Cargo trains are gaining more attraction, with more firms opting for them to ferry their cargoes. ADEYINKA ADERIBIGBE lists the advantages of this new development and how it could be sustained.
The rails have been busy in the last few weeks, with more cargo trains leaving Lagos for various parts of the country.
From its lean profile when it started its shift to cargo business two years ago, the Nigerian Railway Corporation’s (NRC’s) cargo service is becoming a beehive with more firms turning to the railway to move their cargoes from Lagos to other parts of the country.
The latest on the growing list of firms that have opted for the rail cargo is Dangote Flour Mills, which ferried its flours from Lagos to Kano last Friday.
The NRC, it was learnt, has moved 50,000 tonnes of flour, a negligible tonnage of wheat for the Nigerian Flour Mills weekly, 50,000 tonnes of cement, freighted for Lafarge Cement, large pipe cargoes from Lagos to Zaria, and 5,000 tonnes of fertiliser, which took off last month to Kano from Lagos and 5,000 tonnes of granite (ballat) for construction industry.
Similarly, the Corporation penultimate week, undertook the second stream of its cattle and ram cargo service from Zamfara to Lagos, which took the total number of cattle moved into Lagos by rail to 3000.
The improvements in cargo service have continued to excite logistics experts, who have for long advocated the railway option as the way to go in relieving the network of roads of the burden it continued to bear in moving goods from one part of the country to the other.
According to experts, though the railway is not yet there in terms of capacity, yet, its rolling stock can be built upon to relieve the roads of the burden.
“Cargo trains have proved to be cost effective, very efficient and very safe,” Connect Rail Service Ltd Managing Director Mr Edeme Kelikume, whose company is fast emerging as the game changer in the cargo train service, observed.
“Though we are nowhere near where we ought to be, with the trains operating at 20 per cent capacity, there is room for additional investment, and until such a time, the government should provide enabling environment private sector investment to play in the sector,” he added.
“Train is the way to go. It complements trailers and trucks which we use to move our cargoes to our final destinations and the warehouse. It is a complementary service,” Kelikume said.
He said one of the major causes of the bad state of the roads was that they were not built to carry the weight they have been subjected to. Many of the roads built to carry only 30 tonnes weight have been subjected to 40-tonne vehicles, and the prolonged use of the roads by these vehicles would, ultimately, damage the roads.
“Contrary to the misconceptions of Nigerians, the trains would not kill but complement the truck business. The trains will free up the logjams on the roads, save time and make the roads lasts longer. The railway is meant to carry heavy weights, while the roads are designed to carry lighter weights,” he said.
Findings have shown that industrialisation without the rail is difficult.There’s no information technology that can solve the need of transporting cargo from one point to another. The railway, which is one of the oldest forms of transportation, remains the most reliable.
Kelikume said research had shown that at 25km/hour, the rail remains the fastest, safest and cheapest means for cargo movement compared to the trucks, which average speed is about 15 km/hour.
Kelikume praised the Federal Government for thinking of shifting the attention of cargo traffic to the railway. Citing the Minister for Power, Works and Housing, Babatunde Fashola, who earlier declared that cargo traffic would soon be shifted to the railway, said it is the only way to go if the nation is to have a respite from the incessant damage to the roads as a result of the dead weight of the articulated vehicles.
“Although it may take time, there must be a common agreement to move off the roads because if the roads fail, the transport business dies,” Fashola said.
For Fashola, the way to go is for the operators in the sector to begin to look at importing train wagons, especially flat beds that would continue to sustain their haulage business. Rather than continuing to import trailers to move their cargo, they can begin to make arrangements to import train wagons, he said.
Experts said train remain the best way to get cargoes safely from one destination to the other. The owner of any cargo is only interested in getting his goods safely to its destination and the train would not only achieve this, but offers to take it there at the cheapest cost.
While it might take between five and seven days for trucks and tankers to move from the North to the South, it would take a train just 72 hours to cover same distance. This is because the trains would only stop at major stations mainly to refuel and change drivers after about 500 kilometres, while their counterparts are exposed to bad or collapsed roads, weariness, fatigue and attacks.
Logisticians said no fewer than 40 tankers or trailers are usually taken off the roads with a cargo train, with the roads being the major beneficiary as it becomes safer, better maintained with improvement in travel times by motorists.
Kelikume said a more virile cargo train service is a win-win for all stakeholders in the transportation industry. According to him, since a train runs a truck-to-trunk destination, it makes room for trailers/tankers to move the goods away from the train stations to the various warehouses from where smaller vehicles would deliver such goods to the markets.
This, according to him, would enable fleet owners to better monitor their vehicles, boost the health of drivers and their assistants and protect the investments as well as the roads.
The corporation’s Acting Managing Director, Fidet Okhiria, said the it would continue to deepen its cargo business because that is the honey pot of the rail business.
Okhiria, who said the corporation would soon be involved in agricultural produce and solid minerals movements across the country, said 150,000 tonnes of coal are being moved monthly from Igumale in Enugu to Port Harcourt, the Rivers State capital.
Okhiria urged the Federal Government to consolidate on the tempo by constructing new rail tracks. He said the nation should construct about 100 kilometres of rail tracks to link new production centres.
“Any country with a developed rail sector achieved it by deliberate government investment policy. South Africa added 150 coaches to its rail system last year, while Cameroon bought 56 Diesel Multiple Unit same year, same as Ethiopia which added 100 first-class coaches to its fleet. The government must be involved because the railway is capital intensive and cannot pay itself,” Okhiria said.
He said while the government must continue to focus on direct investment, it must also continue to encourage private sector operators with track records in the sector to participate in the industry.
But if the construction of a kilometre of track at $3.5 million, it is almost impossible to achieve any growth in the sector without private sector participation.
Kelikume praised the Federal Government for inviting General Electric (GE) to invest in the Nigerian Railway system. According to him, if GE was investing over $2 billion in the Railway, it meant that the nation’s rail sector may be on its road to revival.
An agriculturist, Prof Abel Ogunwale, of the Ladoke Akintola Unversity (LAUTECH), said the railway remains the best form of moving goods, especially agricultural products from the North to the South.
Ogunwale, a United Nations consultant, said it was time for the nation to move away from “the way we do things and join the league of countries where the best practices abides.”
He said with an improved cargo train system, the economy would witness a major turnaround with the the private sector becoming a major beneficiary as the railway connects all sectors of the country.
Ogunwale praised the government for recognising the NRC, adding that such bold moves were in the right direction to reposition the railway as the engine room of transportation initiatives.
Nigeria Agri-business Group (NABG) Coordinator Mr Emmanuel Ijewere expressed delight at the potential of the railway in moving agricultural produce and increasing other commodities transaction from the North to the seaports in the South. He said the NABG was willing to partner with the NRC to reactivate cargo train services.
“Our rail line was built in 1900. It is a century-old line, actually 116 years old. The NRC must be praised for still using those same old tracks and moving the trains. These are the same lines that were used to move groundnuts, cocoa and coal from Enugu. If there had been continuity over the past couple of years, we would have had a more efficient rail system, and this efficiency is what we are happy to see coming back with this reactivation,” Ijewere said.