A few hours before President Muhammdu Buhari commissioned the Lagos-Ibadan railway project as completed, JUSTICE NWAFOR joined the train and reports the current state of the scheme.
Yes, you can call me the Ibadan-Lagos train reporter. I’ll gladly answer. This is the third of what has taken the shape of a series on the Ibadan-Lagos railway project. The reporting started when the Minister of Transportation, Rotimi Amaechi, directed the Nigeria Railway Corporation (NRC) to begin free test run commuter services on the railway in 2019 with the hope that it would commence full operations on completion of the project in a few months.
A year later, particularly in December 2020, I went back to find out what had become of the project which was billed to be completed in the first quarter of the year. Well, Covid-19 pandemic broke out, the government would say. Yes, it’s quite understandable. But if not for unnecessary delays, Covid-19 would not had caught up with it. What do I think of the excuse? Perhaps you should look more at the opportunity cost.
This third in the series became imperative given that the project has been deemed completed by the government and was on Thursday commissioned amidst fanfare. The project is very important given that a lot of economic development in Oyo State has been predicated on its launch and effectiveness. One of such is that it will reduce the pressure on the Lagos-Ibadan expressway and trigger more movement of goods to the state from the Apapa port, which the railway has been connected to.
A day before the project was inaugurated by the President, the Minister of Transportation had inspected it — the final of the many inspections — and thereafter, certified it ready and completed for commissioning.
A peep into the glamour
No doubt, the Mobolaji Johnson station, Ebute-Metta is such a beauty to behold. Sitting on an expanse compound next to the old NRC headquarters at Ebutte Metta, Lagos, the edifice dwarfs every other building around it. Really, it is difficult to see, without being told, how many storeys the edifice is because the architectural design is such that throngs to the skies without sequencing of the storeys.
The beautiful bodily finishing sells it to the eyes even in the stark of the night and leaves memories to linger far longer than they could vanish. Walking out from the edifice to step into the train — another beauty which I have described extensively in my previous reports — could feel surreal for some Nigerians.
The Wole Soyinka station, Abeokuta, is another station that describes largely what beauty is. Behind the Ebute-Metta station, it is, in my estimation, the best designed, though some would argue in the interest of the Obafemi Awolowo station, Moniya, Ibadan. Well, if all works were fully completed before commissioning, the Moniya argument would have held more water.
A slice of the old pie
Let’s not go through the haul of how I left my house by 6:15 am and got to the ticketing booth by 7:45 am. But I’d like to add that the lateness was deliberate: I wanted to find out if ‘Nigerianness’ has started taking its toll on the service provided by the NRC staff.
I must add that the Moniya-Iseyin road has been fully rehabilitated by the Oyo State Government, so there was no need to brace up for life-threatening dust or embarrassing mud like I did in the past.
The last time I went to the Moniya station to get my train ticket, the ticketing booth was an open space with a few white plastic chairs organised for the passengers to sit before boarding. So, after the stern-looking NRC staff, who stood behind a wooden barricade indicating the point bikes and vehicles could not go beyond, pointed the pistol-like temperature reader, administered hand sanitisers to my palms and forced a weak smile indicating that I could proceed, I walked towards the brown set of containers — which hid the open space for ticketing — expecting nothing new entirely. And I was right: nothing has changed — tickets were still being sold in the same open space — save for the non-availability of the white plastic chairs.
Quickly, I purchased my ticket and walked towards the train to board but I had to pause to confirm that construction equipment was still in sight and that workers were still working on the same day the Minister certified the project ‘completed’ after inspection. To move from the open ticketing space to the area to board, one had to jump over an open gutter which was crossed with a shaky wooden plank which served as a makeshift bridge. Good as the idea is, it is risky, to say the least. For me, I can easily and carefully jump or use the bridge but how about the aged and children? Please don’t tell me they can jump as well.
Stations still under construction
Now inside the train. At 8:00 am, the journey began. Interestingly, the number of passengers has improved, compared to how it was when the service started in 2019 and the situation in December last year. This may not be totally unconnected to the barrage of media reportage on it. But still, the train was carrying about half of its seat capacity.
In 20 minutes, the train was at Omi-Adio station. One thing that can’t be denied is the fact that work has progressed at all the stations. The level of progress at this station is akin to that of Moniya. Workers were seen putting finishing touches on a section while a trailer load of cement was seen at one end. What is a trailer load of cement doing at a station deemed completed; I asked no one. It Indicates that serious work is still ongoing, I threw it back at myself. There was no stop here as Abeokuta remains the only stop station.
One thing of note in the train is that during my previous in December, the LED screen disclosing the next station enroute had no mention of Apapa but now it reads: Ibadan-Apapa. So, I had to ask one of the staff onboard if the train would get to Apapa: “No, Ebutte-Metta is the last stop station”, she responded.
At 8:45am, the train was at Olodo station. As in Omi-Adio, work was still ongoing here. There was no stop, and passengers aboard were caught up in the really interesting documentary showing on the HD monitor. Interestingly, it was not the Chinese documentary that played repeatedly during my previous trip. Noticeably too, the number of ‘I am now in the train’ calls have reduced and the excitement was beginning to die off just like the neatness of the coaches. The seats’ clothes aren’t as new as they were again, understandably. The courteousness of the NRC staff has waned, too, ‘ununderstandably’.
Security has remained the same, save for just a few rifle-wielding police officers and soldiers, unlike the combined presence of police officers, soldiers and NSCDC personnel, during my 2019 and 2020 trips. Of course, I did not include the presence of men of the Man O’ War who accompanied NRC staff on their ticket collection routine.
$1.5 billion project
The 156.65-kilometre Ibadan-Lagos standard rail gauge is one project that has lingered. First awarded as part of a railway network project by the then Olusegun Obasanjo administration to China Civil Engineering Construction Company (CCECC) –Chinese state-owned enterprise – at the cost of $8.3 billion in 2006, but was not executed.
The Goodluck Jonathan administration in 2012 signed a memorandum of understanding with the same firm for the execution of the project. This time, the cost of the project was pegged at $1.53 billion, and financed by China Export-Import (EXIM) Bank, under concessional loan terms.
After Muhammadu Buhari’s government was inaugurated in May 2015, it made its intention of developing the country’s railway network known. On March 7, 2017, the then acting president, Yemi Osinbajo, inaugurated the construction of the project in Lagos. It was expected to be completed in December 2018.
In March 2018, when the federal government, represented by the minister of information and culture, Lai Mohammed, had a meeting with the CCECC, it expressed hopes that the project would be completed in December 2018. Mr Mohammed had enthused: “On today’s meeting, what we have achieved is that the December date for the Lagos – Ibadan standard gauge is non – negotiable. I am happy to say that both contractors and consultants have promised their commitments to meet the deadline. The challenges raised are surmountable and these are what we reviewed in the meeting”. But it failed, like it did in 2006.
The project was one of the many campaign promises of president Buhari during the 2015 and 2019 presidential election eering. Promises were made that in a few months, it would be ready.
Finally, it has been commissioned albeit with questions about its completeness. The amount spent on the project should, ordinarily, make it a project of immense interest for the government with regards to thoroughness and completeness of all necessary support infrastructure.
The Professor Wole Soyinka station, Abeokuta station, is among the biggest of all the stations and the completion rate is somewhat higher than it is at Omi-Adio and Olodo. The train spent five minutes disembarking passengers. “We hope to serve you next time” fizzled as the journey continued at 9:05 am. The main station building seemed almost complete with black cables — apparently used for testing of some electrical components of the station — dangling from one side to the other. Long pillars and bases for the main station building have been painted while some workers cleaned the glass of the rail.
The Chief Mrs Ransome Kuti station, Papalanto, in my estimation has the slowest pace of work. I did get a clearer view here because the train stopped here for a change of crew.
At a particular station, sand tipping vehicles offloaded while a section of the station building had no windows yet. A young man who sat beside me, visibly in his early 30s, started a conversation about how long the project has taken. So, I had to remind him that the commissioning of the project was about to take place. He looked at me, chuckled and said “of course this is Nigeria”; then faced back his novel and said nothing else. The Kajola station presented nothing different.
At 9:43am, the train arrived at the Agbado station. Workers were seen at the station. Something significant happened here: the railway has never been free right from the time I started doing stories on this train. It’s either you find a motorcycle rider on the railway or a woman and man ‘gisting’ and giggling. Nothing has changed yet: activities were bustling on as people hawked on the second rail line.
The Agege station was not totally completed yet. The train arrived here at 10:13 am. It stopped without announcing why. When I asked, one of the NRC staff replied that the train stopped to pick some Chinese workers. Due to the delay here, some passengers requested to disembark and they were obliged. But on seeing the dangers of jumping on iron sharp granites on the railway while disembarking, both the passengers and the staff reached a consensus that it wasn’t safe for them.
After waiting for more than 10 minutes for the Chinese workers to come on board, the train had to move back to meet them so they could join. No further explanation was provided on why the journey had to be delayed for about 20 minutes just to pick Chinese workers.
Passengers got uneasy. When I confronted the staff for further explanations, he couldn’t offer any but said this wasn’t communicated to them and he had to go ask why the train stopped before he was told that the Chinese workers had to be picked.
Five minutes after the journey resumed, a Chinese reporter for China Central Television (CCTV) walked in with a cameraman to record in the train and interview passengers, asking them questions on ‘how they feel about how China built the railway for and its friendship with Nigeria’.
Before interviewing the passengers, he spoke Chinese entirely during the recording to signify that the recording is meant wholly for Chinese audiences.
A few minutes later, the journey terminated at the Mobolaji Johnson station, Ebutte-Metta. The main station building looked pretty ready and finishing touches were being put in. But importantly, walking from where the train stopped to the exit axis — built by the old railway corporation, which doubles as where tickets are bought — was a real danger. Passengers, including children and the aged had to walk on iron-sharp granite on the old track.
Now that the project has been commissioned, it is only hoped the uncompleted stations will not be abandoned and the service put in proper shape. Remember, it’s a project of over N600 billion and it was borrowed.
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