Midnight train to Paga, the romance of rail travel

BY: Ajoa Yeboah-Afari
Midnight train to Paga, the romance of rail travel
Midnight train to Paga, the romance of rail travel

Travel by train has always fascinated me. But, I hasten to add, I’m talking about surface trains, not the underground train popularly known as the Tube in London. So I’m one of the people keenly looking forward to the revival of the long-dead railway sector in Ghana.

The Tube, so called because of the shape of the tunnels the trains travel through, is faster than other means of transport. But where is the fun in that, or the romance, travelling underground and missing all the sights along the route?

I have been following with great interest the dedicated implementation of President Akufo-Addo’s railways vision by Minister of Railways Development, Joe Ghartey.

A couple of months ago, Mr Ghartey held a meeting in Bolgatanga with officials from Burkina Faso, regarding the collaboration of the two countries on the rail project. The rail line, he reportedly said, “will stretch from Tema, through Ho, Hohoe, Jasikan, Nkwanta, Bimbilla, Yendi, Tamale, Walewale, Bolgatanga, Navrongo and Paga to Ouagadougou.”

What an appealing prospect! And maybe in the future there will be an Accra – Cote d’Ivoire rail line, through Brong-Ahafo and, hopefully, with a station in my hometown, Dormaa-Ahenkro!

Earlier this week, there were media reports about plans to assemble rail carriages or coaches locally in the near future. Mr Ghartey made the revelation when he took the Parliamentary Select Committee on Transport on an inspection tour of work done so far on the Accra-Tema segment.

Who, having experienced it, can resist the charm of rail travel? I really can’t explain its appeal but I liken it to sitting in the comfort of one’s home while being transported to places, watching through the train windows the scenery whizz past, or being able to take a walk through the carriages; and no road traffic hassles.

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Of course airplanes also guarantee travel minus the stress of the road. However, the big difference is that in a train the wheels are on terra firma, firm ground.

It’s a matter of regret that evidently a huge percentage of Ghanaians have never enjoyed a train ride – or even seen a train, except in films. Hopefully, that is set to change.

In the old days, the Ghana train services offered a lot of job opportunities, especially cooked food sellers and general goods hawkers. As soon as the train stopped at a station, the vendors would rush up to the window to sell drinks and food to the passengers, staples being rice and stew or kenkey and fish served in leaves (the now ubiquitous ‘take away’ packs had not yet been introduced in Ghana).

There were also traders inside the train, walking from coach to coach with their wares.

And, writing about trains has reminded me of a favourite soul classic, ‘Midnight Train to Georgia’ by American soul singers Gladys Knight and the Pips. Thankfully YouTube has helped me to relive the performance of their 1973 hit. Old memories!

Incidentally, my love of trains has enabled me accumulate a number of rail journey anecdotes from abroad, some quite bizarre, but one memorable story is an experience that happened not to me but to my father, in Ghana, decades ago.

For train lovers of a certain age, notably travellers to Kumasi, talk of trains will probably bring recollections of the famous ‘Blue Train’, the Accra-Kumasi Express which, as I recall, used to depart from the Accra Railway Station at 6 a.m. sharp – or was it 5 a.m.?

I can’t remember if it was called the ‘Blue Train’ because of its colour, but what I do remember is that it was known for its punctuality. It was the first train one would see as one walked to the platform, waiting for passengers to board; behind it would be the Takoradi train.

That was the normal arrangement anyway, until the morning my father decided to take the Kumasi Express in order to arrive on time for an afternoon business appointment in Kumasi that same day.

Having bought his ticket and the day’s newspapers, he went aboard the first train which, from past experience, he believed to be Kumasi-bound, relaxed in his seat and started reading his papers as the train set off.

He didn’t look up for about half an hour, and when he did, a gentleman taking a walk down the aisle recognised him and stopped by his seat. After they had exchanged pleasantries, the gentleman asked my father what was taking him to Takoradi.

“Takoradi! What! I’m going to Kumasi!”

“But Sir, this train is going to Takoradi!”

It turned out that for some reason, that day the train positions had changed and he had taken the wrong train! He grabbed his belongings and jumped out at the next stop, which, unfortunately for him happened to be a small community, with no direct transport to Kumasi. There wasn’t even a taxi service!

In desperation, he fell on the assistance of a kindly motorbike owner who agreed to take him - for a fee, of course - to the next big town where he could get a Kumasi-bound vehicle.

Thus, unwittingly, my father became an ‘okada’ pioneer, long before the phenomenon of motorbikes operating passenger services was even introduced in Nigeria (from where it was introduced into Ghana, we are told). But, as I stated, it happened long ago.

Anyhow, at that time, after a train journey there was a certain panache in being able to tell friends “I came by train.”

But I know that it’s not the romance of it that has made resuscitation of the rail sector a central part of President Akufo-Addo’s agenda, but a very progressive plan not only to connect Ghana by rail but also to connect Ghana and the sub-region, too.

Additionally, it makes economic sense to operate railways to support the imaginative ‘One District One Factory’, as well as the ‘Planting for Food and Jobs’ initiatives of his administration. Movement of produce and goods should be easier and cheaper.

Besides, having a railway system is a way of announcing emphatically to the world that Ghana is open for business; that Ghana is working again.

I can’t wait to be a passenger on the Accra-Paga Express. And given the hundreds of kilometres it will cover, it will probably arrive in the morning, having departed late; a midnight train to Paga. But that won’t be a problem for me!

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