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Tuesday, April 23, 2024

Standard gauge railway – Is it needed?

The concept of Standard Gauge Railways (SGR) and its roll out in the African continent is entrenched in the African Union (AU) publication titled, “Agenda 2063 – The Africa We Want”. The drive for SGR in Africa is supported by this document which ideally wants more railways in Africa but more importantly that the railways should be SGR in contrast to the other two gauges which are termed generally as narrow and wide.

Lagos Ibadan Standard Gauge Rail Line
Lagos Ibadan Standard Gauge Rail Line

Again ideally, the document admonishes that the target date to be the year 2063 which, as at today, is still about 39 years away, hence the question WHY hurry?

A standard-gauge railway is a railway with a track gauge of 1,435 mm, while the narrow-gauge railway is one where the distance between the inside edges of the rails is less than 1,435 mm. Most narrow-gauge railways are between 600mm and 1,067mm.

Today, Nigeria has about 3,500km of narrow gauge (cape gauge) and 669km of SGR but the SGR is increasing. Part of the coastal railways (Port Harcourt-Calabar-Enugu-Abuja) which caught some bad press lately is the reason for this article and hopefully it could get us thinking and looking for lasting solutions.

The questions being asked is about the contracting format and the players involved but the real question is this, “Is SGR needed in Nigeria now?” One will try and light up this area for the consumption of fellow Nigerians.

Firstly, Nigeria has a very extensive railway network in narrow gauge and this railway has had money allocated to it from regimes starting from Obasanjo to the recent Buhari regime. How well these funds were used is a topic for another day. But one can assume that the narrow-gauge network is in good state generally as trains still run on most of them.

To replicate what we already have in narrow gauge with standard gauge will cost about Nigeria about $15 billion for the fixed infrastructure alone and probably same amount in moving infrastructure. This is a lot of money, but the figure mentioned in cost was derived from Chinese and Portuguese contractors building Nigerian Railways at about $4.2 million per kilometre. This could be termed as progress and why should it be an issue. The question that follows is this, Is it needed? and Is the cost reasonable? Answers will be coming in the next paragraphs.

Is it needed?

SGR has unique features over the narrow gauge, but the narrow gauge can hold its own especially in our country Nigeria. Freight traffic more than passenger traffic is usually the driving force behind long distance rail traffic hence I will use the freight scenario in Nigeria to make this very point and drive it home. There are seven inland container depots (ICDs) in Nigeria with a combined total capacity of 165,000 TEUs (twenty-foot equivalent unit). This translates in layman’s language to 165,000 of 20ft containers. A goods train (on narrow or standard gauge) with 80 wagons (each wagon carrying 2*20ft containers) will move the equivalent of 160 containers.

With five-minute headways and 12 hours of operation, the railways can move a total of 19,200 containers from the ports in Nigeria into the various ICDs in one day allowing for all other detailed operation issues which are too deep for this paper. In less than 10 days, the railways can fill the ICDs to capacity while taking equivalent load off the road network. This example shows that either gauge (SGR or narrow gauge) can do the job. We already have the narrow gauge, so why build the SGR?

Doing justice to this example, one must factor in a concept of speed, but let me quickly say that freight is not dependent on speed but reliability of delivery. SGR for freight will accommodate speeds up to 140 kph while narrow gauge will peak at about 100 kph. Over an average of 500km journey, trains on SGR will take 3.57 hrs flat out for the distance while trains on narrow gauge will take 5 hours. This is a differential of just one hour over 50 0km, which in freight time is negligible. This is the best-selling point that the government is using to sell SGR.

In my opinion, this is lame and moreover, apart from the speed differential mentioned earlier. We already have the narrow-gauge network, and it is already paid for. Replicating this network will cost us $15 billion and I have just shown that it is not needed nor necessary at this point in time in our lives.

The AU ambition, I will strongly advice that it can wait as we still have 39years to comply and bear in mind that it’s not even compulsory. I would further state that if Nigeria has the money, then it can choose to do whatever it likes with her money. The reality is that we don’t have the money hence we are borrowing. The simple interpretation of what we are doing is that we are borrowing money to build infrastructure that we don’t need. That cannot be acceptable in anybody’s book in my humble opinion.

Is the cost reasonable?

Will this railway as planned make money in real terms? NO, it has been touted as a social and/or economic infrastructure. With few extensions here and there, I believe the narrow gauge can be commercially viable, if serious management takes over but not the SGR. Lest I forget, murmurings about African railways interoperability as a force. This is not grounded in reality for now. There are over 50 countries in Africa and only about five have started on this venture, hence, it’s still decades away if it ever happens. We should just stay on the narrow and reap the rewards for now.

Nigeria never makes things easy for herself. They have embarked on the development of the SGR and on record have about 700km completed with plans in place to borrow more money to do more of what’s not needed. This is a very uncomfortable place to be, and I feel for my country even as I write. Difficult situations require difficult and unpleasant decisions, we have to make and take one here. Consultants (not TEAM Engineering nor the Chinese or Portuguese) should be engaged to look at the ongoing SGR project on a cost benefit context only.

The outcome should guide our way forward and as a professional, I have a feeling where this would land. As difficult and as unpopular as the outcome might be, we should just as a nation be willing to abide with it. The other question needs attention, but space will not allow for a detailed inside look and it’s about cost. The figure of $4.2-4.5 million for a km of track in Nigeria has always troubled me.

Relatively flat terrain and right of way secured, the unit cost should be lower in my opinion. Sometime ago, I decided to work it out from first principles since this was my area of expertise. I was extremely generous or maybe over-generous in my aggregation of labour, plant and materials in this exercise. I struggled to reach 2.0 million per km, hence I checked and checked and checked again. Every time, I checked, my cost reduced. If the advice here is taken, maybe the consultants can also check the unit cost for construction of railways in Nigeria.

By Catos Sparrow

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