PNG’s first railway engineer wants to start
BY BARNEY ORERE
Following our recent three-part series on the railway history of Papua New Guinea, it is a pleasure to introduce railway enthusiasts, business, industry, government and the people of PNG to some one whose story is encouraging; a gentleman who is a real expert in the field of railways.
He is not only one of a kind in PNG with railroad knowledge and skill, but also the best of the best in the world.
The gentleman I am talking about is Robert Agen, a Unitech graduate civil engineer from Sinasina-Yongomugl district in Chimbu.
Mr Agen agreed to speak to the Post-Courier to offer more information on the railway field, his expertise and what can be achieved.
But the railroad is not something that can be started with pickaxes and shovels. Even if this mode of transport is revolutionary, it will require government support, massive cooperation with foreign partners and the starting point; the capital is likely to reach the four to five billion kina threshold in its ability to generate internal revenue.
Developing the network will take decades and to begin with, he hopes to enter the NCDC. This is a very important opportunity to begin the greatest change in the nation.
We have to start somewhere and NCD will be the starting point with the trams.
PNG’s first railway engineer feels he has what it takes, including the all-important revenue base of the National Capital District Commission which needs to be increased as a precondition.
The railroad will be a game changer for the economy, improve lives, modernize our city and create thousands and thousands of jobs.
After graduating from Unitech Lae, Agen worked for the French oil and gas exploration company Schlumberger, which exposed him abroad and thus his journey to becoming a railway expert began. . Here’s a step-by-step description of how it all started.
By the end of this story, it will be clear that Robert Agen is not the only hope PNG has so far in the introduction and development of the country’s rail network, but he has his heart set on it. The reader will clearly see that he is the man for the job.
With Schlumberger, Agen mainly worked in Texas (Gulf of Mexico). At the time, few engineering PNGs went overseas, so he was a trailblazer for an oilfield service company that counted Chevron, ExxonMobil and Texaco among its clients.
Agen stayed there for three years but personal reasons forced him to leave and go to Snowy Mountain Engineering Corporation (SMEC), in transit between Port Moresby and Cooma in New South Wales, Australia.
It was while at SMEC that he received an offer to study for his Masters and went to Loughborough University in Leicestershire, England (UK). While doing the last semester of the master’s program, Agen began looking for jobs in Europe and North America.
He received responses from North American engineering groups and UK-based engineering consultancies. Prospects of going to the US were affected by 9/11 and he focused more on finding employment in the UK, which earned him his first stint with Civil/Railways Engineering Consultancy, a company based in Birmingham, the second largest city in the UK after London.
Birmingham, Mr Agen explained, is located in the West Midlands. He got the job as a project engineer at a company called First Engineering PLC (a public listed company). This was to be the start of his exposure to railway engineering.
Then he won his first promotion as a senior engineer at Engineering Consultancy at White Young & Green Consultancy, still in Birmingham. He stayed there for a few years before being invited to join Network Rail where his job was to look after Kings Cross station from London to York – an 880km stretch of railway along the entire coast of England and included ring lines to towns such as Lincoln, Sheffield, Leeds and Hull; in total more than a thousand kilometers of rail network.
Network Rail has entrusted our man Chimbu with the responsibility of checking, approving and awarding contracts to rail contractors in the East Coast territory.
The division he worked for was ST&E (signalling, telecommunications and electrification projects) with the North East London Territory or LNET where he remained until 2013.
From 2014, Agen returned to the private sector, meaning he returned to design and engineering. So he was again employed by a private railway company Siemens, a German engineering conglomerate, a high-tech company that recently made a move into railway construction in England.
“That’s where I got a big promotion in terms of my railroad career. The job title was Head of Engineering Works with 82 people who reported to me (project managers, design engineers, construction engineers and works supervisors with the workers,” said Mr. Agen.
Right after Siemens, he returned to PNG for family reasons and found himself helping the PNG Sports Foundation to build and deliver the infrastructure works (mini stadiums) for the Under-20 Women’s World Cup. FIFA 2016.
After eight weeks delivering the FIFA World Cup, he returned to his signaling and telecommunications project in Banbury, Oxfordshire. 2017 was election year, so he returned to PNG to compete for the regional seat. He is once again in the running for the NCD regional seat in this year’s national general election.
“If I hadn’t come to deliver the works of FIFA U20 I wouldn’t even be standing for election because I was comfortable with my life in the UK having lived there for over 20 years” , did he declare.
“But I saw the need for me to help in the development of our capital where I grew up and where I went to school (St Peter Erima and De La Salle Bomana). I wanted to give something back to the city by modernizing it and providing world-class infrastructure to the people of the city.
“When I returned to the UK after FIFA I was disturbed; I felt like I was being selfish, not thinking of my family, my friends and everyone else.
Here I lived a comfortable life and the way people lived in poverty really worried me. I saw that people were socially marginalized; the level of poverty was appalling and I felt I had to do something about it.
His Irish boss, Siemens managing director Gary Payne, reluctantly agreed to let Agen return to PNG but said; if he ever returned to the UK, there would be a job waiting for him at Siemens. “I know that offer still stands to this day,” he added. Mr Agen has permanent resident status in the UK.
Before constructing a railway line linking NCD to Central Province or the Gulf of Papua or across the Owen Stanley Range to the North; even Lae – we have to do two things, he advised.
1) Increase the internal revenue base of NCDC to four or five billion kina per year
2) We must form strategic alliances with international agencies willing to help the PNG government and the NCDC build railways.
“I have a clear vision of where I want to take our city over the next 30-50 years and the process will begin with growing and expanding NCDC’s internal revenue base.
When we reach this point, we can start talking about streetcar lines connecting the suburbs of our city, and then we expand to major railways connecting Port Moresby to other provinces.
Of the two prerequisites listed (above), Mr. Agen said he had very specific innovative ideas to increase the revenue base of NCDC.
“As we need highly specialized railway engineering technocrats, these types of professionals are readily available to me because of the relationships I have built with them over 20 years. Many are just a phone call away. They tell me; when I want to build a railroad let them know – they are more than happy to come and help me.
“I have lived and worked in the country where the industrial revolution took place and I know the impact of the railways on the transformation of the British economy.
With railways you can transport hundreds of containers in a single trip whereas with trucks you are limited to one or two. Imagine riding up into the Highlands, the return trip will bring sacks of kaukau and coffee back to the coast.”
Unlike roads and highways, the design and construction of railways involved different engineering/technical disciplines (electrical, mechanical, structural, civil and permanent engineering – track, tunnel engineering and construction engineering), said Mr Agen.
Communication/electronics was vital as technology was needed for the train driver with controls at main stations Communication was also important for level crossings – vehicles and motorists crossing the tracks – when it was safe .
In the next episode, we will cover the engineering and construction cost of railways, employment and economic opportunities in the railway industry. Keep monitoring this space.