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Saturday, 23 April 2016

Suffering and smiling home in trains

Stories by Paul Ukpabio and Adebisi Adeyanju

The Iddo terminus of the Nigerian Railway Corporation (NRC) established 1958 is perhaps a miniature of what Victoria Station is to the City of London. A popular train station in the heart of town that serves as the beginning and the end of most train journeys within Lagos and Lagos to other destinations in the hinterland. 

Upon neglect of the use of the trains over the years and the less popularity of the railway for transport system, the Iddo terminus like other train stations across the country, played into irrelevance and sliding decay. 

with population explosion and the need for more mass transit solution to facilitate the movement of more goods and people across the country, there has been the clarion call to restore the lost glory of the railway transport system.
So after a break, the Nigerian Railway Corporation sprang back to life a few years ago, with skeletal operations from Iddo to Ijoko (Ogun State). This turned out to be an eye opener to the true need of the railway, as an alternative mode of transport even within Lagos and its neighbouring states.

The population burst in Lagos has also over the years resulted in majority of the state’s work force, finding accommodation in the outskirt of the state even as far as Ogun State, due to the skyrocketing house rents, in availability of houses in Lagos to accommodate all, the endless heavy traffic and the high standard of living in the city. 

For these set of workers, who still have to hold on to their jobs even while living outside Lagos, the trains has become a ‘work-saviour’ that saves time and cost, allowing them to be at work and also return home after a  long day’s journey.

NRC provides a train shuttle service for these set of workers, travelers and traders who come into Lagos mainland and Island, to transact business. The passenger train shuttle goes from Iddo to Ijoko (Ogun State) at N150 per ticket on week days. NRC also operates Iddo to Abeokuta and Iddo to Ilorin on Fridays and returns on Sundays, while warming up with a grand plan to re-launch the Lagos-Kano-Lagos route which weaves through major towns in Northern Nigeria.

But what is a ride in these trains like? 

A one hour-forty five minutes journey between Iddo and Ijoko gives a major hindsight. To be part of the 2 pm train journey, it is necessary to be at the terminus two hours earlier, in order to be sure of a seat inside, because of the anticipated crowd. The arrival of the train from Ijoko signals the commencement of ticket sale for the journey. I got to find out that sometimes the train journeys are cancelled even as late as 6pm when any particular train expected, fails to return due to fault. At such times, Babatunde Adisa a 56 year old retiree presently working with a private security firm, told me, he calls his family to inform them and then sleeps-over at the train station. He can only go home after work the following day. At such times, he said the situation at the station becomes chaotic, before people will pour onto the road group after group. Only a few like him will remain.

“Even if I have the money on such days, I cannot risk my life because I know that going with the bus will mean that I get to my house at Ijoko at 1pm,” added Adisa.

The crowd sitting inside the terminus has steadily increased within the last hour and this wasn’t the close of work yet. This crowd consisted of all classes of people except the upper class. The rush for the train ticket was an indication of how important the train has become to its users. Puzzled at how alarmed my expression was at the rush, Mrs Oloruntoba a retired banker who had equally waited and anticipated purchase of a ticket, smiled at me and said, “It’s still okay now. You have to be strong or very persistent, to get to buy the 4pm and 6pm ticket, queue or no queue.”

Everything at the ticketing counter was done manually; there was no computer in sight while the entire train station showed that it could do with an upgrading to modern times. Except for the new looking engine which I’m told were all recently purchased, most of the coaches looked over used. The interior of the train confirmed my thought. The toilets where they were clean, spoke of old
age with either the door or window broken or not available. The seats however looked recently upholstered but that’s all the comfort you get in this train.

According to Mrs Oloruntoba, getting a seat on the 6 pm train is usually a tug of war, “Nobody enjoys standing in a heated train through that long journey. And that’s why I avoid taking the train late evening. People who get in first, reserve seats for their friends.” Of course, this leads to spontaneous arguments, scuffles, even open fights before departure. I also found out that though there is the First Class compartment where passengers part with N500 for the ride, the tickets are usually over sold with people standing on every available space even in the First Class compartment which is supposed to have air-conditioning and fan. 

The train officials are not in uniform but someone came around the coaches to inform us that due to criss-crossing of incoming trains, there will be slight delay. That took us to 3:30 pm by which time, all available seats on the train were all occupied and people had started standing inside the coaches. 

If my familiarity with Lekki, Victoria Island, Ikoyi, Ikeja, Abuja and some other major elitist towns around the country convinced me otherwise, the reality of Nigeria being a third world country, hit me at my soft spot as the train wobbled out of Iddo terminus with its loud blaring horns. Relics of abandoned trains waved us away on to our journey from another old, abandoned part of the station: the wheels of the train screaming as it forged ahead on the rusty rail line. 

Mrs. Oloruntoba assures me that the good thing about this train is that at least they are usually on time. “Don’t mind the delay today, it’s usually on time. And they are safe.” That indeed was comforting to hear. However, fans hung on the ceiling of the train, but none was working.  
Fear of someone suffocating, rushed to my mind and I asked the man sitting right opposite me, if there’s been a case of a passenger suffocating? His reply: “yes, I have witnessed such, it was the passengers that rallied around the lady, fanning her, pouring water on her face and creating more space for her until she came back to life. The officials did not even know what had happened. The checkers were in other coaches.”

The train wobbles on through Oyingbo as more abandoned coaches and rusted train engines littered the train route. It reminded one of abandoned artilleries after a major war. The station at Alago Meji where NRC headquarter is located, is a massive structure which obviously has not escape the overall neglect. More passengers climb into the coaches and the train blared off again. Overgrown weeds characterize both sides of the rail, growing into a big bush all along the train trail as we approached Yaba. The weeds struggled for space with ramshackle huts of settlement and then a barrack. 

There is order at Yaba but the railway level crossing to forestall incoming traffic of vehicles, and avoid accidents, is not down. One of my fellow passengers tells me, it no longer works. The train gathered speed. It raced pass Fadeyi into Mushin station as heap of refuse here and there, struggled with the weeds on both sides of the rail. 

Hawkers are wriggling themselves through the standing passengers in the now stuffy insides of the train, to market their wares which are strapped to their bodies. Now I realized why passengers had scrambled for the window seats at Iddo terminus, breathing unpolluted air is not uncommon inside this train. We are at Mushin; the station seems worst hit by neglect. Still along the route, markets and  mechanic parks took over spaces that weeds could not grow. 

As the train moved into Oshodi, most of the passengers heave a sigh of relief having made this train journey. This is because heavy traffic had built up on the popular Oshodi-Agege motor road. So here, there was a big crowd waiting to board this particular train. Obviously, getting inside at this time was like a camel passing through a needle hole. The train slowed to a halt and a few got down, while a few still struggled in. School children struggled in through human blocked entrance as more echo of hawkers selling recharge cards inside the coaches, fill my ears again.

Once the train started moving out of the station, I looked out of the side window and saw people climbing on to the roof of the train. “I told you, once the train is filled like this; these young boys just go to the roof. But that is even more popular with the 6pm train because it’s usually even more crowded. So some people actually choose to sit on top of the train, where they can
breathe well not minding the danger,” said Mrs. Oloruntoba.

Ticket checkers are about the place. Their work is compounded by the over-load of the train coaches, and they have to wriggle themselves through passengers, to check tickets, even as far as those hanging at the entrance and those on the roof. “Perhaps that is why the job is not attractive to women,” commented the man sitting next to me. The checker tells me that ticket defaulters when caught are surcharged double the fare. In a situation where they become unruly, they could be surcharged N1000 or more or handed over to the police. Yet such cases are rampant. Between the blaring noise of the train and the steady flow of conversations or quarrels all about the train, I listened and watched. From coach to coach, fights are anticipated and provocation easy as temper flare uncontrollable at intervals. But now I’m sweating despite sitting at the window side and despite the train doubling its speed.

At Agege the open market on the rail track is almost taking over the rail road. No wonder the train had to crawl with considerable caution. More people came on. For the first time, a large number of passengers get off, yet not much impact inside the coaches. Here we had the longest waiting period of 5minutes for the train. At other stations, it was either 30 seconds or 60 seconds. 

As if let finally loose, the train raced towards Agbado station, leaving great dust behind its trail. And I wondered how the residents along the rail route, sometimes almost on the edge of the rail, cope with the dust. Agbado train station is characterized by a big market and a large beggar community on the edge of the rail. At this station, half of the train alights. And breathing became easier. With more room in the coaches, hawkers had a filled day. Itoki in Ogun state is the next station. More people get off and the topography changes as we reached more into Abule. For once I see the school children sit comfortably, looking out through the window and truly enjoying a train ride as the train hurried and finally got to its final destination at Ijoko 5:15 pm. 

Here I asked Jude and Hakeem, two among those I saw went up the roof much earlier, why they chose that sitting position. (They had climbed inside the train before it got to Ijoko though). They both replied, “An sha aiye ni, ko si ijoko ninu. Oru ni sha. Akuku joko si oke an sha aiye.” The interpretation being: “too much heat inside, no seat, so we decided to enjoy ourselves up there.” It was because they were reeking of alcohol, that I realized that while up on the train roof, they had the good company of alcoholic drinks in their hands. However, a notice on the wall of the station tells me that being caught on the roof of the train attracts a fine of N25,000. Jude and Hakeem just laughed that away, as they walked on.
Ninety is the official number of passengers in each train coach. But for a train of eight coaches, that singular journey saw the train taking approximately 1,800 people home.

Though acknowledged to be a safe mode of transport, the Ijoko bound trains from Iddo have been known in recent times to have had its fair share of accidents.  And they have varied from human related accidents, to animal related accidents and then outright negligence.

According to Mr. Muyiwa  Adekanbi  of NRC Public Relations Department, the accidents on train that involve human life can be blamed on those who hang at the entrance of the train, or sit on the roof of a train. “Those are the people who go against the rules of the train.” But accidents do not only happen to the passengers inside the train. Unofficial report has it that accidents have also in recent times taken place at the railway level crossing, where pedestrians where hit by a train. Such persons took the risk of rushing across; attempting to beat an incoming train to get across the rail line. Unfortunately, they miscalculated. 

However, the family of a victim who was involved in a train accident last year, blame NRC for the untimely death of their son. But Mr. Muyiwa Adekanbi insists that, “our people are very stubborn. We tell them, not to hang on trains, that if caught, they will pay the fine of N25,000. Yet, people will still go and sit on top of the train and also hang on it. If you have your ticket and do not have a seat, go back to the station, return the ticket immediately and your money will be refunded or wait for the next train since we have up to four trains that work every day. So if you cannot go with the first one, you wait for the next or return your ticket for the refund of your money. Now tell me why people still hang on the trains. “

Last year at Mushin a train collided into another and 25 people were injured and rushed to the Nigeria Railway Corporation Hospital. The blame was heaped on the train signal operator who changed the train lane putting them at the wrong point. This year a train was also recorded to have had an accident with cattle crossing the rail lines at Mushin. And the blame went to the cattle handler, for trespassing and trafficking animal on train lane.

Concerned about these avoidable accidents, the Nigerian Environmental Council has presently teamed up with the NRC to fight the war against wrong use of the trains by its users. But will the lost glory of the Nigerian railway transport system ever be restored? 

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