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Don’t Exclude South-East from Railways Upgrade Programme, Senate Tells FG

The Senate has asked the Federal Government not to exclude the South East from ongoing railway modernisation, rehabilitation and maintenance projects nationwide.

The lawmakers also implored government to discard the narrow gauge rail, which they described as obsolete, and upgrade the Eastern Rail Line, traversing Port Harcourt to Maiduguri, from narrow gauge rail to standard gauge rail.

The resolutions were reached following a motion titled, “Urgent need to upgrade the Eastern Rail Line traversing Port Harcourt-Enugu-Maiduguri from narrow gauge rail to standard gauge rail,” sponsored by Senator Victor Umeh and 34 others.

In his lead debate, Umeh harped on the importance of the Eastern Rail Line, which he said serves four geopolitical zones of South-South, South East, North Central and North East, running from Port Harcourt to Aba, Enugu, Makurdi, Jos to Bauchi, and Maiduguri. He said it was also the longest and one of the oldest rail lines in Nigeria.

Urging the Senate to support the motion, Umeh noted that the Federal Government was missing a huge amount of revenue by excluding the Eastern line in the ongoing railway infrastructure construction.

He highlighted the benefits of including the South-East region, stressing that the infrastructure would enhance sustainable socio economic relationships across the country, and also promote national integration, and ultimately boost the economy and give a sense of belonging to all.

He also reminded the Senate that the Federal Government conceived the idea in 2017 to modernise and standardise the Nigerian railway system by building standard gauge rail lines and acquiring modern coaches both for passenger movement and goods across the country.

To finance the project, Umeh revealed that the Federal Government took a loan of $68 billion in 2017.

He said almost all the above-mentioned rail lines have been completed or nearing completion, and operational with new coaches. He also pointed out that Port Harcourt to Maiduguri line is the only narrow gauge rail line in Nigeria.

Furthermore, Umeh said in April 2022, the Federal Government awarded a failed contract of $3.2 billion for the rehabilitation and reconstruction of a narrow gauge rail line from Port Harcourt to Maiduguri, which has been vandalised, abandoned and overgrown with weeds and trees, thereby jettisoning the standard gauge rail line. Unfortunately, Umeh said not only that the project failed, the Chinese contractors partnering with the Federal Government on the project, who were expected to provide 85 percent of the expected funding program, also abandoned the project without injecting any funds.

“The Federal Government should, as a matter of necessity, national interest and the resultant anxiety of excluding the four geopolitical zones, which the Eastern rail line covers, maintain a common developmental programme for the country, by taking immediate steps to build standard gauge rail line and free Port Harcourt to Maiduguri.

“The Federal Government should consider involving Public-Private Partnership (PPP) to ensure that modernisation and standardisation of the Eastern rail line is achieved.”

 Enyinnaya Abaribe blamed the previous administration for ignoring the infrastructural plight of the South-East region.

 “One major problem is that no transport minister has been able to give any reason why only the South-eastern region has been ignored and sentenced to oblivion from the modernization of railways built by the colonial masters.

“When I confronted the former transportation minister, Rotimi Amaechi, he couldn’t answer. All he said was that they were just modernising. How do you modernise a narrow gauge by bringing another narrow gauge? We now have a new government that can take a look at it again.

“All we want is equity. You can’t have a narrow gauge in the Eastern part and a standard gauge in other parts. You can’t go back and say you’re building a new rail line from Lagos to Calabar, and of course, cross this particular one because you can’t move coaches from one point to the other.”

In his contribution, Abdul Ningi, urged the Federal Government to discard the narrow gauge. “The narrow gauge is extinct and it’s no longer in vogue. Countries in the entire world no longer construct the narrow gauge. Even the standard gauge is gradually getting moribund because other superior gauges have come into play. On the narrow gauge, it will take you 48 hours to travel from Port Harcourt-Maiduguri to Gombe; on the standard gauge, it will take 12 to 13 hours while on the speed gauge, it will only take two hours.

“This particular Eastern rail line is probably the oldest and it seems that there’s no political will, but we see other areas constructed with the standard gauge. It’s not because I come from Bauchi State, it’s because we are one nation. The communities along these areas are sidelined and feel like second class citizens of Nigeria. There must be equity in the construction of infrastructure across the country.”

Following the support received by the motion, the Red Chambers asked the Presidency to halt the planned rehabilitation of the outdated narrow gauge rail. The senators also urged the Federal Government to make arrangements for proper funding to construct standard gauge rail in the Eastern rail line and acquisition of modern coaches, and directed its Committee on Land Transport to ensure that all the four geopolitical zones within the Eastern rail line corridor benefit from the ongoing railways standardization and modernization programme of the Federal Government.

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