The member representing Anambra Central in the National Assembly, Senator Victor Umeh has chided the Federal Government over proposed plans to construct narrow gauge rail on the Easter Corridor of the Nigerian Railway Modernisation Programme.
Last week, at the floor of the Senate, Senator Umeh moved a motion, calling on the Federal Government to upgrade the Eastern rail corridor from the proposed narrow gauge to standard gauge. The rail line runs from Port Harcourt through Aba, Enugu, Kafanchan, Jos, Bauchi to Maiduguri.
In an exclusive interview with our correspondent over the weekend, in Awka, Umeh, who came to the Red Chambers on the platform of the Labour Party, insisted that there is no justifiable reason for proposing narrow gauge for the Eastern corridor and standard gauge for other regions of the country.
According to him, there is no way Nigeria can maintain two railway policies, where one has the narrow gauge and then other standard gauge.
He regretted that all the rail lines in Nigeria are standard gauge, except the Eastern rail line, condemining government’s plans to rehabilitate the narrow gauge rail, instead of upgrading it.
“When we are in a digital stage, you are trying to retain your analogue systems. It is better, cheaper and more economical and wise, for the government to start Standard gauge from Port Harcourt all the way to Maiduguri.
“They can face the construction according to the availability of funds because we are borrowing money; all these things are done with borrowed funds.
“So, seeing that it is over 2,000 kilometers, the government of Nigeria should be able to find money and build this rail that is going to serve everybody.
“It is also about the need to treat everybody with an even hand. Any policy we have in this country in terms of infrastructural development, we shall include every part of Nigeria into it.
“In my 8th Senate, most of the interventions that I made were to include everybody in affairs of government. Nobody should be excluded in all parts of Nigeria.
“A situation where you see modern coaches of standard gauge running all parts of Nigeria and the other people will be on the narrow gauge, doesn’t satisfy anybody. People are not happy with the state of affairs.
“And today, that rail line has collapsed. There is no train on it any more for the past almost 10 years now.
“Therefore, it is better to start afresh and do the standard gauge rail all over the country. I am grateful to the Senate that all the members supported it.
“With the number of cosponsors, you will know that it is a very popular motion; and the President of the Senate was also very interested in the motion because development should go round Nigeria simultaneously because we are o n e country,” he said.
Speaking on the impact nationwide rail lines would make on the country’s economic and agricultural development and possible contribution to the durability of our roads, among other national issues, Umeh insisted that he did not sponsor the bill in 2010 for the Eastern Rail Line because he is from the region.
“When you hear about the Eastern rail line, you think that I am sponsoring a motion based on where I come from. No, the name is misleading.
“It is just the way it is in UK. You have Jubilee Line, Western line, Midland line. So, in Nigeria, this rail line from Port Harcourt to Maiduguri is called the Eastern rail line.
“But from the motion, you will see that these rail lines serve five geo-political zones in Nigeria, linking the five geo-political zones and their cities along the path.
“So, you can see from the distance, from the areas covered, this is one of the most important rail lines in Nigeria in terms of the people that it will serve and the contribution it will make to the socio-economic development of Nigeria.
“In the motion, you could see that I was able to say that this is the only direct link between that flank, starting from Maiduguri to a seaport.
“So, if you want to export goods from Maiduguri, Borno State, from that axis to Port Harcourt by that rail line service, that’s the only way you can put goods in the train to the seaport for export. So, it is a very good economic corridor for the economy of Nigeria.
“Imagine loading and moving bulk items through the road from Maiduguri to Port Harcourt, for example, to ship it to other countries of the world, the journey may take two weeks by road.
“But if it is by train, you can do it within two days. It used to be so with the distribution of petroleum products.
“The trains carry these things from Port Harcourt to Maiduguri through the rail. Sometimes, you count up to 32 coaches. Mobil, Total and others, lift from the refinery and move over there. Assuming our refineries are working, we cannot even move our products,” he said.
Umeh called on President Ahmed Bola Tinubu, who he described as very ambitious in his plans, to find a proper funding arrangement for the Eastern railway project.
According to him, the project should not be said to be expensive, as it should have the capacity to repay the money because of the huge traffic and passengers and goods that the rail line will carry.
He said; “that’s the essence of that motion. Government knows the importance of that rail line. So, the government should look for money and do the project, and everybody will flow.
“To start with, railway is a business, and it is supposed to be financed and then pay itself. If you borrow money to build a functional rail line and you run it, from the earnings, you can service the debt.
“Just last week, the President brought another request for us to approve $7.8 billion dollars. It was read in the plenary there, you heard it. And they say it’s for infrastructure.
“There is no way the government can escape borrowing. The important thing is using the fund for the purpose it was borrowed.
“If you channel the fund, that project you do will become the revenue source to the government.
“Government borrowed $6.8 billion dollars to build Lagos to Ibadan, Abuja to Kaduna, Kaduna to Kano, Kano to Maradi in Niger Republic.
“They also built Abeokuta to Itakpe, Itakpe through Agbo to Warri. It’s done and finished standard gauge.
“And now you want to say you will not borrow again, so that you don’t build Port Harcourt to Maiduguri.
“What justification does that give you?
“But it’s because of the mismanagement of the past. A government that is resourceful and prudent can turn things around. They can increase our revenue earning capacity through other sources. We are talking about boosting production in the economy of Nigeria. When you do the right things you continue to earn money. When you earn money, it will help you to solve your debt burden and balance your debt deficit. It’s because we are not doing much.”