From Obalende to Iju station, where the Lagos-Ibadan train services take off, there was heavy traffic gridlock from Third Mainland Bridge, stretching to Iyana Oworo, Ogudu, Alapere, up to the Lagos-Ibadan expressway. It was 2pm on Friday.
This is, however, not unusual as Lagos traffic situation usually gets worse on Fridays, more so as the year is running out. The month of December is known for increased vehicular movement in Nigeria’s commercial capital.
After much manoeuvring, our correspondent arrived at Iju train station about 3:45pm after facing another chaotic gridlock on Iju road owing to the construction work going on around the railway corridor.
Getting to the train station, a coach was already filled up and waiting for some officials to take off to Ibadan. On ground were about 50 other passengers pleading to get on board the train, but they were told to come back another day as it was already filled up.
The Federal Government had, on December 1, declared the free train ride from Lagos to Ibadan following the test-run of a section of the 157-kilometer project from Fagba in Lagos to Ibadan, where the standard gauge train terminates.
Minister of Transportation Rotimi Amaechi announced the free ride after leading other officials of the ministry and the Nigerian Railway Corporation (NRC) on the test-run about two weeks ago.
The managing director of the NRC, Fidet Okhiria, an engineer, who explained modalities for the takeoff, said two luxury coaches would be deployed on the standard gauge daily, adding that because of the limited space, only 80 people would be able to benefit from the free ride on a first-come-first-served basis.
“Because of limited spaces, the free train ride will be on a first-come-first-serve basis, and this is how we will run till December 19. From December 21, as directed by the minister, we will be running service return daily, and this is how we will operate till April when we are expected to begin full commercial operation on this corridor, in line with the ministerial directive,’’ Okhiria said.
As promised by the Federal Government, the train service kicked off precisely on December 2 from Iju station. The first trip to and from Ibadan recorded only six passengers although the coach had the capacity for 40 people.
But the next trip recorded 23 passengers, and now, it is oversubscribed. More passengers now throng the station in Ibadan, Oyo State and Lagos, to board the train.
Immediately the officials, including the managing director of the NRC, and the Lagos district manager, Jerry Oche, an engineer arrived, the train eventually left Iju at exactly 4:30pm.
However, prior to the departure of the train, there was a mild drama as many passengers who did not have tickets struggled to force themselves on the train. It took the intervention of security operatives comprising the Army, Police and the in-house security personnel of the NRC to control the crowd.
There are two sections in the coach; each has the capacity to carry 20 passengers while there is another cabin for officials and security agents.
The air-conditioned luxury coach has a business class seat with sufficient leg room for each passenger. By the seat are two charging points for the two passengers occupying a side of the row. The passengers were not only seated comfortably, each of them has a charging point to power their mobile phones.
The train took off at a speed not too fast and not too slow, according to some officials of the NRC. Many of the passengers had children, including babies. Some of the children were seated on the rug inside the train. The rug is still very shiny and neat, even as some Muslim passengers occupied a position to offer their prayers. There are restrooms in the train for passengers.
The passengers were visibly excited as the train paced. Some had been enjoying the free train since the service commenced while others were enjoying the standard gauge train service for the first time.
The comfort of the train was the subject of discussion by passengers throughout the trip to Ibadan, which took about two and half hours. There were stopovers in two places – Papalanto and Abeokuta before arriving at the final destination at Ologun Eru in Ibadan.
The visibly elated passengers were full of praises to President Muhammadu Buhari and the minister of transportation for not only revitalising the rail system but also investing in modernisation to enable the people feel the comfort of a modern transportation system.
Mrs. Halimat Idowu, who was with her three children, however, said more coaches needed to be made available to many people on the Lagos-Ibadan axis.
She said, “It is good that they are test-running it now. I was expecting a longer train; after test-running it, I want the government to bring more coaches.
“It is safer. There is no traffic gridlock as we have in Lagos. It is faster, and if we can maintain this it will reduce traffic gridlock on our roads.’’
An excited Mrs. Olaide Oladokun, who lives at Ijoko, said she got to the station early enough to secure a seat to Ibadan for a wedding event taking place on Saturday.
“We are really excited about this train service. We are enjoying the comfort. It is like we are inside an aeroplane. We want to thank President Muhammadu Buhari for doing this. This is what we want in Nigeria. You can see how comfortable we are. There are no fears of accident on the road. No madness of trailers or tankers breaking down and causing gridlock, and we can get to Ibadan in record time.’’
The passengers also said they looked forward to the commercialisation of the service, adding that they would be willing to pay.
Incidentally, the managing director of the NRC was on board this particular trip to Ibadan and our correspondent had a chat with him on the free train service, which he said had been fully subscribed for. He said more coaches were already on the high sea and would soon be delivered for the services, as well as the Abuja-Kaduna service.
He said, “When we started the first day, we had four people, and maybe one person from Ibadan. On the second day, it rose to 22, then 14. On the third day, it went to 50, then 40 from Ibadan. And so we had to caution them. How come you are carrying 50 when you had 40 seats?
“Right now, we carry 40 passengers. We have been carrying the maximum capacity. When I came, I saw a lot of passengers on the ground waiting to board the train, but we cannot allow them to sit because we want to maintain the standard so that we don’t encourage people to start climbing the roof again.
“I think that very soon, when more coaches come, more people would be able to enjoy the ride free of charge for three months, then we will start commercial operations.’’
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