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