Nigeria is to get its trains back on track by fixing its antiquated railroad infrastructure.

When travelling by train in Nigeria, one cannot help but think the railway system has seen better days: the queues are too long, the coaches are in decline, and some would say that the service leaves a great deal to be desired. En route, one can see the rusty remainders of a once-great rail network with a long and not entirely happy story. All that may be about to change, however, as Nigeria embarks on a program to revitalize its railways.

Built in the colonial times in short separate segments, Nigerian railroads began to connect in the early 1900s, forming two well-known routes: the Western Line and the Eastern Line. Back then, the rail system was highly profitable for colonial Britain. Freight trains used to carry millions of tons of agricultural products—especially palm oil—across the country to be loaded onto ships bound for Britain.

Once Nigeria gained independence in 1960, the tracks were put to better use. In 1964, Nigerian railways transported a staggering passenger traffic of over 11 million. After 40 years, however, the figure had taken a nosedive to roughly 1.5 million passengers per year in 2004. Currently, the Nigerian Railway Corporation (NRC) operates something in the region of 4,000km of lines. The British engineers who designed Nigeria's original tracks opted for a narrow gauge. This is why over 87% of the total length of the country's lines are cape-gauge—an uncommon standard with 1.067m of space between the tracks. Nevertheless, the two-heritage cape-gauge tracks still serve the country.

The Western Line starts in Lagos and continues northward for 1,126km, ultimately leading to Nguru, while the Eastern Line runs from Port Harcourt, in the Niger Delta, to the capital city of Borno State. There are also several minor linking lines in place, the longest of which connects Zaria to Kaura Namada. The cape-gauge heritage makes it impossible for Nigeria to connect its tracks to the rail networks of its neighboring countries such as Niger and Cameroon. The country's first standard-gauge railroad runs from the federal capital of Abuja to Kaduna, while another standard line—inaugurated in 2018—links the port city of Warri to Itakpe, located some 320km away.

NRC, whose history goes back to 1898, when the first train track in the country was laid, is the state-owned enterprise in charge of all these activities. After many ups and downs—including a six-month period of complete standstill—the corporation announced its plans for the restoration of the rails, locomotives, and coaches in 2006. Financing the restoration of a railway network whose infrastructure was, at times, more than a century old, however, would only be within the means of a foreign investor as, according to some estimates, the final bill would exceed USD40 billion.

Since then, the project has come to a halt on more than one occasion. With governments coming and going over the years, different approaches have been attempted to attract the required investment. In any case, by 2013, an estimated sum of USD10 billion was committed to the revitalization project by the federal government, the Export-Import Bank of China, and independent investors. Meanwhile, the task of fixing the tracks and supplying the rolling stock has been mostly entrusted with Chinese firms, which seem to have developed a knack for signing infrastructure contracts in Africa in recent years.

Upgrading the narrow tracks to wider modern standards will be the focus of the renovation efforts. According to Freeborn Okhiria, NRC's top manager, the revitalization will help Nigeria get rid of the cape-gauge tracks. In defense of the upgrade, he pointed out wider tracks can transport more people and goods at higher speeds and with a “better poundage of the rail," which means moving 80 tons per wagon instead of 40. Aside from these technicalities, a rebirth of Nigeria's train network will hopefully reduce the prices of commodities across the country and—more importantly—make Africa's most populous country a more interconnected one.