By Olubunmi Aboderin
It is a truth universally acknowledged that a developing nation in possession of a large population must be in want of a robust transport system. (Forgive me Jane Austen). There’s at least one concerted effort activity that every free, hale and hearty Nigerian does every day and that is, move. We are always on the move and the largest chunk of this movement is by road, whether on foot, bicycle, tricycle, “okada”, by car, bus, “molue”, you name it.
Not surprisingly, the roads are usually congested. Given that many destinations are land-locked, the road appears to be the most convenient and economical way for the majority of people to complete their journey. But there has to be a more efficient, land-based, affordable mode for mass transit and there is: rail. The railway is a somewhat unexpected solution provider for seemingly unrelated social and economic issues, and it could well be instrumental in fomenting a much needed industrial revolution here, as it has done in other countries.
A fully-functioning railway network is not only useful for moving an assemblage of people from Point A to Point B, it’s also effective for transporting cargo, improving distribution logistics, decongesting traffic, boosting trade nationally and internationally, enhancing tourism and even improving inter-tribal understanding. When compared to the bulk goods movement capacity of road vehicles, rail ranks higher in safety, speed, size of cargo hold, scalability (extra train carriages can be added to a locomotive manned by one driver with one attendant), and strength in terms of durability.
One way to improve the competitiveness of our exports is to have a full-bodied nationwide railway system that can be efficiently operated on lean margins. An intercontinental rail network would be even better. It doesn’t hurt to dream, but let’s walk before we run. According to the 2016 Economic Outlook published by Economic Associates, approximately 58% of our non-oil income is generated from four industries: trade, crop production, real estate and telecoms and information services. The revenue generated by these sectors could grow exponentially if we had a robust railway system. (Assuming there is stable power supply that would complement production efforts rather than a convulsive one that frustrates the best of intentions).
While new rail tracks are laid and existing ones are expanded, gas pipes and cabling for telecoms or electricity transmission can be laid at the same time. Yes, such infrastructural undertakings are expensive, but then so are the mental, physical, social, economic and environmental costs of sitting in traffic for 12 hours because of an overturned trailer. And besides, such mammoth infrastructural projects are excellent opportunities to attract irreversible capital input from abroad.
Since the first construction of a railway in Nigeria just before the 1900s, we have built rail lines from Lagos to Kano; Port Harcourt to Kano; Port Harcourt to Aba; Abuja to Kaduna, and so on. Lagos also has an intra-state rail system. Unfortunately not enough attention was given to rail transport from the mid-1960s till recent years. Now however, there is a move to modernise existing railroads and build new ones to international standards, so much so that we are likely to have standard gauge rail, at least, from Lagos to Kano; Lagos to Calabar; Kaduna to Abuja; and Itakpe to Ajaokuta to Port Harcourt. But ideally, we should have railway service to every city, town, or hamlet with a population in excess of 500 people. Allowing the private sector to take over the railways will help achieve this goal. Privatising the railways will raise the much-needed revenue for governance, improve our time to market and increase the fiscal competitiveness of our locally made goods. It makes one wonder why the 1957 Railway Act, slated for amendment since 1999 has not been attended to by members of the National Assembly.
On the website, corridorsofcommerce.com, the U.S.-based transport network, BNSF Railway highlights the economic, social and environmental benefits of using trains to move “agriculture, raw materials and finished goods”, over a distance of 3,422 route miles within an area covering parts of the USA and Canada, which it refers to as the Great Northern corridor. “In 2009, the Great Northern moved over 124 million tonnes of freight. It would take over 4.9 million long-haul trucks on highways to move that much freight. The Great Northern saved over 570 million gallons of fuel and over six million tonnes of greenhouse gases.” Now fast forward to Nigeria and imagine what it would mean for our GDP if we could do the same here.
Currently, Lafarge uses the railways to move cement from Ogun State to other parts of the country. As our national rail infrastructure is built up, other companies will be able to embark on a similar modal shift away from transporting industrial-capacity or wholesale goods by roads, to moving those same items by rail instead. When trains become the primary method for moving cattle, tomatoes, coal, petrol, sand, boulders and other such bulk inputs, confrontations between bovine drovers and agrarian homesteaders can perhaps be minimised, less agricultural produce would perish on the way to market, there would likely be fewer car crashes, and the roads would be a lot less crammed.
Developers would benefit from an increase in the value of the land around the rail stations; entrepreneurs would benefit from a drop in the cost of doing business; young adults would benefit from an increase in employment opportunities; and government would benefit from an increase in the number of people able to pay tax, amongst other things.
As a developing nation with a large population, we are in a sincere need of a robust, nationwide transport system. Perpetuating the delay in reviewing the 1957 Railway Act is ultimately self-defeating. As part of our strategy for sustainable economic growth, we need to give active, urgent, methodological attention to building up our railways.
•Ms. Aboderin is a member of the Institute of Directors [The article first appeared on The Guardian]