March 27, 2013 2:28 pm

Nigeria hopes for railways’ resurrection

New north-to-south line aimed at reviving moribund network

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 1,126-kilometre journey across the most populous country in Africa, from the commercial capital Lagos in the south to Kano, the main city in the north.

“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.”

Mrs 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 symbolise 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 Corporation. “This is the beginning of their re-emergence.”

Yet in an age of high-speed rail, where travel at over 200km/h is normal, the train to Kano chugs along at 50km/h. That this is celebrated as progress in Nigeria illustrates not only the state of the railways but also the difficulty in effecting real reform in the opaque, state-run sectors of the economy.

Completed under British rule 100 years ago, the Lagos-Kano route helped develop Nigeria’s agricultural and mineral economy. But the service declined soon after independence due to mismanagement and government neglect. By the time it was shut in 2009, the number of annual passenger rail trips in Nigeria had fallen to 1.3m, down from 11.3m in 1963. The drop in goods moved was even steeper, from 3m tonnes to 52,000 tonnes. In the continent’s second-biggest economy, growing consistently at more than 6 per cent 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 Corporation and Costain West Africa, a local company, splitting the $153m government contract.

Even given the train’s slow speed – a function of the curves, gradient and nature of the 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 all increasing. In 2007, the World Bank estimated that fixing the existing narrow gauge lines could cause rail freight to jump to 4.2m tonnes within four years, with passengers numbers rising to 10m.

Northern Nigeria, home to half the population and a struggling economy, would especially benefit, since everything from petrol to food comes 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. It’s a saving grace for the northern economy.”

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

But the trains reflect the new world economic order. When Mrs Kazeem was a child, the equipment was British. The sleeper carriage she boarded shortly before the 12 noon departure from Lagos earlier 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. Further back in the train. passengers in the air-conditioned first class section, who included four policemen on board to guard the train, watched a Nigerian film.

By late afternoon, kitchen 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.

Mrs 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 was sharing it with another woman she met on the train. They agreed Mrs 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 Mrs Kazeem woke in the morning, the train stopped due to 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 Corporation has run at a loss since the 1960s. Experts from India, Romania, Canada, China, Italy, the UK and the US have been hired to help revitalise the train service, with no lasting success. Privatisation plans have never been realised.

“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 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 new, two-way, standard gauge line from Lagos to Kano, that will allow trains to move at more than 120km/h.

For passengers on the stranded train, any speed would have been welcome. By 7.30am on Saturday, some people had left to continue their journey by bus. At 8am a new locomotive was coupled to the front of the train. “In Jesus’ name, we are going!” said N Jiya, the driver. Within a few hours, the train had passed into the mostly Muslim north of Nigeria.

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 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. Mrs Kazeem dozed off. At 3am, 39 hours after leaving Lagos, the train shuddered to a halt for the final time. Mrs Kazeem stood at the window of her cabin, smiling, in no rush to get off.

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