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Plan for a Modern Railway System

The interests of the oil industry in Nigeria are suddenly converging with those of mining companies, steel plants, and even farmers: all demand drastic infrastructural upgrades. The pattern is for industry to spearhead changes in the transportation chain because investments are quick to turn into profit. But the new locomotives of change may soon come from ridership statistics, surveys filled out by the Lagos businessman on a trip to Abuja in the high-speed train or a mining consultant lobbying the government for railroad access to his tarsand site in Ondo. The first stop on the list is a heavy-duty technological overhaul of inland canals, seaports and, most of all, of the railroad network.

The Federal Ministry of Transport, which decides on policy for waterways, ports and railways, is at the helm of nine parastatal companies, including the National Railway Corporation (NRC) and the Nigerian Ports Authority (NPA). The NPA has already blazed a trail of its own by privatizing shipping operations and computerizing its installations. A moderate success story, it increased turnover ($9 million last year) and inaugurated the blue-chip Federal Ocean Terminal at Bonny Island. The dredging of river channels has saved projects like the Export Processing Zone at Calabar port from navigational isolation after a $475 million investment. Nigeria also boasts 16 local and four international airports. But like in many African economies, trains constitute the country’s lifeblood.

Designing a railway system that can link economic sectors as varied as petrochemicals and cassava lies in the hands of Nigeria’s new president, Olusegun Obasanjo. As a former agribusiness entrepreneur, President Obasanjo may well have memorized the shortest trajectory for his farm produce to reach its destination. And it no doubt involved trains. A commodities map of Nigeria shows the states producing cassava, corn, yams, or tobacco. Another map printed by the Ministry of Solid Minerals indicates mine sites for iron ore, marble, kaolin, and bitumen. A standard political map shows how population density is greatest in the southwest near Lagos and thins out toward Sokoto and Maiduguri in the north. But from a 1998 Ministry of Transport railway map the story is that cash crops, minerals, and even people are likely to choose road transportation over trains. Why? Although the system’s 3,800 km X-shaped network reaches major cities in all four corners of Nigeria, many railway lines are shown to be under construction. Rehabilitation, refurbishing, reconstruction... call it what you may, but if Nigeria is to keep its economy on track the railway system needs an overhaul. It’s getting one too.

NRC’s current rehab program involves earthworks, bridges, locomotives, training, and signaling. The program has suffered delays due to shortages of spare parts and funding, but will reach completion this year. The China Civil Engineering Construction Corporation (CCECC) was brought in under General Abacha’s regime in 1997 to repair tracks, supply the rolling stock and train NRC staff. By the end of last year, 87% of track rehabilitation had been completed and CCECC had shipped 35 locomotives, 320 wagons, 118 coaches, and 20 rail cars into Nigeria. By October of this year a communications system involving VHF radio and microwave equipment as well as signal-relaying towers will be in place. The Petroleum Trust Fund (PTF), which channels a percentage of Nigeria’s oil earnings into infrastructural projects and has co-financed the rehabilitation program, is building and upgrading four mechanical workshops to facilitate the local assembly of locomotives and insure the availability of spare parts in the future. As a sign of newer times, intercity express passenger services on the Kaduna-Kanu and Enugu-Port Harcourt lines were launched to resounding success. NRC statistics handled by former Minister of Transport Festus Porbeni in February showed that freight capacity had grown from 137,000 tons before rehabilitation in 1996 to 1.5 million tons in 1998, a whopping 1000% increase. “You can see the gap is a tremendous leap forward,” says NRC’s Administrator Greg Ifukwe. “We can do far better. Just imagine the freight potential of this country. We can’t rest until Nigeria carries four million tons per year.”

Despite the glowing figures, there is somewhat of a catch: the rehabilitated tracks are on narrow gauge (three feet and six inches) as opposed to standard. This restricts the load-carrying capacity of wagons as well as speed, versatility, and compatibility with modern rolling stock. Technics Engineering Architecture Marketing Nigeria Ltd. (TEAM) has been at the vanguard of railway innovation in Nigeria ever since it installed the first stretch of standard gauge from the Ajaokuta Steel Complex to the Itakpe iron ore mine, 51 km to the west. Since 1992, the steel plant has been connected to its supplier of iron ore, and the line will effectively link the heart of iron ore country with the Delta Steel Company’s Aladja port near Warri, via the Ajaokuta steel plant. The extension is now under construction and will pave the way for other industries previously landlocked and neglected. The Rome-based consultancy’s main thrust has been to link all five Nigerian steel plants (Katsina, Warri, Ajaokuta, Oshogbo, and Jos) by railway. “The big investments in Nigeria are Itakpe Mines, Ajaokuta Steel Complex, and Delta Steel Complex located in Warri,” says TEAM’s manager Gigi Hadziosmanovic. “These industries cannot function without the railways. We want a new modern system, the standard gauge, to replace all the 3,800 km of obsolete lines.”

The vitality TEAM infused into the steel sector quickly caught the eye of other government ministries. The standard gauge model at Ajaokuta, initially supervised by the Ministry of Power and Steel, was taken up by the Ministry of Transport as its pet project. TEAM soon found itself designing mass transit corridors for Abuja and proposing an East-West rail line running from Lagos to Enugu, the main site of coal production. “Abuja needs to have a sound transportation system to allow people to come to work in the morning and head back home in the evening. There is no railway, no buses, no public transport,” says Hadziosmanovic. The Italian firm has won itself a reputation for tackling the planning complexities involved in laying trackwork, from land acquisition to bridge construction. Scarcely a month ago, the outgoing government of General Abubakar commissioned TEAM to carry out the $60 million railway link from Onne port (location of the much-trumpeted Federal Ocean Terminal) to Port Harcourt, 19 km of standard gauge that is compatible with narrow gauge cars. Along its path, the line connects to a refinery, two petrochemical plants, exchange yards, a fertilizer factory and berthing terminals at the water’s edge. For this project, TEAM has carried out the designing tasks and paired up with Julius Berger Nigeria PLC, an affiliate of the German engineering firm Bilfinger und Beger AG, for actual construction.


Julius Berger, originally a bridge building company, has been present in Nigeria since 1965 when the Eko Bridge in Lagos was commissioned. Its partnership with TEAM has shunted it into becoming Nigeria’s main industrial railway builder. Its bridges, dams, and roads have helped shape the country’s infrastructure, but humble industrial origins do not prevent the construction company from designing ministerial and corporate headquarters in Abuja, the capital drawn from scratch in the 1970’s. Julius Berger executed TEAM’s designs for the Ajaokuta Steel Complex internal standard gauge railway. When the Itakpe iron ore mines needed a 51 km link to Ajaokuta six years later, it again took up the construction work. This contract represents the company’s first full-fledged railway scheme with six million cubic meters of earthworks and rock removal work. The project’s popularity has altered the original contract to include a railway extension from Ajaokuta to the Delta Steel Company’s port of Aladja near Warri in the south. Other iron ore mines north of Ajaokuta are seeking railway links. Thus, the original 51 km originally planned may well turn into a 300 km network with 13 stations along the way, a genuine boost for the iron mining and steel works on the eve of privatization discussions. One can easily say that Nigeria’s second industrial revolution is on standard gauge.

While the government speaks of converting 3,800 km of tracks from narrow to standard gauge, a couple of visionary businessmen have come up with a grander scheme. Why spend money rehabilitating old lines when you can catch up with the latest TGV technology? High-speed trains like the TGV 2N power cars can dust off 25 years of NRC neglect in a few seconds and that is precisely what the Railways Development Corporation (RDC) is proposing. With the technical backing of a group of Canadian companies, RDC is carrying out feasibility studies for a Lagos- Abuja high-speed rail link. The Nigerian-owned company created earlier this year has submitted a proposal to transportation officials that will make trains in Nigeria a swinging industry again. “We looked at the Lagos-Abuja corridor and at the competing modes of transportation, which are air and road. For a country like Nigeria with over 100 milion people we felt that a high-speed rail service that could run from Lagos to Abuja in under two hours could prove a very valuable project. I think we have been proven right,” says Larry Esin, co-director of RDC with Tokunbo Sijuwade. 

THE PROYECT PROPOSED BY RDC involves three phases with a time window of 15 to 20 years in which high-speed links will connect Lagos to Abuja, Abuja to Kano, and Lagos to Port Harcourt and Calabar port, site of the Export Processing Zone. The first stretch, however, could become reality as soon as 2003 if $2 billion in funding comes through from a syndicate of three Nigerian banks (including the United Bank for Africa and the Nigerian-American Merchant Bank) and a host of outside sources including the World Bank. “The financing is going to be about 60% debt and 40% equity. The equity will come from RDC and some of its technical partners. The Nigerian government will have to bear some costs like land acquisition,” says Esin. 

The project, envisaged as a BOT concession (build-operate-transfer), would be operated by Montreal-based SNC Lavalin for a lease of 60 years after which all assets would revert to the state. RDC has signed an agreement with SNC Lavalin for the project’s management as well as for geotechnical studies and earthworks. “We are going to put together a consortium of construction and engineering design companies, which will also include Bombardier of Canada,” says Esin. Bombardier will share responsibilities for systems engineering, rolling stock, electrification, and ticketing with another Canadian company, GEC Alsthom. Other potential partners are the Groupe Axor, specializing in bridges and viaducts, AGRA Monenco in charge of planning aspects, and North Carolina company Duke Energy for power provision.

Three possible routes have been drawn. The most likely option (585 km) leaves Ikeja, just north of Lagos, and cuts a straight line across the map to Abuja. It is comparable to France’s own TGV link from Paris to Toulouse, a high-speed connection that has turned the latter city into a vibrant mecca of high-tech industries. RDC foresees ridership at four million the first year, reaching 17 million by 2020. And there’s better news: the round-trip would cost N8,000 (around $90) making it a fraction of an airplane ticket. “It’s a beautiful idea,” says Gigi Hadziosmanovic of TEAM, the Lagos civil engineering firm. “We fully endorse the project as it will enhance the movement of goods and services. Abuja to Lagos in two hours... a wonderful idea.”

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