TRAVELOGUE: A train ride to Ibadan and back
By Femi Olugbile
Your predominant mood this afternoon is a strange feeling of happiness and accomplishment. You are finally getting to ride on the Lagos-Ibadan train.
You have heard accounts that a passenger has to get in at least two hours ahead of his journey since tickets run out sometimes, and it is ‘first come first served’. There is no advance sale of tickets, and they cannot be purchased on the internet.
Somewhat sceptical, you had, a few days ago, conducted a recce of the Mobolaji Johnson Station, Ebute Metta. The building looked impressive – stone with glass and plenty of ambience. You ask a few questions from a security guard about the train schedule, although you already know it by heart. As you drive off, he sidles up, salutes awkwardly. ‘Your boys are here o’. It is a spoiler to the fine architecture, and a very familiar Nigerian scenario. He is begging for money.
The Lagos-Ibadan train started operations only a few months ago, but actually there was a Lagos-Ibadan train in operation one hundred and twenty years ago, even before Nigeria was amalgamated into a nation. Over time, that railway not only went to Ibadan, but crisscrossed Nigeria – East, West, North and South. The Nigeria Railway, in a manner of speaking, was the first pan-Nigerian public service organization, and it created the first substantive mobility and mixing of the population at a grassroots level.
Back to the present.
Friday. The son of a good friend is getting married tomorrow in Ibadan. It will be the first time you are stepping out of Lagos in a long, long while.
At the First Class counter, you are informed there is no ‘First Class’, and directed to ‘Business’. There are Xray towers and baggage scanners at the entrance. They are not manned.
A soft target for any evil-minded terrorist, you think, with alarm.
You are determined to enjoy the journey, no matter what.
Promptly at four o’clock in the afternoon, the train moves off.
You have always loved train journeys, whether it is the Eurostar from King’s Cross to Paris, or the bullet train from Yokohama to Tokyo. Even the scary moments, such as your student journey on the Rajdani Express when the train suddenly pulled to a stop on a narrow railway bridge in the middle of a river and you peeped out from your window and all you could see was the dark sinister-looking below. Just as suddenly the train chupgged back to life, and you were back on your exotic Indian journey from Delhi to Mumbai, and on to the Taj Mahal.
Part of your love for train journeys is that you get to see far more about the people of the land on a train than you could from the air or the road. Trains go through people’s back yards, revealing slices of their lives that are sometimes intimate and detailed.
From your window, as the train slowly ploughs through mainland Lagos, from Ebute Metta, to Oshodi, to Agege, you see what you already know. We are still a poor nation, and much of our people’s habitation is shabby. Between houses, gutters go nowhere, caked thick with green algae. The side of the track seems to attract a lot of people to urinate. Once or twice, the odd person is seen defeacating in the open. Children are running about in play. People are moving about busily in their daily lives.
Are they happy, you worry?
It is a question you cannot answer.
But they look contented with their lives.
The Abeokuta stretch is full of hills, rocks and red earth with an undulating landscape.
The rest of the way to Ibadan is a mangle of greenery and red earth, much of it looking untamed and fallow.
It is dusk when you arrive at Moniya on the outskirts of Ibadan.
The logic of citing the final station there and not in the city centre is obscure to you.
Your Uber app says there is no driver available, so you ride with a taxi driver who flaunts an ID card.
You meet up happily with your wedding party. You have dinner at the house in Agodi where your old school principal DJ Bullock used to live after his retirement. For a GCI Old Boy, this is a walk-back into a historical holy-of-holies.
Saturday is occupied with the wedding. It is colourful and boisterous, and the party, in a garden bedecked with Christmas lights, seems set to go on for ever.
You make you ‘escape’ close to midnight.
Sunday morning comes, all too soon.
You are back on the road, aiming to reach Moniyan at 6 am to catch the 8 am train to Lagos.
The road leading to the railway Station is untarred and unmarked. The host government, Oyo State, has not had a handshake with ‘Federal’ to take ownership of the railway station and make the approach-road congenial for its people. A typically Nigerian scenario.
The Moniya station is in darkness as the travellers begin to gather. It is seven o’clock when NRC workers emerge, and the doors are opened. A generator somewhere chugs to life.
This time there is a First Class ticket to be had. There are no services, and it is no different from ‘Business’, really.
again there is no security check on baggage.
As you roll towards Ebute Metta, you see Nigerians stirring to Sunday morning life. The best buildings from the backside are the Churches and Mosques, of course.
At the Ebute Metta station, only a few of the lifts, and one of the escalators are working.
Mercifully, there is Uber on tap.
A train ride as exotic as any you’ve ever had, you conclude.
Why are the trackside signs in Chinese?
Can we sustain even this skeleton?
It was built with a loan. It is easy to guess the cost of tickets is less than the actual cost of the service. Meaning there will be no profit, and both the service and the loan will have to be subsidised and serviced by Nigeria, and ZNigerians, perhaps in perpetuity.
‘Or perhaps I’m wrong, and the future is not so bleak,’ you think, as you climb into the Uber. ‘Cheer up, man.’