Nigeria’s railways are making a comeback after virtually grinding to a halt.
The first sign of progress is the reopening of the long defunct rail link between Lagos in the south and Kano in the north.
“This is my first experience on a train since I was at school in the early 1990s. I heard about it through BBC Hausa service so I’m giving it a try,” says a Lagos-based businessman, as the train rumbles along at a steady 45km/h (28mph).
“Credit to the government, although we need better services,” he says.
Another passenger shrugs at the 1,100km (685 mile) journey to see his relatives in Kano. He will have just more than a day with his family before having to catch the weekly return service.
“This is a development. I once spent five days travelling by train from Lagos to Kano. The engine would be removed from the train and taken for a service whilst we would stay on board,” he says.
The state-owned Nigeria Railway Corporation says the rehabilitation of 1,126km of track has cost N24 billion.
With a one-way ticket starting from N1,930, it is far cheaper and, some say, safer than travelling by road.
“Last year an armed robber attacked us on the road. There was shooting but thank God we escaped. I feel safe on the train,” says passenger Bukola Ogunbanjo.
En route, we pass abandoned relics of the once thriving railways - rusty, dilapidated carriages and goods wagons as well as crumbling stations.
The first steam engine to have worked in northern Nigeria sits at Minna station in Niger state. It was built in Leeds in the UK in 1901.
At that time, the British colonial powers were keen to expand the railway mainly as a way to make money through agriculture and mineral exports. It was palm oil dominated. It was wanted as lubricant for the machines in Britain’s factories whilst palm kernels were used to produce soaps and margarine.
Colonial reports show that 18 million gallons of palm oil were exported from southern Nigeria in 1908.
For the same year, the British colonial authorities budgeted £2 million for expansion of the rail network.
By 1913, £6 million worth of Nigerian palm tree products alone were being exported every year to Britain.
In order to harness the agricultural potential in the north, the railway was extended to Kano and Nguru.
Sir Bryan Sharwood-Smith was a young employee in the colonial administration in 1927 and gives this insight into the train journey north.
“We lurched and jolted onward, sleeping a little, but never for long, until daylight brought the twin blessings of a cool breeze and an attendant with early morning tea,” he recalls in his book, But Always As Friends.
He helped supervise 500 locally recruited labourers constructing the railway in the north, and became the governor of northern Nigeria in the 1950s.
By the time of independence in 1960, Nigeria had about 3,500km of railway track.
That figure has barely changed in over half a century, although most of the tracks have been rendered redundant, as political turmoil and massive corruption have taken their toll.
There have been false starts but now the Nigerian government says a modern, extensive network is on the way.
“Policy flip-flops were the main reasons for the delays in sorting out the railways. As governments changed, their approaches to the same problem were sometimes markedly different and were not decisive,” says transport infrastructure consultant Rowland Ataguba.
“But the last six years have witnessed the most concerted capital investment in the railways by the government in decades. Over $10 billion has been committed to the railways in this period,” says Mr. Ataguba.
Most of the contracts will go to Chinese firms. Last year, the government signed a $1.49 billion contract with the state-owned China Civil Engineering Construction Corporation (CCECC) to build a railway between the commercial capital Lagos and Ibadan.
The train journey offers a real chance to see Nigeria’s diverse landscape. After slicing through the hustle and bustle of Lagos, the landscape turns green and in some areas the thick bushes touch the sides of the carriages.
Each hour we head north it becomes drier and harsher.
The city of Kano is in the mostly Muslim north.
But in addition to boosting trade, some think this train can help unite Nigeria.
“I see all of us as passengers - Nigerians, northerners, southerners, Christians, Muslims. Everybody is the same - we are just one,” says a man on his way to visit his family in Kano.
“Yoruba, Hausa and Igbo - with the help of the train we become friends.” (BBC)