Fred Ezeh, Abuja
In July 2016, President Muhammadu Buhari commissioned the standard gauge Abuja-Kaduna railline, signaling the commencement of train services along the route.
The infrastructural achievement, which ought to be celebrated by Nigerians, generated criticisms and mixed reactions from some quarters, particularly those who believed that the glory for the work should be given to former President Goodluck Jonathan.
It was learnt that former presidents Olusegun Obasanjo and late Musa Yar’Addua made significant contributions to the project but it reached near completion during Jonathan’s administration.
However, when the idea for the project was concealed, it was for low income people in the society who could not afford the cost of road transportation. It was never envisaged that rich politicians, businessmen and senior security officials would desire using the train services to Kaduna or back.
That is the case now. The rich, expatriates, top northern politicians, businessmen and most shamefully, top security military and police officials now delight in riding the train to Kaduna and back.
They are gradually displacing the poor people for which the train was originally meant for.
Investigation revealed that increased insecurity and banditry on the Abuja-Kaduna highway could is one the reason for sudden interest in train services.
Running from kidnappers
For the past few years, there has been significant rise in cases of kidnapping for ransom, banditry, robbery and other forms of attack on commuters along the Abuja-Kaduna highway. It is a daily experience for commuters on the road.
No one is spared in the attacks on the road. In fact, everyone is a potential target of the men of underworld, including the police, military officials, top government officials, businessmen, clergymen and even school children. They are less concerned about the social status, gender, financial status, religious and ethnic status of the victims as long as good ransom would be paid.
The public outcry and unfriendly news reports on both on the traditional and social media attracted the attention of President Buhari, who immediately issued a directive to the Inspector-General of Police, Adamu Abubakar, to go after the perpetrators of the evil act against humanity.
The police, in response, launched several operations on the road and some successes were recorded. Some of the arrested criminals confessed to the crime, particularly kidnapping for ransom, and were paraded at the Police Force headquarters in Abuja at different occasions.
It was a cheering news and a big plus for the police. But that was not enough to restore the confidence of Nigerian commuters to use the road. There were still several unreported killings, kidnappings for ransom and other crimes along the road.
With the sustained attacks on passengers and motorists along the deadly Abuja-Kaduna highway, passengers and commuters were forced to consider the option of the train services, hence the invasion of the train stations by passengers.
The development put serious pressure on the train and workers therein. The economics principle of demand and supply forced a rise in the cost of ticket to N1500. Not only that, opportunity for corruption and ticket racketeering widened due to certain lapses, particularly inability to digitalise sale of tickets and other services.
Then, workers and retailers could buy up the tickets and sell to passengers at exorbitant prices. VIP coach passengers pay N2, 500 and above, depending on the time of arrival and “available space” in the coach.
Evidently, the number of passengers that use the train services increase significantly on daily basis which is a pointer to the level of acceptability of the service.
Officials told our correspondent that there has been constant adjustment of the services to meet the demand of teeming passengers.
Aside Wednesdays, the train run four different times from Abuja to Kaduna and otherwise simultaneously. The trains meet at a particular location to interchange due to the fact that it’s one track that both use.
However, from Abuja train station, the first train with the code name AK1 leaves by 7am and arrive the final terminal in Rigasa, Kaduna, at 9.15am. Second train from Abuja station code named AK3 leaves by 9.50am, AK5 leaves 2.20pm, while the last train services for the AK7 leaves Kubwa train station by 6pm and arrive the final terminal in Rigasa, Kaduna, at 8.20pm.
The two morning trips, 7am and 9.15am, as well the last trip, 6pm, seems to be the delight of passengers from both ends, according to interactions with passengers. There’s always large number of passengers standing in each of the aforementioned trip due to high demand.
Workers at the train station believe that majority of the passengers that use the first and last train are workers who either live in Abuja and work in Kaduna or vice versa.
On Wednesdays, the train trips are reduced to two: AK1, which leaves at 7am and AK7, which leaves Abuja train station by 6pm. This, according to findings, was to allow the workers some rest and also for maintenance and other repair work on both the rail track and other equipment.
Each trip to Kaduna or back has at least 9 or 10 coaches, with 88 seated passengers in each coach. Passenger’s time of arrival at the train terminal determine chances of getting a ticket for seat. Whenever the tickets for seat is exhausted, passengers, by choice, are offered the option for standing ticket at no discount, which large number of passengers oblige.
In every trip to Kaduna or Abuja, large number of passengers pay same fare with other passengers in the train but they are not allowed to sit but their ticket is for standing. They would stand all through the journey that last for two hours and few minutes on the minimum.
Unexpected class of passengers
In spite of several assurances that Abuja-Kaduna highway is safe for commuters, senior police, military officials and senior government officials have invaded the trains and now compete for limited space with civilians at the train stations, an indication of a hopeless situation.
The presence of their convoys and aides are conspicuous at both end of the trains. They would strategically position themselves at the terminal waiting for the arrival of their boss. While some of the bosses hide their identity by not wearing uniform, their aides cover their vehicle plate number for unknown reasons.
On arrival, they use siren to scare away motorists from the road to wherever they are going. Few months ago, the disturbing trend attracted the attention of the Senate. The senators, in one of their discussions at the plenary, registered their concerns that senior government and security officials are fast taking limited spaces at train.
They asked President Buhari to compel the Nigeria Railway Corporation (NRC) to deny tickets to such class of passengers, who obviously, have failed to provide security for Nigerians, particularly road users.
The Senate wondered why such class of people with armed security officials would be afraid to use the road and choose the option of the train. The lawmakers said the security situation has, undoubtedly, assumed a hopeless dimension if senior government and security officials would jettison the road for trains.
A ticketing staff at Rigasa terminal, who pleaded anonymity, lamented the level of harassment and intimidation they receive from the government and security officials.
The staff said the uniformed officials hardly join queue, rather they jump the queue to intimidate and harass passengers particularly when the queue is long.
He said: “There’s hardly a day that people don’t fight here because of ticket. There will always be arranged queue for men and women but many people would prefer to play the smart one on others.
“They would jump the queue or ask someone they know who is in front to buy ticket for them. That way, some will buy three to four tickets and resell it at higher cost. We have changed that now. It’s now one passenger, one ticket. If you must buy for somebody, that person must be seen by our ticketing officer before issuing the ticket.
“Also, we have positioned aggressive security dogs at the front of ticket cubicle to instill fear and orderliness in the passengers. Obviously, there’s increase in demand and we hope that more coaches would be procured for the passengers on the route.”
A passenger, Regina Elems, who spoke to our correspondent at Rigasa terminal, said she’s so at peace with the train services, even with a request for improved services.
She said: “I am a regular here. I use the train virtually every week to Abuja and back. Initially, when the services started, the cost was less than N1, 000. But with the increase in the number of passengers, apparently due to unsafe nature of Abuja-Kaduna high, the economic principle of demand and supply had to be activated.
“But recently, the quality of services has begun to drop. About three weeks ago, precisely on Sunday by 3pm, I used the train to Kaduna and the air conditioner was not working. People were sweating. There wasn’t water at the lavatory for passengers use.
“Few days after, precisely on Wednesday, I heard the train broke down mid way at night hour, and passengers had to trek for several kilometers to Rigasa terminal. That would create fear and doubt in the mind of passengers as regards the efficiency of the services.”
She appreciated the apology sent by NRC but insisted that they should work round the clock to ensure that passengers get maximum satisfaction in order to retain their loyalty and patronage.
Another passenger, Abdallah Surajo, described the train as a saviour for passengers who ordinarily would have used the deadly Abuja-Kaduna road, which seems to be one of the unsafest roads in Nigeria.
He said: “A close friend of mine was once kidnapped on that road and we know what we went through to get him back. Apart from emotional and psychological trauma his family members passed through, huge financial resources was involved before we could secure his release.
“In one of my journeys to Kaduna at the peak of the attacks, I was forced to ask a question, what if this train was not built by past administration, what could have been our fate? No one could answer the question.”
A passenger, who identified himself as Alhaji Kasimu, was particularly concerned that senior uniformed men have taken delight in the use of the train.
He wondered why senior security and government officials with armed security aides could desert the road and join the queue for train tickets. “It’s obviously an indication that the situation is a hopeless one.”
He appreciated the timely intervention of the train services and cautioned against gradual drop in quality of service, which could affect the trust and confidence of passengers.