A Slow Train or Three Across Nigeria (1 of 9)

First: Port Harcourt to Jos

484 miles in 26 hours for 750 Naira

The Lonely Planet guidebook was not encouraging. The West Africa book (1995) quotes author Wole Soyinka as saying “Only a masochist with an exuberant taste for self-violence will pick Nigeria for a holiday.” And “Art should expose, reflect, indeed magnify the decadent, rotted underbelly of a society that has lost its direction, jettisoned all sense of values and is careering down a precipice as fast as the latest artificial boom can take it.” As for Nigerian railways they “…could grind to a halt altogether“, while the Africa book (1996) remarks “…the only thing moving over it is grass“.

A sad prospect, but long experience has shown that the only way to be sure that there is a railway is to go and stand on the tracks, and the only way to know for sure that a train service operates is to be on that train and moving. So I approached Nigeria from Cameroun, intent on getting to the railway terminus at Port Harcourt and finding out for myself. If no train ran, I intended to speed across Nigeria, straight for Benin.

The station proved to be rather the worse for wear and sadly in need of some paint, yet rolling stock was around and some rails bore the shine of use so the first test is passed. There was no timetable on display, but some fellows in the parcel office assured me that yes, trains did operate, and the weekly departure to Jos was tomorrow, nine a.m. Monday. During the week there were further departures populating the schedule: for Kano (Fridays), and Maiduguri (Wednesdays), all provided that the trains do arrive first. Tickets are to be bought on the day of departure. A departure for Jos would suit me, as it is at the end of a branch line that might otherwise be missed and the city is said to be refreshingly cool after the heat of the coast. Also, it was the soonest away.

So much for L.P.’s further disparagement of train travel: “Few travellers go to Jos by train as it is on a branch line and you must change at Kafanchan.” Now, rather than passengers, goats wander along the platforms and roam the railyard amongst decrepit carriages slowly mouldering away. As I was about to leave, I noticed a time-worn picture frame, with a barely-discernable certificate inside reporting the award of “Best-Kept Station”. The date was just legible: September 1958.

Monday started with something of a rush, as I wished to visit the chief Post Office to check on poste restante before leaving the city. It is a short way only from the station, as is the norm, and at eight a.m. I’m standing outside the doors, wondering when it will open. There is no schedule of hours on display, but yesterday a caretaker around the back had nominated eight a.m. Also waiting is Elvis (he’s a Nigerian here, Mr. Elvis Amadi), so we chat a while. At eight-fifteen it is still dark within, but Elvis notices that the doors at the far entrance are open, so we go around. At first I think that only the floor sweeper is inside but then I see that some women are lurking behind the glass barrier. The electricity has failed again: oil-fired power stations cannot meet local demand, even though Port Harcourt has a refinery, whose flares glared through last night’s blackout.

As for poste restante, “We don’t have this”. I walk the length of the counter peering at the signs, but no luck, and a lurking supervisor speaks from the gloom to reaffirm no knowledge of any such service. Very well, I can’t stay around to argue. Yes, I expect the train to leave late, but, how late? It is not just my bad morning, Elvis is also having trouble. His puzzling request appears to be to buy some stamps to take away.

I get to the station at 8:25 to find little happening. There is no crowd as I had been warned about, although I did notice two individuals also closing on the station, clutching luggage. Nor are there queues at the ticket windows. I can’t have a first class ticket until a fellow checks with the conductor so I wait, and eye the notice stating the opening times of the ticket booths: 5 – 8, 10 – 12, 2 – 6. Not including now, despite a departure being scheduled for 9 a.m., in a ‘closed’ time.

People are surprised to see me here, checking that I am indeed wishing to go to Jos. A well-dressed fellow assures me that there will be a place available, and so it proves. I’m issued the classic cardboard ticket, and guided to compartment ‘E’. First class proves to be a ‘sleeper’ compartment of two bunks, all to myself. Past luxury is now faded, indeed battered, but still serviceable and at least well swept out although the shower cubicle has no water. I can also sit on a forward-facing seat by the window to watch the world roll by.

But not just yet. I go out for a stroll to view the rest of the train. “Standard Class” carriages hold ninety seats, and are well-filled. I am the only foreigner, often a bad sign, but everyone seems cheerful. At the front, our diesel engine ticks over, but with improper clunking noises adding syncopation to the throb.

Smack on time there is a rumble from the engine…and we don’t move. The engine has gone off to perform shunting tasks. At noon we’re still here, though now the story is that the engine is being fixed. I awaken at three and ask afresh: now a replacement engine is arriving soon. I could have returned to the Post Office for another go, but of course can’t be sure that the train wouldn’t leave in my absence and every time I asked, I was told “Don’t leave the station”. Naturally, in my presence, the train remains at the station. Some thin entertainment is provided by an engine shunting oil tanker wagons about, but otherwise there is no development until 4:40, when an engine, or rather, the engine is placed at the head of our train.

Now the vacuum brakes must be inspected. Five p.m. passes, so yet again I could have re-visited the P.O. or gone for lunch, had I known, but instead stay to hear an occasional toot from the engine. Another toot. And a long one. We roll! It is 5:15 p.m.

Once out of the rail yard we have to go past a city market fringed by mounds of smouldering litter strewn around the pillars of a raised road interchange. Or rather, right through the middle. Stalls crowd the tracks as well as goods on display, and we advance in a series of starts and stops accompanied by furious toots from the engine. From the crowd come yells of “White man!” and I get many surprised looks. Soon we’re rolling through the suburbs, then out into lush countryside as dusk falls. The compartment light just works, but after a meal stop at Aba, I decide on sleep. Unlike on a bus, I can stretch out at full length. Outside is darkness, broken only by the glow of small fires and lamps. Another area without electricity.

It was a noisy, bouncy night’s ride, sometimes quite speedy. Around eight thirty I give up on sleep as the corridor is occupied by squatters banging their baggage about and yelling. We’re at a station, which means that I can obtain some deep-fried spicy dough balls for breakfast, if I can decide what’s going on. We’ve just silently drifted forward a foot, but there is no other indication of departure. At 8:40, tootings from the engine. A five-minute warning, or just tootings? At 8:50 we’re still here so just toots it would seem. Some railway staff pass with a clipboard, seeming to check receipts against passengers, but otherwise there is no further railway action. So breakfast on two deep-fried spicy dough balls for N10. At 9:20 a lone parp, then another, then again at 9:35. Nothing else happens.

We’re at Enugu, about a quarter of the way to Jos and as ten a.m. drifts by, I decide to have a second breakfast on curried rice and fish with some fizz from the station vendors. All for N42 and there are about N100 to the pound, N80 to the dollar. A tin of sardines is N60, so stall food is still cheaper than what can easily be put together while on the move. Or not on the move, at a station.

Meanwhile, I see that there are now two engines at the front, the second being dead.

10:45 – More parps, plus a platform guard’s whistle and people pile on, bawling children and all.

10:52 – Still more parps, plus a bell from the station, but� immobile.

10:54 – Long parp.

10:55 – We move! But just clear of the station, we stop.

There is more parping at odd moments, and some shunting is observed, then at 11:50 we move on. Unfortunately, there is so much fine dust in the air (from the distant Sahara) that visibility is restricted to a mile at best, but it is not so thick that I can’t see the flame emerging amidst the smoke of our engine’s exhaust. Steam engines were never as fierce as this iron dragon! Around two p.m. we drift by Igbede on temporary track, the main being re-laid by a gang of six men at most, with pick and shovel only.

The day passes as we roll through dry bush. There are thinly scattered trees with dry undergrowth. Occasionally fires are visible adding to the murk as burnoffs proceed. The larger trees survive, having lost their lower branches long since, though some have smouldering scars on their trunks. Life is easy for me. At stations, vendors offer oranges at N1 each, the same price for a small bag of peanuts. I am hoping that we will cross the Benue river in daylight, but this hope slowly fades.

We stop at 6:15 while some hammering is done to the carriage in front of mine and also, our engine leaves us behind. At 7:15 I hear a faint toot from far ahead and at 7:30 we’re reunited. By now it is dark, and as there is no power, I am eating my dinner snack by candlelight. It is over before we start to move, the draught blowing out my candle by the window. We continue until Makurdi, where we wait four hours until midnight to cross a large river by means of a tall girder bridge. So much for that, then.

The morning starts like yesterday’s: we have stopped somewhere. As yesterday, I snooze on until about 8 a.m., when we stop at another nameless waystation, this one having had its name board burnt away by one of the innumerable scrub clearance fires. We’re at 1,500′ and the night had been cool enough for me to have slept under my sheet. As the day progresses we climb to 2,800′ then we pause awhile. I heard someone explain that the engine’s radiator had boiled.

At 3 p.m. we reach Kafanchan junction, where a Maiduguri to Lagos train is standing. As this is a busy station, there is a good selection of food vendors on the platform, stoking many customers. And the other train has its problems too: its engine is being repaired. So is ours. We will be here for at least an hour, so I have time to seek out the post office, though I am urged to “Be quick”. A taxi motorbike fellow sweeps me away, and again I’m told that “Poste Restante” is unknown. Oh well, a swift ride back to the station. As for the hour’s wait, at 4 p.m. there is no sign of our engine. An hour later, the other train heads off for Lagos, but at 5:15 we move off too, again with gouts of flame flashing amongst the billowing exhaust.

Ticket inspectors come past at 8 p.m., saying “Two hours to Jos”, but I wake at 11:30 and we’re stopped. At 6 a.m. we’re still stopped, but at somewhere else, and at 8 we’re still there. “Only a short way now”, but at 8:45 I give in, and join the trickle of other passengers abandoning the train. We’re on the outskirts of Jos, so a shared taxi into the town centre is soon arranged.

I easily find a place to stay at the Cochin Guest House. This is the “Church of Christ In Nigeria”; Jos is on the interface with the Muslim areas of the north, and missionary activity is intense. But if they have a spare bed, it’s only N150. Next, away to find the railway station where I learn that the train finally drew in at 9:15. My Thomas Cook World Timetable quotes a scheduled journey time of twenty-five hours and forty minutes, but this run took three days, as it is now Thursday, though I suppose that eight hours could be rebated for the delayed start from Port Harcourt. As for other trains, nothing definite can be said. At the Post Office, the staff know about poste restante, but have no mail at all, so I feel badly about Port Harcourt as that was a town that I had said that I would be visiting.

Jos is a pleasant town, and especially the cool is pleasant. So is the Guest House. I meet an English student who is staying in a rather rough hotel room for a higher price, so he decides to move to the Guest House also. He is here to study Nigerian literature, such as the Onitsha Market Writers, with titles such as My Seven Young Daughters Are After Young Boys. Nevertheless, I drag myself away (for who knows what weekly trains I might be missing), intent on further rail travel. My objective is Kano, but rather than mess about trying to make connections on a once per week sort of schedule via Kafanchan junction, on Sunday I go by bus to Kaduna, so you see that I am not actually a fanatic after all…

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