New idea from a dead businessman

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Transportation by rail is gradually making a comeback in Nigeria but most businessmen are not investing in it writes Obodo Ejiro

It is a cold misty morning in a small suburb town outside Lagos; a large crowd is waiting at a station. This crowd does not represent Nigeria’s middle class. It is made up of retired and serving civil servants, traders, children, students and street urchins who have come together to achieve just one goal; to make it to Lagos by train from Ijoko in Ogun State.
But the composition of passengers was different some 50 years ago. In that era, the emergence of trains informed the change of a prominent Nigerian business man’s model. He imagined that there would be less need for the Lorries and trucks which were the backbone of the road transport business which he set up in 1934 and thus diversified by buying some big manufacturing businesses and investing heavily in real estate.
Indeed, if Sir (Dr) Louis Phillipe Odumegwu Ojukwu were alive today, he probably would have considered investing in Nigeria’s resurging rails now that demand for transport by rail is building up and government is opening it up to private investors. Indeed, he would have encouraged others to do same.
Demand, supply and comfort
Despite having one of Africa’s most elaborate rail networks, lack of maintenance reduced traffic from about 3 million tons of freight and 3 million passengers in 1960, to a standstill by 2001. But the tide is changing, more people use the system today albeit, not the most sophisticated of Nigeria’s 166 million people.
“You need to see us in the evening on the trip home” says Ola Durojaye as he shows a picture he took of a crowded train using his cell phone. A University of Lagos, Electrical Electronics students, Ola says “People hang all over just to get a ride, its normally stuffy and bumpy apart from in the VIP coaches”. “I live in Ogun State but makes it to school in Lagos by train” he added.
Jimoh Taiwo, a PHCN worker who also works in Lagos but lives outside the state says, “Since the resurgence in services, I decided to live outside Lagos”. “By train the journey lasts just 45 minutes, but by road, if I am lucky, I make it in 1.30minutes”. The train is also cheaper, “it costs me N150 by rail but by road, it cost N1, 200 or more”, he added.

Information asymmetry and the wheel of progress

Though Nigeria’s railway authority, the Nigeria Railway Corporation (NRC) offers online booking and cheap long trips, few in the middle and upper class have adopted rails as a means of movement. Not many even know that the institution has a website where it states clearly that “NRC operates long distance express passenger train services from Port-Harcourt to Kano and Lagos to Kano every Friday. There are also express trains from Lagos to Jos and Maiduguri, Port-Harcourt to Jos and Maiduguri. NRC says these services offer full air conditioning to the 1st class ‘seater’ or ‘sleeper’ luxury saloons, with restaurant cars equipped with conveniences”.
But there are still many fundamental issues the corporation has to resolve: At a typical train station, there are no seats, commuters buy tickets and hang around, some sit on big stones, some on tree stumps, while other sit on the tracks. At the corporation’s regional headquarters at Ebute-Metta, Lagos, instructions on how to pack staff bicycles and relics which speak of decades of neglect are ubiquitous. The corporation still has a lot to do to meet the challenge of a modern service provider.

A rather weak resurgence?

Nigeria has one of the best rail networks on the African continent, but much of the system has been overtaken by obsolesce. Government is investing heavily in modernizing the infrastructure to engender faster moving machines. The network consists of some 3,505km of narrow-gauge tracks. The two main routes are: The Western line which runs from Lagos to Kano and North-East to Yobe State. The Eastern line runs from Port Harcourt to Maiduguri.

This year, Nigeria’s President Jonathan announced a memorandum of understanding with General Electric on the construction of a new locomotive assembly point. Government also granted N67billion in contract to three foreign companies for additional work on dilapidated rail infrastructure.

Government is forging ahead with infrastructural uplift that will allow it concession train operations to the private sector. Perhaps because of its poor history in terms of Public Private Partnership (PPP) arrangements, the private sector has not been at the forefront of galvanizing the process.

But significant progress has been made as some routes are functional and more are being upgraded for daily trips. According to Mr Adeseyi Sijuwade, Managing Director of Nigeria Railway Corporation, “if everything goes as planned, there will be a train moving from Lagos to Kano by this month. The most difficult aspect of the work is the one that has been completed and I can confidently tell you that the north and the south will once again be effectively linked by rail”.

There is no doubt that a fully functional rail system would squarely improve transportation in Nigeria. While speaking on the changes a functional rail system would effect, Dr. Ayo Teriba, posited that it would open up the rest of Nigeria to the coastal states. Goods will move faster and all the villages along the lines will have direct access to the big cities in the southwest, their products will more easily be sent to the sea ports. Also, in the long run, the pressure on roads will be significantly reduced.

Obodo Ejiro

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