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A Train Trip Between 1983 and 2023

A Train Trip Between 1983 and 2023

femi Akintunde-Johnson

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.

(To Continue)

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