Taking the Lagos train

The arrival of mass rapid transit in the city offers a new metaphor for Nigeria’s social stratification.

The Lagos skyline with the new metro train in the foreground.

Image credit Oluka Levi © 2024.

For a moment, Pride & Prejudice finally had some sound. For Nigerians familiar with the movie, and who have also taken a train from and/or to Lagos, there’s a particularly unchanging experience that is having a look at the 2005 adaptation of the famous Jane Austen novel. “Having a look” is perhaps the most appropriate term, as the movie is always shown, without sound, meaning it’s not so much being viewed as it is an item of display. But on this occasion, there was a modicum of sound, hard to make out, but existent because this was in the quiet of the Business Class section of the train.

If there’s an element to highlight the disparity of societal position via Nigerian trains; it’s probably this: the quiet that affords one to almost hear what is regularly unheard, a level of moving comfort attained; unlike in the Standard Class, where it’s more congested, there’s less room to sit, and there’s as little possibility as there is interest in whatever audio is coming out of that Joe Wright movie.

Man entering subway station in Lagos.
Image credit Oluka Levi © 2024.

From a personal perspective, this isn’t by any means the first time I am taking the train, but it is the first time taking the train within the same state, and from visual evidence it’s an experience not many partake in. The Nigerian Railway Corporation (NRC) has boasted about how the (overdue) increase in the provision of train travel will, among other things, be pivotal in reducing traffic congestion. But at the state level, it’s not likely to be the case. There’s the fact that trains still run through select locations and at select times (perhaps inevitably, due to rail construction). Then there’s the fact that a train ticket from Agege (Babatunde Raji Fashola Station) to Ebute-Metta (Mobolaji Johnson Station) costs at least N3,000 for an adult, for a trip of no more than half an hour. Via popular transport (ride-hailing apps excluded), it would less than half that. If this is meant to alleviate transport congestion, it will do so for only a few, and at a price.

Taking the train itself does provide a certain level of ease, and—if you’re within a certain economic  bracket—comfort. It’s much easier to keep your luggage, and less of a hassle to deal with, and it eliminates the typical hurriedness of disembarking from a bus, which is more of a bother with baggage. There’s also an efficiency to it: it runs on time. The announcer makes known when you approach a station, when you leave one, and when the trip in its entirety comes to an end.

A man tapping into the Lagos metro.
Image credit Oluka Levi © 2024.

Yet, using the train is about more than just taking the train. The concept of intermodal connectivity is one of the things the NRC itself has mentioned, and how the integration of the trains and railways with other modes of transportation is important. Perhaps this is the need behind the Ikeja Train Station—recently commissioned by the still-new Bola Ahmed Tinubu administration—a station with proximity to an airport, although there’s a limitation in the sense that the train still has a limited schedule and intermodal connectivity. Case in point, the train takes its final halt at Ebute-Metta Station, where, if finding transportation from the station is easy, it’s not readily available, or cheap. It’s no better at the Agege Station, and both stations still have it good compared to the Abeokuta Station. Combine the relative paucity of mediums of transportation around the stations and distance between the stations and hearts of those areas in a free-market economic society; the problem highlights itself.

The political significance also can’t be overstated. For the trains in Lagos, there’s a tiered class system (hence, the places on the train where you can hear Pride & Prejudice). There’s the metaphor of being inside the train—running on time—passing through crumbling buildings, murky roads, and failing infrastructure around you; then there’s the rather individualist aura of Business Class—a reflection of alienation and upward economic mobility. But the starkest contradiction is seeing unhoused people forced to find sleeping solace beside (and sometimes on) the rail lines; the same people the Lagos state government boasted of arresting some weeks ago. Meanwhile, the Managing Director of the NRC, Fidet Okhiria, claims that the presence of trains serves to alleviate the hardship that’s come with the removal of fuel subsidy. Your bus fare has gone from N400 to N650? How about you take a train of N3,000 instead? The NRC has also made claims about how the trains will be a solution to the increased insecurity in road travel. There’s the bullishness about the role of trains in industrialization and urbanization, all while the areas and roads around the different stations remain sorely underdeveloped.

The Lagos metro train from street level.
Image credit Oluka Levi © 2024.

Such claims, and the lack of action to implement and bring them to fruition, highlight a government that’s not just patting itself on the back, but also a tunnel-visioned ruling entity that only appeals to the surface consciousness—providing partisan ammunition for the current ruling party. This is especially so among those who pedal the rhetoric of Tinubu having earned his shot at the Presidency because of how he “built Lagos”—a notion that’s also employed by advocates for Lagos state governor Jide Sanwoolu (of the ruling APC party), using his promotion of road construction projects to shield him against other forms of criticism.

The current Nigerian train system is many things: a metaphor for social stratification; a sign of how much still needs to be done to implement urbanization and industrialization; and a means for the government to distract from its failures to provide solutions to systemic issues.

But, hey, at least the trains run on time.

Customers entering the train on the platform of the Lagos metro.
Image credit Oluka Levi © 2024.

Further Reading

Names to facades

While some streets in Lagos bear the names of notable nationalist leaders and pioneering early Nigerians, less is known about the everyday social milieu in which they operated.

Blind to the matatus

The future of Kenya’s matatus (commuter buses) and their inherent place in the capital Nairobi’s culture and society, is all but absent in the government’s neoliberal vision for urban planning.