The Trains in Accra are Time Capsules

KPE INNOCENT takes us on a ride through Accra on the Ghana railway.

Story and Photographs by KPE INNOCENT

I remember telling my mum about my decision to go for a train ride in the city. She said, “Really? You know this isn’t a London subway train or the ones you see in movies, right?”

Well, until that time, I had a good vision about what a Ghanaian train ride might look and feel like. I was actually disappointed at the first sight of the train station at Agbogbloshie. The tracks were covered with skinny jeans and potters’ handkerchiefs, the iron rails used as drying lines. Market women dodged between the tracks with their wares with trains approaching here and there, a locomotive directed to a line of coaches.

 

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I walked to the station cashier’s office for a ticket and I found him busy with a pen and a book. He looked up to ask if this was a documentary I was shooting after spying my camera bag. I told him I was here for the experience, my camera was just company. He laughed but I wasn’t sure what the intention behind the laugh was. I bought a ticket to join the train from the Agbogbloshie market in Accra to Nsawam in the Eastern region, and I realised the fare was inexpensive, a mere GH¢2.00 (half a U.S. dollar) whilst a bus from Accra to Nsawam costs GH¢6.00 (1.50 USD). There were two trains – a newly commissioned train that looked clean and new and the rickety and rusty one that was, unfortunately, going to Nsawam.

I boarded the train and waited for an hour but other passengers seemed to already know that the train would leave thirty minutes after. It’s no secret that time management is an issue in this country. Walking through, I noticed partially eroded seats and holes in the floor. But I still hoped the experience was worth it.

 

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In 1896, the British colonial government made the decision to splice up the country by constructing a railway through the former Gold Coast allowed a mechanical means of transporting heavy mining equipment to companies in the Tarkwa area of the Western Region. By August 1897, Sekondi was recommended as a suitable location on the coast for the construction of a railway system into Tarkwa. The construction of the railway from Sekondi began in early 1898 but had to be suspended due to diverse objections to the selection of Sekondi as the starting point of the project. The British Secretary of State in July 1898 held a conference at the colonial office and it was decided that Sekondi would be it. Work began again in1898, in Sekondi, occupied then by only a few mud houses.

The fifth and last Anglo-Ashanti war, heavy rainfall and scarcity of labour hampered and weakened the progress of the project. As the war ended in 1900, work restarted and the railway reached Tarkwa in May 1901. The Tarkwa line was then extended to Kumasi with construction work beginning in June 1901 and reaching Obuasi in December 1902 and finally Kumasi in September 1903. The first train left Sekondi for Kumasi on October 1, 1903.

 

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The business of mining was booming. The Gold Coast’s GDP shot up because of the railway which now transported the country’s major exports, cocoa, manganese and timber from the hinterlands. In the 1950s, Ghana’s railway was considered to be a transportation pacesetter and one of the best systems on the continent.

The Gold Coast railway mounted and operated the first power generating plant in the country during the 1920s at a central mechanical workshop popularly known as ‘Location’ at Ketan near Sekondi. The railway was a part of the civil service so all earnings were paid into the country’s treasury. Through this revenue the Takoradi Harbour was constructed and opened in 1928. The Ghana Railway carried over two million tonnes of freight and six million passengers a year. In 1965, the railway carried 419,330 tonnes of cocoa; 546,460 tonnes of timber; 276,750 tonnes of bauxite; 597,650 tonnes of manganese, and 447,930 tonnes of assorted goods such as fish, agricultural produce and manufactured items. That indicated a total coach of 2,288,120 tonnes, including 965,790 tonnes of cocoa and timber.

 

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The railway began to suffer neglect after Dr. Kwame Nkrumah was deposed in 1966 and successive regimes failed to make it a priority. The railway equipment, machinery, stocks and western financial interests began to decline. More workers gave up working for an institution on the verge of collapsing – a system connected to every part of life and once the backbone of the country. The railway was further compromised in the early 1970s when heavy road trucks poured into the country and took over the transportation of cocoa and timber to the ports. By 1983, the once proud Ghana Railway averaged a total of 350,000 tonnes of freight and less than two million passengers a year.

My mum, who grew up in the forties and fifties, was eager to tell me about her journeys on the train. She said the railway was in a class alone. She shared fond memories of many secondary school students coming from rural areas and traveling the train into Ghana’s cities to attend school. It was either the “Bone Shaker” (large wooden truck that crammed passengers) or the train. So students and other passengers, mostly traders, preferred the trains so they could chat with their friends. Parents stood at the platforms waving at their children, siblings shouting to brothers and sisters to bring gifts on return, station masters whipping canes to inform pedestrians of the incoming trains.  On the trains, young passengers would grab the poles or hold on to the straps to allow the elderly their seats.

 

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The smell of ripe bananas and other foodstuffs fills the air, whilst people’s lunch of waakye and ‘red red’ in large leaves cause others to gulp loudly. Babies’ cries, sounds from the raging rails, loud conversations and short brawls make it nearly impossible to sleep on such train journeys. Young passengers try dodging the looks and stretched hands of the ticket collectors and traders bargain over the fare to be paid for the space their goods occupy. Whilst some young men play cards and gamble, others make it an option to woo the pretty young women. The smaller kids run through the various coaches playing ‘hide and seek’, and other passengers alight a stop at a time, emptying their bladders quickly when the washrooms on the train are occupied. The train rides are trips down memory lane for Mum, a museum of a lost and golden era in our country’s history.

Today, traders still patronise the trains – schoolchildren, too. The coaches are now nearly empty, they rattle eerily and loud. It’s fun if you can close your eyes to the loose bolts and nuts, gaping wides and squeaky brakes, a hissing of the engine. Bundled goods and their owners occupy two seats but there is still enough space for others. The washrooms are no longer in use.

 

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In May 2015, the government engaged the services of a New York investment bank to devise a request for proposal (RFP) for the construction of a US$30 billion high speed rail system to connect Accra and Kumasi. The bullet train would reduce transportation time from Accra to Kumasi from  a 5-hour drive to 1.4 hours. Cocoa, timber, bauxite, manganese, and other minerals play a dominant role in the export sector working between Ghana’s two largest cities, which could also be supported by the rail network. Certainly, railway transportation is a faster means of getting around and, if managed properly, would fetch the country more money than ever before due to population growth, intense and heavy road traffic, a poor road network, and ever increasing costs of living.

 

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I asked one ticket collector why business was slow that day. He said, “It is a regular thing. The same people you see on the trains today are the same people you will meet on any other day.” There is a line of damaged coaches at Pokuase that look like they have been there for a long while.

“They said they will fix it,” the ticket collector shrugged.

 

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[1] The historical information cited in this article pertaining to the construction of Ghana’s railway system was generated from an interview with Mr. James Abeka-Amuah, the Public Relations Officer of the Ghana Railway Authority in an article published in the Daily Graphic on April 29, 2010 (page 23).

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