BY JONAH NWOKPOKU
I NEVER thought or imagined that I would ever travel by rail until some weeks ago when I boarded a Lagos to Kano bound train. Before now, I had crisscrossed the country by air and by land transport but never by rail. Thanks to the rehabilitation of our rail system by the Federal Government that saw the intercity trains return to the tracks on December 21, 2012.

As a maxim says, travelling is part of education. Curiousity, nothing but curiousity made me to embark on that journey. Do you want to know how long the journey from Lagos to Kano by rail was, the thrills and frills as well as the fun and the frustrations, and what it is like to travel on a Nigerian train? Well, come on board with me.

Our take off point was the Iddo terminus in Lagos. The Kano bound train was to depart from the terminus at 12:00 pm on Friday. It was the tenth trip since the intercity train service was launched on December 21, 2012 by the Minister of Transport, Senator Idris Umar, in Lagos. I had gone to the terminus as early as 10:00 am to obtain a ticket for the Kano bound train. The terminus was  filled with passengers. The passengers flocked around the ticketing office but there was no one to issue tickets to them. The passengers were struggling, jostling in front of the ticketing booth but no one was issuing any tickets.

 

A congested coach in a Lagos to Kano bound train

After a while, a tall black fellow, apparently an NRC officer, came and began to dish out instructions to passengers. He said that passengers should sit down and that ticket sales would commence by 10:00 am, but at the promised time, no one was issued any ticket. People struggled to be on queue but no officer was in sight to issue tickets  until 11:00 am.

Sale of  tickets

Passengers were left milling around, more passengers flocked into the terminus and filled the ticketing office. This created a kind of commotion that no one was able to check. The sale of tickets eventually started about quarter past eleven and then a full commotion ensued. To direct the passengers to queue according to their destinations became an issue. Getting them to queue according to the classes didn’t work either.

Meanwhile, racketeers were busy making brisk business out of the situation. They successfully got into the ticketing office and purchased the tickets that they resold to passengers. The racketeers’ ticket just added fifty naira to the original price. I was headed to Kano and getting into the Kano queue was a tedious job as people jostled and pushed one another. The Kaduna queue was less so I joined that and procured a Kaduna ticket instead of the Kano ticket where I was headed.

By 12:00 noon on the dot, the train let out its loud hoot that blast through the air and rumbled away, snaking into Lagos mainland rail tracks that led us out of Lagos. The journey had begun. I was ready for a memorable train ride to Kano city as it was my first experience. I was enthralled by the massive nature of the train and how it rocked from side to side trying to regain balance as it moved. The couplers shook violently and then made the sound of a burning bamboo. The horn was on continuous blare and made the sound that could tear one’s tympanic membrane. The entire noise combined with the rumbling engine made hearing a very difficult effort.

As we crisscrossed through the rail line leading to Agege in Lagos, it gathered momentum and picked up with an aggressive speed that saw us racing past Lagos within fifty-five minutes. But suddenly after Agbado, the train began to slow down and gradually grinded to a halt. For more than two hours, the train remained grounded there and passengers became worried that the journey might not continue.

Opportunity to have lunch

There was no official who offered any information as to why the train got stuck. Passengers speculated and were quite apprehensive, burdened specifically with the uncertainty of proceeding with the journey. At that moment, passengers continued to mill around in the coaches. Some used the opportunity to have their lunch, while some Muslims held their Friday jumat service near the bush there. When I got out from the train to see if I could find any member of the technical crew to talk to me, I met another passenger, Yau, whom I had supposed to be an engineer. When I asked him why we were stuck, he got angry and began to tell me how he blamed himself for entering the train.

He said: “I don’t know but it’s obvious the engine has broken down. I just wanted to have an experience but I blame myself now. Look at these people: you load people in 13 coaches and moved without conducting the necessary checks on your engine, and here we are. That’s my country for you but our saviour is that this happened in Lagos where people are still living. If this had happened in the desert, God knows what would have happened.”

I moved forward to the front of the Oni of Ife locomotive where some youngsters were standing. The driver had gotten off from the engine and there was no technical staff around. When I asked those young people what was happening, one of them who said his name was Sadiq told me that the engineers had gone back to Iddo terminus to bring another engine.

Shunting process

A Bello Mohammed, finally came by 2:40 pm and moved the train with a sluggish push that took us to Ijoko, a Lagos boundary suburb with OgunState, by 2:55 pm. At Ijoko, the newly brought locomotive was shunted to the front. The shunting process took thirty minutes as the train took off by 3:25 pm, officially beginning the journey. As the train rumbled away putting the hustle and bustle of Lagos city behind, the true beauty of the Nigeria’s landscape played out, with lush overgrown grasses brushing sharply against the train’s sides.

The train made a stop at Abeokuta, the OgunState capital by 4:44 pm and immediately a flurry of passengers came around the train, struggling and jostling to get in. Most were elderly women traders with several bags and baggage. Already, the ninety-five passenger capacity coaches were filled before then. So by this time all the available spaces just had to be taken up. The aisles were filled with luggage with some passengers sitting on them. The toilets were yet to be taken up by this time but the couplers were already filled with standing passengers. One of the passengers who came in at Abeokuta was Ayola who was travelling to Zaria. She is a graduate of Business Administration, AhmaduBelloUniversity. She was going for her NYSC call up letter and was having her first train ride experience. Ayola was particularly unhappy with the commotion that characterized the boarding process.

“The most annoying thing is the way we were rushed inside. I think that what they should do is to increase the number of classes like first, second, and third class and then let people queue according to where their class falls. Look at the way we were rushed inside, it was very embarrassing,” she said.

Ayola noted that the manner of entry had serious security implications given the security situation in the country at the moment, adding: “This rushing in is particularly bad because of the current state of insecurity in the country now. If people rush in like that, how would you know if someone who would jeopardize the security of the train enters too?”

The train made its next stop at Ibadan by 7:00 pm. This time, more awaiting passengers flooded into the train with the usual commotion. By the time the train departed from there, there was no more leg space for those sitting let alone for those standing. The toilets were immediately taken up here and the couplers managed to accommodate at least over twenty passengers. The coaches had no adequate ventilation. My coach had just about three tiny fans hanging far away at the roof, so there was little impact. So with the attendant congestion, the coaches became sweltering despite the windows being thrown open.

Meanwhile, after about one hour, the train didn’t leave the Ibadan station. Everywhere was pitched with darkness. Not all the coaches were well illuminated. The coach I was in for instance had just one incandescent bulb. No one knew why we couldn’t proceed with our journey.

Gossips and complaints

To get any information, I had to walk the length and breadth of the coach listening to gossips and complaints. Yet I could not lay hands on any good reason why we were stuck again. Everyone speculated. Some said the engine had spoilt again, others said they were refuelling, while some others said the braking system had become non-responsive and they needed to set it up properly. In all no one understood why and there was no NRC official to say anything in that regard and most passengers were enraged with the situation.

Mr. Kolawale Olubodun is a local manufacturer of polythene products. He travels by rail every fortnight to effect supplies at Mokwa in NigerState. He spoke to me at Ibadan when the train grounded. According to him, the technical hitches in the train had become a regular occurrence. “This is what we have been seeing in train journeys. Last two weeks, a train returning to Lagos derailed at Mokwa causing us to sleep at Jebba because we couldn’t pass while the derailed train was blocking the tracks. Now we are stuck here. And don’t forget, this is supposed to be a twenty four hour journey but due these delays, sometimes for more than two days we are still on the road, subjecting people to unnecessary hardship.”

He, however, blamed government for lack of proper monitoring of the railway operations after it made effort to rehabilitate it. “In this country, the poor man is suffering too much, and the problem is that government tries to provide amenities without following it up with proper monitoring to ensure its effectiveness. Look at this railway, government has brought the trains back on tracks but they don’t care how it is managed. From when you buy your ticket it is commotion, they lack organisation in every form,” he said.

Stream of passengers

The time was eleven minutes past nine o’clock by the time whatever the problem was rectified and the train growled out of Ibadan. But the snail pace it moved became quite obvious. We got to Osogbo by 1:25 am on Saturday. Another stream of passengers flooded into the train, pushing and kicking as usual. The expression ‘packed like sardine’ became most suitable to describe the situation after the Osogbo passengers had settled.

One of the passengers who came in was Kemi, another graduate of ABU, who was also going for her NYSC call up letter. She told me that the passengers had been waiting since 5:00 pm on Friday when they were told that the train would arrive. She expressed disappointment with the entire process and shock at the congestion she met onboard.

“I have no choice. I am already in and there is nothing I can do about it. I used to enter the train before it finally packed up but I had never seen this kind of disorganisation and congestion. I don’t think I will consider entering the train again. This is not a good experience. Look at the way it is packed full, one would think there is a war situation. Where there is no sitting space, there would be loads. Congestion is an understatement,” she said.

We moved into Offa around 2:00 am and the engine grounded again. I overheard one of the Man O’ War security personnel telling another that the engine had broken down again. The technical crew went to work again, and after about an hour, they got it fixed and then the train rumbled away by 3:05 am. An hour later, we got to Illorin. However in each of the stations, few passengers alighted and many more poured in. The luggage on the aisles provided most of the attachments that people sat on.

At Illorin, the train waited about fifteen minutes and then moved on. We got to Jebba by 6:33 am. While some passengers jumped down to observe their morning details, other passengers who  had waited for the train overnight clambered on board. However, something worth mentioning happened at Jebba. The train didn’t wait at least ten minutes and it blared horns and steamed away despite more than eighty-five percent of the passengers being on the ground. This created an unrivaled turmoil.

Disclaimer

Comments expressed here do not reflect the opinions of vanguard newspapers or any employee thereof.