By Sule Lazarus | February 6, 2011
Rowland Ataguba is an international project management specialist with a background on the British Railways and is a member of the Infrastructure Policy Commission of the NESG. He spoke to SUNDAY TRUST recently on pertinent Nigerian railway issues.
With the recent arrest of the MD of the NRC by the EFCC on allegations of corruption, a dark cloud has now enveloped the railways. What is your take on this?
Well, we need perspectives here. He may have been arrested but he has not yet been convicted of the crime. Yes the allegations are serious and could even be placed in the realm of economic sabotage but we need to be careful that we do not constitute ourselves into a lynch mob. He is entitled to the presumption of innocence though it is hard to find the initial public statements of the NRC as credible. The news however is a big blow for the railways because it is so important that we build confidence both internally and externally. These types of news stories feed the negative stereotype of the Nigerian public servant and scares away investors or serious industry players.
The allegations concern the award of contracts to allegedly unsuitable contractors. You have consistently complained about the defects in our public procurement system. Is this not why the Lagos-Kano rehabilitation project is languishing uncompleted?
Yes I have issues with the conduct of some of our public procurements where I have detailed knowledge but it would be inappropriate for me to comment on this premise in the particular circumstances. I have identified inspection, scoping, design, planning and partnering shortcomings in the execution of the Lagos – Kano rehabilitation projects. If you wish to extend that into the foundational issue of the procurements to conjecture cause and effect, then you may have a point.
Buying products and services is one of the simplest things to do.
We all do it everyday in our various situations, only our public service are able to turn it into a fiasco because of conflicts of interest.
The Lagos-Kano projects are late and we need to have a clear statement from the NRC about the what, the why, the how and the when. They need to tell us why they are late, what they have cost so far, when they will be completed and how much they will cost when completed. If we choose not to learn from experience, then we are consigned to continue to repeat the same mistakes over and over.
How will this news impact on the award of railway concessions?
In one word, badly, but then do we know that we are ever going to have railway concessions? In June 2009, the then Minister for Transportation Alhaji Ibrahim Bio promised that the first railway concessions would be awarded in 11 months because he said the government did not wish to run the railways. Since then no transaction advisers have been appointed and the NRC is carrying on as if it wished to run the railways into the future. The infrastructure rehabilitations are not making speedy progress and we are not sure what the delivery strategy is anymore. We do not know what the concessioning strategy is and whether it will be husbanded by the ICRC or the NRC. The law also has not changed, so the institutional framework does not exist for concessioning the railways. This though did not stop Obasanjo from awarding a railway concession to the Indians for
Couple this with the news of persistent civil disturbances in Borno, Bauchi and Jos, and you have the right disincentive to investors.
Flooding seems to have become an incessant problem with washouts on the rail infrastructure. Why are you surprised that they are causing disruptions to the work?
Well if you are aware of a problem, then you are half way to solving it. What you must then do is to plan remediation. If you fold your arms and wait for manna from heaven then you have got yourself to blame. What seems to have happened is that railway lines in areas susceptible to flooding were rehabilitated without provision for adequate drainage. The rains came and submerged the tracks or washed some of the ballast away.
But we did not seem to have these washout problems in the good old days of the railways?
It was limited but weather patterns have changed over the years with global warming and new road building has changed the topography of some of the areas interfacing the permanent way. Storm water in some cases have been channelled towards the right of way but these are the things that you would uncover through topographical surveys. When you do a condition survey, you should also see the draining patterns and channels. You would need to walk the permanent way and not just conduct cursory drive throughs or desktop examinations for it to be meaningful.
These are the sorts of things that an experienced track engineer will not miss. The outcome of the fixed infrastructure inspections seemed to suggest erroneously that the track infrastructure was mostly in good order but this is increasingly turning out not to be the case. It would seem that every time there are heavy rains, we have track failure. So are we developiong a railway system that only functions optimally during the dry season? What does this portend for the operations concession business case?
The Minister was reported recently as saying that passenger services will commence from Warri to Ajaokuta next year. Is this a hoax to use your words?
Promises, promises..Well that project is not due for completion until 2013. Perhaps they intend to open up parts of the line which may have been completed. As far as we know, the line has not reached Warri yet and as there are intermediate halt stations to be built, it would be highly disruptive to start to operate services in the middle of developing facilities such as platforms, station buildings, overhead pedestrian bridges, signalling facilities etc. In such situations, safety would need to be managed carefully but it is possible. The question though is a pathing one. What is the passenger demand for Agbarho to Ajaokuta/Itakpe in the interim? I would surmise, nil. Until that line is built to Warri and then linked northwards to Baro and/or on to Abuja , the demand may only be for mineral traffic between Itakpe, Ajaokuta and Agbarho/Warri . Unfortunately, Itakpe has not produced iron ore since the Indians left, so what is the rush to operate a service before the line is complete? More importantly, who will operate the service? The problem with these sorts of optimistic announcements is that they have a way of raising expectations that are then dashed when they are not realised.
The Chairman of the NRC was recently quoted as saying that they were developing the business plan for the NRC. What is your reaction to this ?
I would want to believe that the NRC embarked on these major projects with a business plan of some sort. Perhaps they are reviewing it seeing as business plans are dynamic documents. We are however not privy to their baseline strategic plan. There was a 25 year vision document that was prepared in 2002. This was more or less abandoned when President Obasanjo awarded the $8.3bn Lagos-Kano modernization contract. We hear different statements all of the time but what is in short supply is evidence of a coherent strategy. It would be helpful if their business plan was made public and would certainly be interesting to see the business case for the mass transit service as this would enlighten us on the architecture of the plans.