“Oke-talajapa-olegun-motigun-motiso….” That was our sing-song in those days when railway travel evoked a mixture of marvel, freedom and unadulterated joy. Oh, how we looked forward to riding on the train. As the wagons were dragged along the tracks by the engine, you heard their unmistakable conversation and sang along, “Oke-talajapa-olegun-motigun-motiso”. Train ride remains one of the most enduring images of our childhood.
When the military came and blighted many facets of our national life with their jackboot contagion, railway travel all but died. Many of the children born in the 80’s did not experience the thrill of a train ride until they emigrated to other countries or journeyed to Lagos where one old warhorse continued to trot between Agege and Iddo with commuters riding on the roof outnumbering fee-paying passengers inside.
For many years, train rides have activated the Muse in many a commuter, like Robert Louis Stevenson who wrote, ‘From a Railway Carriage’.
Faster than fairies, faster than witches,
Bridges and houses, hedges and ditches;
And charging along like troops in a battle,
All through the meadows the horses and cattle:
All of the sights of the hill and the plain
Fly as thick as driving rain;
And ever again, in the wink of an eye,
Painted stations whistle by …
Sweet as a train ride is, however, things could quickly turn awry without notice — as they did on February 16, 1970, when a train crowded with Eid el-Kabir pilgrims derailed at Langalanga, a village in today’s Nasarawa State. About 150 were killed. It was a day of double tragedy as 52 of the injured were killed in a truck crash on their way to hospital.
Perhaps the most remarkable of the many stories related to the derailment was that of Mallam Bala Adamu who had boarded the train from Zaria, but before he reached Port Harcourt, his destination, the train derailed and fell into a canyon at Langalanga. Adamu had broken his spinal cord and lost his right leg. The accident also left him blind. He was to spend five decades in hospital until his death some years ago.
Tragedy may be the handmaiden of great inventions in transportation, but we nonetheless have to take advantage of new developments because we cannot remain stuck in the past.
The Jonathan administration decided to return Nigeria to the rail tracks and set about the task with gusto. Some of those projects are now being delivered by the Buhari government with additional borrowed funds from China. But already, tragedy is dogging the steps of the Chinese intervention. The other day, a Kaduna-bound train broke down in the middle of the night in the bush. It was supposed to be a new train funded with borrowed funds. In an axis of the country notorious for kidnapping and armed banditry, the passengers sang nunc dimitis until help came three hours later.
“I want to apologise to Nigerians over what happened at the Abuja-Kaduna rail route”, said an embarrassed Transportation Minister, Chibuike Amaechi. “We now have new locomotives and we have called the Chinese because we never expected the mechanical fault at this early stage. On behalf of the Federal Government, the ministry and the Nigerian Railway Corporation (NRC), we apologise to Nigerians and I have instructed the NRC to fix it or invite the Chinese. If this is happening now, then they should bring back our old locomotives, it will just affect turnaround times because we got the new locomotive to increase the turnaround time”.
Nigeria is not alone in train breakdowns. Last January, Greater Anglia passengers were stuck on a broken down train for more than three hours when it broke down in London. The 07:40 GMT Norwich to Liverpool Street service stopped at Forest Gate, near Stratford, at 09:30and passengers were not transferred to another train to finish their journey until 12:30. Ironically, greater Anglia has recently introduced a new fleet of trains. So, Nigeria can claim to be in good company, although in the case of the Brits, no Chinese loan was involved.
A Greater Anglia spokesman said: “We are very sorry for the length of time that customers were caught up in this problem and the major inconvenience they have suffered as a result. Anyone who was on board should contact us for delay repay compensation”. In the Abuja-Kaduna case, nobody is talking of compensation. As usual, the passengers are just happy to be alive and grateful that kidnappers had not anticipated the breakdown, otherwise the men of the underworld would have had a great night in the office.
In climes where they don’t have the privilege of being guests of armed robbers, kidnappers, hoodlums, bandits and other merchants of violence who continually remind us that we are inhabiting an ungoverned space, they complain about little inconveniences like toilets! When a Virgin train broke down for seven hours, a 54-year-old woman told the carriage: “I had to piss in the sink, which feels more civilised than the people choosing to urinate on the floors.” Virgin Trains tweeted that the issue was “damage to overhead wires between Preston and Lancaster”.
In the case of India, the country’s fastest train, the Vande Bharat Express, broke down on its first trip. Prime Minister Narendra Modi had flagged off the train the previous day. The Indian-built train was returning to the capital Delhi from the city of Varanasi after its first outing when brakes in a carriage reportedly jammed. The train reached a speed of 180km/hr (110mph) during trials.
We do not lack company when it comes to train breakdowns, but the other countries aforementioned built the trains at home and were not dependent on any Chinese loan shrouded in secrecy, sans competitive bidding. Those other countries are also not fighting Boko Haram and bandits and kidnappers and armed robbers and hoodlums and the other shadowy gunmen who have taken over our highways and may soon shift their attention to the rail tracks.
Nigerians have never been hemmed in by merchants of death as they now are. Last week, a prominent royal father, the Olufon Of Ifon in Ondo State, Oba Israel Adeusi, was killed by gun-wielding hoodlums near his domain. People no longer commute by road if they have a rail alternative like Abuja-Kaduna passengers.
It is scandalous when a transportation service procured at such great cost with borrowed funds starts breaking down from inception. If the Chinese are not embarrassed, we ought to be. And circumspection (on the part of both the executive and legislative arms of government) is the key going forward. When a man decides to swim in an unfamiliar river and a crocodile attempts to seize his leg, should he proceed to dive into that river with the hope that he will frighten the monsters of the deep? Should a train ride be a one way trip to eternity?
If Diego Maradona had been president of any country in the world, he wouldn’t have evoked as much passion as he did at his demise. He was arguably the best footballer to lace a pair of boots. My favourite tribute was the one by his co-Player of the Century, 80-year-old Pele: “I have lost a great friend and the world lost a legend,” tweeted Pele. “One day, I hope, we will play football together in heaven.”