Sola Ojo, Kaduna
The joy and euphoria that greeted the commencement of service on the Abuja-Kaduna standard gauge train service in 2016 is fast turning to agony and trauma for commuters who had heaved a sigh of relief after President Muhammadu Buhari commissioned the rail service.
The project was commenced by the administration of former President Goodluck Jonathan, which doggedly pursued it up to 95 per cent completion before his tenure ended.
The Abuja-Kaduna standard gauge rail service was conceived to bring back the days of yore when narrow gauge locomotives rumbled through the landscape of the country, conveying millions of passengers and tons of goods. Expectedly, Jonathan raised the hopes of Nigerians of again riding long distance interstate trains in comfort and safety. When the former president’s tenure ended, President Buhari, to his credit, did not abandon the project, which was consequently spared the fate that befell the metroline project started in Lagos State by the defunct Lateef Jakande administration during the Second Republic, before it was truncated by the military in 1984, following the December 31, 1983 coup.
With commendable commitment, the Buhari administration completed the project and commissioned the train service to the delight of Nigerians, who, hitherto, were at the mercy of hoodlums and kidnappers that had turned the Abuja-Kaduna highway into their fiefdom, where they abducted travelers at will, whether in the day or at night. Apart from that, the road had several terrible bad spots that made it easier for the ‘demons in the bush’ to abduct victims as vehicles slowed down to a crawl as they tried to get past the failed portions of the road.
The commencement of the Abuja-Kaduna rail service had another salutary effect when it became necessary for the government to shut down the Nnamdi Azikiwe International Airport, Abuja, for major repairs on the runways. Abuja residents who wished to travel by air were ferried by train to Kaduna airport by train.
Unfortunately, the well-known and ubiquitous Nigerian factor has started to creep into the operations of the Kaduna-Abuja train service. The teething challenge of inadequate number of coaches has created opportunity for corruption in the ticketing process, with or without the knowledge of senior management officials.
‘They frustrate you till the last minute’
At the Kubwa terminus of the Abuja-Kaduna train service, passengers who spoke with Sunday Sun at the ticketing unit shared their harrowing experience. One of them, Camara Ibrahim, a middle aged man, who was travelling to Kano from Abuja said he chose to take the train to avoid the security risk on the road.
He said: “I have heard about the irregularities that happen here through the social media. This is my first experience. I came in about 45 minutes ago and what I saw was commotion. Nobody was ready to tell me what was happening. So, I went to the counter to make inquiry. I saw people writing names. They told me that the train coming from Idu was probably filled up. So they were writing the names in case there was space.
“As we speak, I don’t know the position of things. Nobody was talking to us. Above all, why the lack of organisation? This place is rowdy. The organization should be able to put out information about the situation on their website. More than 50 per cent of Nigerians here belong to the middle class and have access to the Internet. “If there is a website we can access and buy our tickets online that will address the issue of commotion here and will help the operator plan well. That means only those who don’t have access to Internet will be coming here to buy their ticket at the counter. So, organisation is the main thing,” he said.
Another passenger, Hajiya Aisha Muhammed, said though she did not have any issue boarding the train in Kaduna, but her experience in Kubwa was something else. Narrating her experience, she said: “This is my second experience here. There was a particular lady at the counter. She was too difficult. She does not have any human relations. No, not at all. If you like talk to her, she will not respond until the last minute.
“We were given paper to write our names, phone number, destination, means of identity and number of tickets we want. I provided the information. You can see that other people who just came are struggling to do same. We don’t even know whether there will be space in the train coming from Idu.
“I’m aware that Idu is far. It is like a terminus sited in the middle of a cashew plantation. This Kubwa is more within reach for people who have something to do in FCT. I am here simply because of security and little comfort that come from the train ride. The amount of money involved is more than twice the cost of road transport.
“Now, talking about ticketing, what they do is to frustrate you till the last minute when passengers will be rushing to board, so that they can charge a higher price and keep the difference for themselves and the people who obviously provide them official cover. In fact, one man went away due to frustration. They will collect your money and give you ticket reading ‘standing’. Where is the money going because I’m sure they probably remit only what is calculated based on the number of coaches?”
Another passenger, who preferred anonymity expressed worry and dismissed the service as being on a long walk to perfection.
His words: “I’m leaving Abuja for Kaduna. What I saw here was not interesting at all. I’m not even here alone. I’m here with six other members of my family. So seven of us are here. You can see that we have about hundreds of Nigerian citizens who have no clue of what is happening.
“The train is supposed to come from Idu to Kubwa and then to Kaduna. To buy ticket here is a big marathon. You see how we are struggling to get tickets. It is impossible to get any information that will calm you.
“The sitting arrangement in this departure hall is poor. They don’t have seats for more than 30 people. From the look of things, the people selling the tickets seem to be clueless. They have no idea of what they are supposed to be doing. Now there is a manifest but that does not even guarantee whether you will get the ticket because there is no information.
“Secondly, I don’t see why there won’t be any suggestion box in the hall where citizens can quietly and privately write and drop what they have seen about the services being rendered here. Apart from that there may also be problem with the management from the top. There is no supervision so everyone does what they like. Since we have been here for about one hour now, I did not see any official going round asking people how they are faring, which to me is wrong. Our problem is that of lack of assessment of what we do as a country and that is exactly what is happening in this train station. Nobody is ready to listen to you and convey your message to the appropriate quarters where it can be resolved if at all there is any.
“Now, there is an insinuation going on that they are selling the ticket secretly at N2,000 for the economy as against N1,300 or N1,500 as the case may be. So, apparently there is massive corruption going on here among the top management team and their staff in addition to poor organization.
I believe Nigerians are aware of problems they encounter in their day-to-day activities but we have refused to come together and convey our message to the right quarters where they would be solved. None of us wants to take just a minute to complain, we only complain to ourselves. That is why problems like this are not solved.”
NRC Operations Manager responds
When contacted through his mobile phone, Operation Manager, Nigerian Railways Corporation, Kubwa, Mr. Victor Adamu described the Abuja-Kaduna train service as very strategic to the system.
“Before, we had two options. One of the options was not to sell tickets at Kubwa at all. That is, anyone that wanted to travel to Kaduna had to come to Idu because that is the number of coaches we have for now.
“We have two for the first class and four for the economy class. We have to leave one of the economy coaches for Kubwa as our second option. And each of those economy class coaches can only carry 88 passengers. So, once Kubwa sells the 88 ticket that was all. But what we normally do is to wait for the train to take off from Idu. And if Idu did not sell all the tickets for economy, then Kubwa would be contacted to sell more.
“Now, passengers have threatened us that if we are not selling ticket at Kubwa then the train must not stop there or else they will force their way in. We are still waiting for the additional coaches which we have been promised by the federal government. If each of the train can have up to 16 coaches, we will be able to operate better.
“We are also working seriously on e-ticketing which means passenger will not need to come to the train station before buying their tickets. These are what we are doing.
“If we look at where we are coming from, we are moving. From narrow gauge to standard gauge. The Minister of Transportation is aware of these challenges and working seriously to address them”, he explained.
On the alleged corruption in the system, he said: “Those people that buy tickets secretly have their own problem. I will like people to come up with things like this. If you willingly give money to touts because you are in a haste, you are also collaborating.
“Because if it is written on the ticket that you are to pay N1,500 (morning) and N1,300 (afternoon) and somebody is asking you to pay more, you need to raise alarm and this is what we need to work on. You see, sometimes, I understand that people will want to do everything they can to travel which sometimes brings about such corruption.
“If any ticket seller is selling above approved price, people should contact us and not to collaborate with them. Passengers are to expose some of these touts that are doing this because we work on information like you are telling me now I have to go there. If we have information, it will not be difficult for us to track because we know those on shift at all times.
“We have disciplinary measures in place to deal with such people. When you are boarding, we have special package for children below the age of 13 in economy class. They are not supposed to pay what adults pay and we put things like this there to make passengers have good experience.”