Revisiting The Nigerian Railway

Femi Akintunde-Johnson

A little over six months ago, we published our experience on the tracks of the Nigerian Railway Corporation (NRC), about 40 years after our youthful train escapades as an undergraduate on the plateau. The three-part series was anchored by the piece titled ‘A Train Trip between 1983 and 2023’ on 27 May, 2023.

  In the first week of 2024, we decided to take a short break from the grind of professional life, and associated hustles – after many years of unhealthy competition with self on one’s capacity to work year-in-year-out without a vacation. So, we shut down all engagements between 31 December, 2023 and January 8, 2024. A three-day visit to Ibadan, Oyo State, topped the holiday plan. And of course, considering what the unconscionable marauders have turned the Lagos-Ibadan Expressway to, the most sensible means of transportation is the rail.

Between our last lament and this latest adventure, we noticed that the NRC had adopted e-ticketing and virtual booking whereby cash was no longer acceptable, and passengers could make order for the seats and class of coaches they wanted right from their homes. We were elated. But there was a snag. The Bola Tinubu government, in currying the favours of the Nigerian people in these harsh times, had declared free tickets for any would be train commuters between 21 December, 2023 and 4 January, 2024. So, we decided it would be a great mistake, if we chose any of the “free” days to board the train… with our love for “awoof”, the throng if humanity would make the tour a torrid punishment. 

 In any case, after registering on the NRC portal, we discovered that all seats in the three categories: First Class, Business Class and Standard Class were all booked. All days, and all seats, were pre-occupied; though one could only make a booking within a 48-hour window. The social media reports showed tumultuous crowds of people trying to sneak a free ride, and thereby creating a fertile ground for unscrupulous staff members of NRC to make some quick bucks – even from the free-for-all offer. 

  So, we went for the day after the free tickets would have lapsed, and ticked the fifth day of January. While imputing the required information in the morning of the 4th, there were less than six confirmed seats in the 24-seat First Class compartment. We ran into some glitches with the payment interface while using the Flutterwave platform generated. A surprisingly helpful and knowledgeable chap we stumbled upon on Twitter (now X) – Damilola Kalejaiye, whose ‘bio’ include “computer engineer (maintenance, networking and ICT related issues, IT specialist @info_NRC)” – helped us tremendously in making sure our payment (confirmed outflow) didn’t disappear into oblivion.

  Then the government struck. In the evening of the same fourth day of January, the news went viral that the ‘free-ride’ had been extended to the 7th of January – to further help cushion the pangs of economic hardship average Nigerians were facing. Just as instantly, within minutes of the announcement, the seats were all booked – in all classes! Some bemused folks argued that the speed at which all coaches had been ware-housed and exhausted could be the handiwork of “insider-trading” and ‘smart Alec’ Nigerians who are always on the lookout for any money making opportunities, regardless of government’s positive or palliative intentions. 

 Nevertheless, we remained half doubtful of the Nigerian factor, and somewhat half hopeful that the process would respond positively to its own protocols. Buoyed by Damilola’s confident encouragement, and a contact (simply named Emmanuel) who promised to be on site, to authenticate our paid-up ‘tickets’ (despite the Flutterwave fiasco) – and amid the expected chaos of a free-for-all official yoyo.

We arrived at the Agege Station (renamed Babatunde Fashola) before 7.30 am, and the place was unsurprisingly bubbly with heavy-bag-hauling passengers. At least, for once, being fee-paying passengers, we were accorded due regard, and respectfully ushered to our seat in the large air-conditioned waiting room. Relief! Many thanks to Damilola and Emmanuel, we didn’t regret insisting on travelling on that ‘free’ day.

 By 8.10am, we were called out to board the train. Then we realised the escalators had stopped working! We were unsure if they were demobilized because of the free days, fearing that heavy usage or uncontrollable manhandling might impact negatively on their functionality. Or they had merely  packed up. We were not told the reason escalators were not working, nor were there any apologies. That early physical torture of hauling our fairly large suitcase across the raft of stairwells – up and down – would have incensed many frayed nerves.

  However, it was heartwarming to see that the train still keeps to time – like the cliched clockwork. Our train, all of eight coaches, apart from the front and back engine rooms, birthed at exactly 8.19am (8.20 was the official time). My first impression of the C-1 coach, designated as First Class, was not disappointing. It has 24 seats, with a large aisle separating a row of double seats on one side, and another row of single seats, on the other – with copious leg room.

  There is always a glitch with NRC, though. Here is one: while the numbering on the e-ticket had us as owners of seats 17/18…such arrangement did not meet our sight. The double seats were numbered ‘1’ to ‘8’ with ‘A’ and ‘C’ bordering them; while the single seats had similar numbers but with ‘B’ as accompaniment. Wetin man pikin go do? We chose 7A/C.

At 8.25am, we lumbered out of the station enroute Ibadan. We noticed that movements within the coach were controlled, and passengers were politely monitored, apparently to make sure people had the right ‘tickets’ to be in the right coach – by opening your smart phones to show your tickets in QR code format. What would happen to passengers without smartphones is anyone’s guess. And there was “in-flight” refreshment…but contrary to my wishful thinking, they were not free nor complimentary. Food trolleys – mostly pies, sausages, fried chicken parts, and such moved up and down the aisle. Relaxed ambience – we even overheard a passenger demanding that her snacks be microwaved… and the stewardess obliged!  The seats have sliding trays that can take a plate of fried rice, a bottle of water and a cup to boot. You can also recline your seat, after a meal, to stroll into dreamland – if you know how to depress or control the mechanism at the base of the seat, that is.

As is now normal, the room was cold. Very cold. But we found distraction in the regular voiced announcements for station stops – in English and Yoruba languages – and other instructions on procedures and usage of train facilities. The stiff-lipped monotone popularized by airline announcers has obviously been adopted by the railway. We made a mental note of key points in the words of the ‘official spokesperson’: “Cash is no longer acceptable. E-tickets can only be purchased via bank cards and direct transfers.” It will be interesting to put these bold moves to further scrutiny as we hear and read about efforts to circumvent the new payment process. Even as the NRC wangles through the initial stages of this commendable process, it is gratifying to note that direct cash payments have become obsolete – what was hitherto a thriving opportunity for sticky fingers – yet, there is still much to do to finesse a seamless pain-free payment process.

We arrived at Papalanto Station (now Funmilayo Ransome-Kuti) around 9.07am.

(To Continue)

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