Despite initial teething problems, Chiemelie Ezeobi reports that the 156km Lagos-Ibadan Standard Gauge Rail, which would be flagged off today by President Muhammadu Buhari after four years of construction, is a dream come through as it would provide a viable alternative to road transport
For the federal government, one of its focal point is to connect cities, states and even coastal villages, thereby ensuring development. To achieve this, they sought to revive the rail system of transportation. Though more expensive than building roads, on the long run, its advantages outweigh the cost.
Therefore, with what has been achieved with the rail, it would be safe to say that under the administration of President Muhammadu Buhari, premium has been given to the rail system.
For the Lagos-Ibadan Standard Guage Rail, which would be inaugurated tomorrow by President Buhari, it is expected that it will provide linkages, job creation, and also boost trade in the South-west corridor with ripple effect on the national economy.
Aside the boost to the economy, it would be stating the obvious to note that the railway is not just an alternative and comfortable mode of transport, it also holds the master key to transforming commerce in Nigeria and across the continent.
Viable Transport Alternative
Without a doubt, the rail will in no small measure save the life span of the roads as well as reduce the port congestion caused by the long queues of trucks waiting to carry loads out of the ports. Perhaps more importantly to Lagosians will be the reduction of the number of trucks and tankers that cause long hours of annoying traffic snarl in the city.
When the conception of the Lagos-Ibadan Railway moved beyond theory to practical, it was clogged with initial teething challenges.
In fact, the Minister of Transportation, Rt. Hon. Rotimi Amaechi, who has passionately seen the project through lost the engine of his car at the early days of the construction as he drove through one swampy pool and the engine hit a rocky boulder clay. That was the end of that car.
As can be attested by many, his passion to actualise the project saw the minister embark on so many inspections, which often times lasted long into the night hours, returning to base in the dead of the night sometimes. He would embark on monthly inspection of the rail construction work and sometimes, there were two or more inspection rounds in a month.
Initial Teething Challenges
For the initial teething problems, they faced that of ascertaining the right of way, the need to move and relocate all underneath pipes, cables and wires within the Lagos metropolis to avoid the damage of vital pipes and possible outburst of fire like the Ijegun fire of 2012/3.
They also faced construction challenges like having to surmount hills, rivers and valleys. In fact, two bridges, after Kajola train station were particularly troublesome, as they had to be rebuilt and rebuilt several times over, before it could meet requisite standard.
Another challenge was the payment of compensations to communities and individual families whose properties were on the rail line. In some cases, schools, hospitals, churches, mosques, police stations, entire villages had to be relocated altogether.
They also faced challenges during negotiation with Lagos State government, Ogun State government and Oyo State government, which took chequered times, but they all eventually co-operated.
While battling the man-made challenges, nature showed up through the weather, especially during the rainy season, which naturally slowed down construction. The COVID-19 pandemic and the slow pace of work by the CCECC crew was another factor. In fact, the head of TEAM - the administrative consultants in the project, lost his life to the pandemic. The pandemic delayed work so much that the project, which was to be commissioned last year June, was moved to this year. The advent of the pandemic not only delayed work at the various construction sites, as works were suspended, fewer workers had to be engaged even when work resumed, to make for some kind of social distancing.
Value Added Service
Notwithstanding the challenges, the minister ensured that the CCECC established a company for the production of wagons and coaches in Nigeria. The company is at Kajola, in Ogun State and preliminary works have long commenced on that sub- project.
More than that, two Universities of Transportation -in Daura (Katsina State), and Ubima (Rivers State) have been approved as an institutional support to train and produce manpower for the maintenance and expansion of the rail line services in Nigeria
Passion for Execution
For the minister, he showed an uncommon devotion and passion to the execution of the rail projects across the country. It is one project that has gulped huge resources in the country as it was largely financed through loans from China. But the minister is optimistic that the train services have the capacity to pay off the loans by which they were procured, over time.
But in all the challenges, the minister is full of praise to the people of the region whom he said, had given the NRC maximum co-operation. He is excited that not once, through out the period of the construction, was there a community uprising or protest or attack or upheaval of any sort. " They have been very supportive and have shown the greatest understanding so far", Amaechi said.
He added that whatever agitated the minds of the concerned communities, they always formally put it in writing. And that the ministry on its part ensured that the complaints of the various communities along the said corridor were very promptly attended to, "and the result is what we are having, that there has never been any case of theft, kidnapping or other forms of unrest around the construction sites, even when workers worked late into the nights", Amaechi enthused.
Extension to Sea Ports
It is also very significant to add that courtesy of the minister's insistence, the rail lines have to be extended to the sea ports, either in Lagos, Warri or Port Harcourt. The idea is that the cargo trains will be able to carry out freighting services right from the ports to any part of the country. Already, the cargo trains have commenced services between Warri port and Itakpe in Kogi State.
In Lagos, the rail tracks have been laid right into the Apapa port, with some terminals connecting the loads to the trains.
Quality of Work
Three weeks ago, when the minister and his team ramped up the inspection of the train stations between Lagos and Ibadan, it was clear huge work had been done, with the Ebute Meta station serving as the flagship station, what with the huge state-of-the-art facilities, including even the structure.
In all the stations, there are shopping malls, shopping outlets, depending on the size of the station. They are fitted with cooling systems, elevators, large sitting lounges, large car parks to assist park-and-ride services, and such other provisions that make for overall comfort and safety of passengers.
The technology, finishing, IT equipment and fixtures, communication channels and platforms, all combine to pass it as meeting a global standard. It is equally remarkable to note that many of the station have been named after past and present Nigerian leaders, including former President Goodluck Jonathan.
The Managing Director of Nigerian Railway Corporation (NRC), Engnr Fidet Okhiria explained that the technology and information/communication equipment have to be modern and up to date because of the complex network of train service. He maintained that "NRC has insisted that we get the best and ensure that in offering this service, Nigerians will not only get value for money, but also enjoy the kind and quality of service offered even in foreign countries". Efforts are being made now to even add data and internet services to train rides.
In the same vein, there are concerns about the sustained maintenance of the trains and its services. It was gathered that there are plans to retain the Chinese firm that built the trains and the stations to maintain an acceptable standard, until such a time that enough expertise and capacity have been built among Nigerians to handle same.
However, as the rail is being inaugurated today, it does not erase the concerns of the cost of the project, freighting, ticket racketeering, vandalism of rail equipment, troubles of insecurity, capacity to attend to more passengers, promptness of service, and cost of a ride etc. How all these concerns will pan out is yet uncertain but it was gathered that to address the issue of ticket racketeering, plans are underway to create train ride Apps that will help curtail the activities of fraudsters.
With the inauguration today, Nigerians are no doubt better off for it as they enjoy the many benefits the rail system offers.