The Train is Coming

Writer: Nana Kwasi Gyan-Apenteng

Brief introduction

A few weeks ago, a friend working in the railway development sector showed me some pictures of new railway infrastructure going up in different parts of the country. I was surprised not to have heard a lot about this in the media; even more surprised that the government would not crow about this.

I decided to find out more and wrote four articles about this in my column in the Mirror newspaper. I have put them together in one piece, slightly amended under the title:

The Train is Coming

Ghana train

Part One

I love trains. Many of my fondest memories have had to do with train journeys or simply watching trains. Long before I learnt that train-spotting was a hobby indulged in by millions of people, I was an enthusiast without knowing that my pastime had a name.

When I was a primary school pupil at Koforidua Presby A, I spent long hours at the Koforidua train station, which to my child’s mind was a sophisticated piece of architecture, especially because of the footbridge that spanned the tracks. Standing on the bridge gave a completely different perspective – a feeling of standing above the world and seeing all.

The shaking sensation as the train passed under the bridge gave a particular thrill which the station master tried to deny us children by getting us off the bridge. Sometimes he succeeded, other times we eluded him. It was cat and mouse.

My train experience started in Ghana’s steam age when trains were driven by steam engines powered by coal. There was a man, always covered in coal dust, who shoveled coal into the furnace which boiled water from which steam was produced. The power of the steam turned the engine which pulled the long train on its tracks.

I had scores of such journeys, especially between Nsawam and Kumasi which my parents travelled frequently. It was customary to wear dark clothes because inevitably, the soot, smoke and ashes from the engine room managed to reach the passengers, so experienced travelers prepared for the ordeal. As a child, I loved the smell of the steam, maybe because it was my association with trains.

However, around 1958 or so, the first “electric trains” arrived in Ghana. They may have been diesel engines but we called them electric engines, anyway.

The electric train was also known as the “Blue train” because the front was a bright blue hue. It was neat and clean both outside and in the carriages. It had first and second class carriages as well as the third class, which would politely be called “economy” these days.

The Blue Trains were reserved for passengers while steam still drove “goods trains”, which carted the country’s wealth in timber, bauxite, manganese, and other raw materials to the shores for onward shipment abroad.

In addition to regular train services, the Ghana Railways Corporation, which was the company running the service in independent Ghana, also ran a special night train known as “Sleeper”, which plied the Accra-Kumasi routes every night.

The Sleeper served a variety of customers such as traders, civil servants, students and even lawyers who needed to arrive at their destinations early in the morning and possibly depart that same evening with the return service.

During my years as a student at Legon, most students going to Kumasi and beyond from Accra travelled frequently by Sleeper. Students paid a reduced fare known as “concession”, which was most convenient for our pockets.

In addition, there was much socialisation on the train, as unlike being in a car or bus, one could walk between carriages and chat with friends. One memorable train occasion was a night the train broke down at Asuoyaa near Koforidua.

We had boarded the train at Achimota and were just settling down for the night when the train halted. Towards the end of the railways service, trains often stopped due to technical faults and we expected this pause in our journey to be a short one. Unfortunately, or rather fortunately, it turned out to be an-all night breakdown in that small village.

Imagine the situation. Students from Legon and other institutions – the polytechnic, training colleges and secondary schools – onboard the train going on vacation could not be expected to sit in their seats or lie in their bunk beds all night.

We got down in trickles and then it became a carnival as we discovered village “spots” and other forms of entertainment with the local youth throughout the warm night. As I said, just imagine it and let’s leave that here.

In the course of many travels around the world, I have sampled train journeys in many countries and they all leave lasting impressions. Travelling by train is the best way to get to know a country.

I once took a forty minute train journey on the Irish coast just to see the beauty of Ireland. Its green golf courses owned by the world’s richest people provide the definition of the colour green in pristine nature.

Or, take the summer midnight train from Moscow to St Petersburg in Russia. In Soviet times, St. Petersburg was known as Leningrad and the train to Leningrad was one that every tourist was encouraged to take at least once in a lifetime.

In June and July, with the sun setting late and rising early in the northern reaches of the Northern Hemisphere, the midnight train, which left Moscow at exactly one minute past midnight, would go through towns and villages reveling in the night sunshine. It was a beauty to behold.

So, dear reader, you wonder why your columnist has gone into these reminiscences about trains. The answer is simple. I have discovered, or am about to discover Ghana’s best-hidden secret: our coming railways future.

New tracks at Tema Harbour Station

Quietly and without fanfare, the work on railways is said to be going on in many parts of the country. A friend who works in the sector says I will be impressed and has shown me pictures that warm my train-loving heart.

In the coming weeks, I want to go and see for myself what I hope will be the beginning of a new railway age for our country, and of course, I will share the information with you. Watch this space.

Part Two

For nearly a century – from the last decade of the 19th century to the late 1970s, trains played a major part in this country’s political, social, economic, and even cultural life.

Ghana’s rail tracks led to places where the British colonialists found the venture most profitable and useful for transporting raw materials. This can be seen in the railway triangle that was familiar to every schoolchild of that era.

Easy to draw and explain, the railway lines formed an A-shape with the apex at Kumasi and the two feet representing Accra in the East and Secondi-Takoradi in the West. Almost like a perfect A, it even had a short line connecting the two legs in the form of the Tarkwa – Huni Valley line.

That railways sustained the country’s colonial economy was no “book matter”; it was there for all to see. Trains carried timber, bauxite, manganese, cocoa, and all kinds of raw commodities from the hinterlands to the Takoradi Harbour; they also transported traders, civil servants, students, and different categories of passengers whose movements contributed to the nation’s development.

Unfortunately, no trains have run on most of these tracks for the past 35 years or so. Most Ghanaians under the age of 45 have probably never seen a train, let alone travel in one.

In many ways, the collapse of Ghana’s rail sector is a direct reflection of the downward trajectory of the nation’s economic fortunes in the 1970s and early 1980s. Gradually, but relentlessly the service headed towards an inglorious halt; train stocks could not be replaced, parts had to be cannibalised to repair other trains until one by one, the tracks became silent decorations on the ground.

What most of us may not be aware of is that, again, gradually but hopefully, our rail lines will carry rolling stock again. This is the question that took me to the office of Mr. Yaw Owusu, the CEO of the Ghana Railway Development Authority, GRDA. The CEO is clearly a man on a mission and his obvious fondness for the railway project would have infected me even if I had been a cynic.

I wanted to find out if it was true that trains would be running any time soon on our tracks. He pulled out some charts, like any good CEO would, and showed me the layout of the new railways vision of the country.

The current rail tracks are a total of 1000 kilometres but the new plan encompasses more than three times that length across the country.

His optimistic analysis as outlined in the plans to re-establish railways as a major player reflects the thinking of President Nana Akufo-Addo who has described allowing the railway sector to collapse as a “strategic error”.

The President, while inspecting the Railway Training School at Ketan two years ago, revealed that it had been his plan since he assumed office “to do anything necessary to revive the sector”, according to a Citi news report.

The GRDA has ambitious plans. “We plan to build some 3840 kilometres of new tracks for the rail network in the future”, Mr Owusu explained, adding that all of the tracks will be standard gauge instead of the narrow gauge which has existed since the advent of rail travel in the country. When the entire network becomes operational, all 16 regional capitals in Ghana will be linked by railways.

Instead of the triangle we are familiar with, the new network will spread across the country in three main formations. The Western line is the Takoradi-Kumasi line, and the Eastern line is the Kumasi-Accra line but there are new phases and branches added to these existing routes depending on the need for such additions. For example, the Eastern line detours to Kyebi because of the bauxite in the area.

Mr Yaw Owusu, CEO, Ghana Railway Development Authority

The new addition is the Eastern Extension Line which runs from Tema through Mpakadan across the Volta River. When it is completed, it will run through Hohoe to Yendi, and Tamale to Paga on the border with Burkina Faso.

That is some vision! But I wanted to know how much of this was real rather than something existing in the pipeline. Railway construction doesn’t come cheap.

It costs about five million US dollars to construct one kilometre of rail track and that includes bridges, drains, culverts, and all other infrastructure supporting the rail tracks and the business of running railways in the country.

I was impressed that given the constraints in which the global economy finds itself, our rail sector has steadily but quietly moved ahead with admirable purpose but because of the financial overlay required to complete the whole plan, it is being implemented in bits according to national priorities.

The western line will eventually run from Takoradi Port through Huni Valley to Kumasi via Obuasi. A branch is proposed to connect the bauxite-producing areas of Awaso and Nyinahin to the Takoradi Port. According to the GRDA, the delivery of that line will accelerate the Integrated Aluminium Industry Project. Currently, the emphasis is on the Takoradi Port-Manso section, which includes the mineral-rich Tarkwa-Nsuta area.

So far, work on that section is almost complete, indeed that line is still active on the old narrow-gauge tracks but the loads are small because of low axle capacity. The new standards gauge infrastructure will correct that deficiency.

The Eastern Line Accra/Tema Port through Nsawam and Koforidua to Kumasi. Currently, the Accra/Tema Port-AdjinKotoku-Nsawam with a branch route to Kasoa is under contract with ongoing construction works. This route will improve the transportation of goods and passengers in the Nsawam-Accra-Tema axis and ease traffic in the heavily populated enclave.

However, the third proposed route is the Eastern Extension Line of which the Tema – Mpakadan section of the route is almost complete and expected to be commissioned and operationalised sometime this year. Negotiations have advanced for trains to be imported to run on the completed sections this year.

On paper, one can see the plans and the impact they will make when they are implemented. Indeed, according to Mr. Owusu, the whole of this lot is only the beginning.

There is the trans-Africa rail network idea of which our national sector will form a part. The government has plans for monorail and other kinds of train services for inter-and intra-city transportation. Those are in the future and we have to start somewhere.

President Akufo-Addo inspects new works on railways

So far, some two billion US dollars have gone into the railways infrastructure and a lot more is needed. However, I have spared the reader the more intricate financial and technical details about how the brightly coloured charts and formations are being implemented because I suspect that, like me, you will also believe it when you see it. This is why in the coming weeks I have decided to travel and see, as the tro-tro inscription says.

Stay tuned and watch this space. The train surely is coming.

Part Three

Three weeks ago, in the early part of April 2022, I decided to investigate the extent of railway development in the country because although it was flagged as a major issue in the early part of this government’s pronouncements, it appeared to have dropped down the list of activities and priorities. Prompted by a friend who works in the sector, I approached it as a train enthusiast pining for the good old days.

After the first article appeared, I was pleasantly shocked at the response. The first shock is just the sheer number of people who must be missing the use of trains.

Most of these people who called or wrote to me in one form or another are in the upper age bracket since railways as a mass transit system has been absent in Ghana for nearly forty years now.

Indeed, the first time I realised that young-ish people in Ghana may not have any experience with railways was a few years ago when two friends of mine, both artists, went to Italy for a major exhibition.

They were then in their late twenties or early thirties and the most exciting part of their report on their return was about the train journeys they took while in Italy. It took me a while to figure out their excitement; that was the first time they had experienced trains in their lives.

After my first article, many of the responses – verbally and in writing – reminisced about the joys and convenience of train travel either here in Ghana or abroad. Some went into nostalgic details that bordered on the emotional while others, of the younger brigade, wanted to know more.

Shock turned into astonishment with the second article, which was mainly based on an interview with the CEO of the Ghana Railway Development Authority, Mr. Yaw Owusu. It appears that few Ghanaians are aware that railway development is going on quietly in the background.

As we speak, a portion of the Eastern Extension Line and the Western Line will be operationalised with trains running, hopefully, this year. Other parts are due for commissioning. Indeed, another part of the Western Line is due for sod-cutting by the President in June this year.

People are astonished that what could be trumpeted as an achievement by the government has been such a low-key information activity. Of course, there have been sod cuttings and public ceremonies to do with trains and railways development but on the whole, the sector has not attracted much fanfare. Of course, you can look at it from two different perspectives.

The railways authorities – Ministry, GRDA, and the Ghana Railway Company Limited, which is the company running trains, probably want to cross a certain development threshold before raising the decibel level.

Another reason could be that since the majority of Ghanaians don’t think of trains, there has been no pressure on the authorities, or the media to tell train the railways story.

This contrasts sharply with road travel with which we are all familiar and for which we have regular and insatiable need. There is not a day that passes by without a community reminding the government of its road in some way.

Now that we are in the rainy season, the calls to the government about roads are going to skyrocket and with that will come promises that are hard to fulfill because of the sheer numbers of roads requiring to be built or repaired. Of course, railways are notoriously expensive but offer value for money in the long run.

It is hard to make the case for the prioritisation of railways because it requires a lot of money and will not connect every village and town the way roads do at the moment.

However, when rail travel connects our main travel routes for goods and passengers, our roads will last longer making money available to construct roads that connect food-growing areas across the country. Combing roads and rail will ensure that every part of the country enjoys the most modern and convenient travel network.

Part Four

“Seeing is believing” is an ancient adage. Ghana’s coming railway journey looked ever more real to me when I saw for myself the amount of brand new standard tracks and shiny new bridges and stations under construction.

I am even more astonished that this development is happening on the blind side of most Ghanaians. As explained by Mrs. Susana Kudjoe, the Deputy CEO of Ghana Railway Development Authority, “With railways, you only make noise when you have trains actually running”.

That is true, but even so, only the most pessimistic doubter would not be impressed with the amount and quality of work that the railways sector has achieved over the past few years. The gleaming new tracks of the Eastern Extension Line provide the basis for hope that our coming Railways journey is not a mirage.

Not being an expert in economic development I hesitate to make categorical statements about the subject, but one I will not shy away from making is this: there can be no real long-term development without a viable railway network in our country.

The rails span the Volta River at Mpakadan

In my mind, and probably backed by statistical evidence, the heyday of our country’s monumental production of agricultural and mineral wealth coincided with the height of railways while the decline and turbulence of the 1970s and 80s also coincided with the decline of the railways.

It is unfortunate that the railways and the production they engendered and transported worked for the benefit of the colonialists. Since independence, very few tracks have been added while the greater part of the system has been allowed to collapse.

Now, the only rail line that operates with anything like normal service is the Accra-Nsawam short route, but that has minimal impact on the overall volume of transportation between the two points.

Luckily, the evidence on the ground (pun fully intended) is that things are about to change for the better. My trip to two sites on the Eastern Extension Line which currently runs from Tema Harbour Station to Mpakadan had been delayed by the Easter holidays and I couldn’t wait to get the feel of where we are going with the trains hopefully soon.

First stop- Tema Harbour.

The railway station is under construction but the new shiny rails are firmly embedded and signals and engineers were busy installing signals along that stretch of the line.

The multiple lines and switching points look as sophisticated and well-engineered as you might find anywhere in the world. Although the station is partly covered in sheets to shield the workers and protect the ongoing works, its outline looks modern and functional.

Susana Kudjoe, Deputy CEO of GRDA

Situated a few hundred metres from the entrance to the Tema Port, one can only imagine how busy this station will be in the near future.

At the moment, the Tema Harbour serves other landlocked countries to the north of Ghana, so rail services would make it cheaper, easier and safer to transport heavy goods from the harbour to other parts of the country and beyond.

The Eastern Extension actually is part of a transport mix that makes sense. The rail lines have now crossed the River Volta and the Mpakadan Station will be the hop-on and hop-off points for connecting with transport on the River Volta thus creating viability for the long overdue use of the Volta as a major transport route between the North and South of the Country.

The writer with Nana Ama Opoku, P.R.O. of the GRDA

Next stop – Doryumu Railway Station. It is a beauty to behold. In the far distance are the Shai Hills in their splendid majesty – greyish in the horizon – permanent and untouchable. Just across the station on the other side of the tracks is a large expanse of pristine green vegetation which looks so gorgeos, I wish it could be fenced for protection.

One can almost already see the transformation the railways would bring to that area which is famous for growing fruits and vegetables such okro, tomatoes, cassava, spinach and mangoes.

There is considerable evidence that economic activities pick up when rail services are extended to a community. Ghana’s economic geography and history of the 20th century was heavily influenced by the geographic penetration of railways during the period.

Towns that had railway stations developed into major trading centres or at least important market centres for foodstuffs, cash crops, minerals and timber.

The uplift in economic fortunes created viable economies by creating jobs in other sectors. This will definitely be the case for communities in the Doryumu area with the coming of the railways and a major transit point.

As Nana Ama Opoku, the Public Relations Officer of the Ghana Railways Development Authority conducted me on my tour through the station, we imagined how the station could attract food and drinks sellers, fruit vendors and bookshops, among others.

For myself, I was happy to see the tracks that will lead us into the future. Beginning from where I started the series on railways, I confirm my membership of the imaginary train-loving club. I cannot see the country developing without railways playing a major part.

I think the government has done well to keep its railway promise alive even in difficult times and the railway authorities should make a bit more noise about how far they have come so far.

Indeed, the train is coming. Tickets, please!

Writer: Nana Kwasi Gyan-Apenteng

Writer: Nana Kwasi Gyan-Apenteng