A sleeping giant, railway in Nigeria is slowly being revived once again, with long-awaited investment from private companies and greater government funding on the way.

Section 29 of the Nigerian Railway Corporation (NRC) Act, the railway legislation in Nigeria dating from 1957, declared “It shall be unlawful for any person, without the consent of the corporation, to construct or operate a railway for the public carriage of passengers or goods within Nigeria,” which discouraged any investors in the past and is, among other factors, likely one of the reasons why Nigeria's rail track does not exceed 3,600km. In 2016, however, the Senate passed a bill that will allow the formation of public-private partnerships (PPPs) between the NRC and private companies that wish to invest in railway services in the country via concessions.

Improving the current routes and constructing new ones is not only the Ministry of Transportation's priority but an issue that even Buhari stresses in his interventions. In his presentation of the 2017 Budget proposals in December 2016, he had noted: “Efforts to fast-track the modernization of our railway system are a priority in the 2017 Budget.” In fact, he even provided specific numbers when he repeated that “efforts to fast-track the modernization of our railway system will receive a further boost through the allocation of NGN213.14 billion as counterpart funding for the Lagos-Kano, Calabar-Lagos, Ajaokuta-Itakpe-Warri, and Kaduna-Abuja railway projects.”
In the earlier years of the 21st century, railway lines were of low quality and remained mostly unutilized. In light of this situation, a rehabilitation and reconstruction program was initiated in 2007 and significant progress has been made since then, according to Fidet Okhiria, Managing Director of the NRC. “In 2007, we started the process of rehabilitating the narrow gauge track. As we speak, Lagos to Kano has been 100% completed,” and “the narrow gauge track measures 3,505km in total.”

While the Lagos-Kano line covers a distance of 1,200km at a speed of 45km/h, Okhiria also announced the introduction of a high-speed train for the new Abuja-Kaduna line. This line, inaugurated by President Buhari in July 2016, will have a new locomotive capable of traveling at 150km/h.
A series of railway discussions, inaugurations, contracts, and MoUs took place in Nigeria in 2016, so much so that 2016 could easily be deemed the year of the railway. One development was an MoU signed by the Minister of Transportation Rotimi Amaechi and the China Civil Engineering Construction Corporation (CCECC) for the USD11.12 billion Lagos-Calabar railway project. This is an agreement that was renegotiated by the federal government since it came from the previous administration.

Light rail transit systems, a solution for urban mobility, were another item that made headlines in 2016. The Abuja light rail is currently under way and is expected to be completed in December 2017. The first line of the Lagos Rail Mass Transit is similarly under construction and there are six more lines planned. In August, the city of Kano announced its agreement with CCECC for the construction of a USD1.85 billion light rail measuring 74km.

When asked about the legacy he wants to leave in the country, Minister Amaechi told TBY: “For me, the most important project for the next four years is the railway project. This will change the country greatly and have a positive impact on the economic development of Nigeria. It is a NGN4 trillion project, which is extremely unprecedented. The impact will be felt in all sectors of the economy and provide employment, contributing to Nigeria on both a macro and micro level.”

When managed efficiently, the railway system can be a source of revenue like any other. Indeed, American company General Electric (GE) is set to take over the management of the NRC via a concession plan between January and March 2017. Amaechi explained that this is part of a move to harness the potential of rail transportation infrastructure in Nigeria. This will also support the creation of new employment opportunities in the country, he noted, adding the proposal will greatly help to innovate the transportation sector and turn the economy around. Only time will tell if a gradual privatization of the sector will help development and increase the quality of service for Nigerians.