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Opinions of Thursday, 23 February 2017

Columnist: Graphic.com.gh

Revitalising Sekondi-Takoradi

By: Prof. George W. K. Intsiful

This is the first time I am doing a sequel to a previous article, and this has become possible for various reasons. One of them is the creation of the new Ministry of Railways.

In the previous article with the same title, I made reference to the fact that the headquarters of the Ghana Railway Corporation (later Company) had been and is still located at Takoradi. The collapse of the railway system in Sekondi-Takoradi, with the removal of the rail tracks, the wagons and old steam and diesel engines, was also cited.

Furthermore, the fact that a new railway station has been built and commissioned in Sekondi in 2016 was also mentioned, noting that that could be a major part of the renaissance of the twin city.

Whilst the first article focused mostly on the revitalisation of the twin city as a whole, this sequel will focus more on the role of the Ghana Railways set up in such a venture.

Over the years, Ghana Railways has also played a leading role in the development of both Ghana's economy and politics.

Role in economy

In the good old days, Ghana Railways ran excellent passenger services on the western, eastern and central rail lines. The western line was from Takoradi to Kumasi, the eastern line from Accra to Kumasi and the central line from Takoradi to Accra.

There were the express train service, the regular "passenger" train service and the "sleeper" train service which left at nine o'clock at night and arrived at its destination by six o'clock in the morning. The three train services carried many passengers from Takoradi to Kumasi (and in the opposite direction), from Kumasi to Accra (and in the opposite direction) and from Takoradi to Accra (and in the opposite direction).

Many people who lived in settlements along the railway lines literally used the arrival and departure times of the trains as their time piece. The railway service was that punctual and all the various services were developed and monitored from Takoradi, the national headquarters.

Railway wagons hauled not only cocoa beans and fuel but also logs of timber, bauxite and manganese and even gold in the distant past. Some businessmen from Accra, Kumasi and Takoradi also used to send their cars by rail to these cities. Movement of such heavy duty goods by rail helped to increase the lifespan of the roads across the country.

This was very obvious when huge potholes and "craters" developed on many of the roads in Ghana when trucks were used to transport the same bulky minerals, fuel, timber logs and cocoa beans during the times when the railway network literally disappeared.

Ghana Railways generated a lot of money from these activities to not only pay the salaries and wages of its thousands of workers on time but also to operate and maintain its assets, as well as acquire new assets.

A few years ago, some people in the twin city used to tease relatives and friends who were residents of Accra about the perennial traffic jam or "go slow" that they experienced to and from work.

Unfortunately, traffic jam in the twin city today could sometimes be worse than that experienced in both Accra and Kumasi. This is where the revitalisation of the railway network in Sekondi-Takoradi becomes even more important.

Years ago, many workers commuted from nearby towns such as Shama and Inchaban in "tro tro" to Sekondi to join the "workers" train to Takoradi very early in the morning. Such a service can be reintroduced, and the construction of the larger railway stations at various settlements along the route from Sekondi to Takoradi in 2016 was a great idea.

These new railway stations did not exist previously when the railway system was at its peak. More passengers on the trains in the mornings and evenings can reduce the heavy congestion on the roads in the twin city immensely. It can further reduce the large number of people who sell various items on the streets in the twin city.

So the revitalisation of the railway system in Sekondi-Takoradi will surely contribute immensely to the renaissance of the former harbour city, now referred to as the oil city on the airwaves of several radio stations in the city.

“Bottom tree”

Then there was the role of the railway setup in the politics of Ghana. Many adults in Ghana will definitely remember "bottom tree" in Takoradi. This is very close to the railway station in Takoradi and was one of the hotbeds of Ghana's political landscape.

Bottom tree has over the years been intrinsically linked with the political fortunes of Ghana. This is where the very powerful Railway Workers Union (now unfortunately bearing semblance to a toothless bulldog) congregated to take decisions that not only produced strikes but also influenced the direction of politics in the country.

Leading members of Osagyefo Dr Kwame Nkrumah's old Convention Peoples' Party (CPP) can attest to this; and in the heady days of the Rawlings revolution in the late 1970s and early 1980s, several pivotal meetings also took place there.

In other parts of the world, bottom tree could have been declared a national heritage site. I am not sure whether such a thought has actually been considered by even veterans of the Railway Workers Union. Sadly, portions of the railways station building itself near bottom tree have been leased out to other corporate entities.

"Location"

Then there is the question of "Location" in Ketan, Sekondi. Location, as it was popularly known, was the largest single industrial plant in Ghana. It had several different sections, including the copper shop, electrical shop, mechanical shop, carpentry shop etc. Thousands of workers learned various trades at the various workshops and many women who sold food in those days when corporate canteens were hardly known made fortunes, and several babies were also produced from the interactions between the railway workers and the cooks and waitresses of the improvised canteens. This was despite the fact that some of the workers took along to the workplace food, in what was called "canteen" sets.

Location was special for several reasons. Yes there were a few administrative buildings for clerical staff but mostly, workers in the various workshops were hands-on, practical men and workers who learned and practised their trades in huge industrial buildings.

Admittedly, most of the equipment in the various workshops may be obsolete and may need replacement. It is my suggestion that all the workshops be retooled to serve the revitalisation of the railway system. Location used to be the main centre for the maintenance of the railways equipment and tools. It can continue to play that role in the future with more modern equipment.

The same revamped workshops can also be used for practical training for the vocational and technical students in the twin city and technical students across the country when it is time for industrial attachment. Such an approach will definitely go a long way to improving the level of technical training and hands-on practical training which Ghana presently lacks and seriously needs.

The argument about the necessity of creating a whole new Ministry of Railways will undoubtedly go on for some time in Ghana's politics. Its partisan nature cannot be underestimated. However, once the ministry has been created and has started working, suggestions and ideas to help make it work effectively are what is needed. The revitalisation of Sekondi-Takoradi cannot be meaningfully considered without a huge impact from the railway sector.