JUST over a quarter of a century ago, we raised editorial eyebrows about the decision by General Gowon of Nigeria to convert the national rail network from 1067 to 1435mm gauge. The plans went the way of many similar proposals, but the idea has now been resurrected. Information Minister Prof Jerry Gana revealed in August that the government plans to build a 4980 km network of new lines to 1435mm gauge, and convert the remaining 2980 km of the existing network. Gana said that the government wants to revitalise the railway to ease congestion on the roads and to boost passenger and freight movement.

Laudable sentiments, certainly, which we would definitely support. We shall watch with interest to see how the Ministry of Transport fares in appointing a management consortium to oversee changes at Nigeria Railways Corp with a view to privatisation in five years. And we shall watch especially to see how private consortia are attracted to build the new lines, which include an east-west route linking Lagos with Port Harcourt, plus an eastern extension from Aba to Calabar, Ilom and Obudu. Add to that a route down the east of the country from Maiduguri to Yola and Wukari, with a branch from Yola to Gombe, plus a north-south line down the western flank from Sokoto to Mokwa, and the network is nearly complete.

Things have clearly moved on in 25 years, but the premise of our comment at the time still stands. Gauge conversion in a region where the new gauge does not match that of neighbouring countries makes no sense. And we would caution against simply building to standard gauge for reasons of prestige.

Attention would be better directed to getting the existing railway back into shape, but there is precious little sign of this. Transport Minister Ojo Maduekwe admitted that there was little to show for the N70bn spent in the last year on servicing the rehabilitation contract between NRC and the China Civil Engineering Construction Co. The railway, he said, still suffers from poor maintenance of track and trains, with many locos unserviceable, decaying infrastructure and weed-grown property.