The Abuja-Kaduna train service was recently reopened after it was suspended for over four months as a measure against the spread of coronavirus (COVID-19). In this piece, ISAIAH BENJAMIN (Kaduna) and EJIKE EJIKE (Abuja) report that hike in fare, among other factors, has led to low patronage of the train service.
Prior to the outbreak of Covid-19 pandemic in Nigeria, which led to the suspension of the rail transport system as part of measures to contain the spread of the virus, the rail service station in Kaduna used to be a beehive of activities, with passengers trooping in and out of the station. No thanks to the kidnapping and robberies on the Abuja-Kaduna highway before the train service was inauinaugurated.
But with the suspension of the rail transport service during the Covid-19 lockdown, the Kaduna terminal became a ghost of its former self with lamentations particularly from petty traders around the station. They were not the ones who lost sales to the closure of the station, transporters who operate right in front of the station, also did.
Although the services have resumed but it has been greeted with mixed feelings particularly with the 100% increase in transport fares.
Many passengers lamented the increase and insinuated that the government's decision of the increase was not good for the masses, saying the aim is likely going to be defeated if it not addressed urgently.
It would be recalled that at the inception, the fare from Abuja to Kaduna for the standard class was N600 per passenger while the 1st class was N900 and the fares were increased with the standard class going for N1,050 while the 1st class went for N1,500. The decision was taken before the suspension.
But with the increase upon resumption of the train service from N1,500 to N3,000 and from N3,000 to N6,000, some of the passengers that spoke to our correspondent at the Abuja-Kaduna (AK) train service station in Rigasa area of Kaduna, said they were disappointed with the sudden increase in fares.
Meanwhile, the first train that leaves Kaduna for Abuja by 6:40am charges N3,000 for economy while the VIP goes for N6,000 while the other timings like 9am 12noon and 2pm, the economy goes for N2,500 and the VIP goes for N5,000.
According to Mrs Beatrice Solomon, she lamented that "the 100% increase all of a sudden is too much. The train service was meant to help us the ordinary masses but with the increase now, am not sure if it is still so."
On his part, Malam Yusuf Abdulrahaman, said, "we heard that the increase was due to the increase in the price of Diesel, in any case, it is still cheaper than the risk of taking vehicle to Abuja by road because nobody can be sure of when these criminals will strike."
Also, an official of the Nigeria Railway Corporation (NRC) who will not want his name mentioned, said the increase was not meant to punish the masses but to serve them better.
As at the time LEADERSHIP Friday visited the service station, the station manager was not available for comment, but one of the staff disclosed that even if he was on ground he would not speak as it is only the NRC headquarters that can speak on the increase of the fare.
"Oga, you can see that the rush and patronage prior to the Covid-19 pandemic is no longer there, the patronage has reduced drastically. But am sure the fare increase is basically to improve service delivery to the customers," he said.
In terms of observance to the Covid-19 protocols, at the entrance of the station there is a provision for passengers to wash and sanitise their hands, their temperatures equally taken while wearing of face masks is compulsory before boarding the train. Passengers are equally made to observe physical distancing while purchasing their tickets and on the train as well.
The chairs in the waiting room are in good condition except for one or two that require repairs and waiting passangers and made to seat while maintaining required social distancing.
Also, a visit to the conveniences equally showed that the male and female conveniences are clean with adequate running water and a standby two water tanks donated by a microfinance bank.
Meanwhile, the Abuja-Kaduna train service, which recommenced operations last week amid different terms and new fare due to the new normal occasioned by the outbreak of COVID-19, recorded about 6,000 passengers within the first week, investigations by LEADERSHIP Friday has shown.
According to the Operations Manager of NRC at the Idu station in Abuja, Mr. Victor Adamu, upon resumption of the train service, less than 5,000 passengers have used the service from Abuja to Kaduna and from Kaduna to Abuja in the first five days.
This, Minister of Transportation, Rotimi Amaechi, explained that the lack of movement due to COVID-19 is the major contributing factor for the low patronage and not the hike in fare.
One of the passengers, Zeenat Ahmed, said the fare hike was unfair, adding that "instead of putting everything on the passengers, both parties should lose 50-50. They shouldn't have put the price at N,3000."
"The roads are very bad, so passengers will rather pay the money to go but some people can't pay now, if you are traveling with kids and family it's going to be expensive. Tell me how many people are working now, like teachers are not working, only drivers, few offices and doctors and nurses," Zeenat pointed out.
Also, Kelechi John asked: "It is like telling us to weigh the options between travelling by road and by rail. Why can't the government subsidise the operations till November or December?"
For Mairo Hassan, "The increase in fares is not in the interest of Nigerians as not everybody can afford it with the way things are right now together with COVID-19 pandemic."
Aminu Aliyu on his part asked that the fares be reverted but opined that it was much more safer to travel by train.
According to him, "To be honest, we will appreciate if government can take it back to the former price but in the absence of nothing we will have to take what we see but we welcome back the train because we miss it. It's much safer to go by train than to be on the road. The road is bad, it's still work in progress and the fear of kidnappers, armed robbers and the rest. For me if I have the money I would rather pay."
This is even as Amaechi said a coach of 88 passengers now takes 56 passengers. Although it generated N120million before, it's now making below N60m and running cost is between N90m to N100m.
"There are two things that could be done: increase the fares or government subsidise; and we gave the government the opportunity but there is no money so the government can't subsidise," the Minister explained.
Speaking when he visited the Idu station in Abuja to monitor passengers' compliance with the safety protocols, Amaechi added that with the new arrangement, the Corporation was not making any profit but simply recouping the running cost.
Before the recommencement of the train service, Amaechi, while speaking at the daily briefing of the PTF on COVID-19, urged all passengers to come with their hand sanitizerss as the ministry will not provide any for passengers.
According to him, "If you can see I brought two items, if anybody has ever seen me in public without this (hand sanitizer), let the person raise up his hand. In public without this? I carry this everywhere I go, the reason is I have seen people die of COVID-19, so I'm dead scared.
"If you ask the last speaker, I refused to agree that we should open the railways.
It is the pressure of those who want to participate in the forthcoming spiritual activities (Eid-el-Kabir) that made me accept that we will open the railways from Abuja to Kaduna.
"What are our requirements? We don't want to see how handsome you are or how beautiful you are, please wear for me a face mask, not a mouth mask. Nigerians wear mouth masks. If you do that, the train will stop and you will come down.
"There is no Christian, there is no Muslim in death, I hope you know. When you die you'll go and face your God, exactly. Some of us are not ready to face our creators, so don't take us down there. So the moment you bring down your mask, we have increased number of policemen in each coach, the police will ask you to wear back your mask for respect. If you refuse, he would ask the driver to stop."
The minister further stated that "we will allow this type of mask (surgical mask), we will allow the cloth mask made by Nigerians, but that's the masks that people put in their mouth. So when you're getting the locally made masks, it must be such that covers both nose and mouth."
On wearing of face shield, Amaechi said "don't come with face shield, if you want to come with your face shield, don't forget to come with your face mask. You will not enter the station if you don't have a face mask, you will not enter the station, if you don't have the hand sanitiser.
"I said mask, I didn't say wrapper, in did not say you should cover your face with wrapper.
"We don't mind you covering your face with wrapper but you must show us your mask before you cover fully before you step in.
"We must see a hand sanitizer, we must make sure it is not below 79 percent alcohol. This one is a hundred percent alcohol, this is not show, this is methylated spirit and alcohol.
"But for those who can't, come with your sanitizer that is not below at least 79 percent alcohol. We will check it, I'm not joking. I'll be there on Wednesday morning and I'll be there till mid-afternoon."
On physical distancing, he said "We have reduced, for purpose of physical distancing, the number of passengers coaches that convey 88 passengers will now not convey more that 50 passengers.
"So you have your space. That's why we increased the transport fare from N1500 to N3000 for economy; for business class N5000; and for first class N6,000.
"First class, you don't need physical distancing, it is just 23 seats in a coach of 88, so you have enough space but for economy and business class, you need physical distancing or social distancing and that's why we have created those spaces."
He concluded by stating that "inside the waiting room, we don't have enough seats. So if you don't have a seat, please wait outside."
"It will be one bench of three seats to one passenger, no longer three persons, that is what it will be. You may not be allowed to move freely inside the coaches except you want to use the toilet.
"Apart from using the toilet, you will not be allowed free movement. We are bringing in as many policemen as possible not only for security but for enforcement.
"Give us between two and three months, we will start electronic ticketing, that way nobody will come to the station to buy tickets, and there will be no need for social/physical distancing."
Ameachi, while warning VIPs agajnst flouting COVID-19 protocols, said that incidences of eminent personalities flouting NCDC safety measures at airports will not be condoned at train stations.
The minister also gave a standing order to security personnel stationed at the terminus that anyone without face mask should be denied access and turned back.
The Minister, while encouraging everyone to imbibe the simple safety basics, noted that "protecting ourselves against COVID-19 takes no special training."