Journalism in the service of society

A train trip between 1983 and 2023 (1 & 2)

LAST week, I travelled to Ibadan, and returned the same way: on the coaches of the Nigerian Railway Corporation (NRC). The trips were not only heartwarming and relieving, they welled up nostalgic memories of my earliest interactions with the operations of the NRC close to 40 years ago. Last Thursday, 18 May, 2023, we drove into the old Agege station (now renamed Babatunde Raji Fashola – BRF – station) at least one-hour before the 4.20pm departure time (the internet info is that it would leave the Ebute Metta terminus at 4pm, and should be at BRF twenty minutes after). It was strangely on time.

   I do not recall such promptness when we would scramble into the grime-stained coaches at Iddo, near the Lagos lagoon, to board the cranky old coaches back in 1983, alongside traders, livestock, holidaying families, students going back to schools…. My destination then was Jos, the hitherto idyllic plateau of glorious temperature and temperament. One was then an undergraduate of the University of Jos, and whenever the exorbitant fares of the luxurious buses opposite the Iddo Terminus were out of our reach, the NRC coaches beckoned greedily – at the very least, three days behind the big magnificent motorized monsters in getting to Jos. Poor students didn’t mind the crumpy state of affairs in the old trains, the cranky noise from both the train and its occupants. Forty-eight hours into the trip, the entire atmosphere would be a bedlam of grime, stench, controlled chaos, outbursts of frustrations, romantic openings for ogling cupids and budding poets. 

  Back to 2023. The first thing that irked me on my first visit to the Agege station was the deplorable state of the three roads that lead to the magnificently structured station. Strewn with oddities of shanties, shops, old houses and all whatnots along the roads, the comfort of travellers is surely similar to riding on camels’ backs across rough terrain. The edifice of the station – and similarly outlandish structures were seen at a number of stations along the way – is akin to a diamond placed carelessly atop a dumpster. Rehabilitating the access roads will not only add to the convenience of passengers and inhabitants but also stimulate improved economic activities in the adjoining areas. By the way, it’s only in Agege station that some level of commercial activities can potentially expand – the rest are oasis of travelling convenience bereft of supporting human ‘infrastructures’ – far-flung from city centres.

  I digress. Another thing that raised my eyebrows was the fact that payments for all categories of boarding fees are done with cash! In a government that railed and rallied us to near extinction early this year on account of its missionary zeal to entrench a cashless culture in financial transactions! There are three classes of payments: First Class (₦9,000), Business Class (₦6,500) and Standard Class (₦3,600 – minors at ₦3,000). You wonder what it would take to digitalise payments, such that reservations and payments could be done online, and ahead of scheduled departures. 

 Of course, operators of point of sale (PoS) devices are the first line of cheerful faces to usher you into the ticketing office. Hmmmm. Recall the Emefiele Rage few weeks before the 25 February, 2023 national elections, when major old naira notes disappeared, and their new replacements refused to go round… imagine the extra stress and frustrations of train travellers who needed to get cash to pay, even with the help of PoS operators who were also cash-strapped, and could only eke out tokens as available. ‘Hell on tracks’ is putting it mildly.

  With the elementary way revenue and income are being pursued by NRC, the room for sharp practices, manipulation and fleecing of the corporation is teeming with loopholes – especially when you collect cash from customers, and issue tickets that sometimes don’t bear the names of the issuing stations. An incident on our return journey clearly underlines this corrosive tendency. 

  One is not therefore surprised to read – based on data from the Debt Management Office – that the Federal Government had not been able to service its railway debt owed China in the years between 2021 and 2022 – a tidy sum reported to be in excess of ₦100bn as at the end of December, 2022 – in a business that pulled in less than ₦12b annually from ferrying passengers, goods and services. 

  This is despite the notorious fact that we use over 90% of our national revenue to service our numerous debts, variously placed at over ₦77 trillion. Our prayer is that the incoming administration will take drastic actions to rejig and refit the NRC, as well as other economic bridge heads, to operate at the cutting edge of global best practices, and help shave off a pile from the humongous $4bn total debt to China, before we suffer the eternal ignominy of becoming a virtual vassal to the Asian superpower.

  So, the train arrived on schedule. Prior to its arrival, we had settled into the large waiting hall of the station which houses four giant air-conditioning machines at the four corners of the white neat hall. To enter the cold atmosphere, your baggage would have to pass through a security thread mill designed to scan for illegal items, while you would be asked to walk through a scanner rig. Several shiny steel three-seaters throng the hall, and a large corridor, on the left, leads to the toilets for both male and female passengers. I observed that the toilet was clean, the urinals in order – and no seedy water or substance littered the tiled floor.

  The two giant clocks fitted high on the wall were stuck at 2.25 o’clock, if my memory is reliable – whether a.m. or p.m. we do not know.. Soon, we were told the train would arrive in less than 10 minutes, and we should move to the loading area. That ritual was another shocker for me – considering my 1983 experience. In the past, more nimble passengers who were not weighed down by bungling children, assorted goods or too many bags, would scurry through the dock areas, trotting towards the long, weary coaches soaked in green and yellow colours, and plenty of oil, smoke and iron running amok. We would aim for seats close to the windows, and annex as many seats as possible for our slower friends and distracted comrades. It was fairly easy to make new friends and lifetime partners on the old NRC trains.


Train Trip 2: Beauty and Hunger

… As I was saying…

ON that Thursday in mid May of 2023, we had to go through a complex of stairs and – incredibly – escalators! While some, frigid with fear of the new and clean escalators, opted to walk up and down the several stairs, we joined the excited crowd of ‘escalatees’ to trip up on one leg, and down on the other side of the ramp. We later found out that the majority of the fairly large contingent of passengers were for the ‘Standard Class’, when we were asked to move to different sides of the boarding platform. I suspect only one or two persons had first class tickets, if any. The rest of us for the Business Class numbered about a dozen. That worried the business side of my being – as we were confronted with a disturbing mix of a humongous investment, and parlous patronage.

From the little research conducted, the trains are often half empty – or worse – to and from Ibadan. One coach, I believe a 2020 report claimed, is reserved for First Class, two for Business Class, and the rest for Standard. I might have counted eight coaches that day, apart from the lead driving compartment shaped like a bullet. The exterior of the train looked like something that has only been in use for two or three years, but inelegantly covered completely by Indomie promotional branding materials – well, the corporation should be encouraged to have different streams of income.

 In comparison, the 2023 train coaches make the 1983 wagons look like something rescued from a 100-year old Hollywood studio junkyard. Thank God for advancement. Inside the coaches is another harsh reminder of how much we have suffered in this country. The air-conditioning was frighteningly unreal. I had not adequately prepared for the fuselage of cold air in the coach we entered (according to our ticket with seat numbers C6-27 and -28). It was unreal – the coldness that is. Appeal for the air-conditioning to be toned down a little was met politely with “sorry, it’s on auto…it can’t be adjusted for now”. Well, that gave a little hope that the “air-attack” could be reduced sometime along the way. Little mercy.

The seats on either side of the aisle were in pairs, and covered in neat green coverlets. Half of the rows of seats are facing one way, as in a plane, and the other half facing the other way – with two lounge tables in the middle section of the coach. From the online pictures, I suspect the First class has more leg room, with three rows of seats, instead of four for the Business Class, and five for the Standard Class. Obviously, the latter coach would have less legroom or aisle space for ease of movement, and the drop-back mini dining “tabletops” at the back of each seat in the Business Class may be absent.

 The baggage sections atop the passenger seats are sturdy and wide enough to contain a 25kg suitcase in girth for each passenger – and it is likely the same in all coaches. However, while most of it was empty of any serious “load” on our side, I could imagine the slight discomfort carriers of large packages would cause those with modest luggage jostling for the same space. Though the online instruction prohibits any load heavier than 25kg without surcharge, I didn’t notice any weighing section to ascertain load weights as it is common at our airports.

Juxtaposed with our 1983 experience, this was a breeze in the park. Forty years ago, most of us would have to climb through bales of goods and luggage heaped along the aisles – as the usual baggage compartments were grossly inadequate to accommodate them. Torn between avoiding the clanging sticks of beggars and drifters trying to avoid ticketing officers checking for defaulters, we found ways to distract ourselves and kill boredom. One good thing about 1983 was the total absence of the fear of insecurity, and therefore no sign of armed or unarmed security details watching over the travellers. The reality of 2023 is the not-too-covert presence of armed guards in mufti, and paramilitary personnel, providing understated assurances of some sort of in-bound security coverage. 

One of my major disappointments with the new train is the speed of movement. Though we arrived about two hours and ten minutes at Omi-Adio (Samuel Ladoke Akintola Station), the penultimate stop in Ibadan, the speed of the train is barely faster than its 1983 locomotive ‘counterparts’, apart from the much less deafening cacophony of zigzagging clashes of iron against iron, and other dissenting crackles. The new coaches move at similar speed to former darlings of Lagos roads, the “Molues”, with intermittent swishes and mild hissing as we undulate faintly over the refurbished rail infrastructure. Its promptness at train stops, and businesslike steady movement, without needless stoppages, helped in dousing my irritation that one had incorrectly imagined some sort of speed train – after all, it is shaped like a bullet!

 Another disappointing point is the absence of any catering or even confectionery services enroute. How on earth would a business class coach not have food to sell to its patrons? Not even a bottle of “mineral water” as they call it on Lagos roads. Of course, we saw a wine bar in the foreground of the coach with a few people sipping what appeared like water! Enquiries about food or snacks of any sort met with bemused shaking of the heads! Who says you can’t be famished on a two-hour journey…?

 In 1983, though the corporation did not have official food services, the passengers didn’t even notice, as we could buy all sorts of stuff on the numerous stops along the way, and there was full scale mobile “Mama Puts” with the capacity to satisfy cravings for all sorts of food. Sometimes, for interminable periods, and without a hint of information, the train would stop for hours in some “wilderness”, and commuters would saunter around some remote villages for food or some distracting fun…until the prolonged and piercing honk of the train’s horns would cause a mini stampede to hop back on the train. Some ‘hell’ can be fun “sha”!

 (To Continue)

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