It was the end of a tiring day at work in September 2017. Tunde Salako, a resident of Ijoko, Ogun State, could not drive his car home after about 10 hours at work due to an electrical fault.
The chartered architect hitched a ride with a friend. But early the next morning, he decided to board a train accompanied by an automobile electrician who was to fix his car.
Salako purchased tickets for an Oshodi-Iddo train at Ijoko, Ogun State and joined others in a mad rush to get a space on Coach 2. It was one of the batch of diesel-engine coaches inaugurated by the Federal Government in June 2014 as part of efforts to improve long distance travel and mass transit in the country.
Just as passengers were settling down, the electrician who seemed to be familiar with the train, whispered to Salako that they were not meant to sit on that particular coach.
“Let’s move. We can use any coach apart from Coach 1 and 2,” the electrician tells an incredulous Salako.
But he needed to find out why he had to change coaches despite purchasing tickets like any other passenger.
“I don’t want any trouble. The last time I boarded this train and sat in Coach 1, I was harassed by some individuals, who warned me never to sit in Coach 1 and 2. There was a fight with some passengers that day because of the same reason. I was told the coaches are under ‘special control’,” he tells Salako.
Salako adjusts his jacket and sits tight.
“I cannot be educated and one idiot, who did not attend primary school would start harassing me over where to sit on a train,” he says.
But true to the account he had heard, two stops after Salako and his companion boarded, more passengers came into the coach and three passengers approached him.
“They came to where I sat and stood over me as if I should know what I had done wrong without being told. I looked up at the men as they stared at me and I asked ‘What?’
“The scruffy looking men, one of whom was wearing a short dread locks with saggy trousers, asked if I was not aware that the ‘owners of the seats’ was coming? I was shocked and could not believe what I was hearing. The disbelief just made me ignore them and I sat there. I refused to reply or stand up. That was when they started to manhandle me.”
When the issue had nearly degenerated into fisticuffs, Salako suddenly realises that none of the passengers were on his side.
According to him, it seemed that all the other passengers were unified against him and because of this, he backed off.
He was offered back his money by the “seat owner” but Salako, who could not believe what had just happened, turns down the offer and disembarked with the electrician at the next station.
It was an experience that has turned Salako against ever going anywhere by train in Lagos anymore.
“If the Nigerian Railway Corporation is not aware of this problem or it is aware and powerless to control it, then, I would rather stay off travelling by rail,” he says.
As strange as the Salako’s experience is, it is not an isolated incident.
A Lagos resident, who works at the Murtala Mohammed International Airport, Mr. Fatai Abass, has been a regular traveller in Lagos trains for over a decade. He tells Saturday PUNCH that Salako’s experience is a normal occurrence on Lagos trains.
He says, “During rush hour, there is a tendency for new passengers to board coaches 1 and 2 at rush hour or off-peak periods but I have noticed that there is always trouble when the coaches get filled because some passengers exercise control over coaches 1 and 2. They know one another and work like a gang. Once they challenge you over the seats, it is a fight you cannot win.
“Unfortunately, the practice is catching on in coaches 3 and 4. The load room, staff coach and engine rooms are compartments meant for those who are used to those coaches.
‘’Regular users of the train know one another. This is why most times they come to the aid of one another to challenge new passengers. For me, I am well known in the train and this is why I can sit anywhere from coaches 1 to 12. But this is not the same with everybody. It is unfortunate that in Lagos trains, you cannot just come in and sit anywhere.”
A social order growing on Lagos trains
Our correspondent decided to dig deeper into the issue and went on a train from Ijoko to Oshodi to see what kind of reception he might receive.
On the first day of his train ride on December 11, it seemed the gang who exercised control over the seats were not around that day as the empty seats available on coaches 1 and 2 did not warrant any new passenger being challenged.
But the ride was quite eye-opening.
On the train, socialisation takes on a new meaning. Here, strangers become friends and co-regular passengers become family.
Our correspondent met one of the self-appointed group leaders on the train, Taiwo Emmanuel, an employed man in his 40s, who explained the deeper reason behind the way some regular faces on the train gang up against new passengers in some of the coaches.
According to him, while the train provides the platform for socialisation for some, it is an opportunity for some to ply their trade with like-minded passengers on the train.
Emmanuel says, “We make friends on the train, as we see one another every day after work. We share mini packs, we felicitate with one another and we share ‘aso ebi’ (uniform dresses for family events). I have 13 ‘aso ebi’ fabrics that I got on the train that I have not sewn.
“People bring ‘aso ebi’ on the train and we patronise them even though we don’t work in the same places. Sometimes, we contribute money for other passenger’s family events and attend them.
‘’A friend of mine recently sold ‘aso ebi’ for his father’s burial on the train. Funny enough, he sold more of the clothes on the train than anywhere else. For those who bought the fabric but could not attend the funeral, he brought gifts to them on the train. That is the kind of relationship that are forged on the trains.”
In Lagos, the sight of a hoard of passengers riding on the roof of trains has become as common as the train itself.
Emmanuel tells our correspondent that this is a group that has a different social behaviour from those who exercise control over the seats in the coaches.
“There are three groups on the train, those who go atop the train belong to the group that sells Indian hemp and love to smoke the weeds while on the train. The second group are the ones who love to hang on to the train. The third group is that of people who enjoy the comfort of the coaches,” he says.
For those who hang on the train, death is never far away. Few months ago, four passengers hanging on the train in Lagos fell to their death while many sustained injuries when the train collided with an articulated vehicle which got stuck on its path at Fagba, Lagos. Almost every year, the police report cases of death from falling from the top of a train in Lagos.
Meanwhile, on Lagos trains, socialisation did not just start today, as Saturday PUNCH would learn.
In fact, a passenger told our correspondent that in the past, there was an annual practice, of passengers going to the Nigerian Railway Corporation’s Ebute Metta headquarters to pay for all the seats of a particular coach. Some of the passengers would cook from home, garbed in a customised shirts to go and make merry on the train with passengers with whom they regularly rode the same coaches.
The tradition has since stopped as a result of violence and too much intake of drugs and alcohol the parties usually resulted to.
Coaches known for sex and drugs
The notoriety that coaches 1 and 2 has garnered over the years did not just happen. A number of regular train riders who spoke with our correspondent confirmed that the coaches used to be worse.
In fact, the coaches used to serve as brothels at the height of their fame many years ago.
Emmanuel says it was also a time ticket checkers used to have amorous relationship with some female passengers in exchange for free rides.
“In the past, people used to have sex in the toilet. The practice caught on and sex on the train thrived. But it later stopped,” he says.
Gangsters, checkers milking railway service dry
Over the years, Nigeria has spent billions of dollars on rail projects in the country as the sector has yet to be privatised.
In January 2017, the Federal Government released N72bn for the Lagos-Ibadan railway line, while the rehabilitation of the Lagos to Kano track cost N24bn. The government also spent up to $10bn on rail projects in the country in the first six years leading up to 2013 as part of a 25-year master plan.
However, despite the huge investment in the sector, a lot of the money made from the sale of tickets goes into private pockets. According to the National Bureau of Statistics, a total of 596,792 passengers travelled via the rail system in Nigeria in the second quarter of 2017 with the Lagos Mass Transit Train service from Iddo/Apapa to Ijoko recording the highest number with 427,760 passengers.
This number of ticketed passengers pales in comparison to the number of those who get on board without tickets.
The second day our correspondent boarded the train from Ijoko to Osodi, the experience yielded further information on why the Nigerian Railway Corporation may never be profitable for the government.
By 7:15am, all the coaches were filled to the brim.
At the Itoki Railway Station in Ifo, Ogun State, very few passengers queued and paid money for tickets. Many of the passengers pay money to the checkers by hand as the train progresses. However, as many as those who paid, many also boarded without paying.
Our correspondent sat with a well-dressed man holding a ticket for Coach 5.
Few minutes after sitting, a ticket checker came to ask if we had money on us to pay for our seats and we indicated that we duly bought tickets.
It was the wrong response. His countenance changed immediately.
“He spoke in fury and said we must alight at the next stop. But we ignored him.
“Other passengers told us that obtaining tickets meant that the money would go to the government. But when the fare is collected by hand while the train in on the move. The ticket men smile home at the end of the day.
“As the ticket man collected cash and tickets, the amount of money he was holding showed those paying by cash far outnumber those who had tickets.”
On the train, each coach contains 99 seats while each passenger pays N230 for a ticket.
With a minimum of 10 coaches filled with passenger, a trip would amount to N227,700.
But how much of that gets to the government would never be known as the NRC does not make its annual sales available to the public.
But for ticket men aboard Lagos trains, each day ends with drinking, as our correspondent was told.
Emmanuel says he sometimes assist the men to collect fare from passengers.
“Sometimes when I collect N5,000, I divide it into two and pocket half of the money. The ticket men also take the other half. Anytime I help them to collect ticket, or money, I have to get my share of it,” he says.
For him, the train is partly a home and partly “an office”.
According to him, he was once approached by a passenger who thought he might be able to help kill someone.
“He showed me a photograph and asked if I could help him kill the person. I think he thought I could kill because of the way I look. I looked at him and did not utter a word. He read my expression and left the train as soon as possible. I have not seen the man since that day.” he said.
No official enforces the law at train stations
At train stations in Lagos, the absence of policemen or NRC officials at the point of boarding makes it easy for gangsters to control coaches to the detriment of other passengers.
At stations where there are police posts, the policemen carry on without concern for what is going on aboard the trains.
Spokesperson for the NRC, Lagos District, Mrs. Khadija Aroyewun-Adekomaiya, denies claims of individuals controlling coaches aboard the trains in Lagos.
According to her, efforts are being made to tackle challenges facing the operation of trains in the state.
To the NRC, the most important challenge seems to be that of rooftop riders.
Aroyewun-Adekomaiya says, “Rooftop riders are a menace to us just as they are in other developing countries. That does not say we are not up to the task of dealing with them appropriately. We have done series of raids and arrested some of them and make them pay fines. We even charge some to court.
“You would think that they would serve as deterrent to others but it turns out that these people are persistent. We are presently looking at various measures that would not harm people but would stop them. Lagos State government has tried to barricade the rail track from the road but some Nigerians would still cut them down.
“The reality is that a lot of people want to use our facility but we do not have the capacity to accommodate all of them.”
According to her, the lack of adequate employees makes it impossible to control the bad conduct of some passengers on the trains. She says it is a problem that policemen from the railway command also complain of frequently.
She tells Saturday PUNCH, “When we conduct raids, we do it in conjunction with the Lagos State Police Command. We also constitute an in-house task force and they work every day on the train.
“Often times, when we take them to court, the punishments dished out to the offenders do not usually show the gravity of their offences. So, they go back to do the same thing.”
Asked about the ticket men who are feeding fat on the money that is supposed to go into the government coffers, but she said officials had been dismissed over this in the past.
“I get calls from people about this. This is why we insist that each train checker wears a jacket which has a unique number. Many people have been dismissed over fraudulent activities. Once there is evidence of such, we would be happy to take it up,” Aroyewun-Adekomaiya says.
She also claims ignorance of any group controlling coaches on the trains, dismissing them as mere “old tales.”
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