Passengers boarding the train from Rigasa Station, Kaduna to Idu Mega Station, Abuja Photos Kingsley Adeboye

Dele Ogbodo reports on the excitement and trepidation onboard the new Abuja-Kaduna rail journey

For Mr. Yakubu Bako, a disbursement officer with African Development Bank (ADB), his experience onboard the train service back and forth between Kaduna and Abuja, can never be forgotten in a hurry. For the ADB staff, it is bye gone to traveling by road between the two cities. Asked why? With upwelling excitement on his face, he retorted “This is my fourth trip since flag off of this train service between Kaduna and Abuja and has not been an emotional roller-coaster for me. It has been wonderful, safe, convenient and I pray the management and government will keep this up and take this development to other regions of the country.”

The experience of the Ofodiles, on the 240 minutes train trip from the Idu Mega Station in Abuja, to Rigasa station in Kaduna, was not by means different as they shared the same sentiment on Nigeria’s first standard railway operation. Mrs. Stella Ekwy Ofodile, is a 61-year-old grandmother based in Onitsha, who boarded the train with her husband from Idu, she commended the government for the remarkable achievement in opening up the country through rail transportation.

Recalling her memories on the use of train services in the United Kingdom (UK) and U.S., she said: “Whenever I visit my children in UK and U.S., I’m used to train services and I see wonderful things happening there. When I heard from the news that the Abuja-Kaduna has commenced service, I decided to use it, otherwise, I would have made the journey by air.

“Now, I have seen the convenience of this train and that is why I have been busy taking pictures which I intend to send to my children abroad to see, to tell them that we have something good happening in the country. I’m so happy with the government for this.”

While still savouring her excitement in a chat with THISDAY, as our train halts at Asham Station, Kaduna State for the five minutes ‘dwell-time’ the grandmother in a relaxed mood, said, she can beat her chest that what operates here now is better than what obtains in train service in U.S., adding though that the bar is empty as she cannot locate the kitchen. She said: “If you travel first class train in the U.S., you will be entitled to light refreshment.”

Her husband, Pa Martin Ofodile, retired from CBN 17 years ago, also in appreciative mood for making the train service a reality in the country said, “Government should try and replicate the Abuja-Kaduna train operation in other parts of the country.” According to him, a well organised train system in the country means that haulage will be cheaper in the country, adding “I cannot imagine traveling from Abuja to Kaduna and just spending N900 which is about seven litres of fuel and your safety cannot be guaranteed on road trips.”

With more railway lines across the country, Ofodile, said Nigerians would have access to cheap food, the roads will last longer, transportation will be cheaper and the unnecessary road accidents will be averted.

Does train travels relieve one of stress? Bako, has this to say, “The hazzles I go through on Abuja- Kaduna road is gone and averted. I live in Kaduna and work in Abuja, with this train, my children now say, daddy, you don’t look overworked, your eyes are not red because I now look relaxed each time I arrive home.”

However, the ADB staff, Bako who is getting addicted to train ride had reservation on security arrangement, which he said needs to be improved on. According to him, the Nigeria Railway Corporation should replicate what obtains in the airports on sale of tickets, adding: “Just as it is done at the airports, identity card should be presented at the counter when passengers are buying tickets, also names should be printed on the tickets, though, we are not hoping for any havoc, in case anything happens, NRC can track the identity to that person through the manifest issued with identity card.”

Unlike the Ofodiles, Mohammed Buba expressed reservations after 20-minute ride from Rigasa Station in Kaduna. “Though, I’m excited but I have my reservations about this trip. Asked why? The 20-year-old Geography undergraduate from the University of Maiduguri, said: “Look at me, I don’t have a seat on this trip, I’m going to remain standing till we arrive Abuja, but I at the same time commended them for the music, film, cool ambience of the environment and it is safe.

Miss Zainab Bala, nine years old, a primary 4 student of Turkish International School in Abuja, boarded the train from Rigasa Station with her mum, Mrs. Surabaya Bala. There is no doubt that the Balas belong to the noveau-riche as each of the seven kids has a seat to him or herself. Asked why she was on the train, the beautiful ‘Angel’ tucked in innocence, looked at her mother obviously seeking approval, said “My mummy brought us here to take train to our house in Abuja. She admitted that the environment is attractive and safe, adding “I’m happy, this is my first time on a train.”

As Western music filled the air in the train and children walking freely unlike in air transportation, THISDAY ponders if ticket fare of N200 for minors and N600 for adult on second class coach will remain same for a long time to come? Responding, the Deputy Operations officer of NRC, Mr. Akin Osinowo, said the transport fare may be reviewed upward by management in no distance time. However, he admitted that there is hardly any train service in the world where passengers traffic break-even not to talk of making profit. It is always heavily subsidised by government.

He said: “The N200 and N600 charged between Abuja and Kaduna is introductory fare, as time goes on it may be reviewed. However, there is need to balance the cost of transport by road, because most of our stations are in remote areas, so all these costs have been added.”

According to him, the management of NRC is up to set new standard through observing some of the lapses on the trip and to make the experience for passengers much better.

“I think that there are things that NRC can do in terms of security and access to the stations especially as they are in remote areas which is usually taking developments to meet rail,” he said.

He said NRC would soon commenced running reversed services from Kaduna to Abuja, which will serve people also increasing the capacity of the coaches, adding that NRC will move quickly to expand the lounge at the Rigasa station, because of its large crowd eager to board to Abuja.

Responding to Ofodile’s query on the absence of Service-on-Board (SoB), Osinowo, said NRC was working hard on that and the compliment of a trolley service inside the train. Osinowo, added that qualified service providers will be hired and properly vetted by NRC to get the best catering service for passengers on board.

While beaming with smiles on the adherence to timing of take-off of train and arrivals at the various stations, he admitted that NRC will improve on its speed.

According to him, more coaches will be available in the first quarter of 2017 and the capacity would have been tripled.

“Train operators make their money from freight, but government has to subsidized train service because of its social benefits of being able to move people and open up new settlements like Jere, Asham, Rigasa etc etc across the country, and farm products can be moved to the cities while generating economic activities and jobs, Osinowo said.”

On Police officers carrying arms on the train, he said: “NRC is conscious of the safety of the environment as that is responsible for armed men inside the train. This can be a soft target for attack, so we need to bring it to the consciousness of the people that they are secured and we are committed to averting any security challenge in the course of movement.”

Ahmed Ibrahim, is a Masters degree holder in Web/Cloud Computing from Sheffield University, also having a first taste of the train operation in the country. On how train operates in UK, he said: “I just returned for my NYSC, from UK, I’m used to boarding train between Leeds, Manchester and London, what I find here is good.” While advising on the need to step up security at the point of entrance, he added that online booking for tickets should be introduced.

“I’m on this trip with my five children for adventure sake. This is my first time on a train and I’m excited and my children are happy, said Mrs. Chika Pius, the mother of five who lives in Apo area of Abuja.

While she is concerned on the absence of catering service onboard the train, she said she armed herself with food for her children after visiting Idu to make enquiries few days to the trip. However, she observed that the absence of cab from Idu to Abuja needs urgent attention because of security and the loneliness of the road between the 5 a.m and 6 a.m when passengers are expected to be at the station for the ride.

Dr. Sulaiman Buba, the Registrar, Federal Polytechnic Mubi, Adamawa State, shared same sentiments on the poor road linkages connecting Rigasa and Idu in Abuja.

“The major problem currently being experienced is the Idu connection to the town as the stretch of the road lack operational taxi cabs, the linkage road connecting Rigasa also experience similar problem,” Buba noted. He said the difficulty in manouvering through these roads may lead to passengers missing their train schedule.

On security apprehension, he said: “I don’t have any fears at all because I have travelled on trains in other climes like London and it was from there that I started experiencing the good side of this mode of transportation, it is really a good thing, it is cheap and it can take care of both the wealthy, the middle class and the poor.

“I have enjoyed the privilege and the comfort of the trip and I will want to commend this government for expediting the completion of this project, and I want them to set it in other parts of the country. I want to believe that they will soon settle the issue of refreshment to passengers which has been lacking.”