By Dons Eze
After what looked like it has been forgotten, the federal government, at last, remembered the Eastern corridor of the Nigeria Railway in its rail rehabilitation project. President Muhammadu Buhari was reported to have performed the groundbreaking ceremony for commencement of work on the Eastern Corridor, last Tuesday.
But unlike other railway projects in different parts of the country that are on Standard Gauge, such as the Lagos-Kano line, Abuja-Kaduna line, Lagos-Ibadan line, Warri-Itakpe line, etc., the Eastern Railway Corridor will be on a narrow gauge rail track.
The Eastern Corridor stretches from Bonny Ports to Port Harcourt, with a spur to Owerri, to link the Aba- Enugu rail line, other spurs to Abakaliki and Awka, before linking up to Makurdi, Lafia, Kaduna, Bauchi, Gombe, and finally to Maidugiri, the Borno State capital.
With a total of 61 stations and passing loops, the Eastern Corridor project, which was awarded to China Civil Engineering Construction Corporation (CCECC), has a contract timeline of 36 months.
Some people, however, were not happy that the Eastern Corridor project will be on narrow gauge rail track, while most of the lines in other zones are on standard gauge. Their contention was that since the federal government had taken loans to finance the modernization of its rail project, which has been lying comatose for the past three or four decades, they should equally have included the Eastern Corridor in the modernization exercise, and not to do things haphazardly.
In order words, why would some of the federal government’s railway lines be on standard gauge, and other lines on narrow rail track? Are there going to be two different types of locomotives plying the different lines? While the locomotives that ply the Standard Gauge lines would be moving very fast, the ones that ply the narrow gauge track lines would be on slow motion! That is what we see in a country of people with different destinies.
For us, we are less bothered about the Eastern Corridor being on narrow gauge rail tract so far the entire area was not completely left out, after all, as they say, half bread is better than nothing.
In 2019, during his Presidential campaign tour of the South East Zone, President Muhammadu Buhari, while addressing the crowd that gathered to receive him at the Nnamdi Azikiwe Stadium, Enugu, publicly upbraided Chibuike Amaechi, Minister of Transportation, for daring to tell the people that the South East would be included in the federal government’s modernization of the railway project, when the Minister had not submitted any proposal to that effect to the Federal Executive Council.
That was when we started using our tounge to count our teeth, that perhaps, the Eastern Corridor of the railway might not be part of the federal government’s railway modernization programme, this time around.
But now that the President was said to have performed the groundbreaking ceremony for the commencement of the Eastern Corridor railway project, even though on a narrow rail track, which would be completed in 36 months, nine months after President Buhari must have left office on May, 29, 2023, we still heave a sigh of relief, that the East has not entirely been excluded from the project.
We only hope and pray that the Eastern railway project would be completed as advertised, and not to be used as another political campaign tool for politicians, like the Second Niger Bridge.
Construction of railway lines in Nigeria was the brainchild of the British colonial administration, which began with rail line from the Colony of Lagos to Ibadan in March 1896. The rail line was built on the 1,067 mm (3 feet 6 inches) Cape gauge, the same track gauge used in most other British colonies in Africa.
The Lagos railway project began operations in March 1901, and was extended to Minna in 1911, where it met the Baro–Kano Railway Station that was built by the colonial government of Northern Nigeria between 1907 and 1911. The two lines were amalgamated in 1912 into the Government Department of Railways, the predecessor to the Nigerian Railway Corporation. The railway line reached its northeastern terminus of Nguru in 1930.
After coal was discovered in Enugu in 1909, the Eastern Railway line was built to Port Harcourt between 1913 and 1916 to transport coal down the Atlantic Ocean, for exportation overseas. It was later extended to Kaduna via Kafanchan in 1927, connecting the Eastern Railway to the Lagos–Kano Railway. The Eastern Railway was extended to its northeastern terminus of Maiduguri between 1958 and 1964.
Years of neglect of both the rolling stock and the right-of-way had seriously reduced the capacity and utility of the railway system. Couplings of the ABC kind, vacuum brakes and non-roller bearing plain axles, were obsolete. By early 2013, the only operational segment of Nigeria’s rail network was between Lagos and Kano. All the other lines were in comatose, not operational.
In order to remedy the poor condition, efficiency, and profitability of the nation’s railroads, the government sought to privatize the Nigerian Railway Corporation. Under that privatization plan, the railways would be split into three concessions, each to be awarded for a period of 25–30 years.
In 1987, a contract was awarded to build the Central Line, a standard gauge railway, to connect the iron ore deposits at Itakpe, to the Ajaokuta Steel Mill, and the Atlantic Ocean port of Warri. The project was originally planned for completion in five years, but sporadic funding stretched out its construction period over 30 years.
The railway modernization initiative in Nigeria was aimed to replace the existing narrow gauge system with the wider standard gauge system, allowing high-speed operations on the railway network. The $8.3 billon contract for the Lagos-Kano Standard Gauge modernization project, awarded to China Civil Engineering Construction Corporation (CCECC), in 2006, marked the beginning of the initiative.
It was followed by the Abuja-Kaduna rail line, which started in February 2011, and completed in December 2014. The rail line connects the federal capital city of Abuja with Kaduna, which enables faster movement of goods and people between the two cities. Rehabilitation of rail lines in other parts of the country followed in quick succession.
The commencement of rehabilitation work on the Eastern railway line as recently announced, though on narrow gauge track, will enhance movement of people and goods from across the area to different parts of the country. The people of the East are great travellers, always on the road, but are being hampered by poor road networks in the area.
The Eastern railway Corridor, if completed on schedule, will be an added impetus to the mobility of a people who are always in upward movement. We pray that the project will not derail.
*Dr. Eze, veteran journalist and Public affairs commentator, lives in Enugu