From Molly Kilete, Abuja

Her dream was to become a top engineer with the Power Holding Company of Nigeria (PHCN), having done her internship in the organization on several occasions. But that was not to be. A graduate of Electrical Electronics Engineering of the Federal Polytechnic, Mubi, Yola in Adamawa State, Serah Abiara, 32, and the first female train driver got into driving train by chance.

As a matter of fact, the mother of two, said that she applied for a job at the Nigerian Railway Cooperation like any other Nigerian having seen the advert and by the time she got her employment letter, she was offered the position of a loco driver and asked to report for interview and training.

On getting the letter from the organization, she was shocked, but all the same she reported for the interview as requested. On the day she reported, she was told point blank that she was going to be a loco driver, because of her educational qualification as she read electrical electronics engineering. Hence, she was encouraged to accept the job and commence training, that was in Zaria, Kaduna State.

Therefore, she went for the training that lasted for four months after which she was posted to Ibadan. On her first day at work, she was attached to a very senior driver to put her through in the business of train driving. Her boss immediately accepted her and took her for her first trip.

While on the trip, the senior driver took time to educate her on how the train operates and how to handle it successfully without problem. After driving for about one hour, the driver then asked her to take over the train and to drive to their destination. She was shocked and somehow afraid, but had to put herself together. She took over the train from the senior driver and put into practice all that she had been taught and the senior driver kept encouraging her until she took the train to its final destination.

Born on September 10, 1988, Sarah Abiara, from Adamawa State, has been amongst men virtually all her life. In her secondary school days at the Government Technical College, Borno State, she was among the four females out of the 70 students in her class. She was also the only female while on internship at NEPA as it was then known where she climbed electric poles to disconnect and reconnect electric wires. As a matter of fact, she has no regrets becoming a train driver as it has afforded her the opportunity to accomplish what she loves doing most, traveling. 

In this interview with Sunday Sun, Serah Abiara, speaks on her life as Nigeria’s first female train driver. Excerpts:

How did you get into becoming a train driver?

It was not what I wanted to do. What happened was that in 2012, I applied for employment at the Nigeria Railway Corporation. I never put the position of a driver in my application. But I received a text message from the cooperation employing me as a Loco driver, that’s train driver, and asking me to come for training. When I saw the message I was very surprised and asked myself if women drive train. I thought about it and said let me give it a trial because they may have sent the message because they know I can do it and I also know that what a man can do a woman can do better. That’s how I went for the test and after the interview I passed very well and that’s how I got the job.

What did you say you applied for?

I did not apply for any position, I was just looking for job and applied to try my luck, I did not specify for any designation, but when they shortlisted my name, they fixed me for train driver. That’s how I became a train driver.

How did you feel when you saw the letter?

I was happy and actually during the interview, the panel members were like will you be able to do it because a woman has never driven a train before in this country and I said yes I will give it a trial and that was how I was employed.

What was the training like?

I was trained for a duration of four months in our training school at Zaria. It was more of theory because we were always in class receiving lectures most part of the day and we wrote exams after the classes and I passed.

What did you study?

I studied Electrical Electronics Engineering from Federal Polytechnic Mubi, in Adamawa State.

So what happened after the training?

After the training, we were posted back to different districts and stations. I was posted to Ibadan, western districts. On reporting to Ibadan, they immediately fixed us in trains for practical proper. We drove from Lagos to Ibadan to and fro and at times we go from Ibadan to Offa in Kwara State. On my first day on the train, I was attached to a senior driver, a very senior one and everybody knows him to be a very good driver. So, I was opportune to work with him for the first time and he was happy to work with me as a woman. And that was why they handed me over to him so that he will be able to guide and train me properly. And immediately we started the trip, after we had gone some few kilometers, he now said okay let me see if you are confident enough to handle the train. So, he now explained how I am going to do something on the train like the throttle because we use mostly throttle and brake in the train. We have different types of brakes on the train and then on the throttle we have up to notch eight, the number you apply depends on the speed you want your train to run. He explained everything to me and now said okay I should come and sit down and handle the train. And thank God I was able to handle it and he was very surprised and that was how I started driving the train. He then explained to me that whenever I am approaching a bank, that is shield place, where the train needs a force to pass, I am going to put it to notch seven or eight so that there will be enough speed for the train to be able to move. Then when I am approaching a sloppy area, that is slope, I should reduce my speed notch, in fact, I should reduce it to zero because it will be going down and it will be speeding that I should be able to use my brakes to control the train so that the train will not run out of the rail. So after explaining everything to me, I was able to handle the train and he was just there monitoring what I was doing. At least I drove for one hour that day and he  will be telling me you are approaching a sloppy area do like this and after driving the train for sometime, he told me he was very impressed that I was able to handle the train and that I was not scared, he was really happy with my performance and I told him I had already made up my mind and determined that I was going to drive the train. He was surprised and that was how I built up the confidence and that was how I started.

Did you suspect you were going to drive on your first outing?

No, I never had any premonition that I was going to drive because I was employed as an assistant Loco driver, meaning I was going to assist the driver and work for a minimum of two years. Again it all depends on the driver you are attached to because some drivers won’t even give you the privilege to touch the train. Again it depends on your relationship with the driver. Even me I didn’t know that I will be able to drive that day because according to the rule I was not supposed to for the first time, but the senior driver just let me do it to encourage me as a woman, he wanted to really see me succeed that was why he allowed me to handle the train.

Were you scared?

No I was not scared. I was not scared at all.

And how did you feel when you got to your destination?

I felt very, very happy, I felt I was on top of the world and I was like waoh! And from that day I gathered the courage to drive without fear. And it was on that day that I believed the saying that what a man can do a woman can do even better.

How long have you been a train driver?

I became a train driver on October 2013. So I have been driving train for seven years now.

Were you married before you got the job?

No, I was not at the time. But I met my husband before I started work as a train driver and when I told him that I have gotten a job as a train driver he was surprised and said do women drive train? And I said no, but that I would be the first female train driver in Nigeria and that really encouraged him and he said okay and asked if I will be able to do it and I said yes. And he said if I know from my hearts of hearts that I will be able to do it, I should go for it and that was how I started. I worked for one year and we got married. And I have two children to show for the marriage.

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Has your husband ever been your passenger?

(Laugh)… Actually I was at Ibadan when I started driving the train because that was where I was employed and he is in Jos. And he knows the nature of my job. He knows that I drive train, but he didn’t really believe me at first until one day when he came to visit me and came to the station. In the station, we used to have what we call shunting, that is when a train arrives the station, they used to book us as shunting drivers, that means you attach coaches to your locomotive. So, in the course of doing my work as a shunting driver, he now saw the way I was coupling the coaches together, going up and down in the station and he was just looking at me in amazement. When I finished coupling the train I drove it because it was a goods train. After I finished, I went to meet him where he was sitting and he told me that all these while he never believed I was a train driver until he came and saw me working on trains. He said he started believing I was a female train driver from that day he came and visited me. No, I have never had the opportunity of carrying my husband as a passenger. Maybe, I will in the future because I was posted back to Bauchi State and here in Bauchi, there are no much trains maybe because it’s non-operational area. But I believe with time, one day he will be a passenger on my train.

What about your children, how do they feel?

My children are excited seeing me drive train. Like my little kid, the one that I am carrying presently, she is just a year and three months old, so whenever I am going online, I do go with her and put her on the loco, she will sit. In fact, even me I used to be surprised that she doesn’t get scared. She will enter and be watching everything and she will not even cry.

What about family members, have you carried them as passengers?

Yes, I have carried my immediate elder sister as a passenger. For my parents, it’s only my mother that is alive, my father is late I have not carried my mother also as a passenger.

Life as a female train driver?

Life as female train driver is very challenging and at the same time is very interesting because the fact that it is male dominated profession, the way people will look at you like what are you doing here, you are not supposed to be here and stuff like that. And then again while I was at Ibadan station working 24/7, at time in the midnight that I was supposed to be at home sleeping, you will see me travelling, going online. Sometimes they will call me at 2 O’clock in the morning that a train had just arrived and the person that was supposed to work on the train is not around and you are the next on duty so prepare to come and work on the train. So, you don’t have an option as a female. You have to go out in the middle of the night to work. Again being in the midst of men, sometimes I will arrive at my station very late in the night and there will not be accommodation for me to sleep because all the rooms are occupied and I will end up sleeping with a fellow colleague that is male in the same room. So, if it not people who understand you, the way they will look at you, you will not be happy with yourself. But there is also the good aspect of the job because being among male, the way they will pamper you, the way they will encourage you to be a role model for other women and all of that is just interesting. Apart from that, the job is quite challenging because if you don’t have an understanding husband, you will start having cracks in your marriage because it is not every husband that can take that. That is the challenging part of it.

What are the risks?

Oh, there are risks ooo, because as you know every work has its risks, but it’s just God that is protecting us and we should always pray for His protection. God forbid that you are driving a train and lose control, God forbid ooo! If you are not able to control your train, I will say that is the risky part of it. Because if you are not able to control your train, anything can happen. So, I will say that is the most risky aspect of the job. Your train should not lose control, if your train should lose control, it is only God, you leave everything to God.

What’s your happiest day as train driver?

My happiest day as a female train driver was the first day I handled a train. I was very happy, I couldn’t believe that I will be able to do it so I was very, very happy.

Saddest day?

God forbid, for now I don’t have any day that I can call sad since I became a female train driver. Though there are challenges when you go online and especially when you plan to spend two days and end up spending four or more days due to challenges on the road and I won’t take that as one of my saddest day because it’s part of the job that we signed for it and made up our mind, it’s a normal thing.

Did you celebrate your wedding on the train as pilots do on air?

You know in Nigeria, it is not everywhere that we have trains, had it been we had trains all over the country, then it would have been like that of the pilots. I got married in Oyo State, Ogbomosho to be precise, and there was no train there and I will say that was the reason we didn’t celebrate our wedding in the train. We have a train station in Jos, where he is, but it’s not fully functional.

Are you happy as a train driver?

Yes, I am happy ooo. I am okay with the job because from time I love to travelling, it’s one of my hobbies, so I see the job as being paid for what I love doing. I love going around, knowing places, meeting people etc, so I see it as an adventure.

Why did you study electrical, electronics engineering?

I can say that right from time, from my secondary school days, I went to federal science and technical college in Borno State and then I studied electrical installation and maintenance. So, I have always been among men, we were 70 in class with only four girls. Coming to my National Diploma days, I now went further to study electrical electronics for my ND and HND. So, that’s the reason I studied engineering.

What would you have gone into if you did not become a train driver?

I would have become an engineer in any company, but my target was the PHCN because that was where I had all my Industrial Training (IT). Then it was NEPA and I used to climb electric poles to disconnect and and reconnect wires.


I love traveling and watching movies

Best food?

My best food is rice, beans and stew.

Turn on?

Those things that turn me on and make me happy are bonding with my family, that is my children and husband, then my work also makes me happy.

Turn off?

I hate disappointment that is what puts me off.