Al-Ahram Weekly Online
12 - 18 July 2001
Issue No.542
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Down the tracks of time

One hundred and fifty years ago to the day, Khedive Abbas Hilmi I, the viceroy of Egypt, signed the contract that gave the country its first railway line. It gave it much more. Fatemah Farag buys a return ticket to 12 July, 1851

Fatemah FaragThe arrival of the railway thrust Egypt into the modern world, but the train itself remains a romantic image. In spite of the leaps and bounds made in the realm of transport, from planes to space shuttles, we are still fascinated with locomotive transport -- perhaps because it offers a nostalgic link to the past. Free association may call forth images of wood-panelled sleeping compartments, plush cocktail lounges and waiters in tail coats: signature details of a time when travel was a slower, more leisurely affair -- for those who could afford the luxury.

The history of the railroad in Egypt is inextricably bound to that of the country's economic development. Glamorous images of the first railways have their roots in the more mundane world of economic transformation. In Egypt, that means Mohamed Ali, cotton production and world trade -- in short, the nation's stormy inclusion in the breathless march of 19th- and 20-century capitalism.

In the Railway Museum, at Ramses Square, I looked at the oldest plan for the railway in Egypt. Madame Hekmat, an employee at the museum, explained the crooked lines that criss- crossed an old map of Egypt: "This map is important, because it shows that the British set up the railway in Egypt to facilitate their trade with the Orient," she noted. In pre-railroad days, Britain's trade (and plunder) route to its imperial possessions in the East would inevitably pass through one of Egypt's Mediterranean ports, usually Alexandria. From there, cargo would travel on to Cairo via the Nile, and then across land to Suez on the Red Sea before heading to the Orient, and vice a versa. In total the journey within Egypt was 413 kilometres long and took approximately 60 hours.

In order to speed up the process, the British first proposed introducing a railway line between Cairo and Suez to Mohamed Ali Pasha in 1834. The line would cut the time of the trip by approximately 10 hours. Fears of British domination and a lack of resources made sure the project was eventually ditched. What railway materials did arrive at the Alexandria port in 1835 languished in storerooms for 15 years and were eventually used to set up a line between the Dekheila Quarries and the Alexandria Port.

British imperial interests were not the only impetus, however. The dynamic of Egypt's modernisation, undertaken by Mohamed Ali, meant entry into the world market, ergo: the railway. With the introduction of large scale cultivation of cotton as an export crop -- in concomitance with private property in agricultural land -- both the economic imperative of integration into the world market and the class whose very survival depended on it, were firmly established. It was thus that on 12 July, 1851 Khedive Abbas Hilmi I (Mohamed Ali' grandson) and Robert Stevenson (the son of George Stevenson, who invented the steam locomotive) signed the contract to establish Egypt's first railway line -- a mere three years after the end of Mohamed Ali's reign.

150 years of railway logos (photos: Randa Shaath)
By the time the First World War came round, 93 per cent of Egyptian exports were cotton and Egypt was firmly integrated into the world market. Part and parcel -- and, in fact, facilitator -- of all this change was the introduction of the railroad, which was then managed entirely by non-Egyptians.

The first head of the Railway Authority was Abdallah Agha, popularly known as haj Abdallah the Englishman (his Christian name was Richard). A British officer who converted to Islam while serving in India, haj Abdallah is said to have gained the trust of Abbas Pasha, who appointed him the general manager of the Railway Offices in September 1854. He was to be succeeded by nine foreign and Egyptianised general managers until 1924, when Abdel-Hamid Soliman Pasha became the first Egyptian to hold the position. The date is considered the beginning of the Egyptianisation of the Railway Authority and in 1933, Arabic replaced English as the official language of the authority.

But we are getting ahead of ourselves and so back to the contract. In 1850, Stevenson made Abbas Pasha an offer to set up a rail line between Alexandria and Cairo. At the time, France was keen on digging a waterway between the Red and Mediterranean seas and Abbas felt that the railway negotiations would benefit from complete secrecy. Consequently, both men headed to the obscure Delta village of Kafr Magr, near the city of Dessouq, and an agreement was reached. Work to install a line between Al-Qabary, in Alexandria, and Cairo began on 1 December 1951. Stevenson was appointed the chief engineer of the Egyptian Railway. Among the 18 British engineers appointed at the time was a Mr Sevry, who trained locomotive drivers -- and even Said Pasha (who succeeded Abbas) himself.

Standing on the platform of time
(photo: Sherif Sonbol)

Building the railway line literally meant starting from scratch. Before the Cairo station was built, the houses of two residents, one in Ezbekiyah and the other off of Clot Bey Street, were taken over as temporary offices. The first line between Cairo and Alexandria became functional in January of 1856. There were ten stops between the two destinations and at Kafr El-Zayat, passengers had to get off the train and have lunch while the train cars were transported across the Nile in boats.

Today, the Egyptian Railway is made up of 4,900 kilometres of train tracks, traversed by 1,315 cars daily and servicing an estimated 2.28 million passengers. Its cargo fleet transports some 35,000 tons of commodities daialy. Yet as I step into the train station at Ramses -- originally built in 1855 at Bawabet Al- Hadid outside the walls of Cairo and overhauled in 1891 -- the legacy of those first trains comes to life.

My senses take in the long line of traincars along the platforms, the rush of people and the high-pitched screech of a whistle echoing against the high walls announcing inevitable departures. At this moment, I am Passepartout -- running after the train in Bombay to catch up with Phileas Fogg. (An understandable association, you must agree. After all, what was Around the World in Eighty Days if not a celebration of capitalism taking over the world?). My ears buzz and I almost expect steam to spew from underneath the locomotive before me. Of course, my journey is not to traverse the world in 80 days and (unfortunately) will not be chequered with Indian princesses, opium dens, or North American Indians. My destination may be a comparatively commonplace Alexandria or Assiut, but I can take pride in the knowledge I am riding the oldest train service on the continent.

Egypt's railway did not just transport commodities. It also became a mini-playground for the royal family, which indulged in buying fancy salon cars. By 1882 they had amassed 18 elaborate cars imported from England and the United States and both Said Pasha and Abbas II are said to have enjoyed driving their own locomotives. As I marvelled at the grandeur of one of Said's cars crammed in a badly lit corner of the Railway Museum, Hekmat hovered nearby with useful trivia. "This was a present to [Said] from the Empress Eugenie [of France], on the occasion of the inauguration of the Suez Canal." she explained. "He used to like to take this one out for joy rides between Montazah and Ras El-Tin [palaces in Alexandria."

That is royalty for you. Later on, in 1951, King Farouk indulged in a fancy air-conditioned diesel locomotive, which he used to drive himself -- although he did not get much time to enjoy it. The cars remain, stored away, hauled out only on special occasions.

The signatures that brought the railway to Egypt
(source: Egyptian Railway Authority)

The traincars we ride are not so courtly; but they are functional. If you are lucky enough to be first class, you will get a wide seat and air-conditioning. If you are unlucky enough to be a third-class passenger, well, let me cite an official report by the Railway Authority to give you an idea of what you are in for: "The service of second regular and third class trains is a service that does not suit the humanity of the Egyptian person." They are filthy, most have no glass in the window panes and the chairs are uncomfortable at best, broken in general. Despite promises to upgrade the service, the Railway Authority is the first to acquiesce that to date, only 180 cars have been refurbished. They promise, however, to upgrade 200 cars annually.

The difficulty of the task is in part the financial constraints under which the authority finds itself. According to official figures, the revenue of the authority only covers 62 per cent of its total expenditures (the latest figures available to the public are from 1998/1999). The authority receives an annual subsidy from the government totalling LE600 million. As the solution to the obvious crisis, the voices calling for at least partial privatisation have become loud and clear. It is not the first time.

The first financial crisis suffered by the authority was during the era of Khedive Ismail, an ambitious and perhaps too flamboyant leader who increased the number of rail lines from 490 kilometres to a whopping 1,881 kilometres; but at great cost. In 1866 the Khedive borrowed LE3 million from an English company, a debt that compounded until it became a staggering LE77 million in 1879. Some LE35 million of this sum was borrowed against the revenue of the authority and the rest against customs and tariff fees. The Debt Fund issued an order that all authority revenue be transferred directly to the fund.

Without the resources to complete necessary expansions and improvements ensuring optimum economic performance, the authority was severely debilitated. Among the many ideas floated for improving the situation was the privatisation of the authority -- an idea the then British Consul- General, Sir Evelyn Baring (Lord Cromer), publicly criticised and sunk. However, between 1902 and 1905, administrative changes finally rid the authority of the yoke of the Debt Fund. According to the old parched documents at the museum, between 1905 and 1928 the Egypt railway flourished as never before.

Locomotive 2-2-2 no23, manufactured in 1862 for the Egyptian Railway (source: Al-Mahroussa April 2001)
Today, respect for the old system and fears that the government will withdraw from what is a basic transport service (considered the backbone of local transport) have held privatisation plans in check. But already, food operations are contracted out to the private sector catering company Abela Egypt (a recent agreement had Abela replace the French group Accor). Track maintenance is undertaken by two joint-venture companies; one with French, the other with German partners, with the Railway Authority owning all maintenance equipment. The authority is even beginning to offer its real estate assets to investors under BOT (build, operate and transfer) arrangements, the most controversial of which is a tender to lease 4,000 square metres on Ramses Square, including the railway station, for the purposes of establishing a shopping mall.

According to an authority policy paper obtained by Al-Ahram Weekly, "The success of the private sector ... is a result of the nature of its conscious and comprehensive economic management. For economic units that belong to the state to succeed, they must adopt the soul and style of the private sector in management." So, we are not just talking about outright sale or rental, but also about privatisation from within. Officials have come out and clearly stated that ticket fares will not increase and that their commitment to public service remains, but if rationalisation is the ticket to the future, why have hundreds of thousands of pounds been spent on futile electric security doors that go unmonitored and are placed even at the exit gates of stations across the nation?

But, in spite of the odds, standing out on the platform waiting for my train, I couldn't help but feel that this is a heritage so tangible and real that it will resist buckling under and come through as glorious as ever -- and on time.

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