A rail link to Apapa seaport was two weeks ago rehabilitated to take containers meant for Kano and Kaduna states.
But concerned industry stakeholders while applauding the move have called for more serious commitment on the part of government to link all major ports and Inland Container Depots (ICDs) with rail system, as is the practice in advanced countries and as part of the transformation agenda of the present administration in achieving ports efficiency, reports Francis Ugwoke.
The ports remain the heartbeat of every national economy. Just as maritime is adjudged as next to the oil industry for strategic reasons and contributions, the ports are gateways to the national economy. The ports are the depots of international business, and this is more so with Nigeria, which relies so much on imported goods. The importance of the ports explains why advanced countries ensure that the ports are well equipped to handle any volume of trade without hitches. They do everything to ensure efficiency. In some ports, one would marvel at the level of efficiency. A visit to some ports outside Nigeria, including the Singaporean and Florida ports in United States show the amount of efforts put in by governments to achieve efficiency in their operations. Containers being off-loaded from ships are like drops of rain on the roof, as they are taken away to depots by rail. In these countries, a visit to the ports especially by Nigerians is always a surprise in view of total absence of human traffic unlike Nigerian ports, which are practically market places. In advanced ports, every system is automated. There is no time one can notice congestion even with the thousands of containers that are being handled in each of the ports on daily basis. This is the goal that the federal government is targeting. Recently, members of the Senate Committee on Marine Transport during a visit to the port of Singapore, marveled at the level of efficiency. The Chairman of the Committee, Senator Zaynab Kure had told THISDAY that the Senate Committee will contribute its quota in ensuring this is done in Nigeria. But the question is the extent to which such a promise can be fulfilled. It could just be one of those political views.
Road to Ports Rail
About two weeks ago, the Federal Government started what could be described as the journey to ports efficiency with the rehabilitation of the rail way linked to Apapa port. The rail system stopped working about 16 years ago. Since then, there has been continued rise in congestion at the ports. Shortly after the rail system stopped working, the Nigerian Ports Authority (NPA) apparently worried then as the sole terminal operator, had offered incentives, including reduction in terminal charges to importers to use seaports in PortHarcourt, Onne and Calabar. While some did, many have since been relying on trucks to move their goods to the Eastern market. It is not easy to make your port of destination an Eastern port for a number of factors. It depends on whether the shipping line has enough cargo to go to such ports. Even if they decide to accept such cargos, the shipping charges could be so much that the importer may consider it cheaper using the Lagos ports. There is no doubt that there has been a lot of congestion inside the terminals in Lagos ports and even on the roads. The matter is made worse with the state of the roads. All along, it appears that the roads have been weak to cope with the traffic. In the past 10 years, the Apapa-Oshodi Expressway has been so bad, and surprisingly rehabilitation work appears to have always been noticed every year, yet the problem has remained. It is either port holes or flood menace. Business owners and residents hope that this problem could be fixed soonest.
Rail Evacuates Kano, Kaduna -Bound Containers
The highlight of the rail take-off about two weeks include the evacuation of containers meant for Kano and Kaduna from Apapa Container Terminal (ACT) under the terminal operation of AP Terminals. In a statement, the Nigerian Railway Corporation (NRC) said the evacuation of containers from the terminal by rail was part of its efforts to improve on its operations nationwide.
NRC Deputy Director, Public Relations, Mr.David Ndakotsu, had explained that the movement of the containers would start from APM terminal in Apapa port to Inland Container Nigeria Limited (ICNL) depots in Kaduna and Kano. The initial take-off involved 20 wagons carrying 20 to 40 containers. The plan by NRC is to run the trip three times a week in what is expected to give life to Inland Container Depots(ICDs). On the importance of rail to the ports, the Managing Director of NRC, Mr. Adeseyi Sijuwade, described the container traffic as a strategy to demonstrate the “carriage ability and readiness of the corporation to further enhance the development on the nation’s economy”. He added that with the take off, the corporation will be ready to enter into partnership with organisation interested in its services.“Single train haulage of 20 containers is equivalent to 20 trailers or 40 trucks on the road and this goes a long way to improve the economic, health, safety and environmental sustainability of the nation”, he said. As part of the efforts to improve on efficiency, he addedd that the corporation will launch more four 1,800 horse power locomotives and two 100 tonnes telescopic cranes in the system.
Fate of Other Ports, Locations
With the rail services limited between Apapa and two Northern States, industry stakeholders have been worried about what happens to other ports in Lagos and the Eastern ports. There are about four major terminals in Lagos alone where the rail system is expected to be linked. There is Tin Can Island Port which is second to Apapa in terms of traffic. Besides, the rail link between Apapa and Ikorodu Lighter Terminal is expected to be reopened for transfer of some containers, especially overtime containers. Industry operators are also worried that the link is just limited so far to Kano and Kaduna in the North as against other states, especially where there are Inland Container Depots (ICDs). They demand that other ports and ICDs should be linked as part of the transformation agenda of the government on ensuring efficiency in the ports.
How rail will check congestion, by stakeholders
President of National Association of Government Approved Freight Forwarders (NAGAFF), Chief Eugene Nweke while describing rail system as the driving force in any port system said it is difficult to trust the seriousness of government in the current effort.
He said that it was only when government acquires enough rail coaches for the exercise that it would be taken very serious.
Besides, he argued that linking only Apapa with rail was not enough considering that other ports in Lagos and those outside Lagos also need to be linked.
He however commended government for having started, adding that he had always advocated for the rail sector to have a separate Ministry to address specific needs in the sector forward.
However, the Deputy Director, Public Relations, Nigerian Shippers Council (NSC), Mr Ignatius Nweke described the rail link as a good development. He said the effort will go a long way in addressing the issue of ports congestion.
Nweke also described the rail link as a boost to the ICD project.
“The rail link is a cheering news for ICDs. It will help stimulate the take-off of ICDs. It will stimulate investors interested in ICDs”, he told THISDAY.
On the issue of limiting the services to only Apapa and the two Northern states, Nweke argued that what government has done was to start somewhere, adding that more will follow.
He described the take-off of the project as a demonstration of the seriousness to which government attaches to improving ports efficiency to the benefit of shippers.
Maritime Lawyer, Mr Emmanuel Ofomata who also spoke to THISDAY described the rehabilitation of the rail system as coming at the right time. Noting that all over the world, the rail system remained a major component of the transport system, Ofomata said that the link with the port will help in checking the congestion nightmare.
He appealed to the government to continue to empower the NRC to be able to acquire more coaches for ports operations.