NIGERIA's first standard-gauge railway passed into private hands on January 11, when the 327 km Central Railway was transferred to Global Infrastructure Nigeria Ltd under a 20-year concession from the Bureau of Public Enterprises.

Isolated from NRC's 1 067 mm gauge main lines, the Central Railway was conceived as an integral part of Nigeria's emerging steel industry. The first 52 km was built in 1987 to link iron ore mines at Itakpe with the steelworks at Ajaokuta, and the line has since been extended to serve the Delta Steel rolling mill at Aladja. The government plans to build a further 22?km from Ovu to the port of Warri, which will boost steel exports.

According to BPE Director-General Irene Chigbue, the government will retain ownership of the infrastructure and GINL will have exclusive rights to operate the line. GINL already runs the Nigerian Iron Ore Mining Corp and Ajaokuta Steel Corp under concession agreements, and owns 80% of Delta Steel. At the handover GINL Chief Executive Krisha Rao said the deal marked the end of a 'major bottleneck to the realisation of an effective rail system.'

GINL has agreed a concession fee of N25m a year, and will buy the line's three locos, 71 wagons and the depot at Itakpe outright for US$5m. It will be interesting to see whether the concessionaire achieves its target of 129 million tonne-km in the first year.