“From Rigasa, the next station is Kakau, then Dutse, then Rijana,” announces Ade, a train conductor with the Nigerian Railway Corporation (NRC). He is dressed in the company’s green and yellow and wears a reflective safety vest as the train departs from Rigasa station in Kaduna, northwestern Nigeria. Its final destination is the country’s capital, Abuja.
Rigasa, a densely populated urban slum, is the site of the main rail terminus along the 186km (115.6 miles) Kaduna-Abuja railway line.
The Chinese-built train has a sparkling white and cerulean interior and features 10 neat, air-conditioned carriages with comfortable seats made of plastic draped in green cotton coverlets. The train, quiet and serene, carries only half its capacity of about 1,000 passengers amid precautionary social distancing measures to curtail the spread of COVID-19. It is a contrast to the overbooked trains, with passengers squeezed into the aisles, that existed before the pandemic.
“Three stops, then you alight at Rijana,” Ade repeats a little later on in the journey as he moves across the aisle checking passengers’ tickets, punching two holes in each. “The train only stops briefly at every station. It does not wait for long,” he warns us.
An economic invigoration?
Poor transport infrastructure has long been a big hindrance to economic development in Nigeria. This railway line, opened by President Muhammadu Buhari in 2016, is the first of the country’s standard gauge railway modernisation projects, accommodating high-speed rail lines. It is part of an attempt to reinvigorate Africa’s largest economy as railways make a comeback after decades of neglect.
The British colonial government completed Nigeria’s first rail infrastructure more than 100 years ago to aid the movement of agricultural goods from the northern region to the ports in the south. The service began to decline in the 1970s due to a fall in agricultural exports, mismanagement and government neglect. By 2009, the number of annual passenger rail trips in Nigeria had fallen from its 1963 heyday of 11 million to just one million.
The new standard gauge line was built as part of China’s Belt and Road Initiative [TJ Benson/Al Jazeera]The new standard gauge line – the most widely-used railway track around the world for high-speed trains – connects Abuja with the former colonial capital of northern Nigeria, Kaduna, as part of the $1 trillion Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) unveiled by China in 2013. Nigeria’s 200 million-strong population serves as a ready market for Chinese exports and technology. It is also a lucrative access point into West Africa and the rest of the continent for Chinese exporters.
Matthew T Page, associate fellow of the Africa Programme at Chatham House, the international affairs think-tank based in London, explains that China’s strategic interest in Nigeria is important for the African country’s status as an emerging global power, with huge unmet demand for infrastructure projects.
“It’s a very natural connection,” he says. “Rail projects financed by low-interest Chinese loans allow the Chinese entrepreneurial class in the diaspora to establish themselves in Nigeria, Africa’s largest consumer market where there is a huge demand for Chinese exports. For the Nigerian government, the cost of building and refurbishing the rail would be an extremely large expense.”
The Kaduna railway line began operating in July 2016 with the aim of enabling faster movement of goods and people, easing road traffic congestion and promoting the economic development of towns along the route.
The railway line with its nine new stations was opened in 2016 [TJ Benson/Al Jazeera]At the opening ceremony of the railway with its nine new stations, President Buhari announced that the service would provide a much-needed alternative transport link between the two cities. The main terminus at Idu Station in Abuja is a large grey building. The substations along the line are similar, albeit smaller, cream-coloured buildings.
But while the railway recorded about one million passengers in its first two years of operation, it has not produced the economic invigoration that the communities hosting the substations hoped for. Residents say the cost of train tickets is prohibitive and the substations are difficult to access.
After a 40-minute ride from Rigasa through landscapes of lush green savannah, the train arrives at Rijana station, an agrarian and grazing village along the expressway road.
When alighting from a train at Rijana station you may find yourself in the middle of two tracks, sandwiched between two trains [TJ Benson/Al Jazeera]As the doors of the train open, the photographer and I jump out and find ourselves not on a platform, but right in the middle of two tracks, sandwiched between two locomotives, one racing towards Kaduna and another – the one from which we have just alighted – towards Abuja. The sound of the trains – which reach speeds of more than 100km/h (62mph) – is deafening.
At the entrance to Rijana station, a scowling station manager flanked by four other members of staff, three men and a woman, enquires about why we have stopped at the station. He looks to be in his 50s and is dressed in a flowing blue kaftan and traditional blue cap. He is dismissive of our pleasantries.
“Did you buy a ticket for Rijana?” he asks. “If you bought a ticket for Abuja then why are you dropping here?” We explain that we need to stop at the substations between Kaduna and Abuja and ask to buy a ticket from Rijana to the next station at Jere, a journey of about 40 minutes.
Rijana station has a single trackside platform [TJ Benson/Al Jazeera]There are just four return train trips a day from Kaduna to Abuja. Passengers can only buy one-way, single-use tickets up to two hours before departure from Kaduna, with the date and details of the departure and arrival stations imprinted on them. Passengers making multiple stops along the line have not been anticipated.
The station manager informs us that passengers can only buy tickets physically at departing stations and that the substations no longer sell them. He cannot explain the rationale for this, but says it is a directive from the Nigerian Railway Corporation. He suggests we hail a commercial taxi driving from Kaduna to Abuja on the expressway and get out at Jere, which is just less than an hour away by road.
Our attempts to telephone the NRC via the contact numbers displayed on its website – for help with buying a new ticket – prove futile as both go unanswered.
Rijana station is surrounded by lush farmland. It is a 15-minute walk through the farmland to Rijana town [TJ Benson/Al Jazeera]The station at Rijana consists of a single trackside platform and a modern station building; its red roof standing out against the backdrop of surrounding farmland. Inside, there is a barricaded ticket sales area, a sparse waiting room and some office spaces. From the station, it is a 15-minute walk along a footpath through bushes and farmland to the main expressway that leads into Rijana town.
Bandits and kidnappers
Rijana has become infamous as a hub for banditry and ransom kidnappings, both of which have become rampant on the Kaduna-Abuja highway and across other parts of northern Nigeria. At its peak in November 2019, almost 10 kidnappings a day were taking place on this stretch of highway alone, according to the commander of the Nigerian police Intelligence Response Squad (IRT), Abba Kyari.
Thick rows of trees serve as a cover for the armed gangs that pounce, brandishing firearms, on unsuspecting road travellers, pulling them from their vehicles.
They abduct both rich and poor, demanding ransoms of between $1,000 and $150,000, depending on the wealth of the victims and their families. About $11m was extorted in this way between January 2016 and March 2020. Commuters between Kaduna and Abuja have resorted to using the train to avoid the risk of kidnapping, however not everyone can afford the train fare and with so few trains running, many travellers have no option but to risk the road.
Just a few days before our journey, the Nigerian Air Force claimed an air attack had killed several armed bandits in the forests surrounding Rijana.
Ali Abubakar in his small store in Rijana. He says the train is too expensive for villagers and market traders like him [TJ Benson/Al Jazeera]At a minimarket on the Abuja-Kaduna expressway, a 20-minute walk from Rijana station, we meet 45-year-old shopkeeper Ali Abubakar, who is dressed in a blue kaftan with a matching cap. He is selling soft drinks, foodstuff and household items in his store, which can hold only three people at a time.
I buy a can of malt drink and sit with him on a wooden bench outside the shop. He tells me that he believes the seven identical substations located in towns and villages between Kaduna and Abuja are too far from the towns and that the train fare is too high to serve as a proper alternative to road transport for village dwellers and traders like him.
“If it is meant for the towns and villages with the substations then it should not be this expensive,” he says. Abubakar travels to Kaduna by road at least once a week for business, a distance of less than 60km (37 miles), at a cost of about 300 naira ($0.78) for a commercial bus ride.
Locals priced out
When the Abuja-Kaduna rail service commenced operations, economy class tickets cost 600 naira (about $1.50), while the VIP coaches cost 900 naira ($2.35). The first-class coaches have a bar within, extra legroom and a table for each rider for eating or reading.
Towards the beginning of the pandemic, the government suspended commercial rail services. They started again four months later, but with reduced capacity to allow for social distancing [TJ Benson/AL Jazeera]In April 2020, the federal government suspended commercial services because of the pandemic. But operations resumed four months later in July, with an increase in fares approved by President Buhari. Now an economy class ticket between Kaduna and Abuja costs 3,000 naira ($8), while the VIP ticket costs 6,000 naira ($16). By contrast, travelling by road using commercial taxis or buses costs about 1,500 naira ($4). Almost half the population of Nigeria live in poverty, earning less than $1 per day.
“With the current kidnappings happening every day on this road, it is only the rich that can afford the safety of the train,” says Abubakar.
“But for someone like me, I cannot afford the train so I have to follow the road and hope my luck doesn’t run out. When you are unlucky and they [the kidnappers] get you, your family has to source money for your ransom, and if they do not meet the deadline, nobody hears from you again,” he adds.
“Some of my own friends and neighbours have disappeared due to this situation. The ransoms could not be paid and they never came back.”
Kabiru Salisu says he has never been to the substation that is a 15 minute walk from his farm and does not believe that it serves any purpose for him [TJ Benson/Al Jazeera]Fifty-seven-year-old market trader Kabiru Salisu wears a flowing multi-patterned kaftan. For more than 40 years, he has been selling sugarcane that he grows on a small farm in Rijana. He has never been to the train station that is less than 15 minutes from his farm since it opened in 2016.
“I do not earn anything there. I do not benefit at all from there. What will take me there?” he asks, offering us sticks of sugarcane. “In my whole life I have never set foot in Abuja, so what do I need the train for?”
Many traders at Rijana market must continue to risk travel by road, where kidnappings for ransom are common, because the train is prohibitively expensive [Sada Malumfashi/Al Jazeera] The commuters
But, for those who can afford it, the train offers a safer way to travel between the two cities.
Most of the travellers are civil servants who work in Abuja, but due to the high cost of rent in the capital, commute in from Kaduna where housing is cheaper. These weekly commuters between Kaduna and Abuja are the main targets of the bandits and kidnappers.
Most of the commuters are civil servants who work in Abuja but cannot afford to live there because of the high cost of housing [TJ Benson/Al Jazeera]Before the onset of the pandemic and the introduction of social distancing measures, passengers bought standing tickets after seats filled up for the two-hour train journey, for the same price as a seat. They leant on chairs or squeezed into aisle spaces, making the trains overcrowded and frequently increasing train capacity from its 1,000 seats to nearly 4,000 passengers each time.
When we started our journey in Kaduna, we met Maryam Ahmad. The 22-year-old works for a non-governmental organisation (NGO) in Kaduna and uses the train service to visit her sister in Abuja on weekends. As she relaxes into her seat, she whips out her phone to take selfies and record videos with the cream-coloured interior of the train carriage in the background. She will post them on Instagram, where she has thousands of followers. It is a popular pursuit with many young travellers who document their train travel experience on their social media accounts.
“The train is the safest option right now, but the commotion of getting a ticket can be stressful,” she says as the train starts to move and she changes position to take another selfie. There is no e-ticketing facility, so you have to physically buy tickets. Furthermore, some passengers have accused train officials of hoarding tickets and selling them just before the train departs at inflated prices.
“Also getting to the train station in Rigasa is difficult. It is quite far from the centre of Kaduna town,” she says. “If the road was safer, I would have travelled by taxi to Abuja, it is much easier and stress-free. It is fun travelling by train but the car parks are more accessible than the train station, both in Kaduna and Abuja.”
For another passenger, Nafisa Abubakar, a 27-year-old entrepreneur and resident of Abuja, the cost of the tickets is also a concern. “I always board the VIP section for my round trip when travelling on the train, but I can’t afford to do that any more, it is too expensive,” she says. “So I have had to sacrifice the comfort of the VIP section for the economy class because following the road is not an option for me. It is better to pay 3,000 naira on the train than follow the road and be kidnapped.”
A ticket home
On the other side of the Kaduna-Abuja expressway at Rijana, we hail a Volkswagen van heading towards Abuja. There are seven other passengers cramped inside the vehicle. It costs 400 naira ($1) for a drop off at Jere, a distance of about 50km (31 miles) and the next town with a train station after Rijana.
The motorcycle route from Jere town to Jere Station [Sada Malumfashi/Al Jazeera]At Jere, a group of commercial motorcycle riders waits by the side of the expressway for passengers getting off the bus. One takes us through the hills and farmland to the railway station, a journey of 10 minutes.
It is the peak of the rainy season and the road to the train station at Jere is waterlogged and inaccessible for vehicles larger than our motorbike. There is no sign of passengers waiting at the station; the only people here are the maize farmers tilling their nearby farmlands.
The road to Jere station is waterlogged and inaccessible to larger vehicles at times during the rainy season. Residents of the communities surrounding the railway line have complained that the stations are located too far outside the towns [TJ Benson/Al Jazeera]Unlike the station manager at Rijana, the official at Jere tells us that the Kaduna-bound train from Abuja can pick us up from Jere station for 1,100 naira ($2.9). There is no explanation as to why the situation is different here and the tickets he gives us are official NRC tickets with “departure from: Jere” and “destination: Rigasa” imprinted on them. It will be the last train of the day, after which the station will close, so we decide to return to Kaduna.
Few economic benefits
When the Kaduna-Abuja rail link was completed in 2016, there was a buzz of anticipation amid hopes it would have a positive knock-on effect on the economies of satellite towns like Rijana and Jere.
Tolu Ogunlesi, the special assistant to Nigeria’s president on digital and new media, blogged earlier this year about how the rail projects would “open up” towns and cities.
Abdulaziz Halliru, a father of two in his 30s, lives in a new apartment 10 minutes from the Jere substation. He works as an estate agent and rears goats and sheep on the side.
Halliru, who wears a pink Juventus shirt and grey tracksuit, says he has never used the train due to its limited schedule. But he still hopes it could bring positive economic developments to his town, especially in real estate.
“The station here can serve as a train junction for travellers from the southern part of Kaduna and Niger State, and, if properly utilised, can turn Jere into an economic hub,” he says. “I am really happy the rail line passes through this town.”
The writer sits in the train’s luggage space because all of the available seats are taken. The others must stay empty due to social distancing protocols [TJ Benson/Al Jazeera]When we board the train at Jere to head back to Kaduna, we cannot find seats as all of the coaches have been filled to half capacity and the other seats must remain empty due to social distancing protocols. Alternate seats are marked off with red masking tape, and the train conductors ensure passengers do not sit in them.
We squeeze into space at the end of the train between the luggage racks and the toilets and remain there for the hour-long journey to Rigasa station, the final stop in Kaduna.
Two ticket officers on the train have taken pictures of the tickets we bought at Jere – surprised that we were able to buy them. They repeat what the staff at Rijana told us – that the substations do not sell tickets.
Later on, when I am able to talk to someone from the NRC, I am told that tickets are no longer supposed to be sold at the substations – due to a lack of demand – but that the Jere station manager may not have received this message yet due to a “problem with communication”.
‘I would rather walk’
Arriving back at Rigasa train station, we are welcomed by the sight of fast-food joints, hawkers selling face masks, groundnuts, soft drinks and phone chargers, among other things. It is a stark contrast to the empty substations we visited on our journey.
A sign at Rigasa station, through which thousands of travellers pass every day [TJ Benson/Al Jazeera]To avoid the infamous kidnapping gangs on the Kaduna-Abuja road, thousands of travellers arrive at Rigasa every day to board the train to Abuja. As a result, businesses in Rigasa are booming, with a new shopping mall opposite the station and real estate investors developing new properties.
The state government has also built a new dual-carriageway road to connect the train station with Kaduna city centre in an effort to make it easier to reach the station.
Sixteen-year-old Haruna Salisu works as a payments collector in one of the numerous private car parks near the station. Passengers travelling to Abuja can leave their cars here to be watched over for 500 naira ($1.3) a day. There are more than 50 cars parked there when we arrive and Salisu explains how he now makes enough money not to have to ask his parents for any.
Despite this, the train ride from Kaduna to Abuja is nothing more than a dream for a local like him. “I would rather walk to Abuja than pay 6,000 naira [$16] for a ticket,” he says as he directs a driver out of the open-air car park.
The final Kaduna-Abuja train departs from Rigasa station at 6pm [TJ Benson/Al Jazeera]As the sun begins to recede into the Rigasa skyline, the fourth and final train of the day to Abuja gets ready to depart. On a bridge above the tracks, children run to get a glimpse of it.
Fourteen-year-old Aisha Badamasi, who sells corn by the side of the road, dashes across the bridge to wave the train goodbye.
“I don’t know where Abuja is, but I know that is where the train goes,” she says. “Maybe one day I can take the train too and see the city where President Buhari is living. Maybe,” she giggles shyly, as the train disappears from view.
Locals watch the tracks at Rigasa [TJ Benson/Al Jazeera]