Friday, July 10, 2009

Back to railway transportation

RAILWAY is being constructed and/or improved upon for both freight and passengers transit across Africa today. Due to its unhindered route and great capacity for moving heavy loads, railway has been acknowledged to be a faster means of transportation than road. It is also better than water transport in that it can serve the hinterland whereas most forms of water transport cannot. Against air travel, railway can transport more passengers and goods than most aircraft.

One of the most successful values of rail transport is the carriage of non-perishable items like coal, wood, iron, granite etc, which can be transported in the open wagon/coaches. A good example is the transport of granite from the southern part of Nigeria to the northern part for construction of roads and buildings. Imported irons and canned liquified natural gas can also be transported with ease from the Niger Delta area to other parts for consumption. Goods can also be transported from all corners of Nigeria to the port for onward shipping to overseas countries. It will be interesting seeing groundnut pyramids and cotton wool warehouses in Kano, Kaduna, Katsina, Jigawa, etc.

The export business of South Africa is centred on the harbour at Richards Bay in South Africa's Kwa Zulu Natal Province. Richards Bay already has the "largest single export terminal for coal anywhere in the world". The government of South Africa has earmarked a US$140 million scheme to increase its "transport capacity to 91 million tonnes" and will provide a massive boost to South Africa's exports.

Most of the containeised rail traffic arriving in Uganda, an interlocked country, originates from the port of Mambasa on the coast of Kenya with revenue accruing to the Kenyan government. The interlocked countries of Niger and Chad which are better served by Republique du Benin for transport business will be better served by Nigeria through rail transport. Cocoa, the chief agricultural produce of Cote d'Ivoire enjoys cheaper transport to the port of Abidjan through rail lines. The Abidjan port is the biggest in West Africa with Cote d'Ivoire's population of less than 20 million people. In Egypt, railway is the most important passengers' transporter just like in London and France. In 2008, in Algeria, the railway company generated over $5 billion as profit. Angola bought four locomotives of 100 tonnes each from China in the same year. Having an underground rail network from the Federal Secretariat axis in Abuja to the Bus/Coach Station in Jabi is achievable.

In the area of tourism, there are great potentials for the Nigeria Railway Corporation (NRC). Rovos Rail that operates tourist trains in South Africa prides itself as a transporter of repute. It operates the "Pride of Africa", which has accommodation on board with "Royal Suite" bath, shower, toilet, air-conditioner, 24-hour security service and 24-hour room service for £1,200 per person. There is also "sleeper train" for commuters who cannot afford such luxury. In Mauritius, railway transport contributes to tourism development than any other means of transport.

Railway transportation also makes immense contributions in the areas of employment generation and industrial development. No wonder, the Ghana Managanes Company Limited (GMC) has submitted a proposal to government to allow private companies to participate in the management of the troubled Ghana Railway Company (GRC) on a public-private partnership (PPP). First ScotRail, a rail operator in the United Kingdom has estimated its passengers volume for 2008/2009 financial year to be 76.4 million in a country of less than 68 million people.

Railway transportation has great chances of developing Nigeria but the challenges are funding and management. A lot of investment will be needed in laying rail networks across the nooks and crannies of the country in order to have wider coverage. The existing inadequate rail network will also need to be serviced and maintained to avert calamity. Mismanagement is another bane that should be overcome with little effort especially as there are large reserves of human resources in Nigeria and outside.

Revenues can be generated outside the traditional means of transporting passengers and goods by railway companies. Operators need to be innovative and tap into the virgin area of income generation. On-board advertisement, railway wireless communication, catering services, real estate investment, hotel services etc are areas from which railway companies can derive enormous income.