A Slow Train or Three Across Nigeria (4 of 9)


At 9 a.m. we stop at Gombe, so breakfast, first on rice and stew, then on my own muesli and a litre of UHT milk. Breakfasts after tomorrow can look after themselves. When I go out looking for water (there was none at Maiduguri station), none is available here either, but a fellow approached with a five gallon black plastic container as I stare out at the wide dusty empty streets. “It is too far away” he says, and fills my canteen with ‘pump’ water. He goes to Ibadan, which is two, three, maybe four days away in his expectation.

A railwayman has come over to chat with the mad foreigner, and explains that our thirty-year old engine is “Not strong”, so was away being repaired. So much for diesel technology. Steam engines can and do last for a century, and can be maintained and even built by simple technology. Think about it. A steam engine has just a few moving parts (wheels, pistons and connecting rods), none of which are exposed to hot corrosive gases, whereas diesel-electric engines require high technology’s horde of high precision complexly interconnected components, that are neither rugged nor readily maintained in the poor world. Ah, steam.

Out in the marshalling yard, old steam shunting engines sit abandoned. Since mainline engines now have to be pressed into shunting duty, for which the high starting torque of steam is far better suited, why not revive them? Ah, but it would not be modern, and to be modern means all the added complexity of an electric generator to supply an electric motor. All because the load of a heavy train is too much for a clutch to handle when starting from a stop, and a diesel delivers zero torque at zero rpm. Meanwhile, we’re still here.

At 11:30 there are toots from the front, and shortly we drift away from the station. An hour later we’re stopped in nowhere so I go out for a look at our engine. A second engine is in tow, and the first is briefly restarted at 1:10, belching great clouds of black smoke. A pool of oil lies on the sand below, like blood from a disembowelled elephant, while the assistant hammers something, under the instruction of the driver who is leaning out of the cab’s window and fiddling with controls. Passengers stand around watching, having nothing much else to do. At 1:15 a toot and the train slowly starts moving while passengers wait for their carriage to come level with where they’re standing.

We slowly glide into Bomala, a station house in nowhere, besides some sidings. Only 695 of 1,118 miles to go. About one third gone in 29 hours, so� 60 hours to go at this rate. Arriving at Lagos just as the weekend starts will not do me much good, as I need to obtain a visa for Benin before I flee the city. Thus long delays are not a troubling prospect, only short ones.

From the station room comes the sound of a hand-cranked telephone, then shouts echo forth. Evidently, there is little cloth furniture. Outside is a Muslim prayer enclosure, and according to my compass it is some thirty degrees too far around. It should be north of East, rather than south, but the faithful prove unresponsive. Perhaps the magnetic deviation here is large. I can’t be bothered setting up a sundial, as best results require observations on both sides of noon, and some hours.

There are some Chinese here, so I surprise them with a “Ninhao!” (about all that I can remember) and am in turn surprised as one is from Lanzhou, a city I’ve visited so I show him my pocket notebook with the ideograms to request “One person, hard sleeper, middle bunk, to Lanzhou, tomorrow evening” from the ticket seller. He explains that the Nigerian railway tracks are being ‘rehabilitated’ in a U$500,000,000 contract whose direction was won by the Chinese. It is desperately needed, the first significant effort since colonial days. It is not only their expertise that is imported, there is a Chinese style engineer’s railvan present, which causes a stir when it departs at 2:45. Apparently it was to drop someone off at a road crossing ahead, which we could have done, so now we must wait for its return. Our engine continues to tick over, with a fellow messing with the air hose, but there is no other activity to suggest a fresh problem.

At 3:15 the railvan returns, and we continue to wait.

3:25 A toot.

3:28 Another.

3:35 Again.

3:36 More� And we move! Thirty yards. Stop.

4:25 Fresh toots.

4:28 We move off, as the railvan comes up from behind on a parallel track, with some fellows who jump off and must run to transfer to us, as if we couldn’t have waited another minute.

This time we continue steadily, over a rolling plateau. I view a dusty sunset at six, then retire for a snooze as there is again no electricity for the second night. Perhaps the generator had switched itself off by running out of fuel. I think we reached Bauchi some time around nine. At ten I go out for a look, as my snooze is again plagued by a series of howls and screams. Little is happening. There are a few people squatting around pots of food but no drink vendors, so as I have already eaten, back to my bunk.

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