“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.