Tuesday,21 November, 2017
Current issue | Issue 1292, (21 - 27 April 2016)
Tuesday,21 November, 2017
Issue 1292, (21 - 27 April 2016)

Ahram Weekly

‘Fate was faster than us’

The latest deadly train accident in Aswan has people wondering if the railways will ever be safe, reports Reem Leila

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Al-Ahram Weekly

Villagers who gathered to help pull out dead bodies, the injured and survivors of Saturday night’s train crash near the village of Darao did not doubt the cause of the disaster.

Darao is in the Upper Egyptian governorate of Aswan where, like so many other parts of Egypt, negligence and corruption in the train industry is commonplace, and where many of its residents have little hope that the situation will improve.

Eight people died and eight others were injured on 16 April when a train slammed into a truck in the early morning after the vehicle was passing through a train crossing.

Health Ministry spokesman Ihab Al-Ansari said three of the injured were taken to Aswan University Hospital while five more seriously injured were taken to Darao Hospital.

Ambulances rushed to the scene nearly 20 minutes after the crash. Two hours after the accident, civil defence personnel and the police started what would become long hours of searching for survivors and recovering bodies amid the crushed carriages. Cranes were used to remove the twisted wreckage from the tracks and unblock the key rail route, allowing train services to resume the following day, though with delays.

The handling of the accident in the immediate aftermath compounded the frustration. Families faced an ordeal as they attempted to locate loved ones. The lists of names of those admitted to hospitals were incomplete, forcing some families to shuttle back and forth between hospitals. At the morgue, families had to look through body bags to see if they could identify any of the corpses.

“The incident occurred when the truck attempted to cross the railway line at a level crossing. The truck began crossing as the train was approaching, resulting in the crash, and the train derailed,” an eyewitness said. As a result of the crash, four trains were delayed, however, service returned to near normal after the tracks were cleared.

Government officials quickly announced they would compensate both the families of the dead and the injured. Governor of Aswan Magdi Hegazi, who visited the site of the crash, said LE5,000 in compensation will be given to the families of those killed and LE1,000 to those who were injured.

Hegazi said the public prosecution is looking into the incident to establish whether it was caused by a technical fault, human error or neglect. He stressed that those responsible must be brought to justice for the sake of citizen safety, and to prevent such incidents from happening in the future.

The accident is also being investigated by the National Railway Authority (NRA).

Following any train tragedy, a comprehensive strategy is predictably announced to upgrade railway service, especially third-class trains, which serve at least 80 per cent of all railway commuters, estimated at 600 million passengers per year.

The strategy usually includes junking old train cars and repairing dilapidated carriages, alongside fitting all public transport with security and alarm systems, including fire extinguishers and a telephone network. But authorities rarely carry out all the announced plans.

The country’s national railway system is the biggest in the Middle East, employing 73,000 people, and the second oldest in the world after India. But it lacks a regular maintenance system.

“Unfortunately, railway safety measures in Egypt not only show systematic negligence and deficiency in maintenance and equipment, but also negligence at the highest levels,” said Hani Sobhi, professor of railway engineering at Ain Shams University.

Sobhi said he believes that the former transport minister is not responsible for the accident. “He inherited a mess of corruption and incompetence that would take decades to straighten out,” Sobhi said.

He added that nothing will change if the government removes only the minister and appoints a new one. Train drivers, their assistants and workers must receive high-quality training courses on how to drive computerised locomotives.

“This is in addition to overhauling the communication systems between the trains, tower conductors, and the NRA administration,” Sobhi explained.

Sobhi said Egypt’s railways were in the past considered “the safest and most punctual means of transport” and its head was “a well-qualified and efficient official with an independent budget”.

Sobhi raised another important issue: currently, the railway authority is affiliated to the Ministry of Transportation. “Accordingly, it does not have an independent budget and a low-ranking official is its head.” A separate ministry for the NRA, he said, needs to be created.

In Egypt, unlike many developed countries, railways mainly serve the poorer strata of society. Consequently, they receive the least priority in government policies, which pay more attention to other means of transport that serve the higher levels of society like highways and airports.

“The only railway line getting attention from the government,” according to Sobhi, “is the one linking Cairo to Alexandria because it is used by the higher strata of society.”

Sobhi believes that pumping funds into the railway authority would be of no purpose unless the authority “is taken away from the Ministry of Transport and an efficient ministry along with qualified employees are appointed”.

Former NRA head Mahmoud Sami said that nearly 85 per cent of the authority’s budget is spent on first-class trains while the remaining 15 per cent is allocated to second- and third-class trains.

Sami said replacing Egypt’s 1,261 road/rail junctions with bridges and flyovers would cost at least LE36 billion, far beyond his ministry’s budget. Plans are afoot to upgrade 705 of the busiest junctions in two phases. “They were supposed to end by mid-2010, but fate was faster than us,” Sami said.

According to Sami, many railway workers and drivers are illiterate or have very little formal education. “They cannot cope with modern trains although we provide them with a two-day course on how to drive the new locomotives,” he said.

In February, a train derailed in Beni Sueif governorate, injuring 70 passengers. The train had departed from Aswan for Cairo when it overturned.

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