The Acting Managing Director, Nigerian Railway Corporation, (NRC), Engr. Fidet Okhiria, speaks on the railway infrastructure development plans of the Federal Government in this interview with IFE OGUNFUWA
What are the economic benefits of the proposed Lagos-Calabar rail tracks?
Without a good transport and logistics system, the commerce of a country cannot progress. Lagos-Calabar is targeting all the seaports. It will reach Calabar Port, Port Harcourt, Eleme deep seaport, the Warri port and Lagos ports would be captured in this route. This means that all the goods arriving in Nigeria will be moved right from the seaports to the dry ports. The economic benefits are that it will remove imported products off the road, making the road to last longer; accidents will reduce and the cost of doing business will reduce because the rail transport cost is always cheaper than other means of transport; and will impact the economy of Nigeria.
It will also generate a lot of employment for our citizens because there is a minimum number of people that must be employed to run a service on a rail route.
The economic impact will be overwhelming. It is going to play a major role in the turnaround of the economy of Nigeria.
What hurdles have you encountered in the course of completing the Abuja –Kaduna standard gauge rail?
The major hurdle before now was a place called the Daughters of Charity Hospital in Kubwa, Abuja. This is because the rail line crosses through the premises. And immediately the minister took over, he ensured that compensations were paid. They gave a right of way for the rail track to pass and when all settlements were made, the construction company, the China Civil Engineering Construction Company within one month was able to link up the track and that of Itako was removed. The station premises is one the things needed to be put in place before operations can start and we have also achieved that. The coaches came but the locomotives that are expected to run that service have not come. But we looked inwards and used two of the construction locomotives that were meant for that line. We eventually reverted to the government through the NRC, and we used it for the certification of the tracks and for the trial run that is ongoing.
When is NRC expecting the locomotives to arrive?
We are expecting them to arrive by the end of this year. But that does not stop our operation from running because we already have two dedicated locomotives for the Kaduna-Abuja rail line.
What other things are expected to be done for the effective running of the line?
We need to engage members of staff, because it is a new track. We intend to move some of the experienced workers to that line and replace them with new hands because we cannot afford to leave a vacuum. At the same time, we need to employ indigenes to be the maintenance men. These are the people who will maintain the tracks. What we do in the railway system is to engage people who live within the area as junior workers.
What maintenance plans do you have for the Abuja-Kaduna rail?
The coaches are here and the manufacturers will still be here with us. For about a year, we have seen our engineers and technicians working with them. On the track level, there is a service level agreement on the contract that the construction company will be with us for at least two years, to supervise the maintenance of the tracks. That is part of the contract that was signed for the construction of the track.
Oil marketers have shown interest in the haulage of their products via the rail system. Is there any plan to make this happen?
We have been meeting with them; encouraging them to move their products by rail. We can now guarantee the integrity of our tracks and tankers. They have, at a time, expressed fears over the integrity of tracks and tankers through our routes. But now, we have imported 40 tank wagons. We stopped at that because they are for specific liquid items.
We are discussing with the various oil companies that we have tracks extending to their areas of operation like Mobil, Total and Oando. We have routes in Lagos and in Kano; we are asking them to partner with us. We have been discussing this.
For instance, during the period of fuel scarcity, they were monitoring their business. Now that fuel supply has opened up, we have got in touch with them to use the services we have.
We can move 20 tank wagons at once, of 44,000 litres each. If you multiply these figures, we are talking about 880,000 litres. For instance, if we have about 880,000 litres of fuel in Kano city in one day, it will make a very great impact. We are talking with them and we are hoping that sooner than later, we will be partners in progress and we will start moving fuel by rail in place of road haulage.
Their worry is that they have invested heavily in road trucks when the rail was not very effective; but what we are saying is that they can move oil products from Lagos to Kaduna on rail and the road trucks can take it to places like Sokoto State where the rail cannot reach. The road will last longer and the economy will be better for it.
What are the constraints to the Lagos-Kano, the Lagos- Ilorin, Lagos- Kano and other mass transit trains?
The major constraints we have are limited rolling stock and locomotives. Because of that limitation, we have limited our operations to one trip of Lagos-Ilorin every week; and one trip of Lagos-Kano weekly because we need to service other areas like Lagos to Port Harcourt, which we are doing now, and the Port Harcourt to Kano rail as well as the Port Harcourt to Aba rail. We are a national entity and we must make sure we serve the entire people of the federation. We know that sooner than later, as promised by the Minister of Transportation, (Mr. Rotimi Amaechi), more coaches, locomotive and wagons will be purchased so that we can have effective and efficient passenger and freight services to the nation.
When will these additional coaches and wagons be made available?
If not this year, they should come in by next year because the budget has already been signed. The best we can do is to bring in more of the rolling stock for the standard gauge this year. By next year, we will have more for the narrow gauge. Don’t forget that we are trying to reach out to the private investors. We can go into an understanding that we can supply local coaches while they use the rail lines; knowing that this government is serious about opening up the sector to private investment. By private, we mean individuals, companies, states and local governments. As at now, the Federal Government has the monopoly to run rail service but the process is on at the National Assembly to amend the law and allow private players to be part of the rail system in Nigeria. We hope that people with funds will buy local wagons and carry freight in the ports.
Are there private investors who have shown interests?
We have different people offering different ideas and we are harmonising them so that it is a win-win situation for both the government and the investors; so that there will be no objections. Sometimes, it may seem that the pace of the government is slow, but the basic thing is to make sure that we don’t make mistakes, so that once it is done, it is final. A lot of people have shown interest and we have a lot of proposals and offers, which we are looking at.
Will the amendment of the Railway Act of 1955 delay the partnership with interested state governments and private investors?
The Railway Act has a window for participation. Lagos State, for instance, is constructing a light rail based on the franchise it got from the NRC. It is the NRC that monitors and supervises their projects. What is important is that a Memorandum of Understanding exists between the NRC and other stakeholders on what they can do.
If somebody comes today and says he or she wants to construct a rail track and we look at the case; nothing stops the NRC after getting the necessary approval.
Are there plans to reengage retired but not tired railway workers when the operations of the railway sector peaks again?
As far as the government is concerned, if you have clocked 60 years or 65 years, you are to retire. The government has reasons for that, maybe to give room for their children to be engaged. But when private stakeholders come in, if they need the experienced hands, why not? But as far as the present regulation of the government is concerned, and the number of years workers is expected to serve, they will retire at the age they are supposed to. But when these activities by the private companies commence, why not? Even when I retire, they can engage me as a consultant.
Presently, how many locomotives, wagons and coaches does the NRC have?
We have various coaches and wagons. Recently, we bought what we call the diesel multiple units. That is our pride for now. The two sets run within Lagos. Each set can carry about 560 passengers. We also brought in 11 air-conditioned coaches but we allocated them to various trains at various routes. We have about 150 coaches altogether. We have various wagons; the one used in carrying dry cargoes – cement, wheat grains, etc. There are five types of wagons and altogether; there are 400 of them. For the locomotives, we have 30 in number that we are using presently. But we have about 50 locomotives we can rehabilitate and make to work.
How many more of these locomotives, wagons and coaches are needed for optimum performance of the railway sector?
The railway system is self advertising that when one person uses it, he or she tells others that ‘I used the rail system to deliver my goods’. We believe that if we can presently have about 60 to 100 locomotives, it will not be out of place because the goods to carry are available; and we require about 1,000 wagons. Any system that is moving requires 100 per cent redundancy so that when one is withdrawn for servicing, another one should be in place to work. That is how we can really have the best of service. We need about 100 locomotives, 1,000 wagons and 200 coaches of various types.
Is anything being done to revamp the debilitated railway workshops?
Before now, we have been doing it step-by step. We have recently acquired a pair of overhead crane and they are installed in Enugu and Lagos states. We have also bought wheel lathe for re-profiling our wheels because when the wheels are worn out and the profile is out of place, we send them to the wheel lathe and re-profile in order to avoid accidents. We bought a pressing machine to extract wheels and press in new wheels in the axles. These are the little additions we have had before now. By next year, we will add more equipment to our workshops.
Where are the workshops located?
We have different types of workshops. We have the main workshops, which are located in Lagos; one for repairing wagons and coaches; and another one for repairing locomotives or for major overhaul. We have others in Enugu, Zaria and Kafachan.
We also have running sheds where we carry out all the day-to-day or monthly servicing of the locomotives and wagons. We have them in Lagos State, Ibadan, Offa, Zaria, Kano State, Port Harcourt, Enugu State and Kafachan, Bauchi State and Maiduguri.
NRC has a large number of developed properties and land nationwide; what is being done to turn them into commercial use?
We have a subsidiary of the NRC called Railway Property Management Company Limited, with headquarters in Kaduna. That is to show that we have effective management of the railway properties. We want to turn our stations to modern stations. Like at Iddo, Lagos State, we are looking forward to having private investors, who can turn it into a place bigger than the airports, when the normal train facilities and infrastructure are in place. We can extend it to have a hotel, event centres, parking halls and supermarkets. In places like Ibadan, Lagos, Alagomeji stations, as well as in Kano, Port Harcourt stations, why can’t we have something like Shoprite? We are still discussing with some people on estate development and to attract passengers. This is how it is done all over the developed countries.Source: Punch News