ABUJA, July 18 (Reuters) - Nigeria has opened a new Chinese-built light railway network in the capital Abuja after 11 years of construction, a rare transport project in a nation where economic growth has been stymied for generations by a lack of infrastructure development.
Passengers were permitted this week to ride the first phase of the Abuja light railway system, which connects the international airport with other parts of the city.
Nigeria has the largest population in Africa and one of its biggest economies, but growth has for decades been stunted by its poor transport infrastructure.
President Muhammadu Buhari, who officially opened the light rail system last week, took office in 2015 and hopes to secure a second term in an election next year. Improving infrastructure is a theme of his campaign.
Many people who work in Nigeria’s capital live on the outskirts of Abuja or satellite towns, due to the high cost of living in inner city areas. Traffic can be heavy at peak hours with many roads in disrepair.
“If you want to go by the road it’s usually a very long distance and it’s quite expensive but with this train now it makes life easier,” said passenger Tamara Ibiwe of the journey from central Abuja to the airport.
Daniel Ajone, a retired civil servant, welcomed the train service’s adherence to a timetable, in contrast to the taxis and vans typically used as public transit in cities across Nigeria.
“I think this will impact positively on the economy, you know, on the economy of this country. When this is replicated all over the place there will be less pressure on our roads,” he added.
The first phase, built by China Civil Engineering Construction Corporation at a cost of $823 million, comprises of 45.25 kilometres (28.12 miles) of track on two lines. When completed, there will be six lines and 292 kilometres of track.
It was announced last year that the Chinese state-run company would also construct the second phase of the network.
Buhari’s government has been looking for partners to overhaul its ageing railway system. Nigeria’s rail lines were mainly built by British colonial rulers before independence in 1960.
The government plans to revamp about 3,500 km (2,200 miles) of existing narrow-gauge lines from the southwestern commercial capital Lagos to Kano in the north and from southeastern oil hub Port Harcourt to Maiduguri in the northeast. (Writing by Alexis Akwagyiram Editing by Peter Graff)