“The train will be arriving late because of poor weather visibility,” a voice from a speaker blares out.
This is at Kubwa terminal of the Abuja-Kaduna railway line. The message from the anonymous voice purchases the laughter of a bevy of passengers who exclaim in a telepathic manner: “Are we flying to Kaduna?”
I had arrived at the Kubwa terminal in Abuja at 7am on Tuesday to catch a train to Kaduna to extinguish my curiosity over the much hyped railway project.
One week after President Muhammadu Buhari launched the commercial service with pomp, I decide to have a feel myself. The president obviously savoured his own ride, but will I savour mine?
My first time of travelling on that moving mass of metal was in the late 1980s – arguably the cremation period of rail transport in Nigeria.
So, getting on one of those things, even though it is a gasping locomotive, has a fresh appeal.
First, security at the terminal is lax. There is just one nodding policeman who darts across the entrance to the complex listlessly. He looks like he is forced to gulp sour akamu, or pap. And random people saunter into the ticketing area and the lobby without proper checks. There is no security screening of any kind.
There are no scanners neither is there any run-off-the-mill security apparatus.
Also, the time display boards are broken, which does not speak well of a newly-launched project.
The giant metallic monster arrives at 7.40am to the heavy breath of passengers. It was scheduled to arrive at 7.16am from the Idu terminal, and to proceed on its voyage at 7.21am. But that does not happen – owing to “bad weather” (as the omniscient voice said).
After boarding, which only takes five minutes, the object of my quirky fascination trudges on at 7.45am.
Did I say I only managed to get a second class ticket? Yes. I was told that all the first class tickets had been sold.
As it is, there is reasonable patronage of the system considering the fact that it was launched just last week.
For those mulling my type of “lazy odyssey”, a second class ticket is sold for N600 while a first class ticket goes for N900, and a third class ticket commands just N400.
Considering its affordability and convenience, patronage will spike.
And back to my story! The train ride is like cocoa butter on the skin. Smooth. I spend the better part of my time observing passengers to satiate my journalistic appetite. I also poke my eyes to see the beauty of the interior of the moving monster. But I am not home and dry.
My smitten curiosity leads me to the toilet. I just want to see what that important human office looks like.
Alas! The place is dripping with smelly human wine, dirty, and without other essential condiments like tissue paper and hand wash.
I scurry back to my seat, and I spend the later part of my time watching Gods of Egypt.
The train halts for five-minute dwell time at Jere at 8.23am – that is 38 minutes from the time it jilted Abuja.
The humbug continues to its next stop at Rijana at 9.05am, and finally dunks at Rigasa terminal, Kaduna state at 9.45am.
In all, the shuttle time from Abuja to Kaduna is about two hours, the same when you go by land.
At Rigasa terminal, security is barren. There is no belt of checks for passengers. It is an “enter-as-you-like situation”, just as it is at Kubwa terminal.
At this terminal, however, I buy a first class ticket. Yes! And I board the train at 10.30am.
Now to the difference between the first-class coach and that of the second class. The chasm between these two coaches is not like the grand canyon, though.
I sit in the first-class area, and I get the chilly blows of the fitted air conditioners on my amber, and I feel the difference – from that of the low class where I wish the windows are open.
Just like on an aircraft, riding first class on the train is comforting. The seats are well spaced and comfier than those of the low class. The toilet too is a clean. In fact, I can have breakfast in it, except that there are no snacks or soft drinks on board. Although, there is a canteen on the train, it is still pristine – no culinary armada. To survive the two-hour ride – if you are hungry – you had better bring some “stomach infrastructure” along.
I speak with Grace Solomon, a woman who lives in Kaduna, and like me, she is taking an experiential ride on the train to Abuja.
“This is my first time on a train. I just want to experience it,” she tells me.
“What about you?”
“I am also on an experiential ride. Seeing is believing, you know,” I say.
Soon our leisure conversation peters out.
Another passenger catches my attention. He is Chuma Igwe, who lives in Kogi, but he is taking the train to Abuja from where he will continue his journey to his “hearth”.
“I wanted to go by road, but I opted for this because I was told it was convenient and cheap,” he tells me.
“When I get to Abuja I will catch a taxi to Kogi where I live. It is quite an experience.”
Igwe goes on sauntering across the aisle repeatedly as if he is desperate to soak up every metallic experience.
I see one of the cabin crew, who checks tickets, waltz down, and he says: “Ticket please.”
I reach for my back pocket and bring out the “legal tender”.
“Here is it,” I say.
I hunger to strike up a conversation with him, but I notice he is fixated on doing his round. So, I let that go.
The Chinese-woven object noses down to Abuja at its scheduled time of 10.40am with accustomed hissing.
It reaches Kubwa terminal – where I disembark – at 12.45pm, and it wanders down the tracks to its home at Idu station.
As I make my way back to the heart of town, flashes of the lush, green vegetation and the sprinkle of jagged houses along the train route hit my third eye. There is just something about espying the beautiful endowments of nature. What an experience!
TheCable then channels its observations to the Nigeria Railway Corporation (NRC), managers of the train service.
Mahmud Yakub, its spokesman, says the NRC is concerned about the safety of passengers and will enhance security at its stations.
“We have policemen… because 40 policemen were deployed to man the trains. I do not know why they are not there. But we have policemen in plain clothes. We take the safety of our passengers seriously,” he says.
On poor “weather visibility”, he says: “What happens is, if we are expecting torrential rainfall there is a possibility of a wash-out… that is torrential rain will overflow our tracks and possibly disconnect it. It strictly has to do with the weather. What we advise our drivers is that if there is heavy rainfall it is better to stop the train for safety reasons.”
Yakub also says the shuttle time from Abuja to Kaduna will improve.
“As time goes on there will be an improvement on the speed, but we are considering safety first,” he explains.
“When you have these observations bring it to our notice so we can take measures to rectify them.”