When my wife asked if we could attend her classmate’s wedding at Oyo Town on Christmas Day, my affirmative response came after a bit of reflection on the non-conformism of fixing a “white wedding” on Christmas Day. At this point, anyone expecting a recount of a private ceremony is bound to be disappointed. Whereas I would proudly announce that the Great Ife anthem was mandatorily rendered at the wedding reception, this article is all about transportation on rails.
Except you had a private jet, there used to be one main transportation link between Lagos and Ibadan, mundanely called the Lagos-Ibadan Expressway; a road that, adapting from the words of a certain Ife Geology professor, “has refused to be completed”, as it has been undergoing repairs for maybe two decades. Thanks to a loan from the affluent Chinese, we now have a train service between the two cities delivered by the President Buhari administration. It is on this rail line that we placed the burden of reaching Oyo Town for the wedding.
A few enquiries online and offline confirmed that we could not pre-purchase tickets for the trip. Unlike the Abuja-Kaduna service, which now has an online booking website and app, travellers on the Lagos-Ibadan route have to purchase tickets just-in-time at their preferred departure train station. Having used trains in a couple of countries, I think online booking should be a no-brainer. However, this is something I believe the Nigerian Railway Corporation would setup soonest.
We had checked the NRC website and decided to go with the 8:00am train from Mobolaji Johnson Train Station at Ebute Meta in Lagos. What we did not know was that our proclivity for early arrival at departure terminals would save us unplanned waiting hours. We arrived at the train station by 6:50am on Christmas Eve, only to realise that the first train for the day was set to leave by 7:00am. This gave us barely ten minutes to buy our standard class tickets and run up the stairs to the platform. Maybe that was why our IDs were not checked before tickets were sold, contrary to the information we had received. Apparently, the train schedule had been adjusted for the Christmas and New Year holidays, but while this was pasted at the train station, the information was not available on the NRC website. That is another area where NRC needs to improve.
At exactly 6:59am (by my time), the train took off from Ebute Meta. With my experience of delays by airlines and bus transport services, I was impressed that Nigerian Time was not observed by NRC. Train operators in Japan would be proud of their Nigerian counterparts! Finding our coach had been easy; same with finding our allocated seats. However, we noticed some strong exchange of words between a passenger and an armed security operative because the same seat had been allocated to two persons. That is the kind of error that can arise in a manual system operating under pressure.
Talking about security operatives, I should commend the security arrangements on the train. Although rail lines in the South have not come under any reported attacks, we learned the train had armed operatives dispersed around the coaches to mitigate against any disrespectful guests that may seek to interrupt train services. While we await general improvement in national security, it is good that NRC is thinking ahead to build confidence in Nigerians that the railways are safe. Train stations also have x-ray scanners installed, though not yet in use, but I wonder if this is not an over-kill given the potential for slowing down operations when rail services are in full operations and thousands of passengers begin to throng the stations. In my untrained mind, I would think that someone wanting to cause harm to train operations could “more easily” access trains via the tracks rather than move dangerous items through train stations, and I cannot remember seeing any train station in Europe that had scanners for passengers, although I would concede we have different security situations.
As the train rolled towards Ibadan, I noted the times we arrived at different train stations along the line, including stations at which we did not stop either because they were not yet complete, or were being used for a mass shuttle service (think of “kabu-kabu” taxis). From our 88-seater standard class cabin, I looked out the window to see a grossly-overloaded train rolling by on a different track. It was a relief to learn from an NRC personnel in our coach that the overloaded train was the mass shuttle service from Ijoko-Iddo, so our own train was more like an executive service. Notably, my interactions with NRC personnel were quite amiable; they provided a level of customer service generally strange to civil and public servants in Nigeria.
Our cabin was longer than any other train I had ever used outside Nigeria, but had sufficient room for the 88 seats it contained, with five seats on each row. The middle row had one table on each side for persons lucky to be assigned those seats. On each side of the aisle between each row, there was a 3-pin UK-plug socket offering the 220V used in Nigeria, with two 5V USB sockets offering a decent 2.1A to charge phones. The only snag is that the sockets appear to be rated 100W, which makes them more than capable of charging all phones and most laptops but unable to handle any power guzzlers that require more than 100W. I guess it is fair to assume that hardly anyone would want to charge a high-performance laptop during a train trip.
The seats in our cabin were draped in green covers and I noticed another cabin had covers with a maroon shade. Given the amount of sweat manufactured by black bodies catalysed by solar radiation, and amount of dust flying around, I hope NRC has a sustainable plan for ensuring the seat covers remain fit for presidential use. While NRC surely has its own areas to improve on, I noticed some passengers who dropped rubbish on the floor rather than walk to the waste bin at the end of the cabin. In two cases where I assessed that a passenger was unlikely to reshape my skull, I intervened by directing them to take their rubbish to the waste bin. Another issue was misuse of toilets as one lady behind us had to hold her pee for the three-hour journey because a magnanimous passenger had used urine to decorate the toilet seat. It would appear that a proper reorientation is needed for Nigerians to treat public facilities in a sane manner.
While we trudged on, I check the train’s speed on a phone app and noticed we were moving at around 40-50 kmph on average. While this is relatively slow for a long-distance service, I assume it is either because of the reason the transportation minister gave for the Abuja line (“avoid killing cows”) or because the rail line and associated facilities are not yet complete, so we are likely still in a testing period. Six train stations later, we arrived at the Obafemi Awolowo Train Station, Moniya, in Oyo State. From here, we headed to the rural area after which the state was named, to attend the Christmas Day wedding.