As the train snaked its way into Agege and crawled to a stop in front of the overcrowded Lagos station, Bashir Yusuf disembarked from the Second Class Coach where a dearth of seats had forced him to stand for five hours.
Mr. Yusuf boarded the Kano-Lagos train at Kaduna, where he paid N2, 000 and extracted a promise from the railway staff that he would get a comfortable space.
“When I searched the entire train for a seat and couldn’t find any, I was very disappointed. I was lucky to get a place to stand,” said Mr. Yusuf, 20, traveling in a train for the first time.
After decades in the doldrums, the Nigerian Railway Corporation, NRC, revived the Lagos-Kano train route last December to complement the existing Lagos –Ilorin and Minna-Kano intercity train services.
The over 30 hour journey from Nigeria’s commercial capital to the major industrial hub in the north has witnessed an impressive patronage since its return.
“As far as I’m concerned, being in the First Class coach, the journey is not so bad compared with the journey on the road,” said Tanko Garba, 58, a passenger.
“It is cheap, and there is no fear of attack by armed robbers,” he added.
There about 20 stations scattered between the 1,126 kilometre distance between Lagos and Kano.
And the train, with at least 16 coaches, is designed for three categories of passengers: the First Class Sleeper, with bed and air-condition; the First Class Seater, an air-conditioned coach that accommodates 60 passengers; and the Second Standard, with 90 passengers.
While the First Class coaches are relatively comfortable for the long distant trip, the Second Class coaches are like an overcrowded slum with loud verbal exchanges between passengers sometimes degenerating into fisticuffs.
“This place is like a war zone. At least five people have tried to fight this night over space,” said Mr. Yusuf.
During a recent journey from Kano to Lagos, the railway security arrested a young man who attacked a fellow passenger, handcuffed and locked him away inside one of the rooms in the coach.
“At the next station, we would release him and let him take his things off the train,” said a security officer.
But such incidents are not rare in the Second Class compartments, designed to accommodate 630 passengers (in seven coaches) but end up carrying almost twice that figure.
In contrast, the passengers in the First Class coaches are much more concerned about things like leg room at their seats and the sanitary condition of the toilet.
In a train journey last February, the stench of the toilet in the First Class compartment spilled into the coach such that all the passengers had to be barred from using it.
“The railway is still on the old system and even most of the old system is now getting worse. You can see the toilet we have here, although it’s a good toilet, there is no person that is mandated for the cleaning of the toilet,” Mr. Garba said.
“During the time I experienced the something in the 1970s, every station there were coach attendants that they go to the toilets and wash them and sanitize them. Here there is no water, you have to buy water to clean yourself in the toilet,” he added.
An old institution
The NRC is an over a century old institution. It commenced rail business activities between 1898 and 1901 with the construction of the first rail line, the 193 kilometre Lagos-Ibadan route.
With the completion of the 640 kilometre Kano-Maiduguri rail line in 1964, the present core of the railway network was put in place.
However, neglect by successive governments coupled with monumental corruption left rail transportation in the country gasping for survival, with the corporation running into bankruptcy more than once in the last two decades.
While no new wagons had been purchased since 1993, some wagons date as far back as 1948, Jetson Nwankwo, a former Managing Director of the NRC, stated in his critique on Nigeria’s rail transportation, in 2008.
Also, the old tracks contributes in limiting the trains to a speed of 35 kilometre per hour, a sharp contrast to that of modern trains – China’s commercial trains move with an average speed of 200 kilometre per hour or more.
The President Olusegun Obasanjo administration, in 2006, signed a contract with the China Civil Engineering and Construction Company, CCECC, to modernize the Lagos-Kano rail line. Two years later, the project was suspended following a dispute.
In 2009, the Federal Ministry of Transport re-awarded the contract for the rehabilitation to the CCECC, and Costain West Africa.
While the CCECC got the 488 kilometre Lagos-Jebba rail, Costain won the 638 kilometre Jebba-Kano end.
David Ndakotsu, NRC’s Assistant Director, Public Relations, said that the Nigerian railway is undergoing a “massive transformation.”
“There is ongoing rehabilitation and modernization programme which is all embracing,” Mr. Ndakotsu said in an interview with PREMIUM TIMES.
“That is, rehabilitation of the entire 3,500km track network, acquisition of new locomotive engines from General Electric, refurbishment of about 600 coaches and about 200 wagons for both passenger and freight transport, modernization of telecommunication programs, training of entire staff.
“This is the vision of the new railway. Extending rail lines to virgin areas,” he added.
‘We were misinformed’
Most passengers interviewed said that they were optimistic of an improvement in services, though they expressed worries at the train’s snail speed – it takes an average of 33 hours to complete the Lagos-Kano journey. At 200 kilometres per hour, a Chinese commercial train would complete the same journey in less than six hours.
Bode Richards boarded the train from Lagos and arrived at Kaduna, a distance of 903 kilometres, 24 hours later.
“When we got to Minna, we saw a change. The movement was so rapid that somebody must have talked to somebody that this train was slowing down. Along the line we got here at a good time,” said Bode Richards, a consultant.
“We all need to give and take. These guys working on the rail here, they have challenges, so we need to help them to grow. That’s the way I see it,” he added.
But Mr. Ndakotsu said that the corporation has already attained its maximum height in terms of services and operations.
“At the level of our economy, we are already there,” he said.
Some of the passengers, however, stated that they were “misled and misinformed” after they watched on television the flagging off of the rail transport by Labaran Maku, the Information Minister.
“They showed us a very fine coach on AIT (Africa Independent Television), last two weeks, on Good Governance Tour,” said Bola Ojo, 35, a nursing mother on her way to Zaria.
“They entered a very beautiful coach. I told my husband that my next trip is by rail. That coach on the telly has very big plasma TV. To make matters worse, they even interviewed passengers and they were happy. That was when I knew there was A/C from Lagos to Kano. But this is an old train,” Mrs. Ojo said.
Another passenger, Abubakar, who sat on the floor almost throughout his entire 243 kilometre journey from Zaria to Minna, said that he was shocked at the deception.
“They didn’t tell us that people can also sit on the floor, or even stand throughout a journey. They lied to the whole Nigerians,” a furious Mr. Abubakar said.
Despite such misgivings, patronage for the trains has continued to soar. The Lagos-Kano route moves twice weekly, with all the 11 passenger coaches swarming with people.
Also, train routes in the Lagos area alone record between 16,000 and 20,000 passengers daily, according to the NRC.
“There have been massive rush, massive demand, in fact we can’t cope now,” Mr. Ndakotsu said.
“All the major road transport passengers, most of them if they are going to Kano, Kaduna, Minna and so on, they are now taking the train. We are even looking forward, in the nearest future, to make it a daily operation (to the north) because it’s always congested.”
After 35 hours, the journey from Kano to Lagos, which began on March 18, got to its destination.
Mr. Yusuf, tired and exhausted, said that he would return to Kaduna, after his three week stay in Lagos, in a bus.
“I will follow Marco Polo (bus). I’ll pay for attachment, N2, 000,” he said.