“My son’s wife in Kano has just had a baby, and I need to go there,” she said. “When I heard the train was running again, I thought: I have to try it. Even if takes 30 hours.”
Kazeem is not the only one who is excited. Since it reopened in December, the twice-weekly route linking the country’s two largest cities has been nearly fully booked, with passengers attracted by the low prices — at $12, a second-class ticket is less than half the cost of the cheapest bus fare — and the relative comforts and safety of long-distance rail travel.
The resumption of the service is the first achievement of a multibillion-dollar effort to revive Nigeria’s railways, whose decline had come to symbolize the rot in the country’s infrastructure. With Chinese contractors leading the way, the colonial-era network is being rehabilitated and new lines built.
“Our railways have been comatose for some time,” said Niyi Alli, the director of operations at the Nigerian Railway Corp. “This is the beginning of their reemergence.”
Yet in an age of high-speed rail, where travel at more than 124 mph is normal, the train to Kano chugs along at 31 mph. That this is celebrated as progress in Nigeria illustrates not only the state of the railways but also the difficulty of effecting real reform in the opaque, state-run sectors of the economy.
Service shut down in 2009
Completed under British rule 100 years ago, the Lagos-Kano route helped in the development of Nigeria’s agriculture- and minerals-based economy. But the service declined soon after independence because of mismanagement and government neglect. By the time it was shut down in 2009, the number of annual passenger rail trips in Nigeria had fallen to 1.3 million, down from 11.3 million in 1963. The drop in goods moved was even steeper, from 3.3 million tons to a mere 57,000 tons. In the continent’s second-biggest economy, growing consistently at more than 6 percent a year, rail transport was effectively dead.
Resurrection of the Lagos-Kano service took nearly three years instead of the planned 10 months, with China Civil Engineering Construction Corp. (CCECC) and Costain West Africa, a local company, splitting the $153 million government contract.
Even given the train’s slow speed — a function of the curves, gradient and narrow-gauge track — a reliable freight service would boost the economy. The roads have become congested and degraded, with transport costs, times and the accident rate increasing. In 2007, the World Bank estimated that fixing the existing narrow-gauge lines could see rail freight jump to 4.6 million tons within four years and passenger numbers to 10 million.