The multi-billion naira Abuja Rail Mass Transit, also known as Abuja Light Rail, is rotting away after being abandoned for years.
Daily Trust on Sunday reports that the metro rail, which was commissioned by President Muhammadu Buhari on July 12, 2018 and opened for passengers the following week, has since been abandoned, paving the way for vandals to feast on the facility.
The project was originally meant to solve the perennial transportation problem in the Federal Capital Territory (FCT) and its adjoining towns and cities.
When the metro rail was opened for business in 2018, only the section from the Abuja Metro Station in the Central Business District to the airport was put to use, with an intermediate station at Idu.
The entire project was proposed to cover a total distance of 290 km (180 mi) to be developed in six phases or lots.
It was to cost US$824million with 60 per cent to be funded with loans from the Exim Bank of China.
After all the paper works, which were not made public, were completed, construction work on lots 1 and 3 commenced.
Sadly, the train service soon folded up, and therefore, did not add value to the citizens, who are in serious need of an efficient transportation system.
Thousands of commuters who were aware of the planned light rail project and anxiously waiting for it to mature are still in shock at the wisdom behind constructing the first phase of the multi-million dollar project in an obscure location.
Although there were expansion plans, most of the people who spoke to Daily Trust on Sunday said the ideal thing was for the government to first construct the rail line in areas it was needed before expanding it to other locations.
How the light rail is supposed to work
The 42.5 km (26.4 mi) Lot 1, which has been completed, has two lines and 12 stations connecting the Abuja city centre with the Nnamdi Azikiwe International Airport via the Lagos–Kano standard gauge railway at Idu.
It has stations at Abuja metro, stadium, Kukwaba 1, Kukwaba 11, Wupa, Idu, Bassanjiwa and the airport.
The Blue Line (Lot 3) has been completed but is still not in use. It is expected to pass through Idu to Kubwa, with stations in Idu, Gwagwa, Deidei, Kagini and Gbazango.
Lot 2 starts from Gwagwa via Transportation Centre (metro station) to Nyanya/Karu; Lot 4 is from Kuje to Karshi with the remaining legs of the transit-way line 2.
Lot 5 is expected to be from Kubwa via Bwari to Suleja and Lot 6 from the airport via Kuje and Gwagwalada to Dobi.
Why services in completed line stalled
Officials said the light rail service in the completed line was shut down as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic, but an insider told Daily Trust on Sunday that it recorded low patronage from the onset, leading to the authorities running at a loss.
The insider, who craved anonymity because he was not permitted to talk on the issue, said that was partly the reason the train service remained shut even after the COVID-19 protocols were relaxed.
The source said that to address the challenges, another rail track of about 5.76 kilometres would have to be built to link the commercially viable areas.
When Daily Trust on Sunday visited the train station recently, it was obvious that it has been moribund for as long as the dust has littered the vicinity.
Only two unarmed civil defence corps operatives and a policeman were seen guarding one of the stations.
Loan repayment already started
Checks by our correspondents revealed that the loan on the Abuja light rail project is already being paid, even though the project has been abandoned. Repayment of the loan commenced in March 2020.
According to the data obtained from the Debt Management Office (DMO), the loan agreement was signed on November 7, 2012 by Nigeria and the China EXIM Bank.
It was a $500 million concessionary loan at 2.50 per cent, which had a grace period of seven years, with a maturity date of September 21, 2032 and a tenor of 20 years. The loan has since been fully accessed.
Further details from the DMO also showed that as at December 31, 2021, $76.92m had been repaid on the principal, while $78.23m had been paid on interest. The outstanding amount is $423.08m.
The director-general of the DMO, Patience Oniha, said Nigeria had fully paid the counterpart funding of the project for phase one.
She said the loan was serviced from provisions in the budget and not directly from revenue from the rail line.
It was learnt that the project is expected to generate revenue for the government, while the loan repayment by the provision in the Debt Service was set out in the annual budget.
The DMO also said that these terms were compliant with the provisions of section 41 (1a) of the Fiscal Responsibility Act, 2007.
Good concept, poor implementation – Expert
Commenting on the project, Mr Rowland Ataguba, a strategic railway delivery specialist and the chief executive officer of Bethlehem Railway Infrastructure said, “The Abuja Rail Mass Transit is provided for in the master plan. As with all things in Abuja, it has a beautiful concept until you come to implementation. The entire network is broken into 6 lots. The Federal Capital Territory Administration (FCTA) was to fund lots 1 and 3 and was to concession lots 2, 4, 5 & 6 to private investors.
“The first phase was for lots 1 and 3 and was awarded in 2007 for $840m for four years by the President Obasanjo government, with Nasir El-Rufai as FCT minister. This is the 15th year and while over $800m is allegedly spent, is there anything we have to show for it?” he asked.
He explained that “Lot 1 is about 43km from Zone 1, also known as Ring Road through Transportation Centre in the Central Business Area and on to Gwagwa, forking southwards to the airport, and north to Kubwa. Lot 3 originates in Transportation Centre and goes to the Idu industrial area over 18km, ultimately connecting the airport, Kuje and Gwagwalada to reach a total of 29.5km.
“In the end, only Lot 1B has been built to date. So there is a big disconnect there.”
According to him, the original concept made economic sense, but the current status defies strategic logic and begs a cogent rationale.
Ataguba, who has been the chairman of the Technical Advisory Committee of the Railway Bill and the Nigerian Transport Commission Bill said, “The metro is an essential transit service. It is designed to enable and support the orderly development of the city and facilitate movement in and out of the FCT.
“Abuja is still a small city, albeit a growing one. The metro is not primarily designed to be profitable, else the fare-box would be prohibitive; but generally, a private operator under a subsidy regime is more efficient than a government-run operator.
“They will provide better value for money. Civil servants know how to write memos on why things should not be done. Private operators take calculated risks and find efficient ways of getting things done so that they can make money,” he said.
On the way forward, he said there was the need for a transit authority to manage the facility.
“They do not appear to understand how to run the metro. The Nigerian Railway Corporation (NRC) they rely upon does not know either and has never run a metro before. Suffice it that they are struggling with their own chaotic business as it is. The NRC’s history of inefficiency and repeated bankruptcy hardly recommend them.
“The FCTA has had the benefit of good advice over so many years but continued to lead themselves by their noses. They are building railroads like you build a highway, whereas the most critical part of a railway is the operations and its regulation, which they ignore at their peril or have left in the hands of a pied piper.
“Metros are also a separate aspect of railways, and different arrangements and strategies are required to organise them as compared to heavy rail, which is what the NRC knows about, albeit poorly for 60 odd years.
“To rely on them (NRC) to bring their flawed capacity to operate a metro is simply a trial-and-error gambit,” he said.
We’ll bring the metro back to life – FCTA
The mandate secretary of the FCT Transport Secretariat, Malam Zakari Angulu Dobi, in an interview at one of the metro stations, said they had ascertained the level of damages to the project by vandals.
He, however, said the work of fixing the damaged facilities would soon commence.
He said such ugly incident happened because the facilities were not put into constant use, and assured that the light rail project would soon begin full operation after the repairs.
He said the administration would soon begin work on another 5.76 kilometres of rail track, which is expected to gulp $272m.
The mandate secretary did not, however, specify where the new track would pass and where the money would come from.
Mrs Chidinma Ifeanyi, a resident of the FCT questioned why the project did not start from where residents who need it most would make use of it.
“How can you start a light rail project for a city with only a track linking the airport and the Central Business District? How many residents are making use of the airport, or how many of them live or have offices in the Central Business Area?
“The reverse should have been the case by constructing the rail tracks from where people live, such as Mararaba/Nyanya, Kubwa/Gwarinpa, Bwari/Dutse, Gwagwa/Deidei, among other places,’’ she said.
An Abuja-based public affairs analyst, Tayo Isiaka, could not also see why the rail track only links the airport to the Central Business District, leaving the majority of residents who are suffering from the poor transport system in the territory in pains.
“I think what they should have done is to start the service from the densely populated satellite towns linking the city centre through Beggar junction/ Wuse market, as well as Area 1,” he said.
He, however, said that since there were plans to develop other slots, which they said would cover those areas, the project should be supported by all.
Iro Surajo, another resident of Abuja questioned the viability of what has been done so far.
He said, “The project is another big scam; a means to siphon public funds. Why locate it on an obscure site? It should have been around the popular Berger roundabout and Area One where ordinary citizens converge.
“Ask people on the streets if they even know about the light rail metro project. It is just a white elephant project whereby the government mismanaged funds.
“If government meant it for the masses, it would have been placed in strategic places, but that wasn’t their concern.”
Auwal Ahmed, who resides in Mararaba, a suburb of the city, said the light rail project was of no benefit to the common man like him.
“People who daily traverse from Nyanya to the city centre are in multitude. It would have been beneficial if it was situated in such locations. It is safe to say that the project is just another waste of money and misapplication of priority as almost nobody is using the train.
“For instance, I am living in Mararaba; do you expect me to come to the metro railway station only to ferry me to Idu or the Central Area just because of its luxury?
“What am I going to do at Idu or the Central Business District? The fact is that before the train reaches Idu I will be in my office. And I believe that is the same experience almost every resident of Abuja and environs are having,” he said.
Amos Haruna, another resident, said the light rail project was not realistic, even at inception; hence it failed.
“If the reality of the FCT had been taken into consideration, the track would not have been laid in the highbrows of Abuja. These areas where the rail track traversed are not inhabited by the common men.
“If the government had wanted to reduce the suffering of Nigerians living in Abuja, the project would have included stations in the five area councils of the FCT.
“I feel the government can still reconsider including other parts of the FCT and also commence operations to alleviate the sufferings of Nigerians living in the capital city.
“Doing this would also decongest the roads since many people would leave their vehicles at home and use the light rail as an alternative means of transportation,” he said.
Another resident who identified himself as Gbenga, said the light rail project was turning out to be a waste of money, asking the FCTA to remember that bulk of the money was borrowed.
Hoodlums cart equipment
Amid the controversy trailing the project, Daily Trust on Sunday reports that equipment at the stadium station of the metro rail has been vandalised by hoodlums.
Industrial and electrical cables, as well as air conditioners, among other things, have been carted away without a trace.
The hoodlums also removed the cables along the rail track, as well as heavy nuts used to tie the track.
Sources said the miscreants had a field day because there were no activities around the train station and the tracks.
Some technical staff working at some of the stations said many facilities, both at the stations and on the track had been removed.
One of the staff said there was no way the facilities, including the track, would be effectively guarded against vandals except they were properly put into use.
He, however, said the stolen equipment would not stop the train from operating if the authorities decided to start operation.
By Hussein Yahaya, Dalhatu Liman, Chris Agabi & Seun Adeuyi