By Queenesther Iroanusi
President Muhammadu Buhari on July 12 commissioned the light rail at the new train station in Abuja. The rail line, he said, is the first phase of the rail line which will cover 12 other stations within Abuja.
Mr Buhari said the project was in line with the Change Agenda of the government to ensure prudence in the management of public resources as well as value for money.
While hoping that a modern rail service would boost the economy and enhance social life, he said the commissioning of the railway was evidence that the federal government was delivering on its promises.
According to the Minister of the FCT, Musa Bello, the Abuja rail is divided into six lots with a total length of 290km.
“Lot 1: From Nnamdi Azikwe Expressway through the Transportation Centre (Metro Station) via Gwagwa to Kubwa;
“Lot 2: From Gwagwa via Transportation Centre (Metro Station) to Nyanya/Karu;
“Lot 3: From Transportation Centre via Idu Industrial Zone to Nanmadi Azikwe International Airport;
“Lot 4: From Kuje Satellite town to Karshi Satellite town with the remaining legs of the Transit way line 2;
“Lot 5: From Kubwa via Bwari to Suleja and
Lot 6: From Airport via Kuje and Gwagwalada to Dobi,” he explained.
Two days after the light rail was launched, PREMIUM TIMES visited the station but was greeted by an empty, serene station.
“You cannot board a train till Monday,” a man who asked to be called an official told this reporter after she asked why the place was empty. “You can only go in and take a look, and maybe take pictures,” he added.
Upon gaining entrance into the station, the reporter was greeted by some “overly friendly” security officials who smiled at the reporter.
“You’re welcome ma. You look so beautiful this afternoon. How may I help you?”, Sani the security official asked the reporter after carrying out a thorough search .
After a little explanation, Mr Sani explained that full operations will start on Monday. He told the reporter that the train goes from base to Idu and then to the airport “for now”, contrary to the minister’s explanation.
Noticing the disappointment on the reporter’s face, he announced that the rides are free for the month of July. “Another reason why you should come back on Monday,” he said smiling widely again.
Monday: ready for a ride
By 12:17 p.m on Monday, this reporter arrived at the station, ready for a ride and quietly hoping there would not be negative stories.
This time, there was more life inside the station. More people, two armed army officers and ticketing officer present, all dressed in green and yellow.
First contact was a supervisor who refused to give out his name. Mr ‘supervisor’ who was wearing an FCTA ID card, presented the station’s timetable and it was as Sani said, from Abuja Metro Station to Idu and then to the airport.
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He explained that the trains being used are locomotives and that “they” were waiting for “diesel engines”. He added that the kind of trains being used limits the number of trips made by each train per day.
“For now, this is how we operate,” he said, pointing at the timetable.
While waiting for the next available train which was scheduled for 2:30p.m, the reporter wondered why the place was still empty as she could literally count the number of passengers waiting for the train. And they were not up to 20.
“Dear passengers, in order to save time, please buy tickets at the tickets vending machine with less people or the ticket office. Thank you for your cooperation,” a voice with an American accent announced over the speakers.;obviously a programmed announcement as the ride was still free.
Few minutes past 2 p.m, however, people began to troop into the station as though they just closed from a crusade and directed to the station for lunch or something.
Of course, it was a free ride. What was I expecting?
The ride; not what was expected
With a very loud noise, the train announced its arrival and in a very decent and orderly manner, passengers queued up, had their tickets pierced and directed to the train.
It was a beautiful train, painted with blue and ash colours and operated by some Chinese personnel.
The train took off at exactly 2:30 p.m. Perfect timing!
The interior of the train was beautiful as well. Very bright and air-conditioned.
The train was filled with so many excited passengers, some of whom confessed to being on a train for the first time. Almost everyone on board saw the ride as an opportunity to take pictures, which they did.
Many had expectations, including the reporter. Expectations like, high speed and excellent services but that was not the case.
No restroom? No attendants?
Expectations were cut short when the locomotive train maintained the same speed five to ten minutes after take-off. A passenger next to me put the speed at 20-30km per hour.
That was the first disappointment.
“Why is this slow? Are they still working on it? Why would Buhari commission it if it’s not properly functioning?”, a passenger quipped.
This reporter looked around to find an operator to answer these questions and hence the second disappointment. There was no attendant in sight.
It was time to use the convenience and since there was no attendant to ask for directions, the reporter strolled around the train to look for the rest room and only discovered the third disappointment. No toilet.
While having to deal with the “majestic” movement of the train, absence of attendants and restrooms, the reporter as well as other passengers comforted themselves with the sight of some Abuja residents waving at the train as it crawled past their neighbourhood.
Twenty minutes later, the train stopped at Idu Station and the announcement that followed was not only in pidgin English but sounded confused as well, to the greatest surprise of everyone.
“We do reach Idu Station. Prepare to alight” and after a few seconds, followed, “You say wetin… .”
Five minutes later, the train resumed crawling.
A passenger who asked to be anonymous had nothing but complaints about the ride.
She refused to praise the federal government for launching the light rail as she believed it should have been done “20-50 years ago.”
“We are very late. Its not something we should celebrate. Also the train is too slow, you cant go to work with it. You can’t catch up with your flight with this. They need faster timing and more stops too,” she said.
When asked to rate the treatment given to her by the attendants, she said, “This is still a promo. They just started so everyone is being nice. I can’t say anything for now.”
She also urged the management of the station to release the travel rates for each ride.
Another passenger, David Sule, welcomed the development as he said said he finds it comfortable.
He, however, complained that it was too slow and that the perimeter fences around the rail tracks was too short. He called for more security checks and thorough screening in order to ensure the safety of passengers.
Another passenger, who wanted to talk off record, said he likes the ride but will give the credit to former Presidents Olusegun Obasanjo and Goodluck Jonathan. He said Mr Buhari just commissioned it “because of election.”
Like the others, he complained of the speed of the train and said he cannot judge the attendants yet “because they just started.”
The train got to the airport at about 3:14p.m and 90 per cent of the passengers had nothing but complaints mainly about the speed of the train.
At the airport station, the security officials who said they were the ones to be questioned, were too busy to respond to questions.
Arriving at the Abuja Metro Stations again, this reporter complained to some ticketing officers (as they were the only ones available to talk) about her experience on the train.
The girl apologised and said there was supposed to be at least two attendants on the train. She was, however not sure if there was a toilet on the train. She further said the management will place a suggestion box for people with complaints.