“Rome Wasn’t Built In A Day”; Who’s asking for Rome?

A London Underground roundel at one of the ent...

A London Underground roundel at one of the entrances to Piccadilly Circus tube station. Piccadilly Circus itself is in the background. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

When the government recently announced the completion of (the refurbishment of) the Lagos-Kano rail line, the government’s own media people congratulated their principals and assured the rest of the country that if we were patient, we would continue to see the country being transformed, that after all,  Rome was not built in a day. This is a defence used very often by the PDP since 1999 but more so since the inauguration of the incumbent head of state, first as acting president and then after the elections of 2011. The Roman Empire took several centuries to build, our civilisation remains nascent, so bear with us. America’s democracy is nearly 300 years old, we are barely 14 years into ours, so forgive our occasional buffoonery wobble along the way.

“Rome Was Not Built in a Day” might just be the biggest political fallacy of our time. The crux of the argument there is that empires take several years to build and as such we should not expect overnight change. The truth however, is that no one is asking for an empire to be built. And even if we were, would it not be foolish to expect it to take the same length of time today as it took to establish Rome from 27 BC onwards? If the resources and technology available to us today were available to the ancient Romans, would the expression “Rome wasn’t built in a day” even be in existence? Perhaps we should look at rail transport in one of its oldest forms and how it was implemented in another country more recently.

The history of rapid transit (by rail) began in London with the opening of the Metropolitan Railway which now forms a part of the London Underground network. This happened in 1863, with the idea being to reduce the congestion on the roads and to provide working class people with cheap transportation so that they could live in the districts adjacent to (ie the suburbs of) the central business area. In 1864, a patent was obtained by Peter William Barlow for the method/process of digging tunnels using a wrought iron shield. The first subway tunnel (410m long) was dug in 1869 and went into use from 1870. By 1890, the first proper “tube” line was constructed, in twin tunnels, stretching initially over 5.4km. Today, the London Underground (which recently celebrated its 150th anniversary) has 270 stations and is 402km in length.

Fast-forward to 1983 in Singapore, when the first-phase of the metro began. It cost an initial $5bn and, in 1987, the first section (over 6km long, serving 5 stations) opened. By 1988 a further 15 stations had opened and yet another 21 stations were added to the system by 1990, with the project being completed 2 years ahead of schedule. Today, Singapore’s Mass rapid Transit serves over 100 stations, with nearly 150km of lines in operation.

In 1983 (when the Singapore construction started), the London Underground was already 120 years old!! However, there is no comparing the first 20 years of the London Underground with even the first 5 of Singapore’s. Singapore also built the world’s first automated metro system. Rome was not built in a day but imagine if the Romans had today’s technology.

On the 21st of December 2012, after the sum of N24.3bn had been spent by the Federal Government (although the Obasanjo government awarded an $8.3bn contract in respect of the same project, so some clarification needs to be sought on that), the Lagos-Kano railway line was reopened to passengers after about 10 years. The passenger service operates only once a week and lasts 30 hours. Now, from the viewpoint of there not being a service at all for the past 10 years (and at all at all na hin bad pass) this can be termed progress. Rome wasn’t built in a day, but this is 2013. Lagos to Kano is about 1200km with travel time of 30 hours. London to Dundee, nearly 800km, will take you a maximum of 7 hours by train. A rail journey from Penn Station in New York to Chicago Union Station, a journey of nearly 1,300km takes only 19 hours. And, before the reader despairs at the comparison of Nigeria with the US/UK, it should not be forgotten that Nigeria plans to be one of the world’s leading 20 economies in only 7 years’ time – if we do not compare ourselves with the countries currently in that league, how will we know how much ground we have left to make up?

Defenders of the government (“Doreneuben Omokubati”) will probably categorise this piece under the “never see anything good in government” articles but we can no longer be satisfied with merely the slightest improvements on the key things on which our development as a country turns. Even if all the old rail lines were to be resurrected, without an improvement in journey times (from what they were in the 80s) and even in the carriages and coaches themselves, I say we continue to demand more.  If travel by rail is not making enough sense as to take cars (i.e. car owners who would ordinarily drive) off the corresponding road journey, what are we celebrating? 30 hours to travel from Lagos to Kano? In 2013? Are we still in the days of Eze Goes To School? Hercule Poirot needed only half this time to solve the murder on the orient express. Rome was truly not built in a day but imagine, if you can, what the Romans would achieve with our current resources.

First published on thescoopng.com