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LAGOS-IBADAN TRAIN TEST-RUN: Good travel experience without speed

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By Mayowa Tijani

After beating Lagos traffic, I finally arrive at a place Google Maps called Iju Train Station — it looked nothing like a train station. To the right was a middle-aged woman selling adequately roasted plantain, popularly known as boli. To my left were well-arranged tricycles, gently scouting for passengers. Soft work.

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There were no signs of rail tracks, but in the distance, I could see what looked like a coach, so I avoided the temptation of settling for boli, and maneuvered my way through the tricycles, and then I saw the fruits of Rotimi Amaechi’s many travels to China; the rail tracks.

As some children ran around the rail tracks, enjoying their afterschool free time, others hawked sachet water, groundnuts, and other wares of interest to those around and visiting the newly-functional train station.  This train station is however not new at all, it was built by the British colonial government, before Nigeria’s independence.

The very first train ride from Lagos to Ibadan was taken in the early 1900s by the British government ruling in today’s southern Nigeria at the time.  By 1964, the rail lines had transported 11,288,000 passengers and 2,960,000 tonnes of freight in a year, employing about 45,000 people, according to the Nigerian Railway Corporation (NRC).

By 2003, these rail lines had fallen to its worst state since independence, leaving thousands jobless, and making roads suffer. The Goodluck Jonathan and President Muhammadu Buhari administrations have since begun the resuscitation process for the rail lines, with an actual (free) commercial travel happening for the first time on the Lagos-Ibadan route in nearly 20 years.

I got to the train station a few minutes to 3pm on Thursday, December 5, 2019, and naively approached the entrance of one of the coaches, where I saw other people get on to the train. As I attempted to get in, I was stopped by a sturdy young man holding a hand-held Garrett metal detector. “Ticket please,” he said. I explained that I had no ticket, “I heard the train ride was free”. He asked me to enter the station office and get a ticket.

So I stepped back and walked carefully into the old British-built structure, which had 2006 census scribbling on its walls, and asked for a ticket. I was told the station was no longer giving tickets for the day. “The train is full,” the Ticketmaster said to a few of us attempting to get one.

A post-graduate student from the University of Ibadan said he was going back to school to write an exam he would miss if he went for a bus or car ride at that time. As he was explaining himself, a couple arrived and hurriedly joined the hunt for tickets, they were at the station the previous day but had missed the opportunity.

“I told you we should have left home by 1pm,” Sola Anibaba, a military officer, blames his wife, for the late arrival. By this time, the train was warming up for the trip. A group of five girls likely in their late teens arrived at the station to join the jostle for tickets. Ayo, Anibaba’s wife, told her husband that she was not to blame for the lack of tickets.

“The train leaves at 4pm, getting here at 3pm is early enough,” she said as she finds a seat on one of the narrow benches outside the ticketing office. “Besides, the money we spent getting here is enough to get us to Ibadan but you keep saying you want the experience,” she blamed her husband in return.

Ignoring the popular wedding ceremony Bible verse, “what God has joined together let no man put asunder”, the Ticketmaster eventually gave the husband a single ticket, setting asunder between them. The husband was keen to get on the train, asking his wife to tag along. She stood at a distance, and remained indifferent about the trip. “ Let me stay, I don’t like embarrassment,” she said in Yoruba.

As the rest of us pleaded for tickets to get on the train, two young men led their cattle across the rail track. “If we no get ticket, we fit do Ibadan by cow,” one of the potential passengers joked.

The NRC officials asked us to come back on Friday, as we would not be getting a seat on the trip to Ibadan. “You have to come as early as 12 noon, if you want to get on this train tomorrow,” one of the officers said. A few minutes to 4pm, we were gracefully allowed to enter the train, thanks to the plea of two senior citizens (pensioners), who arrived at 1pm but could not get tickets.

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As you would imagine, I had to stand for most of the trip, no seats were available for “latecomers”. When the train service kicks off full operations, the tickets will be sold at the station, but the prices for the different classes — first class, regular — would be announced. The safety kits — fire extinguishers, first aid kits — were all in place, but no announcement was made to indicate emergency exits.

Stepping into the coach, I’m hit by a wave of cold air from the air conditioning system, one of the major highlights virtually everyone on the coach spoke about, calling and advising friends who would later board the train to come with cardigans and blankets.

The coaches seem quite new, clean and world-class. I have taken trains in the US, UK, France, and in some Asian airports, I can say that the interior of the coach looks and feels as good or better than any of those nations. Better than London Underground for sure. But it travels at snail speed when compared to other rail travel. At an average speed of 40km per hour, the train takes approximately three hours to arrive at Ibadan. At some point during the trip, a motorcycle came for a speed test and ran faster than the train did (See Video).

For context, China’s G17 trains go from Beijing to Nanjing at a speed of 350km/h — this would make this three-hour Lagos to Ibadan trip in only 21 minutes. The Maglev train, which is being tested by the central Japan railway company, and expected to be the world’s fastest when it comes full throttle will go from Lagos to Ibadan in 12 minutes.

However, Fidet Okhiria, CEO and MD of the Nigerian Railway Corporation, had explained that the speed of the train will be minimal at this time, considering that this was just a test phase to determine key metrics for operating the train in from April 2020. The rail service between the two cities is expected to have 10 stations from 2020, with a maximum speed of 150 km/h — making this trip in under an hour.

The stations for 2020 to include Apapa, Agege, Agbado, Iju, Kajola, Papalanto, Omi Adio, Ologuneru, and Moniya. But currently, it takes off at Iju, takes a stop at Abeokuta and terminates at Ologuneru in Ibadan.

We departed Lagos at 4pm prompt, made a stop for a few passengers at Abeokuta and arrived at Ologuneru, Ibadan, at about 7:01pm.

For now, my answer will be mixed. No, if you need to get to Ibadan or Lagos in time: Returning to Lagos on Friday, from Ibadan, I got to the station at Ologuneru for 7:30am, and I was number 21 in the queue.

The train could only accommodate 36 passengers, two soldiers, one police and a man o’ war officer. Add three journalists and some staff of the NRC, the seats were filled, and standing was not allowed. Hence, to get a seat, you may need to get to the station about two to three hours earlier. Add another three hours for the journey to that, makes it six hours dedicated to one leg of the journey, plus an extra hour to get to your actual destination — that’s seven hours. Lagosians will argue that Iju to Lekki may be more than an hour. It’s not worth it.

But if you fancy a good train experience without speed, then you should try this. It was my first time taking a train in Nigeria, as it was for many of the passengers on both trips I took. No refreshment on board for now, but you get to watch highlights of American 3D computer-animated musical fantasy film, Frozen. No Odunlade Adekola or Genevieve Nnaji for now.  Many passengers asked for Nollywood, but none was offered.

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It’s a great place to also chat about Nigeria’s future with people whose first name you don’t know in free readers’ association style, but I think corporate people call it networking.

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