Travel: Slow train to Abeokuta: Nigerian railways offer a journey to the past in colonial-style comfort. But be prepared for delays, says Peter Tyzack

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The Independent Travel
In Nigeria, public road transport is crowded and unreliable, yet the railway is rarely used. To a hardened Network SouthEast rail commuter like myself, this seemed strange. Having witnessed the daily scrummage for buses and taxis - which makes a loose maul in a rugby match between Australia and New Zealand look like a children's romp - and having spent hours sitting in Lagos's interminable traffic jams, I decided to see what Nigeria Rail had to offer.

Accompanied by my friend, Rose, and her young daughter, Bibi, I set off one Sunday morning for Lagos station to catch the 9.15 to Abeokuta, a large town about 60 miles to the north. After Abeokuta the line continues to Kano in the far north, a journey that takes several days. Unfortunately, there was no time on this occasion for the long haul, and I had to settle for a shorter Sunday excursion.

First impressions on nearing the station were confusing. As our taxi passed over a level crossing, we noticed that hundreds of people were using the railway line as a public footpath. Did trains actually exist, or was the rail timetable a mere figment of Nigeria Rail's imagination?

We were reassured on arriving at the station five minutes later, to find that it in many ways resembled a pre-Beeching country station in the UK - not very attractive but functional, with plenty of staff and a ready supply of trains waiting empty for passengers.

With the purchase of tickets came an entitlement to use the first- class waiting-room. If the station was Forties-style British Rail, the waiting room was positively Victorian, boasting comfortable armchairs with antimacassars, and polished brass ashtrays. Bibi was clearly impressed. 'Mummy,' she said, surveying the elegance of a bygone age, 'is this the train?'

The station was now beginning to fill up with passengers, and we joined the jostling crowd moving towards the platform. To judge by the large volume of their luggage - which they carried mostly in bundles on their heads - and by their northern-style dress, most were making the long trip to Kano.

Fifteen minutes before our scheduled departure we were settled in our compartment. This was clean and tidy, and although no match for a modern European inter-city train, it had a style of its own, including washing facilities and fold-down beds. Colonial-style comfort, in this corner of Nigeria at least. I felt I was following in the footsteps of former district officers and colonial civil servants.

In spite of the relative comforts of the compartment, and what appeared to be an efficient rail system, there were few other passengers in the first-class section. If you can afford a car in Nigeria, I was told, you flaunt it, and wouldn't dream of travelling any other way, unless by air.

The time for departure came and went. Bibi's wild enthusiasm for the stationary train and our compartment began to wane. In spite of my warnings that we might leave at any moment, Rose and Bibi disembarked and I soon joined them, wandering up and down the track with the other passengers.

A visit to inspect the engine explained everything. There wasn't one. That arrived an hour later, to wild applause.

We finally pulled out of the station some two hours late, and the train began to move majestically through the lush sub-tropical jungle. There were frequent stops at tiny village stations, where the platforms were completely taken over by colourful market stalls. Serious bargaining would begin at once, between passengers and stall-holders.

When the only white face on the train peered inquisitively through the window, there were waves and shouts of 'Hello, Oyiebo' (white man). I gave my best 'royal' wave in return. So this was how it felt to be a celebrity.

During the journey, lunch was served in the compartments to first- class passengers. Rice and stew was on the menu, and very good it was - certainly one up on British Rail's buffet car.

At Abeokuta we disembarked to spend a pleasant afternoon exploring the bustling market, admiring the rich variety of brilliant clothing materials on display. We returned to Lagos by road. Even as we planned the journey, an inner voice had warned me that Nigerian railways might not be quite as reliable as their timetable suggested, and rather than run the risk of being stranded in Abeokuta, I had arranged for a car to meet us.

It was probably a wise decision, but somehow the rapid journey home along the A5 motorway in a modern, air-conditioned limousine could not compare with the jungle train's elegant pace of yesteryear.

(Photograph omitted)

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