Wednesday,18 October, 2017
Current issue | Issue 1237, (12 - 18 March 2015 )
Wednesday,18 October, 2017
Issue 1237, (12 - 18 March 2015 )

Ahram Weekly

Relentless railroads

Railway accidents continue to claim more lives, reports Ahmed Morsy

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Al-Ahram Weekly

Despite a past grandeur, the domestic railway system has seen an increasing number of accidents. At least seven people, mainly schoolchildren, were killed on Friday after a train collided with a school bus that drove through an illegal railway crossing at the entrance of Al-Shorouk City, 50 kilometres northeast of Cairo.

The collision, which happened on the Cairo-Ismailia road, occurred when the bus was hit by a cargo train while crossing the railway tracks at an unauthorised crossing. In addition to the seven deaths, 26 others were injured. According to Health Ministry spokesman Hossam Abdel-Ghaffar, nine of those are in critical condition, including four children.

In a meeting Saturday with the ministers of transportation, interior and local development, Prime Minister Ibrahim Mehleb ordered all officials responsible for railways to immediately start the removal of all illegal railway crossings. “We should firmly deal with this issue. No one will escape punishment. We are now waiting for the prosecutor general’s investigations, and officials responsible for this accident will be punished,” Mehleb said on last week’s collision.

Egypt’s top prosecutor Hisham Barakat on Saturday summoned Transportation Minister Hani Dahi after the deadly accident. Three other people, including a local Gharbiya official and two people responsible for supervising the safety of the railways and railway crossings, were also called over, a prosecution statement said.

Prosecutors ordered the formation of two committees from the ministries of transportation and education to look into the reasons behind the collision. Moreover, Gharbiya Governor Said Kamel referred the school’s high board to the public prosecution for investigation on charges of not having received “official consent” to send students on a school trip.

Road accidents are also on the rise across Egypt due to a lack of road maintenance and loosely implemented traffic laws. On Saturday, two workers were killed and 22 others injured when a bus driving them to a factory in Tenth of Ramadan City on the outskirts of Cairo collided with another bus.

According to a recent report by the Central Agency for Public Mobilisation and Statistics (CAPMAS), the country’s statistical body, around 18 people were killed daily in road accidents in Egypt last year. The figure is slightly up from 2012, when an average of 17 people were killed every day in road accidents. A total of 50,051 accidents took place in 2013, 0.04 per cent higher than in 2012.

Regarding the railway casualties, the report says that the number of fatalities from train accidents reached 781 in 2013, almost 74 per cent more than in 2012, which saw 447 train-related deaths. The report indicates that deficiencies in train crossings were the main cause of accidents, responsible for over 55 per cent.

Egypt has 150 years of railway history, has some 9,570km of railway track running across the country, around 100,000 people working in railway facilities, and some 50 million passengers transported annually, or around 1.4 million passengers a day, according to the Egyptian National Railways (ENR), which is managed by the state-owned Egyptian Railway Authority (ERA).

ENR, the backbone of passenger transport in Egypt, is one of the largest institutions in the nation and the Arab world, and is the largest in the region in terms of the transport of passengers and goods. It has 3,500 passenger coaches, including 850 air-conditioned cars.

“The dilemma of the railway sector in Egypt is that it is technologically underdeveloped,” Osama Okail, a professor of road engineering at Ain Shams University in Cairo, told Al-Ahram Weekly. “The entire system is managed using ancient technology and it has not scientifically developed since its inception.”

Over the last 20 years, thousands of Egyptians have been killed in train accidents as both the current and previous governments failed to implement essential safety provisions or do what was necessary to curb negligence, replace ageing equipment and remedy the lax enforcement of the law. According to experts, railway crossings are among the most frequent reasons for train accidents in the country.

Head of the ERA Ahmed Hamed said during a telephone interview with the Al-Hayat TV channel that the railway system has 1,332 legal and authorised crossings. “We are working on a development plan for railway crossings but there is a huge number of illegal crossings,” Hamed said, adding that the number of those illegally placed “changes on a daily basis”.

However, Dahi told the press that the number of illegal crossings is 4,500. During his meeting with Mehleb, Dahi presented a report about illegal crossings constructed on the railways. “There are more than 4,500 illegal tunnels across the country,” Dahi said. With the cooperation of the governorates, the demolishing of these crossings has begun. Dahi added that officials responsible for railways consistently file complaints concerning illegal crossings, and that there was already a complaint against the illegal crossing that caused the accident at the entrance of Al-Shorouk City. Officials responsible for railways presented a plan during Mehleb’s meeting concerning railway junctions, which are now under construction.

“I reject the idea of renovating the crossings since it won’t be considered as an improvement. The entire sector needs to be upgraded, not just the crossings. How come the signals system at the crossings still depends on telephones, and 90 per cent of our engines still run on diesel? The sector is long overdue for upgrading,” Okail said.

The latest tragedy sheds light on ageing and illegal railway crossings as well as on the poor signal system that was eventually found to be the problem. Eighty-five per cent of the Egyptian railway network’s lines work according to an outdated mechanical signalling system, while only 15 per cent use an electrical system, according to ENR statistics.

Every railway accident implores officials to develop the sector and reduce the rate of accidents, but to no apparent avail.

Accidents at railway crossings are regular occurrences in Egypt. A deadly collision in Assiut in 2012 killed 51 people, mostly children, when a train hit a school bus, while in 2013, 30 people died when a minibus collided with a train just south of Cairo.

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