Akpoviroro Wants Government To Involve Indigenous Experts In Railway Development
James Akpoviroro is a British-trained railway track management expert. With his wealth of experience in the UK railway system, the track specialist says that this is the right time for the government to involve indigenous experts to sustain the growth of the sector.
Please give us an account of your foray into railways
ACTUALLY, I read International Relations but when I got to England, I got into railways. For you to go into the railway sector there, you have to take a little exam which they will give you. If you pass that one, you will proceed to their school there. I was able to pass and cross into the railway, particularly in the engineering part. Their railway system is of two kinds: one from the London main, which is underground and that is the ground railway system. The other is the surface system. I worked as a track engineer in the underground system. I know so much about track, and there is quite a little bit of technicality in it. That is why most Nigerians have been discouraged in that aspect because of the technical aspects. At first, we didn’t have people to manage them and to bring in that technical expertise; we were very few then. However, in the London ground railway, I started as an operative after which I went for skill acquisition and later became a skilled operator. From there, I rose to Track Manager. It was because of what we were reading back home about the deviation of Nigeria railway that made me come back home, to form this company. But you see, the Nigeria railway system is now looking cumbersome and what I feel is that some of us who are experts need to come in and put the situation in order. For the love of the country, I decided to come home to establish my company, Jeerea Nigeria Ltd, an integrated Railway Engineering Company fast emerging as a premier indigenous railway engineering firm in the Nigeria railway system, with its main focus on building as well as modernizing the Nigeria railway system. At Jeerea Nig, we are into Building, refurbishing, maintaining and running modern railway line systems, Consultancy services on railway systems, and Procurement of railway equipment, tools, cars and engineering trains.
What can you say about the gauge system?
My job in railway involves measuring the gauge system or the track system. The narrow gauge is what we operate here which is 1067mm. The real standard gauge is 1435; so if it is less than 1435mm, it is narrow gauge. If it is more than 1435, it is wide gauge. However, if you look at the Nigerian system; apart from the one being done from Ajaokuta to Warri which is standard 1435, it is flat bottom and the one being done from Abuja to Kaduna. Those are real standard gauge; the other ones are narrow gauge. I was in Ebutte-Metta the other day; you know that funny place, there is a market there and you know it is a single lane. That land you see there can be used for double lane but for now, it is a single lane and it is 1067. So it is narrow gauge but what I want to say is that it takes time to plan. At the same time, the government is trying a lot to see what they can do to change it to standard gauge whereby any train from anywhere can travel to any part of the world.
Currently, the government is doing some moves to do the standard gauge. Is it possible to run the two? Or can the narrow gauge be converted to standard gauge?
It is capital intensive and that is why you see it lacking. For example, an average one-kilometre railway line costs between 10-13 million dollars plus the costs of construction. What about changing from narrow gauge? It is not more expensive to change from narrow to standard gauge. If it is more expensive, probably we must go for standard gauge. Yes, the best is the standard gauge because the standard gauge is what will fit into the world standard. What am saying is that, it is better to convert but do we save money to convert? We need to save money to convert because the money we use in revamping is high. So, if you want to revamp it, why don’t you convert it to standard gauge?
Do you see Nigeria railway developing an underground infrastructure?
Yes, of course, it is possible. You see, if you look at the government now, there are certain policies that they do not want, but at the end, such policies see the light of the day. For example, Buhari did not want the Naira to be devalued. Although he did not want it but the economic situation and people around him were yearnings for it. They told him, look, you have to do this thing; the world has changed so you have to follow this international way of doing things and he listened to them. If you look at the Transport Minister, Chibuike Amaechi, he is learning on it and he is fast on it. These things are not impossible; they are very possible, so it is just for people to be there with the sincerity and determination.
How can the government integrate the indigenous expert into this; do you want to be part of the project?
We want the government to integrate us indigenous expert now as that is the only way we can keep it going. If you look at Hong Kong for example, when the British left, they didn’t sack the English people that were policemen before. Rather, they were bringing in their people to be trained; they should integrate us now. Before they do so, they should spell out the work percentage which must be given to the Chinese people. So, it is only the Chinese people now handling the construction that can give people like us concession to build. One thing is that doing the railway is one thing, maintaining it is another. In London, if we work night, we don’t expect the day people to say let’s ride this train a little bit because the night work was not done well; they assured everybody to do their work perfectly. Everybody is an expert so maintenance is the key. If we don’t come in now, how will young men learn and benefit from our expertise? It is now that we need to come in so that they will be able to bring young ones that are in villages for us to train. We will teach them; we will continue to teach them, even though the Chinese go, we will still continue because without the expertise it will fail.
What exactly do you feel is lacking in the Nigeria railway system, and what do you think can be done?
The first is what the government should do immediately. What they are doing is the right way; let us not depend on ourselves to built it only, the Chinese are coming to help and they are doing well. The Minister of Transportation is doing well, he is pursuing it, and he is not slacking. How many contracts have they signed? For the time that he has been there, he signed most of them and these are the contracts that are there. So, they are doing well. The second question is how people like me can come in. Well, I have done the history and I have read the history of Nigeria railway. I have known all the lines and I think few feasibility studies are left to be done. But with what I saw during Obasanjo’s time, I think there is a programme for 25 years format for the whole country to be connected with the railway. If you see that one, it is beautiful because this unemployment will go down with that target. For example, if a railway line passes through my village now, it will create employment for the people. There is what they call patrolling; such patrols will be from a section to another section; such duty has to be done by somebody. We used to do that in London every day then they change it to 72 hours we patrol the line check the rail keys amongst other duties. It will help to reduce unemployment in the village.
Specifically what areas do you want Nigerians to involve you?
We can be involved in everything but the technology in the track is the main thing why am saying this. If you have not been working in the system, like I did, it will be very difficult for you to just learn it from the university and come and apply it in the railway. You learn every day practically because when they employed people like us, we were international people. First, you have to pass the exams; you will go with the gang and after some time, they send you to training. You will also come and practice that training, and then they will interview you. If you pass, you will be moved up and you will keep going to school and working.