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The Kaduna International Airport, no doubt, is not an international airport in the class of Heathrow, JFK, Charles De Gaulle, or even the Nnamdi Azikiwe International Airport, Abuja, and the Murtala Muhammed International Airport, Lagos. But it is not worse than Kotoka Airport in Accra (Ghana’s premier airport) or the airports in Banjul, The Gambia or Conakry (Guinea). It is also better than what they have in Monrovia, or Lungi, Sierra Leone. So, one is a bit baffled that foreign airlines, which regularly land at these other airports are reluctant to land in Kaduna. Whatever is their reason, it’s definitely not because of facilities at the airport nor security on the route.
Luckily, all our local airlines and, at least, one foreign airline, are patronising the Kaduna airport. As at March 30, 2017, no fewer than 4,000 international passengers, drawn from 50 international flights had passed through the airport, while well over 1,100 local flights had landed and taken off from there – conveying some 73,00 passengers.
Incidentally, that figure did not include the thousands of us packed into the airport last Saturday afternoon, as I awaited my flight back to Lagos. And as I dug into the plate of moi-moi and dodo that was my brunch, I glanced at the huge screen on my left. It announced the Kadinvest (a programme geared at further positioning Kaduna State, as a new investment destination) scheduled to hold in a few days’ time. Abuja’s loss has become Kaduna’s gain. Or better still, every disappointment is a blessing somewhere else.
Yes, we landed ourselves in this Kaduna ‘mess’ when we not only failed to properly maintain the Abuja airport, but also insisted on stretching the runway more than 10 years beyond its recommended lifespan. However, we could not continue to ‘manage’ the runway as it was, and continue to put the lives of passengers and aircraft at risk – this is more so, when there had been reported instances of aircraft tyres bursting on impact with the expired, cracked and undulated runway.
Of course, I’m one of those who feel that an airport need not be closed to effect repairs, but I also understand that the state of disrepair of the 30-year-old Abuja airport runway was such that no half-measure could fix. It’s a comprehensive work that would take six months to fix. Luckily, the PMB government has committed to closing the airport for only six weeks.
Yes, Minna (Niger State) would have been a better alternative choice of airport than Kaduna, but I doubt if Minna airport would not have needed more work, than was done on the Kaduna airport, to get it ready at short notice.
But if the Federal Government had opted for Minna, I would never have had the unquantifiable joy of last week’s train ride from Kaduna to Abuja.
In all my nearly fifty years of stomping the face of the earth in Nigeria, I’d never boarded our trains – that is if we discountenance the few times, in my growing up years, when we jumped from one coach to another at the Jebba station. Occasionally, we’d be playing inside the coaches of a stationary train when the engine would suddenly roar to life. We’d mischievously hide behind sacks and luggage until the train began to pull out of the station, and then we’d jump out of the moving train. It was our idea of fun.
However, it was the memory of those stolen moments on the train that made me jump at the idea of a proper train ride last week, as I made to keep an appointment in the FCT.
Ironically, by the time I was landing in Kaduna that night, I had heard enough tales of woe to put me permanently on edge. I was told I had to wait four hours for the train – Big lie. I was seated in that train within 35 minutes of landing in Kaduna (all the processing completed). I was told Nigerian trains are dirty and the passengers unruly – Another big lie! I was in the company of lawyers, insurance brokers, chartered accountants, senators and all manner of professionals and business people.
But those were not the only prejudices. Pressed as I was, I refused to go anywhere near the toilets. I know what public toilets look like in this part of the country. With usually no provision for those who’d like to perform the ablution, the floors are always messed up. At the Rigasa station, I took a gamble to the gents. And boy, was I pleasantly surprised! This was indeed a ‘restroom’. You could almost rest there!
I secretly thanked Ahmed (a lawyer co-passenger, who eventually gave me a ride to my Asokoro Sun Heavens Hotel from the station) for further convincing me to go for the train. He said it was his preferred mode of commuting the distance between Kaduna and Abuja, and he had already done three trips that week.
Movement from airport to train station was seamless. There were four shuttle buses on ground – two to take passengers to the Rigasa Train Station, and another two for those who would opt to go to Abuja by bus.
I had two reasons to decide against going by bus. One of them was that while it would take a minimum three hours to get to Abuja by bus, the train would do the journey in two hours flat.
I was told the train actually has the capacity to do that two-hour journey in 45 minutes, but that the authorities opted to set it at two hours. And you’d ask why? The villagers along the route of the tracks still have their brains wired to the locomotive era. They’d see a train and still be strolling across the tracks, thinking the train is still far off and would take a while before it gets to them. By the time they realise their miscalculation, it would have been too late. They’d have become a mess of ground beef.
Back to the train, the coaches were neater than the plane that flew me to Kaduna – and the seats were just as comfortable, if not more comfortable than the aircraft’s. In fact, since ours was the last flight, the coaches were not even full. Yours sincerely, therefore, had the compliment of the three seats in my row of seats. I could lie down, stretch my legs, and even indulged myself by sipping coffee while my phones charged. Yes, the coaches have charging points. A movie was showing on the television screens attached to the roof of the coach. And from time to time, the cleaners went round to mop and clean up our mess. There were also armed escorts intermittently moving from coach to coach. I couldn’t have felt safer. Though a certified Wailer, I reluctantly gave kudos to PMB and his government.
My ride was complimentary, because I was an airline passenger. But it also meant I was put in the Economy Class. If I wanted First Class coach, I would have to pay. And how much, you’d ask? N1,500!
Unbelievable! The train-ride from Kaduna to Abuja costs N1,500 for First Class, and N1,000 for economy. Even at that, it was only the rush, necessitated by the shutdown of the Abuja airport that forced the prices up. Before now, it was N600 for Economy and N900 for the First Class.
So, let the big men indulge themselves in helicopter shuttles (which are also available, at a fee) and executive car hire (which is also available), I’d rather stick with the train.
But the arrangement is not without hitches. One would be playing the proverbial ostrich not to expect such hitches. For instance, determined to ride on the First Class coach (the complimentary ride for airline passengers is only valid for Economy), I had sent a colleague to the train terminus in Abuja, on Friday evening, to get me a ticket for my trip to Kaduna the next morning, only to be told the tickets don’t go on sale until a few hours to the trip. Unbelivable!
I was asked to get to the station by 5:00am for the 6:00am trip on Saturday morning. I did. But there was another shocker: The train would now leave at 7:00am. That meant I missed my 9:45 flight out of Kaduna. No apologies from anyone!
There is also the little issue of courtesy and etiquette. Yes, the trains are now modern, but the manpower is yet to fully emerge from the locomotive era.
But would I still patronise the trains again? Yes! Over and over again! I just hope the Buhari government does not take its eyes off the trains as soon as the Abuja airport is reopened.
The government can also use the period of this closure to complete the construction works around the train stations – especially, the parking lot.
But, just in case the Abuja airport is not reopened on April 19, somebody should tell the minister of state for aviation not to resign. He can divert flights to Minna, and also put a train there. Let the ‘merry’ go round.