Death on the rails track

First published in The Nation, Lagos

Railway lines in Nigeria are death traps where a good number of precious lives are lost regularly as Group Editor (Arts and Culture) SOLOMON TAI ADETOYE reports

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Kingsley was his name but everybody called him Akilapa. His body builder’s frame and six feet height led to his being nicknamed Akilapa, the well-built one. His body that was found on the rails track close to Agbado Station in the suburb of Lagos this early morning was a far cry from the glorious body that housed the youthful thirty something. The left leg was severed close to the hip. The rest of the body, mangled and twisted in awkward angles, was about twenty feet away.

Akilapa’s physical body had been wasting away for several months. The first son of parents each of whom owned a house at Agbado, he was regarded as privileged. After all this is an area where not quite a few cannot afford to rent a single room. A bricklayer by profession, he was married with three beautiful children.

Then he got hooked on alcohol big time. He would start hitting the bottles – bottles of local gin soaked in different kinds of roots – before sunrise. Where he would sleep at night was not assured as he might as well crash at any open shed or the frontage of any house too drunk to carry himself home. It became so bad that one could hardly get him to execute a job except one woke him up before daybreak and stuck to him till the job was completed.

This took a toll on his physique. He started losing weight and the texture of his once luscious hair thinned just as his eyes became permanently bloodshot. Not quite a few of his erstwhile “close friends” and even some family members drew away from him.

As the six o’clock train took off this morning, hardly did anybody had the premonition of the event that was about to occur. Alas, not too long after its departure attention of people in the neighbourhood was drawn to the crushed body on the rails track.

Family members quickly made arrangement to collect the body, whatever was left of it, for a quick burial. It would have been another trouble to allow the railway unit of The Nigeria Police whose post was nearby lay hands on it. Officially, a payment of 20,000 naira would have to be paid to collect the body. Then the family would had to pay for mortuary services nor matter how long the body was there while the police carried out its investigation. Of course, there would be unofficial “settlements” of officers in charge of the case.

The spot where Akilapa died was just some eighty or so yards from where Mama Bola lost her life. A mother of four, she was a trader at Osodi Bus Stop in Lagos and lived at Agbado area of Ogun State. Every morning she woke early to take care of her children and then hurry to her trading post. The train was a more practical means of mobility for her just like many others in the area. A train ride was much cheaper. At fifty naira a trip, it was about half the bus fare. What is more, it takes one off the path of notorious traffic jams on the roads.

Like other days, Mama Bola took care of her children and set her husband’s meal on the table. After bidding members of her family and neighbours farewell she headed for the railway station. Thank God two trains were expected to run this day so the rush for ticket was not as bad as it usually was. Commercial vehicle operators have a way of jerking up their fares when only one train or none at all was running.

She obtained her ticket just in time to jump into the train as it was pulling out of the station. Holding her handbag in one hand and her GSM in the other, she had enough trouble holding the on the handle bar on the side of the door. She managed to hold it and climb the rather high steps that run up virtually vertically. By now the train was on the move. Then fate played a dangerous game on Mama Bola. As she scaled the last step her handset fell from her hand.

Whatever went on in her mind within the following seconds is now lost forever, buried with her. Considering the height of the coach floor from ground, it would have been foolhardy for an athletic six-footer to dream of reaching down to pick a handset even as the train rolled on. But that was that was what this woman did. The result? Her loose wrapper got caught in one of the rolling wheels. She was pulled out of the coach and sucked into the rolling wheels. The family had to bring the coffin to the location to collect the pieces that became of her body.

A policeman attached to one particular railway station police post who spoke with The Nation on condition of anonymity said it was difficult to give figure of how many lives were lost on the railway lines in a year. People generally try to get the bodies off the rails track without reporting to the police. This is to avoid the expenses and stress associated with collecting a corpse from the police. The cases that end up at the police station are generally those in which the deceased is killed where there is nobody knows him to collect the body immediately. Such bodies sometimes lie on the spot for long hours before they are spotted by maybe another train and report is filed as people are not wont volunteer to go and report such incidents.

Deaths that occur on railway lines are results of different factors. The number of casualties also vary. Take the case of the one that occurred at the railway cross at Oyingbo some years back. The Toyota Coaster bus was fully loaded and it took off from Oyingbo bus stop heading in the direction of Apapa Road. Destination, Orile/Mile 2.

As if the devil was determined to soak the railway with blood, soon after the bus rolled out of the park, its engine packed up. This occurred right on the railway track. All attempts by the bus driver to restart the engine proved abortive.

Lo and behold, an express train was rambling up from either Apapa or Ido station heading north. When the driver saw that he could not manage to get the vehicle started and move of the way of the rolling mammoth, he simply opened the door, jumped out and took to his heels. Noticing this, his conductor borrowed a leaf from his boss and took off. A couple of passengers seated near the driver’s door and the only exit door of the long bus succeeded in getting out. A couple of others jumped out through the windows. Of course, the panic senseless rush to get out got people getting stuck as everybody wanted to be the first out of danger’s way.

The train rammed into the bus midriff. By the time it had gone through, the mangled metallic corpse of the bus laid some ten feet from where it stood earlier. A metal pole by the rails track was what actually stopped it. Sighting it, one could hardly said if it was a Coaster bus or a smaller Volkswagen combi bus. The corpses that were recognisable were indeed very few out of the over twenty causalities.

A good number of people while stuck in traffic hold up are careless enough to wait right on the rails track despite the fact that the driving code forbids it and it is a traffic offence. When the GSM means of communication came newly, a young man driving a beautiful BMW car nearly sacrificed himself at the altar of “hello, hello”. He was so busy on the phone while driving that either he did not realise he had reached the rails crossing or he did not connect the deafening blaring horn he heard with a coming train.

He was lucky enough only a small part of the tail end of his vehicle was caught as the train kicked it out of its way and moved on. Double lucky: youths in the area knowing that the train’s driver would file a report and the police would come to tow away the car helped push it into a fenced compound where it remained hidden until the owner came back for it. Yes, it took quite a couple of hours before he came back. Stunned by the impact of close brush with death or scared of authorities’ reaction, he simply jumped out of the car and took to his heels immediately after the accident occurred.

Traders across the nation see railway stations for what they are – booming business sites. Usually markets are established close to railway stations by communities that are lucky to play host to such stations. What is supposed to be a blessing however becomes a curse as traders spread their wares up to right on the railway line. Their belief is that they can always pack up and leave the tracks at the approach of trains. This does not always happen like this as deaths are recorded regularly among these traders. One of the reasons is that they sometimes mistake express trains for local shuttle ones. The former are going long distances and move at a speed that is much faster than the latter.

According to officials of Nigerian Railway Corporation who shared with The Nation, another cause of deaths is stationary coaches. When a coach is parked at a station and the engine has been driven off, people tend to view it as harmless and spread their wares on the tracks. The officials said there had been cases in which these coaches rolled away on their own without any engine to stop them nor drivers to hoot any horn. Before emergency steps could be taken to halt such runaway coaches, only the shouting of people nearby alerted others and sometimes a few lives would have been lost before the macabre movie rolls to an end.

It is said that he whose relative is crushed by a train has no explanation. Would he say the relation was deaf he could not hear the train’s deafening horn? If this were so, was he also blind he could not perceive such a giant contraption? In a situation where the fellow happens to be deaf and blind what of the mere vibration of the ground at the approach of the mighty means of transportation? Folly is always a strong factor in deaths on the rail track.

Probably the most foolish way go on the rail track is one that is very common in Lagos. A good number of train passengers are low income earners with their unique lifestyles. At the stations in the morning you would find not a few intending passengers patronising paraga joints before boarding the train. These are mostly outdoor outlets where cheap spirit and cigarettes are sold. One for the road, some end up consuming some 150 naira worth of paraga the local gin soaked in roots supposedly for the purpose of treating malaria, back ache or general purpose healing plus enhanced sexual performance thrown in for good measure. In the course of this the man might bring his account balance to a round figure of 200 naira with cigarettes that normally go with alcohol.

Now hear this: a man who has just blown 200 naira on feel good will then stand by waiting for the train without making any attempt to purchase the 50 naira ticket. This is what negates the argument that people one found sitting atop coaches like some actors in a B-rated Bollywoon movie do for lack of financial power to obtain tickets. These people wait for when the train it already rolling out of the station to jump aboard.

Not a few had dropped to their deaths in the course of boarding train in this manner. Others fall off the roof as it is a favourite position for those seeking to evade officials who go around checking tickets. The fate of these people is not helped by the fact that level of alertness would have been lowered by the alcohol in their systems. To add to further danger their precarious position, they enjoy freedom up there to smoke marijuana without restraint!

A Lagos banker once argued that train drivers are simply heartless. He recounted a journey he once made to the north. A passenger did not realise that the express train was not scheduled to stop at the station where she wanted to drop. At the last moment she pulled the alarm bell to alert the driver. The train was able to pull up for her to disembark.

Another accusing finger pointed in the direction of Nigeria Railway Corporation and its management and staffs is the state of facilities. Although they rightfully point accusing finger at the government lack of funding for the sector, the truth remains that NRC facilities are at best dilapidated and in many cases outdated. Modern trains in the world make rail transportation in Nigeria look like a tour of Jurassic Park of transport development.

Kingsley AKA Akilapa’s death brings in another dimension to the story of deaths recorded on our rails tracks. At the very least, his death looked suspicious.

This writer saw the corpse less than thirty minutes after a train was supposed to have crushed it. Nothing in the body indicated a fresh corpse. Akilapa who had emaciated due to alcohol abuse had become swollen. No only this, the body had decolourised taken on the dark parlour of a cadaver that had lost heart’s function at least hours before. The most damning evidence to support this suspicion was that despite the several feet over which the train dragged the body cutting it in bits, there was no sign of a drop of blood on the scene. Beyond this, the corpse had lacerations that although fresh were not as fresh as those made during the encounter with the moving train.

The point then is that it is definitely not all bodies found on the rails track are victims of actual train accidents. Ranging from mischievous trigger-happy cops to armed bandits, hired killers, ritual murderers and other dubious elements, the rails track provides an avenue for disposing of a body without raising suspicion.

Did Akilapa fall victim of any of these people? Or did he just drop dead around someone’s compound and the person devised the clever was of disposing of the body without causing himself unnecessary stress? The questions remain hanging.

People The Nation spoke with on the matter all agree to one thing – deaths on the rails track in Nigeria is a manifestation of the decay in the country. Improved transportation system and economic empowerment of the people, better law enforcement system and social reorientation combined will no doubt reduce these accidents.

When these will become parts of the dividends of democracy is what Nigerians are waiting for. For now… ouch! A new victim has just probably been recorded!

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