By Tony Iyare
Hurrah to hear that work on the 1,400 kilometer Lagos-Calabar Railway, which has been on the drawing board for many years will begin later this year.
“In a few weeks from now, we are going to sign the loan agreement for the commencement of that project and before the end of the year, contractors will move to site,” said Rotimi Amaechi, Minister of Transport at the weekend.
Expected to gulp $11.1billion, down by $800 million from the $11.9 billion initially negotiated by the administration of President Goodluck Jonathan, the coastal rail lines will connect the commercial city of Lagos to Ore, Benin, Warri, Ugheli, Onitsha, Asaba, Yenagoa, Otuoke, Port Harcourt, Uyo and Calabar. The railway is also slated to link all ports in the country.
Said Amaechi during the signing of the memorandum of understanding (MOU) with China Civil Engineering Construction Corporation (CCECC) in July 2016, “We were able to save 800 million dollars from the initial sum of the project which will be delivered in the next two years.
“This contract was awarded by the President Goodluck Jonathan regime at 11.917 billion dollars and when we took over at Ministry of Transportation, we negotiated with CCECC and succeeded in reducing the contract sum from 11.917 billion dollars to 11.117 billion dollars.
“We are able to save 800 million dollars after negotiation with CCECC and that has to do with the fact that CCECC said prices of commodities like steel and other things have come down.
“So, our gathering is to sign same contract but with different price and to make it legal from the initial price to the negotiated price.
“As soon as we conclude discussion with China Exim Bank, they will commence construction of the first segment.
“The entire contract covers Calabar, Uyo, Aba, Port Harcourt, Yenagoa, Otuoke, Ughelli, Warri, Sapele, Benin, Agbor, Asaba, Onitsha, Ore, Ijebu Ode, Sagamu and Lagos.
“My expectation is that the project can be completed in two years since funding won’t be a problem,’’ the Minister said.
Apart from finally breaking the jinx of an East-West railway, it is projected to be one of the country’s most viable lines designed to move millions of tonnes of cargo and passengers annually along this very busy route.
While this project will be some elixir to breathe life into the industrial and commercial clusters located along this axis, it will also reduce the heavy toll on vital expressways like Lagos-Ibadan, Shagamu-Benin, Benin-Warri, Benin-Onitsha, East-West and so on as it provides a more viable alternative for the movement of huge cargo and passengers.
According to Amaechi, the Lagos-Kano railway is expected to move 30 million tonnes of cargo per year while Port Harcourt-Maiduguri line will move 11 million tonnes of cargo. Given the level of industrial and commercial activities in this corridor, the Lagos-Calabar railway is likely to outstrip these two vital lines in terms of movement of cargo and passengers.
The railway project is proposed to be delivered in two phases. Phase one covering Calabar to Port Harcourt with the second phase envisaged to connect Port Harcourt to Lagos. It is apposite that a third phase should later be designed for this railway to be connected to middle belt cities like Vandekia, Zaki Biam, Wukari, Mambilla, Jalingo, Numan and Yola.
If the administration of President Mohammadu Buhari had kept to the initial schedule when it signed an MOU with CCECC in July 2016, the railway should have been constructed in 2019.
It’s really not clear which construction firm will be handling the project since the government has spoken in a barbel of voices on the issue. First there was the MOU with CCECC. Later the government said some American firm was interested in handling the project. After the last Russian trip by President Buhari, the government hinted that a Russian firm would now construct the Lagos-Calabar railway. This vacillation fueled suspicion that the government may have put the project in voice mail.
If the hiccups is a function of funding, there’s a need for government to tap into the huge Diaspora inflow likely to witness a boom with the new Central Bank of Nigeria (CBN) policy of offering N5 for one dollar, by encouraging our citizens abroad to invest in this vital project with potential favourable returns.
But at the ground breaking ceremony for the Kano-Maradi railway in February this year, President Buhari directed the Transport and Finance Ministries to firm up the finance of the Lagos-Calabar railway project.
“The Federal Ministry of Transportation and Ministry of Finance have been directed to vigorously act on engagement and concluding financial arrangement with appropriate co-financiers to partner with the Federal Government for the development of the West – East Coastal rail line from Lagos to Calabar and linking Onitsha, Benin, Warri, Yenegao, Port Harcourt, Aba and Uyo,” Buhari said.
This project will no doubt answer the prayers of residents and commuters in many communities along the axis including Lekki Lagos, where it will greatly help to reduce the pains and agonies of playing host to a massive industrial zone that involves the movement of heavy equipment by heavy duty trucks.
While commending the Buhari administration for the strides in railway development, it is important to remind the Transport Minister as the Lagos-Ibadan railway comes to a homestretch, that the Tin Can Island Port, which is just 6 kilometers away from the Apapa Port, still needs to be connected to a rail link. It may be some disservice for an administration that earlier resolved to connect all ports to rail lines. The trucks will continue to mass on Apapa if the Tin Can Island Port, which is the country’s second busiest port is not connected to railway.
The Minister also needs to dust up and fine tune the Central Railway by ensuring a connection to Benin City and Onitsha/Asaba. This along with the new connection to Lokoja and Abuja which was signed in 2019, will make it a viable line.
There’s however big concern about the snail speed of our railway. We can’t be ensconced in a speed of between 80-120 kilometers per hour in a global world of bullet trains, while making excuses for human and animal movement. Since trains have permanent right of way, it is our responsibility to stave off human and animal traffic from the tracks.
At a time China is conceiving of a 600 kilometer bullet train between Beijing and Shanghai and the 350 kilometer underwater railway spanning Russia, Canada and the US, which will see a rail connection from Beijing to San Francisco, we should not give the impression that our predilection is to continue to romanticise the life of the early man.