LAGOS, Nigeria -- Nigeria has rebuilt and reopened railroad tracks connecting Lagos, its commercial heartbeat in the south, to Kano, its largest city in the north, in a $166 milllion project meant to revive the railway system of Africa's most populous country.
Minister of Transport Idris Umar described the new route as a "vital start-off" for the economy, at a launch ceremony held at Lagos' Ebute-Metta Terminus Friday.
Tracks connecting the cities, 720 miles apart, were first built in 1912. But neglect, and corruption, made about 70 percent of the tracks unusable as of early last year.
The railway is also China's first big project as it tries to make inroads in the West African nation. The China Civil Engineering Construction Corp. had the contract to rebuild the railway to the central city of Jebba. The other leg of the railroad, from Jebba to Kano, was rebuilt by the Nigerian company, Costain West Africa PLC.
Trains offer affordable transportation for many in this oil-rich but impoverished nation. However, most long-distance passengers travel in piteous conditions.
A car of the inaugural Kano-bound train was packed, with people struggling for seating space and cool air.
"If not for poverty, I would have taken the bus," said Michael Olaoluwa Peters, a 36-year-old soccer player.
His trip to the southern city of Abeokuta would have cost him the equivalent of $4, but cost only $1 by train. The price difference is even greater for those going all the way to Kano.
Anna Joda, 35, a petty trader, traveled with her four children, between ages 2 and 8, to spend the holidays with her in-laws in Kano while her husband stayed back in Lagos. She stood in the aisle, her toddler wrapped around her back while her three children shared two seats.
"I chose the train because I thought there'd be more leg room," she said.
The railway project hopes to alleviate the burden on Nigeria's poorly maintained road network. However, much still needs to be done before the train becomes a preferred mode of transportation for those who can afford to travel by road or even air.
"Some people slept at the station last night and they still did not get a seat. The service is poor, very poor," said Peters as he held the car door for support after hearing a whistle signaling departure from Lagos.