Uche Usim, Abuja
Ideally, traveling by train in the 21st century should be fun. It should leave the traveler with blissful memories and this is the usual experience in developed climes.
But in Nigeria, it is a different kettle of fish, despite boasting of a 186-kilometer standard gauge rail that connects Abuja at the Idu terminal, with Kaduna at the Rigasa station. From hot and crowded terminals to the snail speed of the trains, passengers are not treated to the best of services as hitherto anticipated.
However, that is not the worst of the experiences of the train shuttle that runs four times daily.
When you arrive at the Idu station in Abuja at night, you are welcomed into pitch darkness, offering you a nightmarish side of rail trips.
As you manage to grope out of terminal, you still have to endure over 20 minutes of tortuous drive to the city centre in darkness. The only illumination is from the headlamps of vehicles. Lack of streetlights gives you a feeling of tearing through a virgin forest at night because the single lane road is sandwiched by trees and bushes on both sides. All you hear is the creepy sound of crickets and you begin to pray your vehicle does not breakdown and make you vulnerable to attacks by armed bandits.
First time travellers, especially underage children are confused and left to wonder if it was a standard practice to leave train terminal and adjoining roads poorly lit.
Though there are no records of attacks or kidnap of train passengers yet, travelers have ceaselessly complained about the scary darkness around the Idu terminal that provides perfect cover for criminals should they choose to strike.
Worse still, there are no security checkpoints between the terminal and the city centre, heightening the apprehension of travelers who arrive there at night.
Lamenting the worrisome development, Rasak Tahir, a businessman who shuttles between Abuja and Kaduna, described the situation as a ticking time bomb:
“How can you arrive from Kaduna into Abuja and the terminal is dark? There are many occasions there would be power failure on the train. The coaches will be in perpetual darkness and people will have to put on the light on their phones. I have a torch I always carry with me whenever I take the last shuttle.
“It’s a huge embarrassment. Now, add that to the fact that you will arrive into a dark terminal in Abuja and drive in darkness till you get to the main city area. This should not be said about the giant of Africa. You can’t arrive into any train station in South Africa and see things like this. Even Rwanda is far ahead of us in technological advancement. We need to wake up. A traveler cannot travel in fear. The Abuja-Kaduna Road is littered with criminals; from kidnappers to armed robbers. We hear of these attacks almost on a daily basis.
“Now, we’ve chosen to go by train and we are having cause for worry. The government should fix street lights from Idu to town immediately. There should also be security checkpoints along that axis as well. People should arrive at night and feel safe.”
For Mrs Clara Ugwu, darkness remains a killer of business:
“I arrived with my five children from Kaduna at night and we were shocked of the darkness that enveloped us. My little son of four years wept uncontrollably. They were scared and I had a hectic time calming them down. This should not be the case. The terminal and the surrounding should be well lit. As you drive off, there should be streetlights as well. That’s how it should be. One cannot be moving in fear expecting the worst. “
So, what is the government doing about the troubling development?
A top source at the Transport Ministry who craved anonymity said the security concerns were being addressed:
“The issues are presently before the management of the ministry and very soon something positive would be done to arrest the situation.”
The construction of the Abuja-Kaduna rail line started in February 2011 and was completed in December 2014. It gulped approximately $876 million and features nine stations in between.
China Civil and Engineering Construction Company (CCECC), which is also constructing the Lagos Rail Mass Transit System in Nigeria, built the line. It has two lines and nine stations. President Muhammadu Buhari inaugurated the Abuja-Kaduna commercial train operations on July 26, 2016.
On the financial performance of the rail line since it was inaugurated, the Managing Director, Nigerian Railway Corporation (NRC), Fidel Okhiria, said the train service generated over N80m monthly in 2018. The figure was higher than the N16m generated monthly in 2017, but noted that in spite of the increase in revenue, the corporation had yet to break even as it still spent over N100m monthly as running cost:
“We are close to breaking even on the Abuja-Kaduna train and we have made progress because of the efforts we made. When we started, we were earning about N16m and spending about N56m.
Meanwhile, the Nigeria Railway Corporation (NRC), confirmed receipt of several complaints from the users, but it emphatically stated that it is not the responsibility of the corporation to provide streetlights enroot the railway station.”