Nigeria's new train offers a welcomed trip

2013-03-08 08:40
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Lagos-Kano - Before his 30-hour train journey to northern Nigeria began, David Adedamola had been excited to ride the just-revived service, but after half a day of creaking and rattling, he was craving a beer.

In December, the colonial-era track between Lagos in the south, Nigeria's largest city, and Kano, the second city some 1 000 kilometres to the north, re-opened after having been defunct for decades.

It is part of plans by Nigeria's National Rail Corporation to revive train travel across Africa's most populous country, using both the tracks laid by the British while building new lines.

The country's decrepit roads are among the most dangerous in the world, with passenger vehicles and lorries often involved in deadly collisions or attacked by highway bandits.

Travel between Nigeria's southern and northern hubs is key to commerce, but also retains symbolic significance in a country split between a mainly Christian south and mostly Muslim north.

A recent 37-hour train ride from Lagos to Kano was a hot, crowded and sometimes frustrating journey, but it was nonetheless welcomed by Nigerians who were finally seeing a service provided by their government.

Much of the country's vast oil wealth has been squandered through decades of corruption.

At the Iddo station in Lagos, ticket purchasing was hectic, with passengers who had never before travelled by train in Nigeria uncertain about prices and routes.

Adedamola, a 41-year-old accountant heading to the third last stop on the Kano line, Kaduna city, secured an "executive sleeper cabin" for the trip expected to take twice as long as the bus.

The bare cell of a cabin included a narrow bunk-bed without pillows, a chair and a non-flushing toilet, and as night approached on the first day of the stop-and-go journey the cheery accountant's nerves had started to fray.

"I think I need to see what the bar looks like," he told AFP, returning to his cabin moments later, clutching a can of Heineken.

On most Fridays since the service re-opened, the rail corporation's director of operations, Niyi Alli, has gone to Iddo to oversee the midday departure of the Lagos-Kano train, because, he said, "this is our flagship line."

Alli told AFP he was confident Nigerians will turn back to rail, a once dominant means of travel.

"I don't want to talk about the state of our roads," he said. Trains are "a cheaper, safer option."

Despite waves of deadly sectarian violence in parts of the religiously divided central states and an Islamist insurgency in the north, Alli said there is still "a massive migration of people in both directions on a daily basis."

For the vast majority of those travelling by train, the 10 000 naira (R574) sleeper cabin was too costly, and despite the frustrations Adedamola faced in the executive cabin, those in the cheaper cars endured worse.

An air-conditioner breakdown in one of the first class cars sparked raucous protests from those wondering why they had paid $18 to sweat for 37 hours when those who spent $12 in the economy class were provided with a cooled car.

Economy passenger Bamidele Ibrahim, a 51-year-old mother of two, was doing her best to cope with the conditions.

With a wide and bright smile, she said she was disgusted by the state of the toilets, charging the cleaning staff with failing "to do their work."

She was headed to Kaduna and had resigned herself to a sleepless trip on a thinly cushioned bench in a train prone to significant and unpredictable gyrations.

"In this chair?" she said, when asked if she expected to get some sleep before reaching Kaduna, where she moved from Lagos after getting married some 25 years ago.

The train was half-full at departure but gradually filled with each stop, so that by nightfall of the first day it had become difficult to move between cars, with both luggage and people heaped throughout the aisles.

For many of those who boarded later on the route, their tickets had been rendered useless as all the seats had been occupied.

Many complained, but Elizabeth Bukay, 37, who purchased a first class ticket in the southern city of Ibadan, decided to spend the night on a white plastic chair in the bar rather than fight for her seat.

The dress-maker and single mother of three was headed to her home in Niger state and, the seat mishap aside, she said anything was better than the bus.

Road travel "used to make me throw up," she explained.

She shared a drink with a raucous crowd that had gathered around her table: sweetened and fizzy palm wine mixed with bottled Guinness export, sweeter and stronger than the draught version.

"It's a nice combination," she said, from the chair where she remained seated the following morning.

The trip to Kano had been advertised at roughly 26 hours, but after an overnight derailment involving another train and various other unexplained delays, the journey came to an end 36 hours and 47 minutes after it began.

It was after midnight, and passengers disembarking at Kano who did not have a private car waiting were told to sleep on the platform as the public buses would not return until morning.

Soyinka Abiodun, a police officer on board, perhaps spoke for the group shortly before the train approached its final stop.

"The journey is becoming boring," he said.

bs/mjs/ks

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