By Our Correspondent
In July 2018, Muhammadu Buhari, the President of Nigeria at the time, boarded a gleaming new train linking the capital city, Abuja, with its airport. At the ribbon-cutting ceremony, Buhari hailed the system as “evidence that we are a government that delivers on its promises.” Five years on, that promise looked empty. Train cars were locked away at a depot. Cavernous stations fully equipped with escalators, ticket offices, cameras and scanners stood empty, overseen by bored security guards. The faux leather couches in the VIP area were covered in bird and bat droppings. “It’s an abandoned project,” said Rowland Ataguba, an adviser to the government on rail strategy. “Quite clearly there was no plan on how to run the operations before they built it.”
Today, the newly appointed minister of the Federal Capital Territory, Attorney Nyesom Wike, is rewriting the narrative.
Abuja light railway system is fast becoming the new rail network that is being developed in the federal capital city of Nigeria. It would be the first light rail system to be developed in West Africa. The system was mainly intended to check the incessant traffic congestion on Abuja roads and as well offer an enhanced travel experience to commuters in the federal capital territory. An integral part of the Abuja Rail Mass Transit System and the FCT Transportation Master Plan, the project is being implemented in six phases. The first phase of the rail system was the one commissioned by President Buhari in July 2018 and it was to be operated by China Civil Engineering Construction Corporation (CCECC). The feasibility study for the remaining phases is in progress.
Initially, the project was proposed in 1997 but it faced numerous delays due to funding issues. CCECC Nigeria was awarded a contract for the construction of phases one and three under the project in May 2007. The light rail network, developed under the first phase, has a total length of 45.2 kilometers. Phase 1, also known as the Blue Line, has a length of 17.89 km and connects Nnamdi Azikiwe Expressway with the Abuja Metro Station (transportation centre) and then runs through Gwagwa and Kubwa. The 27.2 km-long phase 3, or the Yellow Line, connects the transportation centre with the Nnamdi Azikiwe International Airport.
The two lines incorporate 12 stations, 13 bridges, 21 operational offices, nine pedestrian overpasses and 50 culverts. A three-month test run was conducted prior to the commissioning of the light rail system. The rolling stock contract for the Abuja Light Rail System was awarded to China Railway Rolling Stock Corporation (CRRC). Trains are currently being hauled by diesel locomotives as electrification works on the line are yet to be completed.
The initial fleet of rolling stock operating on the network now comprises of three trains with three rail cars each. The train set can accommodate more than 300 passengers. Light rail vehicles are specifically designed to operate on standard gauge tracks. The stainless-steel railcars have a length of 19 meters and a width of 2.8 meters. The roof and rail are separated by a height of 3.8 millimeters while the diameter of the wheels is 840mm. Electricity required for operation of the system will be supplied by a dedicated overhead contact line system. A line voltage of 1,500V DC is required for the seamless operation of the light train fleet. The voltage range of the train sets usually varies between 1,000V and 1,800V DC, and the on-board traction has a maximum capacity of 190 kilowatts. The maximum service speed attained by the train set is 80 kilometers per hour. The rate load on the axle is pegged not to exceed 14t. Meanwhile, trains are currently hauled by diesel locomotives as electrification works on the line are yet to be completed.
The estimated investment for the development of the light rail project is $824 million. The Federal Capital Territory Administration (FCTA) used loans from the Exim Bank of China to fund approximately 60% of the project. FCTA also signed an infrastructure soft loan agreement with the Exim Bank of China for the procurement and maintenance of 16 light train sets with three rail cars each. The $194 million loan agreement is valid for a term of three years. The bank committed to fund $157 million of the total cost incurred on the procurement and maintenance of train sets for phases one and three. The remaining $37 million is provided by the counterpart fund of the FCTA.
But that is only as far as the FCT is concerned.
What every Nigerian actually expects, however, is that the various state governors can follow suit and liaise with foreign investors to get light railway trains shuttling between and connecting the major cities of their states and neighbouring states within their regions.
We need to be emphatic here about railway transportation between various states within the six geopolitical zones created by the Ibrahim Babangida administration on the one hand, and the intra-links between their cities. State governors should map this in their head and see what the zones would look like with these facilities in place. All eyes of Nigerian elites at home and in the Diaspora are on the state governors. They expect you to back up the role the National Assembly should play, especially in the struggle to decentralize authority from Abuja and give zones a financial autonomy that would synchronize with the original documents that gave independence to Nigeria.
It is against this background that state governors in every of the six zones should decide to pursue issues affecting their people through regional integration. This will obviously call for an honest pooling together of resources. They can arrange for any country or business enterprise to partner with them on this area of rail transportation. Our people need a network of railways that would connect major cities in their states with the state capitals, even if they are light railways. They can take a queue from the Abuja experiment.