Rail transport in Africa: tales from Accra and Jo'burg

The cold and chilly weather spared no one. Long-flowing overcoats drop to the knee and most hands were either buried deep in trousers or in gloves ostensibly to tame the cold.

There is very little chitchat as eyes sweep across the day’s newspapers and magazines.  A few people with little interest in reading but with ears blocked with earpieces had their heads nodding and feet tapping to music streaming from their phones.

The digital clock announced the time as 7.25 a.m., and as the seconds wore into minutes, eyes were fixed on the clock. Five minutes later, it arrived just on time — 7.30 a.m. as predicted.

The Gautrain 
As if on cue, scores milled out and scores of others replaced them. It is a cold morning in July and this is the daily routine of passengers of the Gautrain – South Africa’s 80-kilometre mass rapid transit railway system in Gauteng Province — which links Johannesburg, Pretoria, Ekhuruleni and OR Tambo International Airport.

 It was built to relieve the traffic congestion in the Johannesburg-Pretoria traffic corridor and offer commuters a viable alternative to road transport to complement Johannesburg‘s public transport infrastructure.

The rail network is connected to other forms of public transport such as  taxis, buses and the Metrorail public train system. Commuters can also use several Gautrain buses to destinations within a 15-kilometre radius.

Travelling at up to 160 kilometres per hour, Gautrain takes 35 minutes to travel the 54 kilometres between Johannesburg and Pretoria, a journey that is almost an hour by road.

Inside the train is neat. The seats can be compared to an economy class cabin. No one disturbs your thoughts in the name of preaching or selling. The temperature in the train is good as sitting in an airplane.

Accra-Nsawam rail service 

Back in Ghana, it is 7.15 a.m., tiny chain of smokes rise into the sky as residents of a slum in Achimota squat on a refuse dump by  the railway tracks to do what most people would only do hiding in their homes –– go to toilet.

One by one, they arrive with newspapers, toilet rolls and water bottles in hand. Some try to hide, but others are not bothered about being in the open to release their ‘unwanted goods’.

But as the train ramble past, the group put a temporary halt to their mission. But they returned to complete it.

This is the Accra-Nsawam shuttle. It serves thousands of commuters to and from the capital on a daily basis, making at least four trips, but is largely considered a death trap.

It is the most convenient mode of commuting for most people living in Accra and Nsawam, especially traders who convey farm produce and processed food from Nsawam to Accra each day.

At places like Achimota, the train swings like a pendulum, invoking fear  that it could derail at any time but as one soaks in the fear, the stench from dumpsites assault the nose.

Inside the train itself, rusty-dusty fans lay still as the early morning hot air fill the packed train.
There are holes in almost every coach and one could see the tracks speed past.

Medical evangelists are busy preaching and selling herbs and medicine that could cure everything from asthma to yaws.

Besides its notoriety for being consistently late, the brakes on the Accra-Nsawam train could be a whole course work for automotive engineering students.

Its jagged stops can be unnerving. It requires steady hands and feet to stand in the train when it is about to stop. Passengers have found themselves on the floor for standing at the wrong place or holding on to nothing when the train stops.

No cargo space 

Instead of creating cargo spaces for the traders, there is none, so tonnes of foodstuff and people compete for space.

The situation is worse on Saturdays when traders from the hinterlands head to the Agbogbloshie and Kantamanto markets.

The train’s ticket sums up its problems. As old as the 1990s, the railway company had the vision to print its tickets way ahead but the routes for which they were printed have folded up but the tickets live on.

On March 30, I had a second class ticket worth ¢750 but I paid GH¢2.  The route was for Bompieso to Ateiku in the Western Region, routes that have shut down years ago.

A runaway train
Being on this train has it frightening moments. One of those terrifying times was around 7.30 a.m. on February 5, 2016, minutes after it had earlier stopped to pick up passengers at a stop in Tesano. 
There was commotion on board when part of the train disentangled at Tesano in Accra.

While some alarmed passengers began to shout, other curious ones put their heads through the windows to catch a glimpse of the runaway train.

It was the second time in two days that the first class section of the train had detached from the remaining coaches at the same area.

When the chain of coaches in the second class finally stopped some of the passengers jumped out, probably in fear or out of curiosity.

“I have never seen anything like this before. It was terrifying,” Mr John Aboagye who said he boarded the train at Dome, a neighbourhood on the outskirts of Accra, told the Daily Graphic.

He said the incident had given him a second thought about joining the train again, especially when he had learnt that the incident had happened on two consecutive days.

It took nearly 10 minutes to fix the problem. The engine and few coaches were reversed and re-connected to the detached coaches.

But the sight of the train’s technicians using nylon sack to tie the damaged rubber tube that joins the coaches together was one that irritated Mary Ahiable, a trader, who said she had been boarding the train from Nsawam for the past 10 years.

“This is annoying. How could they use sack to tie something like that? It looks like they don’t value our lives,”she said.

While admitting that the incident would not prevent her from boarding the train because it was cheaper compared to commercial vehicles and it also helps her to  avoid the traffic congestion in the city, she appealed to the railway authorities to do something about the deplorable nature of the train.

Some of the railway workers who spoke to the Daily Graphic on condition of anonymity acknowledged that the coaches were in dilapidated conditions and needed immediate servicing to ensure the safety of passengers.

They claimed that the frequent disengagement of the coaches could partly be blamed on some passengers who refused to pay fares and preferred hanging outside in between the coaches.

Those passengers, they said, often stepped on joints that connected the 15-coach train.

The state of the train and railway tracks

Outside, the railway tracks are also in a bad shape. Most of the steel and wood slippers, some of which are said to be over 100 years old, are also rusted and rotten. Many of them have sunk into the soil, with no ballast (gravels) beneath them.

The situation, which could spark the derailment of coaches, has been aggravated by the worn-out wheels of the coaches.

Comparably, the Gautrain is cleaner and more luxurious. The Gautrain also uses an e-ticketing that ensures that every passenger pays the approved fair unlike its Accra counterpart where some passengers play hide and seek with train conductors.

The Gautrain is also disable friendly. Wheelchair access is provided to all its trains. The entrance to the Accra-Nsawam train is about three feet from the ground. Disables have to be carried onboard.

Passengers have to jump to alight. The plight of the old and the aged are left to your imagination.

In terms of fares, however, the Gautrain is more expensive. While a trip from Johannesburg to Pretoria cost 164 rand which is the equivalent of  GH¢43, the 37.5-km Accra to Nsawam journey costs GH¢3 for first class and GH¢2 for second class.

Rampant derailment
The poor state of the coaches and tracks, the workers said, was extremely disturbing as the company recorded seven derailments in 2013 and five in 2014.

“Since the wheels of the coaches are wornout, they often touch the rusted bolts and nuts of the tracks and cause them to hang loose and this is dangerous. These are signs that everything is outmoded – the tracks, fasteners and wheels of the coaches,” the sources said.

In spite of these overwhelming challenges, the management of the GRC has managed to prevent coaches from grounding to a halt for the past seven years, which is commendable but a far cry from the rail romance of post independent Ghana..


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