Cargo Evacuation By Rail: A Litany Of Missteps

Cargo Evacuation By Rail

 

Bedeviled by a technologically restrictive narrow rail gauge with questionable integrity due to prolonged years of neglect, many efforts at revving up rail transport to make it the pivot for the evacuation of goods from the ports to the hinterland have met with frustrating challenges.

 
In 2013, then Transport minister, Senator Idris Umar, flagged off a regime of movement of containers by rail from Apapa port to the north. During one of the initial trips in the deal brokered between the Nigerian Ports Authority (NPA) and the Nigerian Railway Corporation (NRC), a haulage train transporting 20 units of containers from Lagos port to ICNL depots in Kano and Kaduna states broke down at Mopa, a town in Kogi state.

 
In 2017 as well, before a cargo train which took off from Lagos to Kano reportedly got to Oshogbo, about three of its last coaches detached from the rest. Eyewitnesses alleged that the three coaches started moving backwards until they got to the interchange at the terminus in Oshogbo where the wheels got off the track and the coaches fell on their side.

PIX 1: President Muhammadu Buhari

 
Despite summons from the House of Representatives Committee on Land Transport, NRC failed to convince Nigerians on practical measures to address incidences of rail accidents.

 
These incidents raised a huge question mark on the operational state of the engines and integrity of the tracks for what was envisaged to be a continuous traffic of laden containers from the ports. Why were rudimentary precautions not taken to ensure a seamless return to a transportation regime that was heralded with much pomp and pageantry?  This incident further raised doubts if the government was prepared to get it right this time around.  Disappointed, owners of the cargo were left with only one choice: pick the consignments and deliver them to different inland destinations by road! The NRC denied knowledge of the incident, offering a rather lame and irrelevant excuse: a container-laden train does not have the capacity to speed unlike a passenger train.

 
Analysts had insisted that only a vibrant and viable NRC with functional fleet of engines and coaches can play a pivotal role to increase the capacity and efficiency of evacuation of cargoes from the ports to many towns along the rail network. But in the history of the agency’s quest to move consignments from the ports to the hinterland, from the 1970s till date, there has been a steady process of decline in operations.

PIX 2: Rotimi Amaechi, Transportation Minister

According to experts, NRC operations became worse due to systematic failure arising from infrastructural decay and shortage of manpower.

 
For instance, available statistics reveal that in 1969, NRC recorded about 11,288,000 passenger carriage and 2,960,000 metric tonnes of cargo freight.
But 10 years later, the figure declined to 4,342 and 1,098,000 respectively. Thenceforth, the entire system was grounded.

 
A feature of efficiency and modernity in cargo handling is the direct delivery of goods for immediate evacuation. Direct delivery involves the loading of trucks already positioned by the quayside. And more importantly, it is about incorporating multi-modal transport in evacuating cargoes with rail transport as the pivot.

 
After the massive cargo and ship congestion of the immediate post-civil war period when up to 500 vessels were anchored, waiting to berth at Apapa port at the peak of the congestion, the military government began an ambitious port development programme. Unfortunately, the planning was devoid of a futuristic concept. Unlike the older terminals at Apapa and Port Harcourt ports which had rail lines running the length of the quayside for direct delivery of cargoes onto coaches, there was no such thing in the design for the Tin Can Island, new Port Harcourt, Calabar and Warri ports that were touted as modern facilities.

PIX 3: Hadiza Bala Usman, MD, NPA

“It is a huge and inexplicable oversight, especially given that at the time of their conception in the mid 1970s railway lines running along quaysides had become a feature of modern ports,” Mr. Lucky Amiwero, a freight forwarder and national president of the National Council of Managing Directors of Licensed Customs Agents, said.

 
That omission has come to haunt the country’s port system characterised by total reliance on heavy duty vehicles to evacuate goods from the ports through ill-maintained roads. More remarkably, it is the biggest obstacle on the path of energising the inland dry ports being driven by the Nigerian Shippers’ Council. The first of the dry ports was commissioned recently in Kaduna at a time that rail engines cannot access the ports.

 
Invariably, for the dry port to become operational, its owners will have rely on the expensive and security-challenged roads to move goods across hundreds of  kilometres to their inland depot.

PIX 4: Container Leaving The Port Via Rail

 
“And that may prove to be the Achilles hill of the dry ports,” Amiwero warned.
On August 18, 2017, the Federal Executive Council (FEC) had approved an interim agreement for the concession of the Lagos-Kano and Port Harcourt-Maiduguri old narrow gauge railway lines to a consortium led US engineering conglomerate, General Electric (GE).

 
The government said the concession arrangement with GE would see investments of over $2 billion in the country’s major narrow-gauge railway lines and will be for about 30 years during which GE will rehabilitate and run the lines. Such was the air of optimism that pervaded the approval by FEC that Lai Mohammed, Minister of Information, said the approval would aid the completion and full utilisation of the narrow gauge system from October 2017.

 
But it has not quite gone according to the script. GE is yet to get going four months after full services ought to have begun on the lines. The federal government later revealed that inconsistencies on the part of GE, the concessionaires of the two narrow gauge rail lines in the country, are currently hampering the progress of the $2.2 billion contract, and that GE with its Transaction Advisers are now to sort things out on the project.

PIX 5: Fidet Okhirla, MD, NRC

 
GE was expected to have introduced 20 locomotives and about 200 coaches to move freight and passengers in the country before the close of 2017. This never came to pass.

 
Explaining the lack of action on the contract in Ibadan recently, Minister of Transportation, Chibuike Rotimi Amaechi, said that conversation between GE and the federal government is becoming a little bit more difficult. “Politicians are not good negotiators; so we have allowed our experts to continue negotiations with GE.
 

“Whenever they finish with our Transaction Advisers, they should then come back to government. The reason why I was involved was that I was trying to speed up the process.

PIX 6: Hasson Bello, ES, NSC

 
“But the more I tried to speed up the process, the more I discovered that discussions were not going the way that me, a non-professional, wanted it to go,” Amaechi said.

 
The NRC has assured of its readiness to dedicate 20 container wagons to the service of the Kaduna dry port even as it urges the operators of the facility to ensure Nigerians enjoy the benefit of the dry port.

 
“We are expecting 20 container wagons in June/July of this year, and I want to assure everybody that those wagons will be dedicated to the services of the Kaduna Inland Dry Port”, Engr. Fidet Okhiria has assured.

 
“With the current backing we are getting from the federal government, we can assure stakeholders that we will be getting their cargoes to the Kaduna Inland Dry Port. We just hope our wagons would not be delayed at Kaduna”.

PIX 7: Kaduna Inland Dry Port

 
While promising that the corporation’s 2018 target is to improve on operational efficiency, he failed to capture concrete security arrangements while defending his 2018 budget before the House Committee on Land Transport in Abuja.

 
As he stated, the agency’s capital outlay projection for 2018 will emphasize continuous maintenance of narrow and standard gauge lines, procurement of spares and rehabilitation of the locomotives coaches and wagons, upgrade of signal and telecom facilities, etc. But it was eloquently silent on issues of security.

PIX 8: Yusuf Ismail, MD, ICNL

 
While performing the groundbreaking ceremony for the take-off of the $1.5 billion Lagos -lbadan rail line project in 2017, Vice President, Professor Yemi Osinbajo, was emphatic that it would be completed and delivered by December, 2018. To be built by the China Civil Engineering Construction Corporation (CCECC), “the project was epochal as it signified the determination of the president to modernize the national railway system in keeping with his promise to the Nigeria people”, Osinbajo disclosed.

 

There are serious complaints from exporters and importers that before venturing into inland container depots (ICDs) and deep seaports, government failed to extend existing rail tracks to such facilities, talking about placing the cart before the horse. To what extent have functional rail lines been connected to the recently- inaugurated Kaduna dry port?  What of the one in Jos nearing completion?
 

In December 2017, Inland Containers Nigeria Limited, ICNL, operators of the Kaduna dry port, called on the NRC to provide more wagons to boost the movement of cargoes from the ports down to the dry port in Kaduna, as the existing wagons are not enough to convey consignments to the north. Managing Director of ICNL, Mr. Yusuf Ismail, in a chat with Business and Maritime West Africa, noted that his company spends millions of Naira to convey cargoes from the ports to the dry port in Kaduna by road. He explained that the convenient way to move cargoes up north is through rail lines.

 
It is recalled that in 2015, the Executive Secretary, Nigerian Shippers Council , Mr. Hassan Bello, appealed to the promoters of the Lekki port to ensure that rail network is connected to the ongoing construction.  Otherwise, it will end up like what is happening at Tin Can Island port presently. Bello stated that for the Lekki port to thrive after completion, the rail network must be put in place to make a difference from experiences in other ports in Lagos.

A major effort to revamp the ailing railway sector in Nigeria was conceived during the administration of former President Goodluck Jonathan to complement existing modes of transportation in the country.

PIX 9: Mr. Lucky Amiwero

 
Jonathan, in 2013, promised to invest over N1.6 trillion in the country’s railway sector for a period of two years.  The projection was that by 2015, about 15 different railway tracks would have been completed and delivered nationwide. The routes in view included the Lagos - Calabar stretch at the cost of $11.12 billion, the 1657 km Port Harcourt- Maiduguri route, the Port Harcourt - Makurdi route (463km) and the Makurdi – Kuru route (1016 km). Others included the 640 km Kuru – Maiduguri axis and the Jos- Kafanchan stretch spanning a distance of 640 km.

About N12 billion was penciled down for the rehabilitation of some other major routes. These included the light rail tracks for Lagos – Jebba, Abuja – Kaduna, Iddo Station in Lagos, and Kaduna Station. Others are Kano, Port Harcourt, Enugu, Jos and Gombe.

 
The federal government also signed a N67 billion contract for the rehabilitation of the three eastern rail tracks covering a distance of 2,119 km.

 
The grand national rail project the present government inherited from Jonathan is expected to create over half a million jobs apart from facilitating the movement of up to 3.2 million tons of cargoes per annum.   So far, this expectation is proving unachievable even as the present political dispensation winds down its first tenure.  Experts in the rail sector are already cautioning the minister of transportation, Rotimi Amaechi over moves to import foreigners to execute the gigantic project.  After undertaking a visit round some agencies under the ministry, including the Nigerian Railway Corporation (NRC), Amaechi shocked the world recently when he declared that he does not know a functional rail system can exist in Nigeria. Was he trying to commend former President Jonathan for the foresight exhibited in embarking on such a gigantic project that would move the economy forward? Perhaps!

Only recently, the latter-day collaboration between the Nigerian Ports Authority (NPA) and the NRC on the evacuation of cargoes from the ports to other parts of the hinterland raised the need to put in place renewed strategies on how to realize a noble objective whose achievement has been elusive for years.

 
As recently admitted by Mr. Fidet Okhiria, managing director of the NRC, the corporation, in 2017, generated N4.12 billion out of her set target of N4.85 billion. But even with the huge revenue being collected, government has so far failed in the responsibility of guaranteeing a reliable security arrangement that would ensure unhindered movement of cargoes from the ports to the hinterland. Arising from this, government has also failed to provide modern communication gadgets that would convey messages across to the terminal operators, officials of NPA, railway operatives and others in the rail track movement chain.

PIX 10: Senator Idris Umar, Former Minister Of Transportation

 
In February 2018, the NRC warned the public to desist from trading and walking on rail lines as such acts were suicidal. This practice has continued unhindered especially in thickly-populated areas in Lagos despite the warning. The ugly scenario of persons crowding on fast-moving passenger trains despite the huge security risk this practice involves speaks volumes about how inept the agency is in the area of communication and security.

Besides mere warning, the agency has so far failed to walk the talk by apprehending and prosecuting violators.

 
Apart from palpable insecurity that endanger the movement of passengers and cargoes from the ports to other parts of the country, there has been alarming cases of accident on the rail network. A man was recently crushed to death by a train at Ikeja in Lagos. The train coming from Sango area in Ogun State towards Iddo Terminus in Lagos killed the young man observers said was in his mid-30s at about 8 a.m. around Ajayi Farms, Anifowoshe, Ikeja.

 
At the Apapa Bulk Terminal Limited (ABTL), Lagos Ports Complex, just recently, a fatal train accident occurred, inflicting serious injuries on the driver of a truck parked in-between the tracks. Three containers were reportedly damaged as a result of the accident while goods inside the containers in transit were destroyed.

 Investigations by Business and Maritime West Africa revealed that the accident can be attributed to the absence of communication among all the parties involved in the cargo evacuation process to and from the seaport.

 
There have equally been other unreported cases of rail accidents within and outside the ports premises during which cargoes were either vandalized or destroyed.
In efforts to revamp the railway sector to enhance transportation and port operations, government needs to provide adequate security. Safety paraphernalia must be installed to detect beforehand circumstances likely to cause accidents on the rail tracks.

 
"NPA’s involvement to ease the cost of doing business at the seaport through cargo movement via rail network needs to be properly streamlined with the NRC for it to succeed", says Alhaji Inuwa Abdullahi, a transporter.  Abdullahi who is the vice chairman, dry cargo section of the National Association of Road Transport Owners (NARTO), Lagos State admitted that the initiative for goods to move out of the ports via railway lines would ease traffic on the roads.  But he added that the government is not sincere on the project.

 
One major challenge government has overlooked in the rail track evacuation process, he explained, is lack of effective monitoring in the movement of trains into and out of the terminals. He argues that if this is not properly managed, it can lead to avoidable havoc. Government, he said, must address this.

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