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NRC battles with unwieldy crowd seeking free train ride

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Passengers awaiting the Ibadan-Lagos train arrival at the makeshift station in Ologuneru, Ibadan. PHOTO:BENJAMIN ALADE

There’s no gainsaying that anything free attracts a mammoth crowd, especially in an environment like Nigeria’s where the take-home-pay for the common man can hardly take him to the nearest bus stop. And so it is no different from the free train ride declared by the Federal Government for passengers between the Lagos and Ibadan new standard gauge, to test-run the rail line until it becomes fully commercialised. BENJAMIN ALADE, who got on board one of the rides, discovered there is still some more work to be done. Excerpts:

From Monday, December 2, passengers from far and near have been trooping to the stations at Iju, a suburb of Lagos, and in Ologuneru, Oyo State, to experience the free ride, expected to end in March 2020.

Barring unforeseen circumstances, the service is projected to come on stream by April next year, after scaling some hurdles that have delayed its completion as earlier scheduled for to be completed by February 2020.

Ordinarily, the standard gauge express track is designed to have 10 ultra-modern train stations, with accompanying parks and ride facilities. While four of these are in the Lagos corridor (Apapa, Ebute-Metta, Agege, and Agbado), three are in Ogun State (Kajola, Papalanto, Abeokuta), and the rest are in Oyo State (Olodo, Omi-Adio, and Ibadan).

For some unsuspecting passengers, it was a pleasant surprise as they did not know it was at no cost, while for the majority, who start queuing as early as three hours ahead to get tags before take-off. But for the majority that knew, it is a time to also benefit from the dividend of democracy in a period when inflation is at its highest at 11.85% and food inflation above 14%.

For the latter set, it is an opportunity for those of them in Lagos, to quickly dash to Ibadan, to get some cheaper food items, with a bag of local rice selling at about N25,000, while those coming from the other end also want to tidy up a few things in Lagos, while it lasts.

Besides, being a festive period, road transport costs to and fro Ibadan have risen significantly, as transporters cash-in on the season to make brisk profits before the period is over. Fares by bus are now as high as between N1,000 and N1,300 from Lagos to Ibadan, and by cabs between N1,700 and N2,000 depending on the type. It’s a little cheaper from Ibadan, with about N200 to N300 less.

When The Guardian reporter visited the Iju train station on Monday to get a ticket to Ibadan at 2:45 pm, he was told to check back the following day, as the train is filled. But without losing hope, he hung on and was lucky to get a ticket when one of the passengers who had put down his name two hours ago failed to show up for the roll call.

The train only has capacity to accommodate only 40 passengers the aside crew members, which explains the very early arrival. The two coaches used for the journey were air-conditioned, the 48 seats very clean with charging ports located at every corner. The legroom is so spacious and the chairs can be turned 180 degrees, quite unlike the old coaches that Nigerians are already used to.

Contrary to reports that passengers needed to arrive at the station three hours ahead, a Nigerian Railway Corporation (NRC) officials, identified as Mr Idowu was seen talking with his colleagues, saying there was no need to arrive that early.

He told them: “I just received a call from the head office that a journalist had reported that passengers should come three hours earlier to secure a space on the train. Let them come at their convenience and if there is space they will get a ride.”

The journey promised to be a ride in luxury. By 4:00 pm, the train left the station. But there were over 50 passengers on board including children. The train moved on the tracks at 40km/hour.

Passengers’ experience
An excited passenger, Gbenga Abiodun, said: “I love this. Now I feel like a Nigerian. I will take photos and send it to my people in the village.

“As it is, I have been trying to get on board for the third three times. Even this third time, I almost missed the train because I realise am supposed to be at the train station on time. I live in Ikorodu, all the way from Ikorodu to this place takes a longer time. Today, I made it because I begged, I was sneaked inside and that’s why I don’t have a seat, although it is against the rule.”

Some other passengers like him sat on the floor, while some spread wrappers on the floor to take a nap.

Despite Abiodun’s excitement, he, however, feels the coaches are below standard for a country like Nigeria, with all its acclaimed sophistication. He believes the experience should be more like that in Tunisia, where he had also ridden on a far distance.

Nonetheless, he thinks the training initiative is fairly good, as this will reduce the heavy traffic on Lagos roads, and encourage people to use alternative means of transport. But the maintenance of the coaches is equally key.

For Mrs Fatima Musa, a first-time rider, it was a jolly experience, which she demonstrated with video clips on the ride to share with her daughter, friends, and neighbours.

About 15 children were also on board the train to Ibadan, who had fun playing around while watching a cartoon on the television installed onboard. Some even took pictures with some of the crew on board.

The train stopped for two minutes at Abeokuta in Ogun State to discharge some passengers before finally arriving at Ologuneru, Ibadan, at about 6:51p.m. The Ologuneru station, in the outskirt of the city, is a makeshift tent where passengers gather to get tickets going to Lagos.

When asked on how to get a return ticket the following day, one of the officials said: “You have to be at the station at least by 6a.m. to secure a ticket.”

But unfortunately the reporter got to the station at 7:30am the next day and was told that the train was filled. An official at the station reminded that: “You ought to have been here by 5:30am or 6am. Well, I can’t guarantee if you will get on board.”

At the station, there was a notice that reads: “Ibadan-Lagos Train: Free tickets to first 40 passengers on first come first serve; Train departs 9:00 am; No standing, No sitting on the floor; One light Luggage per passenger is allowed. SPECIAL ANNOUNCEMENT: This is to inform you that Ibadan-Lagos train will not run on Friday 20th December, 2019. Sorry for the inconvenience this might cost (sic: cause) you.”

At 8a.m., the official reeled out an instruction cum information that there is a directive from headquarters that passengers can now bring their children on board to have a feel of the ride. He also said all child/children have an equal right with adults. He also gave a disclaimer that no passenger should meet him for any tip or cash gifts to secure a ticket. He mentioned that he had a policy, “I don’t take bribe and nobody should bribe me to get a ticket.”

Speaking with some passengers at the station, one of them, a regular rider, Mrs Olaiya Abiba, disclaimed some of the assertions and used the opportunity to vent.

“I came in last week to join by 7a.m. but I was told that the train was filled. They need to tell people the number of passengers to board the train. Another thing is that maintenance of this train is important, four days into the train ride, the toilet facilities were damaged,” she said.

Another passenger (not so lucky), who arrived at the station late, Mrs Solape, said: “I want to experience the free train ride from Ibadan to Lagos, but unfortunately I was told I’m late after coming around 6a.m.” as a School proprietor, she had wanted to bring her pupils on board to ensure they have a feel of the ride while they were on holiday.

And things fell apart
At 9:01 a.m., the train left the Ibadan station, but without the facilities onboard working. Upon inquiry, an official onboard said the diesel generator powering the train could not supply electricity to the coaches.

With this development, the AC and the toilet facilities were not working, hence it created a tense atmosphere for the passengers. The engineer on board swung into action, but couldn’t fix the problem and the windows had to be opened to allow in fresh air. A few minutes into the journey one of the officials apologised to passengers and said the fault would be fixed at the Papalanto station, where other engineers were stationed.

An obviously angry Promise Peterside said: “This is my first time on a train ride, the experience is cool, but the challenge we have now is that people want to charge their phones and also want to use the restroom but cannot. If this works well in Nigeria, there would be less traffic and accidents on the roads.”

Another passenger, Olu Akanji, who lives in Akobo, Ibadan, said he missed the train last week because he couldn’t make it to the makeshift station on time due to the distance. “Today, I left my house at 5:30 a.m. to get here by 6:25 a.m. I had to hurry the bike man who carried me to speed up.”

Surprisingly, possibly due to his previous disappointment, Akanji was not particularly bothered about the glitches in the ride. He said: “I don’t care; I am here to catch fun; I want to feel the experience, take pictures, selfie, and make a return trip to Ibadan because I don’t have money to enter bus.”

At 10:59a.m., the train arrived at Papalanto for repairs, and the journey continued by 11:13a.m.

For Mrs Folashade Adeniran, who came all the way from Ilorin, Kwara State, to board the train to Lagos, said she got to the station at a little past 6a.m., but her husband and children could not make the trip.

Like Akanji, the ride from Ibadan wasn’t that bad despite the faulty facilities and believes these are parts of the teething problems the NRC must fix before going commercial.

The train stopped at 12:13pm at the Iju station in Lagos.

Tackling the challenges
To ensure adequate passenger records for seamless operations, District Public Relations Officer, NRC Ibadan, Callistus Unyimadu, said proper identification is vital for every passenger boarding the train while admitting that the stations are still challenged with overcrowded passengers.

He said: “The coaches available are limited. We currently have two coaches available, but the coach for passenger operations is yet to arrive for full capacity. We hope to accommodate more passengers as soon as the coaches ordered arrives the country.”

It is not yet uhuru for train rides, as many regions are not yet connected.

Although the Nigerian syndrome is to believe that there is still time to fix things, March 2020, is only three months away, and may not be too far to deal with issues experienced on the ride to and from Ibadan. These include over-loading of passengers and power supply for the coaches, as electricity remains the bane of businesses in Nigeria, even if the government thinks otherwise.


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