Port Harcourt -Maiduguri Rail : A Landmark Project Begging a few Questions than Answers

Meanwhile, President Deby has come calling (again?), asking big brother to extend the line to Ndjamena (for free of course!)

Problem is the gauge. This line (Port Harcourt -Maiduguri) is narrow gauge (1067mm)(NGR). Chad has no existing network but is allegedly constructing standard gauge (1435mm)(SGR) lines to Sudan and Cameroon.

Cameroon has a mix of narrow gauge (1067mm)(NGR) and metre gauge (1000mm)(MGR) and is constructing new standard gauge (SGR) lines.

For the unschooled, the gauge is the space between the rails which makes it impossible for trains of a particular gauge to run on tracks of another gauge. China has recently proto typed rolling stock that can run on different gauges but it is some way from coming to market and the costs are likely to be prohibitive.

The problem with having different gauges as I said is that they are not inter-operable. This is why it is not practical to ride a train from say Lagos to Dakar. The British colonials built narrow gauge in their colonies (Nigeria, Ghana etc) while the French built metre gauge (1000mm) in theirs. So at the moment, you can travel on the train from Cote d’Ivoire to Burkina but not to Ghana. Nigeria by the way has 3,505km of dilapidated NGR bequeathed by the British colonials.

In pursuit of greater economic integration the African states decided since the days of Gowon to convert their railways to standard gauge to enable seemless interoperability subject to the availability of funds of course. It was also resolved that any new railways thence would be standard gauge.

This was perhaps why we started building Warri – Ajaokuta – Itakpe in about 1981(?) as a standard gauge (1435mm) line. Indeed there was a provision in the 5 year 3rd national development plan in 1975 to convert the NGR to SGR at a cost of $108m whereas rehabilitating just the Eastern line today is costing nearly $2bn under this contract.

In 2002 President Obasanjo and Chief Ojo Maduekwe commissioned the 25 year strategic vision for the Nigerian railways. It remains to date the FG’s railway policy. It’s underpinning is the conversion of existing lines to standard gauge, expansion of the network in standard gauge, development of local capacity in railway materials and human resources and the attraction of private sector participation in the sector. This required a new railway law and the creation of an independent railway regulator like NCC (telecoms) and NERC (electricity). Nearly 20 years on, the new laws have yet to make the statute books.

The policy was first derailed by its chief proponent, then President Obasanjo when he sat on his hands for 4 years and allowed the NRC to go to the wall (again!). He would further undermine the 25 year programme by awarding the $8.3b Lagos-Kano SGR contract without his much trumpeted “due process”, and then refusing to make the full advance payment of $2bn as required under the contract he instigated.

President Yar Adua would step in after Predident Obasanjo and derail it some more by choosing to fully rehabilitate the narrow gauge instead of a light touch rehabilitation as required under the 25 year vision, lines that were to be phased out under the plan. The money that fmr President Obasanjo had with the agreement of the other tiers (i.e. States and LGs), set aside for the Lagos-Kano SGR was then shared by President Yar Adua and his “brother Governors” in 2008.

Some of them particularly from the South South & South East areas had allegedly wondered why they should pay for a railway that didn’t even pass through their states.Try remembering those who were Governors in 2008 and where some of them are today. You will be forgiven for wondering why they didn’t object when President Obasanjo was in the saddle.

Enter President Jonathan in about 2010 who was a Governor when the SGR funding deal with President Obasanjo was struck. He kept faith with the President Yar Adua derailment and awarded his own rash of railway contracts, some with anticipatory approvals, some of which were decidedly dodgy.

So we fast forward to the present day. We are now building new narrow gauge lines at the same time as we are building standard gauge lines. Both cannot inter operate. This contradicts the 25 year vision and our AU and ECOWAS undertakings. So if a shipper in Aba for instance or even Bauchi, has goods to go to Maradi in Niger rep or Ilorin, they will need transhipment either in Kano, Kaduna or Rigachukun.

The goods would have to be physically transferred from the narrow gauge wagons on to the standard gauge wagons mid-stream. The additional costs effectively eroding the advantages of rail over road. The government says it’s because there is no money but has it explored all the avenues for funding railways? Remember that if the only tool you have is a hammer, you will start treating all your problems like a nail.

The questions for us are:

What exactly is our railway policy today? Do we have one or are we making it up as we go along? Should we still call it the 25 year vision when the time’s nearly up and we haven’t done most of what the policy says? Can we predict what the next govt will do on the railways and how can railway policy be isolated from political expediency? How long can we continue with flip flopping railway policy and an incoherent delivery strategy?

As regards this Eastern line, could we not be rebuilding it as a standard gauge line instead of as narrow gauge?

●Rowland Ataguba is a UK based Strategic Railway Delivery expert and CEO at Bethlehem Rail.”

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