On Monday, the Nigerian Railway Corporation commenced operations for the Lagos-Ibadan railway, a double-track standard gauge rail covering a distance of 156km in two hours and 40 minutes. JESUSEGUN ALAGBE took a return trip on the train during the week and shares his experience

Curious to take my first-ever train ride in Nigeria, I started researching online on Monday how to book a ticket and where to board the newly-deployed Diesel Multiple Unit, a multiple-unit train powered by onboard diesel engines, from Lagos to Ibadan.

This was some hours after news spread that the Nigerian Railway Corporation had commenced operations for the Lagos-Ibadan railway, a standard gauge rail covering a distance of 156km.

I visited the website of the NRC on my smartphone, but the page did not load. I tried on several occasions but still, the website was inaccessible. I wanted to find out the booking process for the train ride, as well as the take-off time for the train. I thought it was a network issue preventing the NRC website from loading, so I visited other websites, which loaded without any issues.

Since I couldn’t access the NRC website to get the information I needed, I decided to physically visit the NRC Compound at Ebute-Metta, an old part of Lagos which has mostly houses built during the colonial era. The NRC compound itself was reputedly built by the British colonialists.

I visited the NRC compound on Wednesday, arriving before 8am, unaware that the train departure time at Lagos was 4pm, and not 8am. An NRC official later told me during the visit that for now, the DMU leaves from Ibadan to Lagos at 8am and then does a return trip from Lagos to Ibadan at 4pm. Booking is also done at the NRC compound, the official told me. This was the information I was looking for online.

I met a couple of travellers who also thought such basic information should be staring at people in the face, and should not require a visit to the NRC office or calls to officials before being accessible. In fact, some travellers who were able to visit the NRC website said they called two phone lines on the website, but their calls were not taken.

After getting the required information, I scheduled my Lagos-Ibadan train ride for Thursday by 4pm. I would return to Lagos at 8am the following day.

The boarding experience

I got back to the NRC compound again on Thursday. I arrived about 30 minutes before the departure time to give ample time for the booking.

You can also never predict the Lagos traffic, so it’s better to arrive at the train terminal on time. The system works similar to boarding a plane. It is always advisable to arrive at the airport much earlier.

I was welcomed by a set of courteous NRC officials who smiled at me as I proceeded to the ticketing booth. My temperature was checked (no thanks to COVID-19) before I was allowed to proceed, though.

A quick note: Wearing a face mask, and having an identification card – be it your passport, national ID, work ID, or voter card – were compulsory to buy a ticket at the counter.

I asked for the price of a ticket and was presented with various options depending on which cabin I wanted to sit in. The minimum fare was N2,500 for the economy class, an 88-seat cabin.

I went for this. Of course, the prices for the business class or first-class cabins were more expensive, costing N5,000 and N6,000 respectively. I decided to explore the business class cabin on my return trip to Lagos. The train was to have a stopover at Abeokuta, so expectedly, Abeokuta-bound passengers paid less for their tickets.

Purchasing a ticket took just a few minutes. For now, online booking is not available, and a couple of travellers were disappointed by this.

One even asked to use the Point of Sale (POS) machine, but it was unavailable. So, all bookings were done by cash. I thought about this before leaving my home, so I withdrew some cash on my way.

After booking, a hostess, a polite dark-skinned lady donning green attire with yellow stripes showed me the way to the train. A couple of stern-looking officials of the Nigeria Security and Civil Defence Corps positioned themselves along the route to the train.

Some chilling air overwhelmed me as I boarded the train about 15 minutes to the departure time. About eight passengers were already seated, most of them taking selfies inside the train. Who would blame them?

It was the first train ride in Nigeria for most of us, and even for some who claimed they had boarded trains before outside Nigeria, experiencing the service in the country for the first time in many years was just marvelling.

A few minutes later, more passengers boarded, everyone smiling and looking round the train. You could easily read some people’s minds: ‘Is this for real? In Nigeria?’

No doubt, the experience, even the economy class, was amazing. The cabin seats, probably made of high-quality plastic, had green coverings.

The economy class cabin had two columns of seats – in threes and twos – with adjustable blue curtains covering all the windows. The interior, clean and polished – with white, blue and cream colours – was well lit.

The cabin was air-conditioned, and many passengers, including one seated beside me, started complaining of cold later. The crew had no choice but to adjust the temperature.

There were also spacious overhead load cabins, but officials said only one luggage was allowed by each passenger. About four 10-inch television sets, as well as security cameras, were mounted in the cabin. There were also wall sockets for passengers to charge their phones or other gadgets.

About 10 minutes to the departure time, the Railway District Manager for Lagos, Mr Jerry Oche, a dark-coloured tall man, walked in, greeting everyone on board and asking most passengers if it was their first time riding a train.

At 3.55pm, a female hostess announced the imminent departure of the train, saying it was important for every passenger on board to wear face masks in compliance with the COVID-19 protocols.

By this time, less than 30 passengers were on the train, though Oche said it could board over 580. This was perhaps understandable; it was the first week of the train service’s commencement.

At 4pm prompt, the train left the station at Ebute-Metta. Apart from the sound of the tracks underneath, the train rode noiselessly and smoothly. A Chinese documentary with English subtitles started showing on the screens. Some musical cartoons later, and some train adverts, then back to the Chinese documentary.

There was visible excitement from the passengers.

A man beside me called someone perhaps his daughter and said, “Hello Tomi. I’m in the train,” with some sense of pride.

Another man wearing a blue lace dress and brown slippers sitting opposite me called someone to tell them he had just boarded a train in Nigeria. Two minutes later, he called another person to share the same information.

It was a comfortable ride. And except for the fact that the Ebute-Metta station, the only one available for now in Lagos, is quite far from where passengers like me live, it is a preferred transportation mode to road travel because of its many benefits. For instance, there was no traffic on the train tracks, no police checkpoints, no potholes, and most importantly, there was no fear of running into bandits and kidnappers who seem to be taking advantage of Nigeria’s poor roads nowadays.

The train approached the Agege station, which is not a stopping station, at 4.21pm. From Agege, it got to Agbado, which is also not a stopping station, at 4.33pm.

The train made a stop at 4.40pm, then left two minutes later. There was a noticeable increase in the speed after the two-minute stopover. At this point, there were fewer buildings and human traffic along the train route. The train’s AC became more chilling too.

We got to Kajola station at 4.54pm. The man beside me called someone who was perhaps based abroad. The person asked him if the train worked like the one at Manchester, UK. To this, the man beside me replied, “Yes, of course. It works like the one you take to school at Manchester.”

By 5.07pm when we got to Papalanto station, two men behind me started talking about the failure of successive governments for failing to have provided a facility as important as this for years.

We got to Abeokuta, which is the only stopping station along the route, at 5.35pm. The train announcer said Abeokuta-bound passengers had only five minutes to disembark.

A woman made a short drama when she said she quickly wanted to buy soft drinks. This was not ‘Danfo’ (commercial bus), a train official reminded her.

The train left the Abeokuta station at 5.40pm and got to Olodo station at 6pm. This was the penultimate station before Ibadan. We approached Omi-Adio station at 6.20pm, which was the last station before the final destination.

At 6.40pm, the train made a stop at the Moniya station in Ibadan, the capital city of Oyo State. The station was still under construction, just like others along the route.

Some brown-and-yellow coloured Nissan Micra taxis of Ibadan and some motorcycle riders were already waiting some metres to the train station to transport passengers to their various destinations.

I took a drive in one of the taxis to a nearby hotel at Moniya, anticipating a return trip to Lagos the following day by 8am.

Return trip to Lagos

Booking my return trip was not different from my experience the previous day in Lagos.

I arrived at the train station about 25 minutes to the departure time, booked my ticket – by cash, of course. This time round, I paid for the business class, which cost N5,000, just to explore what it had to offer the occupants.

As I made my way from the ticketing booth to board the train, two policemen hailed our correspondent. “Big bros (brother), welcome,” they said. Not totally sure about what the salutation meant.

Six of us were in the business cabin, whose experience was not significantly different from that of the economy cabin. The only noticeable differences were the reduced number of seats in the cabin and the seats’ red coverings.

Also, the seats were a bit bigger and had tray tables that you could pull out from a seat in your front. A passenger should not place loads of not more than 25kg on the tray tables. For a professional wanting to use their laptop or tablet on board, the business class might be worth it, plus one could also place a cup of coffee or tea and snacks on the trays.

The business cabin had a mini bar, but it had yet to begin operation. This was a big disappointment for those of us expecting to be served breakfast onboard. We were in a business cabin, after all.

We left the station at 8am prompt, with a male announcer with coarse voice dishing out information such as where to find the lavatory and medic onboard. He did this in both English and Yoruba languages.

Songs like ‘All night long’ by Lionel Richie and ‘I believe I can fly’ by R Kelly filtered through the train’s sound system, with some passengers singing and nodding their heads along.

By 9am, we arrived at the Abeokuta station and saw some labourers digging the ground beside the rail tracks for the train’s communication systems.

A passenger in the business cabin complained that the train was slow. An official explained that the train was not travelling at its maximum speed of 150km/hr yet because of some reasons. One of them is the fact that some people were unaware that train services were back along the route, and some of them had been seen crossing the rail tracks without caution.

The official revealed that two days earlier, a youth using an earpiece almost got killed while walking beside the tracks. He was pushed to the ground by the train-induced wind. If the train was speeding at 150km/hr, the official said the youth would probably have been killed.

But as time goes on and more people are aware that they cannot trade or graze cows along the tracks, the official said the train would ride at its maximum speed.

As we approached Lagos, the train got the attention of many people, some smiling and waving as we passed, and others taking pictures of the train. At 10.40, the train made its final stop at the Ebute-Metta station.

Return to rail transportation

Over 100 years ago, the British colonial government reportedly built the first railroad in Nigeria to aid the movement of agricultural produce from the northern region to the south. This was said to be in 1898, about 62 years before Nigeria’s independence.

In October 1912, the Lagos Government Railway and the Baro-Kano Railway reportedly merged to form the Government Department of Railways. But with the passing of the Nigerian Railway Corporation Act of 1955, the company gained its current name as well as the exclusive legal right to construct and operate rail service in Nigeria.

The NRC reportedly did very well until the mid-60s when its service began to decline amid mismanagement, government neglect, and outright lack of maintenance of the rail and locomotive assets. By 1988, the NRC reportedly declared bankruptcy and suspended its operations.

However, by 2006, the Federal Government, led by former President Olusegun Obasanjo, made plans to restore rail transportation.

In 2011, the administration of former President Goodluck Jonathan began the construction of the Abuja-Kaduna rail line which was completed in December 2014.

The Abuja-Kaduna segment was the first to be done as part of the Lagos-Kano standard gauge project under the Standard Gauge Railway Modernisation Projects.

In the same year, Jonathan inaugurated two Diesel Multiple Unit train sets and six air-conditioned passenger coaches at the NRC terminus at Ebute-Metta, Lagos.

The ex-President said the initiative was a 25-year transport sector development plan for the country.

In July 2016, the President, Major General Muhammadu Buhari (retd), inaugurated the 187 km standard gauge line between Kaduna and Abuja.

In March 2017, Vice-President Yemi Osinbajo, who was the acting President then, performed the groundbreaking ceremony of the Lagos-Ibadan Railway Project, a segment of the new Lagos-Kano standard gauge railway. Osinbajo said it was the Federal Government’s resolve to revive and modernise rail transportation to ease pressure on the roads.

In March 2020, Xinhua News Agency, the official state-run press agency of the People’s Republic of China, reported that CRRC Tangshan Co Ltd., one of China’s high-speed train manufacturers, was ready to ship the third and final batch of 32 passenger coaches to Nigeria.

CRRC Tangshan had in April 2019 taken an order of 60 passenger coaches, consisting of 44 cab cars and 16 trailer cars of its revamped 25T type, to be exported to Nigeria and serve along the 156km Lagos-Ibadan rail line.

Xinhua reported that CRRC Tangshan had so far helped the China Civil Engineering Construction Corporation, builder of the Lagos-Ibadan tracks, complete make-up operations on half of the first 16 coaches, with air and power supply, lighting and air-conditioning systems working well.

The Lagos-Ibadan line is the first part of a new 2,733km Lagos-Kano standard gauge line. The total cost of the project is valued at around $11bn.

On Monday, the NRC began conducting trial operations for the Lagos-Ibadan railway, covering the 156km journey between Ibadan and Lagos in two hours and 40 minutes.

Passengers worry about sustainability

Obviously, passengers were excited that the train services were back. However, they were worried about its sustainability.

A passenger, Moruf Ajao, who is from Ibadan but lives in Lagos, said he enjoyed the train ride but hoped the service would be sustained.

He said, “They should create more awareness on how people could know how to board a ride. It’s a new thing and many people are not aware of the booking process yet.

“Also, I would have wanted a return trip to Lagos on Saturday but I was told there is no weekend service for now. They should try to include weekend trips.”

Taofeek Asale said he was impressed with the service, but also hoped it was sustained.

He said, “I’m not going to complain about the high fare because I’m paying for the security and comfort. My plea is that the government should maintain this facility for years to come. You know, sometimes in Nigeria when we start a good thing, we don’t maintain it. But I hope things will be different this time round.

“Also, I have functions in Ibadan this weekend but train service is not available at weekends to return to Lagos. They should include weekend trips, and I believe many Nigerians will patronise them. I encourage our government to maintain this service and we will have a better Nigeria.”

Toluwa Adebayo, who also took a train ride for the first time in the country, said she was impressed but worried about the service’s sustainability.

She said, “Actually, I wasn’t expecting too much. But I’m not disappointed actually. I’m enjoying the ride. I can charge my phone on the train, the seats are comfortable, and the AC is chilling. They also left the terminal promptly.

“Good things like this tend to decline later in Nigeria, but hopefully, things will change this time. Maintenance is key. But for now, this is good.”

Another passenger, Peter Omaka, said, “It’s my first time riding a train in Nigeria. The experience is amazing. I wasn’t expecting much, but I’m wowed, and I believe with time, things will improve. For a start, I should be able to order food to eat onboard. But in terms of other services, I’m impressed.”

NRC’s response

The Railway District Manager for Lagos, Jerry Oche, did not directly respond to the question of sustainability when asked for comments.

“The trains are run by the Nigerian Railway Corporation. We have trained professionals who can maintain the trains, tracks and other equipment,” he said.

He said e-ticketing would commence on the Kaduna-Abuja route by December end, adding that it would also be available on the Lagos-Ibadan route thereafter.

On poor information on boarding, Oche said the NRC would soon commence massive adverts/sensitisation as passenger traffic increased. He added that weekend trips would start “very soon.”

He explained that the train speed was slower than expected because of the construction ongoing at different sections of the line and “too many illegal level crossings in Lagos.”

Over time, he said the speed would be increased gradually.

He said foods were not yet served onboard due to COVID-19 protocols.

On the complaints of high fares by some Nigerians, Oche said, “I am not in the position to speak on when fares will be reduced. However, the fare is from N600 to N6,000 to accommodate all.”

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