LETTER FROM LAGOS
The mobility question
By Rose Umoren
In principle, Nigeria boasts all forms of transportation: marine, land and air, most pre-dating independence 43 years ago. In practice, only air transportation, used by perhaps 5% of the 130 million population and subject to international regulation and oversight, functions adequately. Marine transportation, outside the oil industry and the leisure boats of the rich, is mostly canoes and battered boats. Land transportation comprises mostly unregulated contraptions passing for trucks, cars, buses, and motorcycles, jam- packed on roads the government acknowledges as barely motorable.
Rail - the global champion - which once served all parts of the country, covering all terrains, from the southern lowlands through the central hills and plateaus and eastern mountains to the northern plains, is comatose after some two decades of development. Historically, for instance, the Nigerian Railway Corporation (NRC) boasts 3,557km of rail -compared with 2,084km for South Africa - but only 52km are up to standard gauge, none are electrified, and most are currently dysfunctional.
The effects are harrowing, in cities and farm villages. The choice for goods and humans has narrowed to either the road contraptions or expensive air flights. In cities, everyone squeezes onto roads. Populations which a few intra-city train journeys would have ferried in 1-2 rush hours, comfortably and safely, spend several hours in daily traffic jams.
Lagosians, for instance, have been known to spend the night in traffic, some never to awake. The economic losses from this are evident everywhere. Agricultural produce perishes on farms while shortages are being experienced in many parts because road transportation is generally unsuitable, insufficient, unreliable and expensive. Manufacturers build the high costs of air freighting and losses to road robberies and accidents into their prices. Workers' productivity suffers while lives are frequently lost in road and boat mishaps. Also, with archaic and ill-maintained automobiles spewing fumes into the atmosphere, Lagos and Port Harcourt especially are becoming environmental nightmares requiring urgent action.
Furthermore, in the absence of an organised transportation system, it is doubtful that security agencies can
effectively track movements of savvy criminals, local and international.
The Olusegun Obasanjo government is not short on efforts though. Over the past four years, it has announced a variety of plans. These include considering offers from Canadian consultants and Chinese and South African rail authorities to rehabilitate the NRC. Others have considered dredging waterways to revamp marine transportation. The most concrete action so far, however, is the coming into effect in January of a Nl.50/litre petrol tax, purportedly for the upgrading of roads.
Understandably, the government is confronted with a transport situation so terrible as to be overwhelming. The solution, however, is neither to wring hands and make vague promises as seems the practice these past four years, nor to exploit the situation for quick cash to bridge fiscal deficit as seems the case with the petrol tax. It is rather to focus on a segment with the potential to be the most impactful: rail.
The first step, however, is to accept that there is currently no rail system and that the NRC, according to the government's own website, "is still based on the prevailing technology at its inception" more than a century ago, which is clearly spent. For this reason, the government - which may have its own different reason - is right to have stopped disbursements to the NRC.
The next step is producing a fresh blueprint acknowledging the NRC only in terms of lessons. With rail technologies fast evolving and so much virgin work to be done, a single rail system may no longer suffice. Multiple systems may be needed to develop and manage different market segments: freight traffic with linkages to cargo centres, intra- and inter-city mass transit and international border commute.
The blueprint should robustly address financing, cost effective pricing, market segmentation, agriculture and potential environmental issues. It should be such that it can attract investors with the variety of financing, skills and technology required to develop the various market segments.
The situation will require investors from more than one country, since even among the top ten in rail development -
United States, Russia, China, India, Germany, Canada, Australia, Argentina, France and Japan - none has an optimum mix The aim should be to tap each top rail system's comparative advantage and complement this with the most sustainable financing terms.
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