Nigeria hopes for railways’ resurrection

KANO, Nigeria — Standing on the train platform in Lagos with a tiny pink ticket in her hand, Cyrina Kazeem, a 63-year-old grandmother, felt like a wide-eyed child again. More than 50 years ago, before Nigeria’s railway network had fallen into disrepair, her father treated her to a train journey every Christmas.

Now she was preparing for her first rail trip in decades — a 700-mile journey across the most populous country in Africa, from the commercial capital, Lagos, in the south to Kano, the main city in the north.

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“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.

Northern Nigeria, home to half the population and a struggling economy, would especially benefit, because items including petrol and food come by road from the southern ports. The region’s produce, such as skins and hides for export, goes back the same way in containers.

Bashir Borodo, a Kano businessman and former president of the Manufacturers Association of Nigeria, said the resumption of rail freight had already had a “dramatic” effect. “Rates for moving commercial goods on the train are much cheaper than by road,” he said. “It’s a saving grace for the northern economy.”

At the rundown Iddo station in Lagos, the journey’s starting point, little appears to have changed since independence. A handwritten fare list is tacked to the notice board, ticketing is manual, and the plant pots have the date “1956” painted on them.

But the trains reflect the new world economic order. When Kazeem was a child, the equipment was British. The sleeper carriage she boarded shortly before the noon departure from Lagos this month was made in China, and the locomotive in Brazil.

During her trip, the sweltering second-class carriage was packed with families, with some forced to sit in the aisle. With no running water on the train, the toilet facilities were soon a mess. Farther back, passengers in the air-conditioned first-class section, which included four policemen to guard the train, watched a Nigerian film.

‘So much better than the bus’

By late afternoon, workers in the restaurant car were stirring semolina fufu in a large pot. Music flowed from the bar, where Emmanuel Okewu, a 21-year-old shoemaker, had a Turbo King beer in one hand and a bottle of gin in the other.

“This is so much better than the bus,” he said.

Kazeem paid $31 for a berth in a first-class sleeper cabin, which had two beds, air-conditioning and private toilet with a jerrycan of water to wash. She shared it with a woman she met on the train. They agreed that Kazeem would take the top berth. After putting on a pair of black tights for modesty, she tried and failed to climb up, and instead slept on the chair.

When Kazeem woke in the morning, the train stopped because of a fault in its brake system.

“This trip has been an interesting experience — in a negative way,” said Dada Thomas, a doctor, sitting beside the track. “Externally the train looked very good. But you have to have people who are qualified running the operations.”

That has long been the complaint. The state-owned Nigerian Railway has run at a loss since the 1960s. Experts from India, Romania, Canada, China, Italy, Britain and the United States have been hired to help revitalize the service, with no lasting success. Privatization plans have never been realized.

“We have had everyone here — and now it’s the Chinese,” said Rowland Ataguba, a transport consultant in the capital, Abuja. “The only people who have benefited are consultants like me, contractors and their political friends.”

But this time, the government insists that the efforts to revive the railways are genuine. The Port Harcourt-Maiduguri line is also being fixed by Turkish, Chinese and local contractors. Meanwhile, China’s CCECC is building a two-way, standard-gauge line from Lagos to Kano that will allow trains to travel at more than 75 mph.

For passengers on the stranded train, any speed would have been welcome. By 7:30 a.m., some had left to continue their journey by bus. At 8 a.m., a new locomotive was hooked up. “In Jesus’s name, we are going!” said N. Jiya, the driver. Within a few hours, the train had passed into Nigeria’s mostly Muslim north.

Mariam Moussa, a 53-year-old trader from Kano, had boarded a train to Lagos for the first time in her life two weeks previously to buy cloth, shoes and handbags to resell. On her return trip, she paid $12 to put her stock in the freight car, about half of what it would have cost to transport it by road.

“The train is cheaper and much safer than the bus. It’s a very positive service for poor people,” she said.

As night fell, Kano was still many hours away. Kazeem dozed off. At 3 a.m., 39 hours after leaving Lagos, the train shuddered to a final halt. Kazeem stood at the window of her cabin, smiling, in no rush to get off.

— Financial Times

 
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