Al-Ahram Weekly Online
28 Feb. - 6 March 2002
Issue No.575
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One way ticketOne way ticket

The Constitution deems them citizens; for national railways they're just "third class". Fatemah Farag looks into the social inequity of public safety




End of the line: Charred interiors; the funeral; examining the carnage
photos: Magdi Abdel-Sayed

"Our objective is to have one of the world's most advanced railway networks within five years," the minister of transportation told Al-Ahram Weekly several years ago. At the time he talked of establishing a high-speed train, conversion of diesel train engines to be powered by electricity and an array of privatisation plans.

Several years on we have a railway capable of incinerating almost 400 people at one go in passenger carriages worthy of livestock -- in a country without much of an animal rights movement, that is.

The fact that the national railway's third-class train carriages are filthy and inhumane -- not to mention unsafe -- should come as no surprise to anyone. If you have ever taken a train, although you probably rode in one of the first- or second- class air-conditioned cars, it would have been difficult not to notice the ramshackle third-class cars parked along the platform. There are no glass panes in the windows -- only metal bars. In many cases there are no seats and the seats that do exist are usually broken or, at best, extremely uncomfortable. Due to overcrowding, people are forced to sit on the floor, which is invariably strewn with trash. Another option for passengers is to sit on the roof and be stigmatised as "fare- dodgers," or try to cram themselves into luggage racks.

So who in their right mind expected such contraptions to actually have fire extinguishers or emergency brakes on their grimy walls?

And to think that these are the cars which carry most of Egypt's 2.28 million daily passengers up and down the Egyptian Railway Authority's 4,900 kilometres of track -- not counting some 10,000 a day who ride on top of the cars.

And the Railway Authority has no illusions as to how bad its third-class cars are. In a report by the authority released last summer, it said, "The service of second regular and third-class trains does not suit the humanity of the Egyptian person."

And it is not just about undermining people's dignity and basic rights by making them ride on such cars. As last week's tragedy illustrated, once again, such conditions take their toll in flesh and blood.

Although the accident was by far the worst train accident in Egypt's history, the railway system's safety record in the past several years has been dismal. Among the major accidents during the last decade are a head-on collision between two trains, which led to 43 deaths in 1992 in the Delta town of Al-Badrashin; one year later a similar collision left more than 40 dead and over 80 wounded; in 1994 more than 40 died in one train accident. In 1995 three accidents shocked the nation: a train hit a bus crossing rail tracks killing 11 people; 49 people died in an accident in the Delta town of Qiwisna; finally, another 75 met their death on the tracks in Beni Sueif in Upper Egypt. Two accidents took place in 1997, one killing 14, the other seven. In October 1998, dozens of people were killed and hundreds wounded in the Delta town of Kafr Al-Dawar. At the time the authority conceded that the upgrading of third-class carriages was long overdue. Only one year later, in November, 10 more people were killed, and in the year 2000 another nine died. And it had been said that trains were the safest form of transport in Egypt!

The authority's report quoted above conceded that in spite of the repeated accidents, the increasing death toll and the "inhuman conditions" of the third-class carriages, only 180 cars had been renovated in recent years. Officials promised to start upgrading 200 cars annually.

The promise was renewed this week. After "intensive" discussions, Eid Abdel-Qader, acting head of the authority, announced that "priority will now be given to implementing projects aimed at upgrading second regular and third-class carriages" at the expense of "other" projects the authority was planning to carry out. Thus 350 cars are now scheduled for a half-billion pound overhaul. Shall we hold our breath?

While people mourn those who perished in the most recent accident, more and more information regarding the appalling conditions of the third class is making its way into the public domain.

All of a sudden the press has discovered that the poor cover the gaping windows of the carriages with blankets and sheets to protect themselves from the cold wind. In many cases the brakes on the carriages do not work. Although most cars seat approximately 50 people, the average number of passengers per car is 200. Demand far exceeds the number of trips made by these cheap cars, and for many of the nation's poor the train is the only transport option, explaining the overcrowding and the willingness of so many to risk their lives by riding on top of the carriages.

A debate in parliament this week revealed the fact that when third-class carriages are deemed to have suffered too much wear for their use on Delta lines, they are moved to the lines that cover Upper Egypt -- no coincidence that the country's south is the poorer half of the nation. Many of those carriages were deemed worn out at least 10 years ago.

The difficulty of bringing third-class service to acceptable standards has always been attributed to the financial constraints under which the authority operates. According to official figures, the Railway Authority's revenue only covers 62 per cent of its total expenditures (the latest figures made public cover 1998/1999). The authority receives an annual allocation from the government totalling LE600 million.

Privatisation has been repeatedly touted as a solution to the crisis, and some aspects of rail service in Egypt have already been contracted out, namely, food services and components of track maintenance. But even if the private sector were the solution -- which the experience of a country like England strongly refutes -- what private sector company would be interested in upgrading the third class? Which is why the focus of the authority in achieving "the world's most advanced railway" has been projects such as that to convert the historic Ramses Station into a shopping mall or establish high-speed service.

Another problem, argue many officials, is that the public is simply unruly -- especially the third-class variety. The logic goes that if you install fire extinguishers, the masses will steal them. Put in proper chairs and they will break them.

Blaming the victim, however, offers only a limited explanation. How does the alleged destructive nature of the poor explain the authority's decision to invest its limited resources in metal detector gates at the exits of train stations?

But many of the projects that are given priority -- and which follow acceptable standards of public safety -- are those that cater to the élite. That is why we build safe highways from urban centres to the north coast, home to few but the summer playground of the élite, while densely populated shanty towns continue to suffer the lack of paved roads, potable water and sewage systems -- for lack of resources.

And yet the government is proud of its railway. Only last July the Ministry of Transportation and Railway Authority celebrated with much fanfare the 150th anniversary of rail service in Egypt -- 12 July marking the day that Khedive Abbas Hilmi I and Robert Stevenson, the son of George Stevenson who invented the steam locomotive, signed the contract for a railway line -- the first on the African continent.

But what is the legacy worth if Egyptian railways cannot treat Egyptian citizens as more than just "third class"?

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