INDEPTH: How Nigeria’s Abuja-Kaduna railway is impacting the lives of commuters and communities at both ends of the rail corridor

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With increasing uncertainties to do with accidents, kidnapping and robberies bedeviling travel along the busy and strategic Abuja-Kaduna highway, the 186km Abuja-Kaduna standard gauge railway built by the China Civil Engineering and Construction Company (CCECC) presents a viable alternative for safe and secure travel for travellers

Passengers boarding the Abuja-Kaduna train at Kubwa substation on the outskirts of Abuja, the Nigerian capital
Passengers boarding the Abuja-Kaduna train at Kubwa substation on the outskirts of Abuja, the Nigerian capital Photo: Adam Alqali

Africa-China relations continue to generate a lot of debates within the media and academia alike. Whereas some view the fast-paced development the relationship has brought Africa in the last two decades as being ‘win-win’ some have reservations about Sino-African relations which give way for various criticisms of China’s engagement with Africa.

Despite its various criticisms as being a ‘hoax’, ‘neocolonial’ and not being on ‘equal footing,’ China’s relations with Africa has undeniably brought a lot of opportunities for sustainable development to the latter.

In Nigeria, the 186km Abuja-Kaduna standard gauge rail line built by the China Civil Engineering and Construction Company (CCECC) – as part of the standard gauge railway modernization projects (SGRMP) – presents a perfect example of how to achieve sustainable transport systems in Africa’s most populous nation cum its biggest economy.

The rail line which is said to be the first such standard gauge railway in the West African sub region offers opportunities for jobs creation, safe and  secure travels, and reduction in emission of greenhouse gases associated with automobile transport, in accordance with AU’s Agenda 2063 and UN’s Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).

Construction work for the Abuja-Kaduna railway, a segment of Nigeria’s planned standard gauge railway that will run across the country began in 2011 and was completed around 2015. However, operations only began in July 2016 with the train service recording close to a million passengers and having created 600 direct jobs, within the last 2 years, according to the Nigeria Railways Corporation (NRC).

“As at today when we checked, we saw that we have carried approximately 900,000 passengers in two years,” Mr Pascal Nnorli, the manager of the train service was reported to have said during an event to mark the second year anniversary of the train service last July.

“We have done well, based on the available infrastructure. Before 2016, we didn’t have any operational standard gauge railway in West Africa, this was the pioneer standard gauge operation in West Africa and here we are today carrying an average of 2000 passengers every day to and from Abuja-Kaduna,” said Nnorli as reported by the Daily Trust.

 

‘Safe and secure’

As security condition continues to deteriorate in northern Nigeria and the strategic Abuja-Kaduna highway is fast becoming a death trap for passengers, the Abuja-Kaduna railway had become the last resort for passengers hitherto plying the highway, which had since become a den of armed robbers and armed kidnappers, alike. The criminals no longer mount barriers on the highway to halt their potential preys; instead, they simply open fire on approaching vehicles and then rob the dead while they kidnapped the survivors for ransom.

The situation along the busy highway has so much deteriorated that it had now been almost totally deserted by commuters who continue to take advantage of the train service, to avoid the potentially grave dangers associated with traveling on the vital highway linking states from the country’s northwestern region with the Nigerian capital.

Bello Abubakar, an Abuja-based businessman who was travelling on the train with his family from Abuja to Kaduna says he began using the train when it commenced operation in 2016 adding that he stopped travelling by road due to the insecurity associated with travelling on the highway.

“I stopped driving due to insecurity associated with travelling on the Abuja – Kaduna highway; I have never experienced any challenges while travelling in the train. I hope the train service will be extended to other states,” said Abubakar.

“I chose the train to avoid the stress and insecurity associated with travelling by road. Daily, I would drive to the train station in Kaduna, park my car and join the train for Abuja and later in the day, I would follow the train back to Kaduna,” says Nuruddeen Bambale, a Kaduna-based businessman who had also been travelling on the Abuja-Kaduna train since its inception.

Christian Odiba, a first-time passenger on the train travelling from Abuja to Kaduna gives it a rating of 8 out 10. “It is peaceful, spacious, the environment is just nice. The train is safer so I want to experience it more; I hope to continue using it,” he said.

Another regular passenger on the Abuja- Kaduna train service, Aliyu Ismail, who works for one of Nigeria’s security agencies in Abuja says he travels to and from Kaduna every weekend to see his family “in order to avoid risks to do with accidents, kidnappings, and armed robbery which are regular challenges being faced by road travellers.”

“It’s much easier to attack vehicles travelling on the road than to attack the train; it is difficult for the kidnappers to get into the train since all passengers are screened before they board the train. Moreover, the train is spacious and air-conditioned which makes it very comfortable to travel in,” said Ismail.

 

The entrance to the Kubwa substation
The entrance to the Kubwa substation   Photo: Adam Alqali

Businesses sprawling up around rail corridors

Since the Abuja-Kaduna train commenced operations, communities at both ends of the rail corridor are increasingly experiencing the economic impact of the train service. The people of Rigasa, a hitherto sleepy community on the outskirts of Kaduna which is host to the train’s terminal, more than any other community, have strongly felt its impact.

The train terminal, alongside a new access road leading to the station, is transforming the hitherto relatively unknown Rigasa community which continues to see various economic activities springing up every day, providing employment and source of livelihood for its teeming youth population.

Shuaibu Ibrahim is one of around one hundred youths whose source of livelihood is directly tied to the Rigasa station. The father of five who now operates a provision store at the station and prior to the opening of the train service worked at an oil company says his life and that of his family has been transformed in just a year or so.

“In less than a year I have been able to build a house; when I worked for an oil company for years I couldn’t acquire even a plot of land. The train station has not only changed the lives of those of us doing business here but has also brought development to entire Rigasa community,” said Ibrahim.

Musa Usman, a former truck driver, is another beneficiary of the train service; he now operates a transport business at the Rigasa station which boasts of a car and two tricycles – all of which he had acquired in less than 2 years that he had been at the station.

“Before the train service was introduced I used to work for CCECC as a truck driver. When I started here I didn’t have my own tricycle, I have now acquired two tricycles and a car. I acquired my first tricycle on a hire-purchase basis; most of us who started like that now fully owned the vehicles having completed the payment,” said Usman.

Forty five-year-old Abdulrahman Akintunde, a university graduate who after years of fruitless search for white collar job now works as a driver at the Kubwa substation of the Abuja-Kaduna train service. He says his job of moving passengers to and from Abuja city enables him to take care of his family of five.

 

‘Fares unaffordable to poor’

Despite the safety and security the Abuja-Kaduna train has afforded travellers on that route passengers say whereas the train fares were affordable for all at the inception of the train service, subsequent increment in ticket prices have denied a large segment of travellers the opportunity to enjoy the safety and comfort travelling on the train provides.

When the Abuja-Kaduna rail service commenced operations in July 2016, the fares for economy class and business class tickets were ₦900 (3 USD) and N1200 (4 USD), respectively. However, over the last 2 years prices have been reviewed upwardly to N1, 200 (4 USD) for economy class and N2, 500 (8 USD) for business class per ticket.

However, the persistent insecurity condition along the Abuja-Kaduna highway meant many travellers will rather travel on the train than risk travelling on the notoriously dangerous highway, as long as they can afford it.

 

Need for improvement

Appraisals of passengers of the Abuja-Kaduna rail line have largely been positive with most travellers showering accolades on its operation, however, they complained about the remote location of the train stations at both Abuja and Kaduna which exposes travellers to insecurity. There are also complains about lack of affordable intra-city transport service at both ends of the of the rail corridors which discourages potential passengers from patronizing the train service.

However, with the recent launch of the Abuja light rail service by President Muhammadu Buhari which is connected with the Abuja-Kaduna rail service at its Abuja terminal in Idu, 20 kilometers west of the city centre, that challenge could be said to have been addressed at the Abuja end of the rail corridor.

Moreover, the fact that there is still no online booking service means touts have been allowed the opportunity to engage in racketeering while unscrupulous staff of Nigerian railways also hoard the tickets to sell to anxious passengers at exorbitant rates.

 

Concerns about maintenance

Since it began operations, the major concerns of travellers on the Abuja-Kaduna train service have to do with maintenance of the quality of service passengers enjoy while travelling on the train. Although the maintenance of the rail service had since 2017 been transferred to the Nigerian Railways Corporation (NRC) – from the China Civil Engineering and Construction Company (CCECC) – the NRC has done a fairly good job in maintaining standards thus far.

While speaking to this correspondent, an official of the Nigerian railways at the Kubwa substation on the outskirts of Abuja who asked not to be named said the NRC had been trying to maintain standards including ensuring they keep to time even though passenger turnout had continue to increase on the Abuja-Kaduna route.

“The turnout is getting higher especially on weekends (Thursdays through Sunday) and during festive periods. We are short of coaches considering the increase in number of passengers even though 8 more couches were procured earlier this year. Therefore, there is need for more coaches so we can have a train to and from Kaduna every two hours,” he said.

The now 2-year old Abuja-Kaduna standard gauge railway is impacting on the lives of commuters and host communities at both ends of the rail corridor. With increasing uncertainties to do with accidents, kidnapping and robberies bedeviling travel along the busy and strategic Abuja-Kaduna highway, the rail line presents a viable alternative for safe and secure travel for travellers.

 

This work was produced thanks to a grant  by the Africa-China Reporting Project managed by the Journalism Department of the University of the Witwatersrand.

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