Well before departure time, Lai Aliatu boards the train from Kaduna to Abuja in leisurely fashion. Nigeria’s newest railway line, in use since July last year, links Aliatu’s home city – the second biggest in northern Nigeria – to Abuja, the capital, where he works midweek as a software trader.
“The first time I came to take the train, I was maybe five or six minutes late. I was thinking that it wouldn’t matter – until I got to the platform and there was no train,” says the 34-year-old. “Since that time, I get here early every week.”
So far, the train line is a success story for Nigeria, where infrastructure projects thwarted by corruption and poor administration can be difficult to complete. Though train lines connect other states in the country, they are often poorly managed, unreliable and unsafe.
As with many current infrastructure projects in the continent’s most populous country, the line was partly funded by loans from the Chinese government and built in partnership with Chinese contractors.
In the carriages, small screens hanging from the ceiling show action films, westerns and Korean romances. Space is plentiful and there is a bar area that is not yet operational. Bottled water and crisps can be bought during the journey.
At the stations in Abuja, groups of excited schoolchildren take tours of the facilities. Currently, 2,700 journeys are made each week, but use of the line has been steadily increasing. Tickets with allocated seating are bought on the day, and there are plans to make them available online.
According to Sanusi Ismaila, founder of CoLab, a tech innovation hub based in Kaduna, the rail service has helped connect the enterprise to new partners in Abuja. “Just last week we held an event and many of the people who came travelled by rail. People are starting to prefer it to the stress of coming by road,” he says. “The difficult thing, though, is that the station in Kaduna is in a bit of a weird place, away from the city centre. It’s 30 minutes away, which for Kaduna city is far.”
A recent ticket price increase raises doubts about the sustainability of the fare, but at 1,500 naira (£3.89) for first class and 1,050 naira (£2.72) for economy, the prices are still affordable for most Nigerians and cheaper than bus travel to Kaduna. The transport ministry has said there are no plans for further fare rises.
According to Victor Adamu, operations manager of the Abuja-Kaduna rail service, public transport in Nigeria is typically seen as a “lower class” means of travel. “That is one of the things we are seeing with this new rail service, both rich and poor using it, which is not common in Nigeria apart from air travel,” he says.
The train does 90kmh, taking two hours and 40 minutes, which is a shorter journey time than travelling by road.
“The locomotive engine needed to power the train had not arrived by the September deadline to commission the service,” says Adamu. “So we used the locomotive from the carriage, which the builders used to travel along the line during construction. We’re hoping the correct locomotives will arrive from China any week now, then the trains will be much faster.”
Currently, the service uses only one train consisting of four carriages, which goes to and from Abuja twice a day. According to Adamu, by June there will be 10 more carriages – delivered from China – which will allow greater passenger numbers and a more regular service.
The management is aiming to provide a service to enable Kaduna residents to make their daily commute to work in Abuja.
Security problems in the south of Kaduna state between Fulani herdsmen and village communities have also fuelled wider fears about road routes. The government has described such fears as hyped and sought to dispel concerns. “We are assuring Nigerians that we will provide adequate security throughout the movement,” said Hadi Sirika, the minister of aviation. “We are going to provide security 24 hours, seven days throughout the period.”
A couple of armed police officers on the train to Abuja say there have been no security incidents since the service began.
A new line linking Ibadan to Lagos is due to be completed later this year, with several others planned around the country. The government hopes these will help to cut traffic on interstate roads, as well as improving access and boosting economies.
The transport minister, Rotimi Amaechi, recently reiterated the government’s determination to rehabilitate Nnamdi Azikiwe international airport in Abuja. The runway, originally built to last 20 years but in place for the past 35 years, is to be taken out of service for repairs for six weeks from 7 March. The government’s widely criticised plan is for flights to the capital to be redirected to Kaduna airport, from where a coach service will take passengers on to Abuja.
This has raised security concerns, which were exacerbated by the kidnapping of two German archaeologists last Wednesday at Jajela village in Kaduna state, about 30km from the road to Abuja. The abducted men were freed by security forces last Saturday.