Dwindling fortunes of Nigeria’s old railway towns | Dailytrust

Dwindling fortunes of Nigeria’s old railway towns

The glory days of rail transport which was relatively enthralling during its heyday,  are still a distance memory as several railway stations remain desolate,...

Empty railway station at Offa
Empty railway station at Offa

The glory days of rail transport which was relatively enthralling during its heyday,  are still a distance memory as several railway stations remain desolate, while others survive with epileptic operations, despite the current transformation of the transport system under President Muhammadu Buhari’s administration.

Daily Trust on Sunday highlights scenarios of some stations, with nostalgic tales by residents who have called on government to revamp the system with a view to restoring its lost glory.     

Rail transport believed to be the safest transport system used to enjoy a lot of patronage in this country when service was at its best.

The transport system also enhanced deep economic fortunes when railway stations used to buzz with business and or economic activities, which also boosted the social and economic prosperity of railway towns.

But the reverse is now the case as many railway stations have not only become ghost towns, but several people have also relocated to other places due to the declining fortunes at the stations which they maximised as business centres.    

 

Kafanchan station desolate

The Kafanchan Railway Station is the administrative headquarters of the North Central District of the Nigerian Railway Corporation.  It comprises about three sub-districts: Jos (Plateau State), Lafia (Nasarawa State) and Makurdi (Benue State).

In the late ’80s when trains used to operate from the North to the South East through Kafanchan, the North-Central District generated about 30 percent of the railway’s revenue from passengers traffic.  Transportation of goods from the North to and from the South East had also enhanced the socio-economic life of the benefitting areas.

For someone who was familiar with the Kafanchan railway station about 30 years back, when movement of trains in out of the town was on a daily basis, entering the station would now spur nostalgia.

Findings by Daily Trust on Sunday indicated that about three passenger trains used to either come or leave the station daily with  Lagos-Jos, Lagos-Maiduguri and Kano-Port Harcourt trips. Each of them used to carry between 16 and 17 wagons. Cattle trains used to move from Maiduguri to Port Harcourt, Kaduna to Maiduguri and Port Harcourt to Kaduna thrice in a week. But this is no longer the case.

Being a railway town, Kafanchan used to buzz with  business activities. Traders, hawkers, beggars, orange and palm oil merchants from Benue and Enugu States used to converge at the station to carry out their business activities. The town became a business centre of sorts due to transshipment of passengers from one train station to another.  This opened a floodgate of business authorities for men and women folks in Kafanchan.

Linda Ezekiel, a 60-year-old woman who used to trade at the station confirmed in a chat with Daily Trust on Sunday that in the ’80s, the station used to be a beehive of activities, with many people engaging in diverse business activities. “I can say that almost everybody was benefitting. I used to bring 30 bags of oranges and sell on whole sale basis to retailers. I made a lot of money then.  Now, look at what the system has turned to. Almost everything has gone. Our businesses have died,” she said.

Aminu Tahir, another business man at the station narrated how, as a young boy, he used to accompany his sister to sell cooked food to labourers and passengers whenever they were waiting for train.

“But now, there is no such thing. The station has turned to a bush,” he said.

A butcher, Alhaji Sama’ila Labaran, said when it was functioning, the station enhanced reduction in cost of transportation and prices of goods in shops and markets.

“Transportation of cattle to and from the North to the East was cheap. Instead of spending many days during long walk, moving cattle to one place to the other, making them to emaciate,  trains were used to transport them easily, safely and directly into towns. It was much more profitable even for farmers as the cattle would produce more meat,” he said.

Labaran, however, called on the Federal Government to intensify more efforts in rehabilitating the railway and restore business opportunities to host communities.

A retired NRC staffer, Usman Danbala, told Daily Trust Saturday that when the Kafanchan railway station  was used to be alive with business activities, most farmers from villages such as Kogum, Jagindi and many others used to transport foodstuffs such as garri, cassava tomatoes, bitter leaf, maize and corns to Kafanchan market through local trains.

Danbala, who retired 10 years ago after serving for 35 years at the station, said the poor and downtrodden had been the major beneficiaries of the railway service when activities were at their peak. He, however, bemoaned the worsening state of facilities and declination of railway transport and its fortunes for the people.

Zungeru now ghost house

Daily Trust on Sunday gathered that economic activities at Zungeru rail station had stopped as trains no longer operate regularly, as there are no fixed days for operations.

The Zungeru Rail Station which has a history of enthralling economic activities has now become a ghost house. All that is now left of the place are sounds of birds and chirps of insects, obsolete rail tracks, grounded train coaches as well as dilapidated staff quarters and abandoned facilities.

Daily Trust on Sunday gathered that the station which was the first railway track in Northern Nigeria and brought by the Governor-General, Lord Fedrick Lugard, between 1900 and 1914 connected several villages and towns, including Gwarjiko.

Residents told our correspondent that the rail station which also connected several farm villages inspired a lot of economic benefits in the past as people trooped there on daily basis to buy and sell.

In those days, people used to come from villages and other towns to carry out their trading activities.

The railway also connected  major towns and cities, including Kano, Zaria, Kaduna, Mokwa, Minna, Gwagwada, Rigachukwu, Challawa in the North as well as Lagos, Ilorin, Ogbomosho and Ibadan in the South.

The station located in an agrarian community, started deteriorating after the return of democracy 20 years ago. Residents said the railway system enjoyed the presence of the military government marked by economic fortunes for the people and the town.

Alhaji Abdulraheem Hamzat Zungeru, 76, the Sarkin Yarubawan Zungeru, who had lived his entire life in Zungeru since 1946 said: “The Zungeru rail station has deteriorated so much. But I wouldn’t say it has collapsed completely since the train still moves up and down. But it has become like a ghost house, compared to the past. In the past, if you went to the railway station, you would see people always moving up and down, with passengers going and coming. That time, you had passengers from Lagos, Kano and other places. They always came and crossed one another even at Zungeru here.”

He added: So, there were many people going up and down. It used to be a very busy place. It was so busy that if you were going to travel, you would have to queue up to get your ticket.  If you wanted to go to Ilorin, Ibadan, Osogbo or Kano, Kaduna, you would have to queue to get your ticket. A lot of people used to come from Lagos with their goods like kola nuts and many other things from the South to sell. They also loaded cattle in trains from here to the Southern part of the country. So, many business activities going on during that time.”

Daily Trust on Sunday also gathered that the railway station used to handle other activities such as petroleum products from the South to other towns such,  including Kontagora, Minna and other places in the state.

“But as time went on, all these activities went down. The railway is no longer functioning. It has been a dull situation of some sort. Nothing is happening again.”

“During that time, the town was booming with economic activities. Many schools were functioning very well. In fact, at that time, one would be prompted to say that Zungeru should have been the headquarters of Nigeria. We also had a post office here. One of the Nigeria post offices we had was in this Zungeru. It was opened by Chief S. A. Akintola when he was the Minister of Communications. There were a lot of markets where massive buying and selling used to thrive. But now many things have died down. Many people have relocated to other places. I know some people who have relocated because they could not find anything serious to do since the station collapsed. Many of them had left Zungeru to settle in other places.”

The station has lost so many things. That is why many people left Zungeru because the station has lost business prospects.”

Alhaji Hamzat lamented that the deteriorated condition of the station had ruined the economic fortunes of the people of the town.

He appealed to the government to revamp the railway station, especially by rehabilitating the staff buildings and restore the lost days of economic boom that the town enjoyed when the station was functioning properly.

He added that with the coming of Zungeru Hydro Electricity Dam, revamping of the rail system to Zungeru would create many economic opportunities for the people.

Mallam Abubakar Yusuf  Sadauki, a tourist guide, said the Zungeru rail station started deteriorating during the civilian administration of President Olusegun Obasanjo in 1999.

 “Contractors handled the railway because it was handed over to the Indian Government. It was India that monitored the rail and served as contractors with their engineers. So, when their contract time elapsed, they left and handed it over to our indigenous engineers. Since then, it has not been properly maintained,” he said.

Sadauki said when the railway was functioning, “it linked various villages around, where there were no roads and there were a lot of economic activities. We had traders who came from Kano, Kaduna on a train to buy things here in Zungeru. They also brought things for sale. People used to go to railway stations to buy things they wanted. Those who had what to sell also went there to sell and because of the rail station, Zungeru became a multi-tribal town. There were a lot of tribes – Tiv, Yoruba and many others. It was after the railway had collapsed that most of them left.”

A resident who identified himself as Mallam Abdullahi said: “When train was operating very well, we farmers easily sold our farm produce without incurring transport expenses of taking them to far markets to sell. Our women also came to the station to sell foods such as yam, kuli-kuli, maize, and several other foods and they gained a lot.  In those days, the station was always busy with people.  But now, it is empty because the train no longer operates as it used to.”

He added: “Trains don’t move every day.  We don’t really know the exact day it operates now. We only take the train from time to time.”

According to him, revamping the rail system would bring back the lost economic fortunes in the town. It would also create direct and indirect jobs for people.

Another resident who spoke on the condition of anonymity  noted that the good days of train operation brought bounties to families in Zungeru and communities within.

“In those days, women in particular came to sell foods here and it helped them and  their families a lot. They used to sell food to travellers. But now, that is no longer happening. Twenty years ago, if you came to this Zungeru rail station, you would see people as if it was a marketplace. The activities were booming. Some people were working as labourers to earn a living. But all these are no longer happening. This has affected the economic development of our people.“

 

Offa surviving on epileptic operations

Built by the British Government in 1896, the Offa railway station used to be alive with diverse economic activities.

Findings by our correspondent indicated that passengers who used to travel to the northern and southern parts of the country flocked the facility which also served as huge tourism potential for the country. But that is not longer the case as the once iconic structure has almost become desolate.

Its epileptic operation has drastically affected patronage as passengers continue to groan under worsening services that most times lead to additional expenses and waste of time.

Recently, some hoodlums set an abandoned couch ablaze at the Ilorin office due to alleged poor service. 

The National General Secretary of Offa Descendants Union (ODU), Muideen Ibrahim, lamented the effects of the crisis on the economic activities of the people of the town.

Ibrahim, a former regular rail traveller, who recalled the good old days of train operation with nostalgia told Daily Trust Saturday that before now, Offa, being a major railway centre and a cosmopolitan town, used to be a centre of economic, political and tourism activities because of the presence of the railway station. 

“The rail got to Offa very early.  The train used to have a stopover here, spending hours. That opportunity attracted patronage from most of the surrounding towns and villages as people would first come to book their tickets before coming for their actual boarding time. Some of them used to come a day earlier and sleep in nearby hotels to the extent that a lot of people made fortunes from the situation,” he said. 

“Economically and socially, it was a fantastic place with various activities which allowed trade, commerce, hotels and other recreational centers to spring up. As a result, there was the railway recreational clubs that hosted sports like table and lawn tennis. There was no musician that was worth his salt then that did not stage a show or played at the club. They included the like of the late Sikiru Ayinde Barrister, Kolawole Kollington, Sir Shina Peters, King Sunny Ade and the late Ayinla Omowura. There were so many food joints and the station was bubbling,” he said.

Ibrahim said with the passage of time, the fortunes had nosedived, leading to near total collapse until now that the present government is trying to resuscitate the system.

He called on  government to ensure it accelerates the construction of the new railway system to return Offa’s status as a major train stopover centre. 

An indigene of Offa who does not want his name in print said passengers are now reluctant to use the service because of the epileptic service.

“The problem we are having in Offa is that we still use the old rail line with its epileptic operation. For instance, the last train that moved on Tuesday broke down in Minna and some of the passengers have to board vehicles to Kaduna,” he said. 

“The epileptic service has really affected the patronage and increased passenger’s apathy. In the olden days when there was smooth operation, the economy of the place and the vicinity bubbled as different. Vendors make a lot of money here. It was indeed a thriving commerce,” he added.   

Efforts to get the response of the PRO of the station, Mr Taiwo, was not successful, but an official, Mr Yusuf Suleiman, said the construction of the standard gauge would change the dwindling fortunes for the better. 

“What we still have in Offa is the narrow gauge. The standard gauge has not gotten to us and that will change a lot of things as we are witnessing in other places where the standard gauge is now operating like the Lagos-Ibadan, Abuja-Kaduna among others.” 

The Nigerian Railway Corporation (NRC) said it is doing its best to bring back the old glory of the railway with the revitalization of the railway networks across the country. 

The Managing Director, Engr. Fidet Okhiria, told Daily Trust Saturday in a chat that there were improvements in stations across the country lately.

He disclosed that the corporation rehabilitates one or two stations annually.

“We still maintain the old stations. Every year, we take some and maintain. In Kano, we did some improvements. If you go to Kano now, we have just re-roofed it,” Okhiria said.

“On the eastern line, most of the stations would be remodelled as part of the contract for reconstruction of the narrow gauge there. The stations would have to be remodeled,” he added.

He said the good old days of the railway stations would return and economic activities rejuvenated as activities on the railway line improve.

“We run Lagos-Kano train every week and we also do freight. So, we are trying to get to Enugu on our own before March before the reconstruction starts,” he said.

Daily Trust on Sunday  reports that the railway had been moribund for more than a decade before it was revived during the Goodluck Jonathan’s administration with the rehabilitation of the abandoned Lagos-Kano narrow gauge which was later revived.

Also,  the Lagos-Ogun intercity commuter train was revived with over 10,000 passengers who travel daily from Ijoko in Ogun State to Apapa, Lagos.

The NRC operations were further bolstered by the commencement of standard gauge services in Abuja-Kaduna, Itakpe-Warri and Lagos-Ibadan.

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