In this chat with journalists during a recent tour to the Papalanto railway station to inspect the ongoing Lagos-Ibadan standard gauge railway project, Minister of Transportation, Rt. Hon. Rotimi Amaechi and his counterpart at the Information and Culture Ministry, Alhaji Lai Muhammed highlighted Federal Government’s efforts towards railway revitalization. While expressing satisfaction with the work progress, the ministers identified some bottlenecks even as they expressed optimism in getting the job done at the designated time.
Minister of Information, can you give an overview of today’s visit?
I have decided to visit for the first time to see what has been done. We have decided that we are going to upgrade and refurbish the 2,500 kilometers narrow gauge railway and at the same time, we are now for the first time in the history of the country also introducing the standard gauge and we are to inspect the standard gauge which would be constructed from Lagos to Kano but currently at the Lagos-Ibadan section of it. You can see that in earnest the work has commenced.
Minister of Transportation, what are the components of this particular project and what are we expected to see in relations to the timeline now?
It is difficult to answer the question on timeline, we have told them that it must be completed by 2018 and not more than January 2019 but they are meeting challenges and they are observing challenges as we go, we are still sticking to the timeline but we are meeting the challenges of utilities on the right of way especially in Lagos heading towards the Apapa Seaport. We are meeting the challenge of water pipes, NNPC pipelines carrying crudes, gas and petroleum. So, it is not easy to do these things, but in today’s meeting we are going to find as much as possible solutions to meet the timeline.
On what you are expected to see, we are projecting a big train that will do 160 kilometers per hour; that will take you to Ibadan from Lagos and when completed, we will introduce an express train that takes off from either Apapa or Ebute-Metta straight to Ibadan or to Abeokuta and then Ibadan and thereafter, we will introduce another one that will stop at all stations. It depends on how much we can afford.
You talked about how much, what are your strategies because you said this might run into trillions of naira.
There is no strange strategy because Federal Government must look for the money. There is nowhere in the world that railway is constructed with private money. If anyone says there is, he should come forward even if it is 2 kilometers of way, people are afraid to do the business of railway construction because they won’t recover their money fast. It will take your children to recover that money. So, usually the federal government of every country invests in railway. The likely change in strategy is that we may borrow the money. The money is not there, we are saying that even the three rail lines we are to construct now: Lagos-Kano, Lagos to Calabar, and Port Harcourt to Maiduguri would cost us nothing less than 46billion dollars. You can imagine how many trillions that would be in naira and we don’t have it straight in our pocket. We have to source the funds from China, America, Indonesia and others.
What is the level of involvement of the private sector and your collaboration with other foreign companies?
The new strategy is what I think would work for us because the political class especially this government is under pressure to complete the standard gauge project. Everybody wants the standard gauge to run through his village. They have politicized the railway construction. So, to solve that political pressure we want to rehabilitate the narrow gauge. It is not just only the political pressure, it is also economic pressure because imagine 11 million tons of cargo between Port Harcourt and Maiduguri; imagine 30 million tons of cargo between Lagos and Kano and they go only through the roads, thereby making it difficult for anybody to manage our roads. We want to rehabilitate the narrow gauge and we have gone already to have this 45 million dollar agreement with General Electric to do all the rehabilitation jobs while we are still negotiating for the main concession. By the time we complete the main concession, GE would be bringing in $2.7 billion and do rehabilitation with 700 million dollars, and manage and run the tracks with about 2 billion dollars. That includes the fact that they have to buy new locomotives, wagons and coaches for the narrow gauge. From what they told me, they may likely not be able to move more than 2 million cargoes per year, so we still have more than 28 million tons to move per year and that means that the standard gauge project has to come because if the standard gauge is able to move more than 2 to 3 million tons of cargo in a year, that means we are removing over six million tons of cargo from the roads. At least that would reduce the pressure on the road and that is done by the private sector.
So far, trucking from the Seaport on the narrow gauge especially from Apapa is still not as efficient as expected.
There is inefficiency because there is challenge with the tracks. The track can only do 16 to 17 kilometers per hour now. You see how many hours it took us from Ebute-Metta to this place, it is something we could have done within 30 minutes but it took us nearly 3 hours. Once those challenges are fixed, we will be running at 80km per hour which is the maximum for narrow gauge. And that would mean in a day you can truck cargo from Apapa or Tin-Can Island in a day to Kano and where the Cargo is to be dropped.
Is Itakpe-Warri rail still feasible by June?
I said May, June and August. We have a problem and I hope we don’t bring that problem before the public. I will try as much as possible because it is internal within the government. We shall try to find solution to it. Every other thing is going on fine. By August I should be there, because the Managing Director (MD) told me that he used it from Warri to Uromi and I intend that before the end of the month I should be able to take a train ride from Itakpe to Warri. That doesn’t mean that we have completed it but it means something is outstanding and we need to deal with what is outstanding.
It seems attention is given to inland railway development, are you happy that coastal railway project is abandoned?
I don’t think you are also correct; the coastal railway project is not abandoned. I had to travel to India recently because of the project. And when you say coastline, you are talking about Lagos-Calabar. Out of the three lines, we have not abandoned any. We have Presidential approval for all of them. We have Presidential approval to look for money to construct Port Harcourt to Maiduguri, Lagos to Calabar which covers all other South-South zone. Are we looking for money? Yes! Because I was in India to look for money and there are people talking to me. I am also in talk with Russian Exim Bank and any of them that gives us money for Lagos to Calabar or Maiduguri to Kano we will take because for now the Chinese are funding Lagos to Kano. The President has given us approval to look for the money. Once we get money, we will start constructing, but you have to understand that this cannot be finished in one day. No child is born in one day; it takes nine months to have a child.
How does this project aid job creation?
Maybe I didn’t tell you! We have created about six to seven thousand jobs here already. So those who say we are not creating jobs are not being fair to us and those who say only Chinese are here are wrong because I don’t think the Chinese on this track are up to a hundred and they are mostly engineers and we have Nigerian engineers who are also working here. What we are trying to do is that by the time they conclude construction, our engineers must have understudied them so that we can manage our railway systems when they leave.
Will the reversed timeline have any impact on cost?
There is no reversed timeline in the first place, we are still working towards the December timeline and if it goes beyond, it doesn’t have any impact on cost at all because we need it to start functioning. That’s why the contract is for 3 years, we are pushing them for just one year because you people are putting us under pressure. You are asking us what we have delivered.
Are we likely to complete all these railway projects before the end of your tenure so that it isn’t abandoned?
The way we started, I don’t think there is any government that will abandon our projects and by the way don’t you intend voting for us in 2019? When we win, we won’t abandon our projects.
What about the Army Barracks that is said to be encroaching on the right of way?
One of the reasons there may likely be a reverse in the timeline is that we are meeting challenges. We are talking with the Army. You saw the General that came with us to this place; he would be in the meeting with us. We are negotiating on how much it would cost to build a new army Barracks for them, then we are also looking at how to fix the water pipes, the gas and crude pipes and others. We are looking at that.
Information Minister Cuts in….
What we have said is that there are challenges and we are working to resolve them, we are not saying that we cannot meet the timeline. Of course, the federal government is still working towards meeting the timeline.
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