Unpleasant tales from Lagos-Ibadan train service
Among other things, the revival of the Lagos-Ibadan Train Service (LITS) has been described as a major milestone towards revitalising the country’s moribund railway system. But GBENGA AKINFENWA, who went on a train trip from Lagos to Ibadan, reports that notable glitches, sharp practices and other teething problems that are plaguing the train service might frustrate it from achieving the desired goal.
The launch of the commercial operations of the Lagos-Abeokuta-Ibadan railway project has again reinforced rail transportation as a major infrastructural backbone that can, in this case, transform industrial and economic activities in the South West region.
The Lagos-Ibadan rail line is a double-track standard gauge rail, the first of its kind in the West African sub-region. It runs from Lagos to Ibadan, Oyo State, with a total of 10 stations interspersed. Only five of the 10 stations have so far been completed.
Since its launch last June, the Lagos-Ibadan Train Service (LITS) has brought succour to thousands of travellers. A first time experience on the train service has left many a traveller pleasantly surprised because of the comfort it offers.
Beyond the enhanced comfort, massive leg-room in the coaches, the air-conditioned interior, and the ease with which the train glides on the newly laid tracks noiselessly, the service is a big relief from the excruciating experience of driving through the dilapidated Lagos-Abeokuta road and the ever-busy Lagos-Ibadan Expressway.
The Lagos-Ibadan railway train service sharply contrasts to the old, dirty, rickety, air-polluting and seemingly abandoned locomotive train service, which was the face of the Nigerian railway system for decades.
Already, not only has the service revitalised the railway system and establish it as a choice mode of transportation for both passengers and freight, it has provided a good option for commuters that yearned for improved, fast and decent means of transportation along that corridor.
Apart from easing the movement of people, in line with the promise made by President Muhammadu Buhari, during his inauguration, the system has established an end-to-end logistic supply chain in railway transportation, as goods to the hinterland are transported by rail directly from the Apapa Port Quayside to the Inland Container Depots located in Ibadan, from where they can be distributed to the other parts of the county.
In terms of standards, the station buildings, (apart from those that are still under construction) are equipped with modern facilities – baggage scanners, escalators, lifts, standard toilets, VIP sections, and almost all the features of a standard airport.
The comfy seats are neatly designed with spacious walkways in between them. In each coach, there is also ample space in the overhead cabins for luggage, while three pieces of 10” television set provide entertainment onboard the coaches. A modern toilet serves as a convenience for commuters.
For those that are in love with sightseeing, the train windows (when curtains are up) permit an immense view of the surrounding scenery, including railway intersections, overhead bridges, forests, plantations and settlements.
The LITS, which was expected to execute four trips daily, is doing only two trips presently.
Ordinarily, a trip from Lagos to Ibadan, or Ibadan to Lagos takes roughly two and a half hours. However, stopovers at the Samuel Ladoke Akintola Train Station, Omi Adio; Wole Soyinka Train Station, Abeokuta; and the Babatunde Fashola Train Station, Agege, make the journeys longer.
The least ticket, which is that of economy class costs N2, 600; business class is N4, 000, while that of the first class (VIP) goes for N6, 000. The current carrying capacity of the train is about 588 passengers. The three business class coaches contain 24, 56, and 68 passengers respectively, while the five standard coaches contain 88 passengers each.
But despite all the modern innovations, infrastructure and improved operations, which have made the rail system a highly attractive model of transportation, investigation reveals that the Lagos-Ibadan train service falls short of standard railway system practice, just as it is plagued by sharp practices.
This is fuelled by the absence of an electronic fare payment system, and online purchase of tickets. All transactions are done through cash payment.
On the train to Ibadan from Lagos, The Guardian observed that most passengers, especially first-timers were almost stranded upon the discovery that all payments were manually done.
According to Miss Ayinke Anibire, who boarded the train at the Babatunde Fashola Station, Agege: “I nearly missed the train because I got to the station minutes before takeoff. This is because I didn’t have enough cash on me, I decided to pay with my Automated Teller Machine (ATM) card, but they refused vehemently, saying they only received payment in cash.
“That was when I was directed to a lady operating a Point of Sales (PoS) machine in front of the station. This was my saving grace. Other than the fact that buying tickets with cash is outdated in most parts of the world, they need to know that it is unsafe for travellers to travel with cash in present-day Nigeria.”
From the Mobolaji Johnson Train Station, Ebute-Metta, through the Babatunde Raji Fashola Train Station, Agege, to the Wole Soyinka Train Station, Abeokuta, and the Obafemi Awolowo Train Station, Moniya, in Ibadan, activities including recording of passengers’ bio-data, sundry documentation and issuance of tickets, among others are done manually.
This development is not only responsible for improper documentation of information but has also led to duplication of seats, a development that has caused embarrassment to a handful of the passengers.
For instance, when this reporter bought an economic class ticket at the Agege station, he was issued seat No-C8/47. A few minutes after boarding, just as the train was about to move, a middle-aged woman, rushed in holding another ticket with the same seat number. The availability of empty seats within the coach saved the day.
The station manager at the Moniya Terminus, Kelani Olufemi, told The Guardian that the mix-up might have originated from the ticket counters, where the three ticketers issue tickets to passengers simultaneously.
An Abeokuta-based trader, Madam Oyinlola Grange, who confirmed to The Guardian that incidents of multiple tickets being issued to different passengers were on the rise said: “What is happening is simply a variant of sharp practice perpetrated by the ticketers. When they issue two tickets for a seat, where does the money go? This is nothing but ticket racketeering. What if there were no vaccant seats in the coach for the passenger with the second ticket?
Investigations also reveal the increasing incidence of overcrowding in the coaches. One of the victims, who pleaded anonymity revealed that on one of his trips from Ibadan to Lagos, the cabin was overcrowded, as four to five persons squeezed themselves into seats meant for just two all through the trip.
A video clip by another passenger documented passengers’ predicament on board the coaches, as some stood, while leaning on the coaches, mothers with babies strapped on them were grossly inconvenienced just as there was zero observance of social distancing on board. Indeed, overbooking of passengers (especially in the economy class) is becoming a major source of concern for passengers that crave comfort.
“Many passengers stood throughout the journey because the cabin was over-filled. We beseech the Transport Minister, Rotimi Amaechi, to look into this because this is a variant of corrupt practice currently going on in the Nigeria Railways Corporation,” an aggrieved passenger appealed.
For those in love with the idea of booking ahead as obtained internationally, there is no provision for such on the NRC portal.
“Why can’t seats be pre-booked like air tickets?” James Olumo, a distraught passenger, who sought to book for a return ticket back to Abeokuta asked aloud.
Olumo had approached the ticketers at the Prof. Soyinka Station, Laderin, to purchase a two-way ticket to save him the trouble of rushing down to the terminal after transacting business in Lagos. Sadly, he was told, “no dice.”
“Despite the innovations carried out and the rejuvenation of the railway system, the analogue operation is a minus on the side of the NRC. How long can we continue with this? The corporation needs to step up its game if it desires to turn around the railway system.”
Another source of worry for some concerned travellers is the failure of the NRC to routinely scan passengers luggage to ensure that illicit items are not ferried around the country seamlessly, especially with the worsening insecurity.
The Guardian observed that while necessary checks were done at the Babatunde Raji Fashola Station, Agege, the reverse was the case at the Obafemi Awolowo Station, Moniya, in Ibadan.
Aside from the fact that no official was assigned to oversee luggage checking-in, there were no efforts by officials to ascertain whether there were dangerous weapons or contraband goods on board.
David Ogun, a passenger in the business class, who was on his way back to Lagos, noticed the security lapses deplored the situation and charged the authorities to make it a point of duty to check passengers’ loads to ensure the safety of all given the current wave of kidnapping and robbery in the country.
“It is very important to prioritise security onboard the train service so that it will not become a courier dedicated for the movement of contraband items,” Ogun said.
The Ekefa Olubadan of Ibadanland, Oloye ‘Lekan Alabi, had a fair share of the system’s inefficiency. He recalled: “I arrived early enough at the Chief Obafemi Awolowo Train Station, Moniya, Ibadan, on Thursday, September 23, 2021, for a scheduled 4.00 pm journey to the Mobolaji Johnson Train Station, Yaba, Lagos. I was heading to Lagos to attend the funeral of a late military administrator of old Oyo State, Brigadier-General Adetunji Idowu Olurin (rtd).
“On getting to the station’s ticket counter, I told the salesman that I wanted a one-way first-class ticket to Lagos. He shook his head and told me that the NRC does not operate first-class service on Thursday afternoons. I was advised to either buy a business or economy class ticket. I settled for the business class ticket, which went for N4, 000.”
He noted that after making the cash payment, he was issued the ticket, and subsequently checked into the waiting room.
“When the boarding announcement was made, I was directed by a male doorman into the coach, and I took seat number C6 3 (by the aisle), as a young lady had already occupied my designated seat number C6 4 (by the window seat).
“I wanted to draw her attention to this anomaly (self-swap of seat), but on second thought, I let go as I considered her mistake as inconsequential for a three-hour journey. Some minutes after the takeoff, the lady received a telephone call from her mum. When the female passenger told her caller that she had paid N2, 600 for her ticket, my suspicion was raised! Why was I asked to pay N4, 000 for a N2, 600.00 seat?
“I checked my ticket again and decided that I would raise the matter with NRC officials in Lagos. Less than two minutes after, three ticket-checkers led by a lady, who appeared to be the most senior entered the coach and demanded to see our tickets. I held out mine first, and on examination, the lady drew the attention of her colleagues to the disparity in the ticket cost, and the low status of the coach I was in.
“They all looked at the ticket and apologised to me that I had sat in a lower class. I told them that an official of the NRC had directed me to the coach. They all chorused the typical Nigerian nauseating E jowo, e ma binu apology din, as the senior female checker directed the youngest-looking male staff to carry my luggage and lead me to the “appropriate coach and seat,” the Ibadan chief said.
He noted that he was re-assigned to seat number 52 in the business class, where he joined the only male passenger.
But professor of sociology, Lai Olurode, has a pleasant story to tell about his first train ride in 45 years.
While congratulating the Federal Government and Amaechi for the successful modernisation of rail line from Lagos to Ibadan, he said the commissioning was a massive publicity glitz for the railway business, especially, the Lagos-Ibadan axis.Olurode said: “The publicity by those who had boarded the train from Lagos to Ibadan and their sweet air and camera narratives were enough motivations and tempting enough to make one to have what seems a wonderful experience. The queue is lengthening with every business day. When I arrived the Lagos end by 6.35 am, I met a long queue, which had gone beyond the ticketing hall. It took some 15 to 20 minutes to get attended to. It was, however, orderly except that ticketing staff need to display respect for customers. They cannot afford to begin to betray frustration at this early phase of the train culture, which had since died in us all.
Trust Nigerians wherever they are gathered: impatient, complain galore, lamentations about social services and public officials, poor tolerance threshold, bashing of Chinese and lots more. But a few sounded a note of caution that a journey of a thousand year would start one day,” the don said.
He added: “Personally, I decided to make the trip to Ibadan by train as a means of giving expression to my curiosity, but more importantly, for two other related reasons. Generally, Nigerians complain about social services being unavailable, epileptic and most times unpatronised. But, I also know that if we get transport by rail right, it will greatly boost commerce in agriculture, which certainly will be a trigger for Nigeria’s transformation and development.
Of course, there was about 20 minutes or so delay in taking off from the Mobolaji Johnson station at Alagomeji. The air conditioner didn’t work until take off. There was also information that engine would be changed at the Funmilayo Ransome Kuti Train Station (the former famous Papa Lantoro).”
Olurode continued: “As a student of sociology, I merely listened as a participant observer. Before we boarded, ordinary Nigerians were full of commendation about the neatness of the lounge and the coaches contrary to the loud and unrelenting condemnations of elites in the business class. Nigerian elites with their unpatriotism and self-centredness coupled with their greed remain the bane of our development struggles. They make cheap comparison with Europe and North America, but in the main, they remain rapacious, corrupt and unwilling to make the required sacrifice.
Certainly, there are things to improve upon as we make progress and efforts in joining the rest of the civilised world in establishing competitive transport modes other than roads. We must quickly attend to those challenges, which should certainly fizzle out as the services become more efficient and effective and more Nigerians travel by rail.
The university teacher added that the trip was for him “not only exciting, but I feel proud as a Nigerian. This is because, we are often times cynical and display persistent skepticism in our attitudes towards government. It beats my imagination that a Nigerian government faced with unprecedented security challenges could initiate a project as huge as a four gauge rail system and complete it in its life calls for jubilation and commendation. As we travel from Lagos to Ibadan, we noticed massive construction along the way as we observe nature at its best form free of charge. It was a wonderful sightseeing. As Nigerians, let’s believe in our own goodness. I have no doubt in my mind that once restructuring is understood as a win-win scenario rather than a zero sum game, our economy will become competitive and plentiful as government services multiply, more readily available and accessible.
“Surprisingly, by the time we travelled past Abeokuta, our coach had become so chilly that someone shouted, ‘please, off the aircon.’ Trust Nigerians, everyone burst into laughter. The message here is that whatever the condition is, Nigerians would surely complain.
Any leader who has his eyes focused on an objective should listen to lamentations but, must not be distracted and just carry on.
“We arrived Obafemi Awolowo Train Station in Ibadan safely. The subjects of discussions to which I only listened included Mr. President, former governors Amosun, Ajimobi, Makinde, Wike, and EFCC among others. What was on everyone’s lip was never to travel by road to Ibadan again. To my utter disbelief, I didn’t come across any of the stations named after LKJ, the grand father of modern Lagos, and the initiator of metro line that was aborted. To Nigeria, Mr. President and Hon. Minister of Transport, I say congratulations as we ask for more.”
However, reacting to some of the allegations raised by passengers, the Public Relations Officer of NRC, Mahmood Yakub, denied some of them, even as he vehemently rejected the allegation of ticket duplication.
“It is not possible my brother, do you have evidence? These are security documents, it’s not possible,” he said.
When informed that the reporter had confronted the station manager at the Obafemi Awolowo Train Station, Moniya, Ibadan, Yakub insisted that such was not possible, even when the reporter offered to send across the ticket that was duplicated.
“It is not a matter of scanning, you have to get the ticket of the other passenger. If not, how can I confirm what you are saying?”
He stressed that cash payment will never cause any form of racketeering as alleged, promising that payment for tickets and other transactions will soon be done electronically.
Yakub added that the NRC has taken steps to address the issue of overcrowding on the coaches with the introduction of additional trips daily.