BY SIMON REEF MUSA
The time was 4:45pm on Wednesday September 23, 2020. I was not going to risk the chances of missing the last train ride to Abuja. The train was scheduled to depart 6:00pm from the Rigasa station in Kaduna.
The ceaseless drizzle during the afternoon hours could have discouraged intending passengers arriving early, so I thought. Walking to the window that serves as a counter for selling tickets, there was no one attending to the few passengers that had arrived before me.
A young man walked up to me to inquire if I was in need of a ticket. I got the message. However, I told him that looking at the notice on the board, the sale of tickets would close by 5:55pm. Since it was 5pm, I was confident that the people at the counter would be around to either commence or continue the sale of tickets. None of the two happened. As we stood lamenting and complaining over the commencement of sale of tickets, many passengers arrived, smiling at the men keeping watch as they walked through the screening point.
Unlike at the Idu train station in Abuja where a formal announcement is made for intending passengers to proceed for boarding, the Rigasa train station is turned into chaos as ticket agents and desperate intending travellers engage in buying and selling. I saw a lady who some few minutes had complained of the corruption trailing the sale of tickets gliding through the gates, beaming with smiles as if the train was taking her out of the country she had bitterly nitpicked about.
At 5:30pm, someone, I suspected to be another ticket agent, approached me and asked if I would not mind to join the locomotive driver as all the tickets have been sold out. I shot a snarling look and told him I was not so desperate to travel back to Abuja. He was not happy as he walked away to yet another passenger.
The drizzle soon became a heavy downpour as many expensively dressed passengers soon arrived and were admitted without tickets. Since they were not turned back after passing through the screening point, I knew that something unknown to us on the outside was taking place.
Though I was determined not to spend an additional dime to get a ticket, I was terribly inquisitive of what forms of rituals were taking place beyond the screening point. At 5:53pm, I had, in the company of a frantic passenger desirous to board a first train ride, walked to the gate to observe the miracle of how tickets are “sold” at a close range.
A fair complexioned man soon joined us. The quality of his clothes and the smoothness of his skin revealed he could be trusted to drop some good money. One of the ticket agents soon appeared and approached him to find out if he had a ticket. He shook his head. The ticket agent soon vanished into the chaotic crowd at the gate and soon returned. He requested the fair man to follow him.
“Ni ne’ (I am the one) as the ticket agent passed through the screening point, leading the man to the boarding platform.
Another ticket agent approached me and asked if we had tickets.
“If we had tickets you won’t be seeing us”, I dismissively responded.
It was 5:56pm. Less than four minutes for the train to depart for the two-hour journey, and passengers without tickets were getting so anxious.
“Don’t worry sir. I will get a ticket for both of you”, as he pointed to the other man with me.
In less than a minute, he returned and requested we followed him. As we approached the screening point, we were led to the boarding platform for final boarding. He said the cost of the tickets have not changed as each ticket was N3, 000. He handed us two tickets and pleaded we get him little money to buy ‘ruwa or coke’ (water or coke). My co-passenger, who before now had told me he would gladly pay an additional N1, 000 to get a ticket, smilingly parted with N500. I gave the ticket agent N200 as he took us to our assigned coach and ensured we were seated on our designated seats. Some of the few passengers wore forlorn faces as most of the seats were empty.
The under-the-table dealings have become a normal routine on the Abuja-Kaduna train route. Despite the hike on the train fare, the management of the Nigerian Railway Corporation (NRC) is yet to print new receipts bearing the new fares. Instead of getting these new fares reflected on the tickets, the new approved fares are rubber stamped on the old receipts.
It is quite unfortunate and appalling that the Federal Government is subsidizing the Abuja-Kaduna train service with not less than N40 million every month. That means the government is spending N480 million naira per annum. Allowing devious racketeers to take charge of ticket sales is akin to enthroning a system that will make it impossible to sustain the operations of the train service. As it is now, the government is incapable of knowing exactly what the Abuja-Kaduna train route generates every day.
Declared a source that is deeply knowledgeable in the despicable financial affairs of the train route: “A cabal has taken over the revenue generation of the Abuja-Kaduna train route. This cabal, too powerful to be controlled, are too connected to be dislodged. I can assure you that this cabal declares less than 50 percent of what the route generates every month.”
There is need for the Minister of Transportation, Hon Rotimi Amaechi, to cleanse the putrefaction and corruption called Abuja-Kaduna train service and bring to book those crippling the financial buoyancy of this train service. The dark sides of ticket agents and other grubby happenings are symptomatic of the decay trailing the operation of the train service.
The cabal that has hijacked the revenue generation accrued from the Abuja-Kaduna train route is working in collaboration with some top officials of the NRC and Federal Ministry of Transportation. The only means to blocking the present revenue theft taking place on this route is to engage a private firm for revenue collection or resort to online platforms to end the firm grips of this vicious cabal.
The Abuja-Kaduna train route has the financial capacity to sustain its operations. What is constituting an impediment is the presence of a vicious thieving clique that has turned the route into an oil bloc for a few persons who won’t let go without a big fight.
Can Minister Amaechi clean the Augean stable that the Abuja-Kaduna train service is becoming?