Buses’ loss, trains’ gain
•Railway increases train trips from eight to 12 per day
They came with their luggage. Men, women and children waited patiently under the sun to board a train to Iddo terminus, Lagos. Many of them went for the train because of the hike in bus fares, following the removal of petrol subsidy. Assistant Editor (Arts) OZOLUA UHAKHEME was on a ride to Iddo.
For two hours, scores of commuters at Agbado,a community in Ifo Local Government Area of Ogun State, waited patiently for the arrival of a train, from Iddo, Lagos. Unmindful of the sun, they chatted while waitingfor the arrival of the Ijoko bound train. "I hope it will not be like the other day I waited for hours before the train arrived," a market woman with a basket of load, said to no one in particular. Others turned to look at one another, shrugging their shoulders and resigning to fate.
"I am ready to wait. I can’t afford the exorbitant fares bus drivers charge these days since the fuel subsidy removal. In fact, I am not in a hurry because am going to the market to buy few things and hope to return with the afternoon trip at 2pm," Mrs. Ebere Eze said.
During the long wait, the passengers chatted endlessly. It was either a recall of a train breakdown or why the corporation did not provide a waiting lounge at the station for passengers. But, one recurring question was, when will the train arrive? Yet, in the midst of their complaints, the cheap fare of N150, safety and absence of heavy traffic remained the attraction for them.
"It is my fault. If not that I missed the early morning trip, I would have no business waiting here for this long. In fact, I should have been in Lagos by now," a middle-age man who got to the station by 8.30am said. Time was 9.50am. It was a Friday and traders who use the setback on the rail as shops and kiosks had started setting up their wares. Some commuters left in frustration to catch the next bus going to Ijaiye bus-stop on the Abeokuta Expressway. The crowd that kept increasing by the minute comprised market women, artisans, workers, children and hawkers. Most of the commuters were heading for Yaba, Ebute Metta and Oyingbo in Lagos.
As the train sounded its last warning alarm before pulling up, there was a mild drama at the entrances of the train. Some young men who were prevented by officials of the Nigerian Railway Corporation, attempted to board the train on its way to Ijoko and return without paying for the ticket. Reason: The commuters were not sure of getting seats on the train on its return from Ijoko as the coaches would have been filled to capacity.
According to a regular passenger on the train, that mild drama is a daily scene since the fuel subsidy removal last month.
One hour after, the train arrived at Agbado from Ijoko almost filled to capacity. For the next five minutes, it was survival of the fittest as passengers scrambled to get into the eight coaches that have 90 seats each. Getting access into the train was as horrible as remaining in them. The situation in the train was not different from that of the yellow Molue buses: overloading, long queue of standing passengers, an army of hawkers and beggars who all struggle for space in the congested coaches. At intervals, checkers moved round to punch tickets and maintain some order. The 105-minute, ride would have been pleasure but for the aforementioned hitches.
In a chat, the District Public Relations Officer, Mr Muyiwa Adekanmbi, said the introduction of the four trips of intermediate trains as additional services between Iddo and Ijoko was in response to the increase in demand by commuters. He said the corporation is capable of increasing its trains to meet the passengers demands. He, however, noted that the corporation needed more coaches to do that. The Federal Government, he said, plans to bring in diesel multiple trains to boost the existing ones as part of the palliatives for the subsidy removal. He said in 2010, 25 new locomotive engines were procured by the government for the corporation. These engines, he said, are self diagnostic and require little manual maintenance unlike the old ones.
Apart from the Iddo to Ijoko route, Adekanmbi said the Lagos to Ilorin route has been improved with additional trip on Tuesday to complement the Friday trip. "By April, the Lagos to Kano express will begin," he added.
On the menace created by some passengers who climb on the roof-top of the trains, Adekanmbi said the management would not relent in its efforts to stop the act, which he said, is tantamount to attempting suicide. He said offenders are tried and jailed as a way of deterring others.
"At a time the management erected barriers on the roof-top of the trains to discourage this act. But they still beat the barrier to get to the roof. So, the management then decided to raid the trains and arrest defaulters. The surprising thing is that some of these passengers have tickets, he said. Safe and cheap as rail transportation is, its popularity has continued to dim, no thanks to several factors. But NRC’s current management seems ready to do things differently, especially in enlightening the young ones about rail transport.
"We run excursion trains every month for students as a way of enlightening the young ones about rail transportation. We carry hundreds of school children from Idddo to Agbado. Unfortunately, in Lagos, the rail passes only one route as such not many Lagosians will experience its services. So, that can explain why there is low awareness about train among Lagosians who don’t live around this only route. However, the corporation is doing all within its resources to bring rail transport to limelight," Adekanmbi explained.
Plans are afoot to develop park and ride facility at most of the stations to provide safety for car owners who chose to ride on the train.
Since January 30, the Lagos District mass transit trains record about 14,000 passengers as against 9,000 before the subsidy removal. This increase in passengers on the mass transit services may not be unconnected with the subsidy removal. Commuters on these routes are going for trains which are cheaper and safer means of transportation.
Until the last nationwide protest against subsidy removal, the Lagos District of NRC only provided eight trips per day in its mass transit train services. But on January 30, it introduced additional four trips to complement the existing trips. The addition was in a January 26 memo by the District Superintendent, Lagos District, Ebute-Metta Junction to all stations in the district. NRC also increased from one to two the Iddo to Ilorin trip. The areas covered include Iddo, Apapa, Iganmu, Ebute-Metta Junction, Yaba, Mushin, Oshodi, Sogunle, Ikeja, Agege, Iju Agbado, Itoki and Ijoko. The Federal Government bought 1,600 buses during the nationwide protest against subsidy removal to cushion commuters hardship. Nigerians have yet to see the buses on the roads.