Next stop, Nigeria

TTC in talks to sell old trains to Lagos. Are they safe enough?

As Toronto trainspotters gleefully take maiden rides on the TTC’s Rocket, commuters in Lagos, Nigeria may be about to get some new trains of their own. Our old ones.

A TTC spokesperson has confirmed that the commission is negotiating with a private group to sell up to 260 used train cars to the West African megacity’s new transit project.

“I can confirm that the TTC is in discussion with a third party that wants to purchase trains for Lagos,” said commission spokesperson Brad Ross. “Over a period of time, they will be taken out of service and then transported over to Nigeria.”

The cars being considered for sale are the TTC’s old H-5 and H-6 models, which will be decommissioned as the TTC rolls out its new fleet of Rockets. Ross predicts the earliest they could be shipped to Nigeria is sometime in 2012.

Traffic snarls are already a major economic problem in the Nigerian capital, a booming city that will reach an estimated population of 25 million by 2015. A new above-ground rail system designed to carry 1.5 million people a day has already broken ground, and Lagos Governor Babtunde Fashola has said it “will be the most multi-dimensional and most impactful” of the government’s efforts to reduce traffic congestion.

Fashola visited Toronto earlier this year to inspect the TTC trains.

The Lagos deal would be the first of its kind for the TTC. Decommissioned cars are usually sold for scrap metal and can fetch up to $1,500 dollar each. While Ross declined to discuss specific figures, he says the sticker price for Lagos is “significantly more” than scrap prices, putting the potential profits to the TTC in the millions of dollars.

It is not unusual for technology from western nations to end up in poorer countries. Marketplaces in Africa and Asia are flooded with North American clothes, computers, and even cars, but the purchase of larger technology like trains is rarer.

The cars will have to be significantly refurbished to fit existing infrastructure in Lagos, and some Nigerian media reports have lamented that the government appears to have settled on “tokundo,” or used, trains instead of brand new vehicles.

Although half the cars are more than 30 years old, Ross is adamant they are perfectly safe and are only being decommissioned for capacity reasons. But he also admitted the TTC is not required to make sure the cars meet any safety standards before selling them.

“Once sold, it’s up to the new operator to ensure they are in good working order,” he said. “They do need to be maintained much more frequently than the new trains, simply because of their age. At some point they will run out their useful life.”

Murtaza Haider, director of the Institute of Housing and Mobility at Ryerson University, said the age of the cars is definitely a cause for concern.

“We should be ensuring that there is some service life left in these vehicles and we’re not going to be playing havoc with the lives of those who would ride these vehicles,” Haider said. “There’s metal fatigue, and that metal fatigue could result in dangerous conditions. I would be paying a close watch on this for the next ten years to see how many accidents do happen in Lagos.”

He also warned that while rail systems are glamorous as far as transit infrastructure goes, they are not always as effective at reducing congestion as other options. Nevertheless, new rail systems are frequently preferred because governments can take advantage of kickbacks from large contracts.

According to media reports, the cost estimates for the Lagos rail project have varied wildly from $1.2 billion to $30 billion. In 2010, a Nigerian government watchdog accused Fashola’s government of widespread corruption.

“More often than not, politicians favour rail transit because it is more expensive,” Haider said. “It’s almost useless in some cases, and less productive in most cases, than a bus system. But you can’t buy busses for $30 billion. You can inflate prices and make a lot of money buying a rail system.”

CORRECTION: When sold for scrap, TTC cars fetch up to $1,500 each, not $15,000, as this story originally stated. The correction has been made.

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