 2017, we worked with 42 Chinese on the Abuja-Kaduna train service that provided technical support. But from August 1, the number reduced to 21 Chinese experts. That's about 50 per cent reduction in expatriates."
On operations of the line, he said the NRC determines 100 per cent but occasionally, it can consult with the Chinese technical staff. But basically, the NRC determines the running of the services.
"As we speak, the NRC has 488 staff working on the corridor compared to CCECC's 21. The NRC now carries out independent maintenance of the standard gauge rail lines except major maintenance where the Chinese expatriates also join the NRC team."
He also said "the NRC has equally taken possession of critical equipment that are used for maintenance. We now own the tamping machine, the ballast profiling machines and ballast distribution machine. These machines are now operated by Nigerians with little support from the Chinese. The NRC also has 130 tone rescue crane in case of accidents, we can evacuate the train".
A further analysis of the local benefits of the Abuja-Kaduna corridor showed that the contract had significant input from local partners as the subcontractors and suppliers.
Findings from the authorities concerning local contents of Abuja - Kaduna Railway Project showed that during construction period, the average number of direct local employment created by the project each year was around 2,400, which comprised office managers, engineers, technicians, operators, drivers, labors and so on. The accumulative job opportunities created in the seven years is around 17,000.
Also at the first stage of operation of Abuja to Kaduna train service, around 600 people were involved in the operation management. As the operation service becomes more and more mature, the number of job opportunities will rise to about 1,000 in the near future, a government official told THISDAY under condition of anonymity, as he wasn't authorised to speak on the matter.
"During the construction and operation period, it is estimated that the project created 150,000 indirect job opportunities to Nigerians in such areas as material manufacturing, material and equipment supply, subcontract and catering services, among others" he said.
He also indicated that "in order to make sure ensure timely completion of the project, the contractor invited around 86 local companies to participate in specialised subcontract works, in such areas as geographical exploration, drilling boreholes, building bridges and culverts, fire control, construction of fence, laying continuous power lines and so on.
"During the execution of the project, the project made extensive use of locally manufactured materials like cement and rebar, and materials imported by local suppliers like diesel, bitumen, lubricant and tyres, etc.
"According to the record, among other bulk materials, 45,000,000 litres of diesel, 200,000 tonnes of cement, 23,000 tonnes of rebar, 3,000 tonnes of bitumen, 10,000 drums of lubricants, and 20,000 pieces of tyres were supplied by local suppliers" he noted.
He explained further that the local suppliers and subcontractors engaged in the project are around 200 persons.
Experts have consistently called for further investments in the transportation sector, especially the Nigerian Railway Corporation to transport goods across the country. The railway has also been identified as a critical resource to help end the gridlocks at the Apapa ports that has cost Nigeria billions of naira in losses over the years.
The recent 23rd Nigerian Economic Summit called for a state of emergency to be declared on inter-modal transportation to the ports especially the railways and inland waterways to help decongest the ports and make Nigerian ports more efficient and globally competitive.
The Managing Director/CEO of the Nigerian Ports Authority (NPA) Hadiza Usman also at the summit made a strong case for the development of inter-modal transportation around the ports, of which railways is the most critical component.
"As a long term solution, the government would have to understand it needs to deploy rail to the ports, government also needs to deploy inland waterways as a means of transportation", she said.
That is a good way to start and the ripple effect on the country's development process can only be imagined. There would be less pressure on the road network, easier and quicker transportation of goods and skilled labour across the country. This can only bode well for Nigeria; truth be told.