Monday,22 October, 2018
Current issue | Issue 1357, (17 - 23 August 2017)
Monday,22 October, 2018
Issue 1357, (17 - 23 August 2017)

Ahram Weekly

No more palliatives

Egypt’s railway system is in desperate need of a radical overhaul, write Ahmed Morsy and Mai Samih


A total of 13,539 train accidents occurred between 2004 and 2016, according to the Central Agency for Public Mobilisation and Statistics (CAPMAS). In 2016 alone, 1,249 accidents were reported on the railway network.

 “Railway safety measures in Egypt are characterised by systematic neglect of the maintenance of equipment, and the negligence reached the highest levels,” Hani Sobhi, professor of railway engineering at Ain Shams University, told Al-Ahram Weekly.

Osama Okail, professor of road and railway engineering at Ain Shams University, adds the entire domestic railway network is moribund. “The system needs to be radically upgraded,” he says.


In the last week three accidents occurred. On Friday a train travelling from Cairo to Alexandria crashed into the back of another coming from Port Said at Khorshid station, leaving 42 dead and 132 injured. On Sunday a fire broke out on the Cairo-Aswan train at Ayyat station. Terrified passengers leaped from the train windows to escape the flames. The next day a fire broke out on the Tanta-Damietta train.

Egypt’s railways were once “the safest and most punctual means of transport,” says Sobhi. It is a reputation that was lost a long time ago, and no one seems to know how it can be retrieved.

Egypt’s railway network is the world’s second oldest, with 9,570km of tracks running across the country. It transports 500 million passengers annually, an average of 1.4 million passengers each day, according to the Egyptian National Railways (ENR).

“Today’s network is the result of three decades of errors and of negligence,” says Sobhi. “Essential maintenance is routinely ignored and what training staff do receive is completely inadequate.”

Okail adds that the problems have been compounded by massive underinvestment, leaving the system “managed by ancient technology that has not been updated since its inception”.

Eighty-five per cent of the network still uses mechanical signalling systems. “The signals system at crossings still depends on the telephone. Ninety per cent of engines still run on diesel. The sector is long overdue an upgrade. Modern electrical signals need to be put in place and diesel engines replaced with electric ones,” says Okail.

Outdated signals system and antiquated railway crossings have caused many accidents. In December 2012, 51 people, the majority children, were killed when a train collided with a school bus at a railway crossing in Mandara village in Assiut. In the immediate aftermath of the accident the then transport minister Mohamed Al-Meteini, and ERA Chairman Mustafa Qenawi, resigned.


According to a report issued by the ENR, there are 1,332 official crossing points on the rail network, supplemented by 2,006 unofficial crossings, made by citizens and beyond the control of the ENR. It is the latter that account for the majority of accidents.

Unofficial crossings are regularly closed only to be reopened in what has become a game of cat and mouse between the transport police and the public. The transport police lack the resources to monitor all 9,570 kilometres of the network and as far as unofficial crossings are concerned, in the absence of public cooperation they are fighting a losing battle.

Of the existing 1,332 crossing points only 170 have been installed with electric signals, though work is ongoing to develop 470 more. According to the ENR report, upgrading each crossing costs LE2 million. In its original plan, the ENR had intended to renovate 1,089 crossing points, said an official source who preferred anonymity.


Too little, too late, says Okail. He argues there is little point in upgrading the occasional crossing without also providing necessary training to the crossing workers and train drivers. “The infrastructure as a whole needs a complete overhaul. The piecemeal renewal of a few of its parts cannot be considered a development plan,” he argues.

Following the Ayyat train disaster in 2002 when 373 passengers were killed in a train fire, the government allocated LE8 billion to develop the railway network. What happened, says Okail, is that the then transport minister Mohamed Mansour “squandered the money on buying new engines and painting old ones instead of upgrading the infrastructure as a whole”.

According to the government’s own studies, 69 per cent of accidents on the railways between 2007 and 2011 were caused by human error, 25 per cent were caused by a combination of human error and technical malfunction and six per cent were the result of exclusively technical failings.


Railway workers are in desperate need of high-quality training, says Sobhi. “This is in addition to overhauling the communication systems between trains, signal boxes and the railway administration.”

At a press conference on Sunday Minister of Transport Hisham Arafat said that the last major overhaul of the railway system was in 1969 — almost half a century ago — and that periodic intervention since then covered just one per cent of the network.

During the press conference Arafat extended his condolences to the families of the 42 who lost their lives in Friday’s accident in Alexandria. While he said the causes would only be clear after the investigation is completed, he speculated that the crash had probably been caused by “technical and infrastructural flaws”.

The safety of passengers, said Arafat, remained the number one priority. He stressed that renovations which began in 2015, when an agreement with three European countries to refurbish the signal system was signed, are ongoing. Almost half the work on the Banha-Alexandria line is now complete.

infograph: Ahmed Saber

Major works are also in the pipeline for the 240-kilometre Beni-Sweif-Assiut line, and work on the Zagazig, Port Said-Suez liner is being undertaken in collaboration with a private company and at a total cost of LE6 billion.

“New carriages will be supplied with On-Board Units [OBU] able to halt the train in emergencies. Monitoring systems that can detect malfunctions or threats on the tracks are being installed and communications upgraded to allow supervisors and technicians to communicate with train drivers and to give them orders to stop in the event of an emergency. The current phase of work is scheduled to be finished in 2019.”

“The system has already been installed in some stations, including along the Cairo-Alexandria-Beni Sweif line and the Assiut-Zagazig-Ismailia line,” Arafat told Al-Ahram daily.

“Khorshid station, the scene of Friday’s tragic crash, was already scheduled for an upgrade,” Arafat told the state-owned Middle East News Agency.

 “One-hundred carriages have already been renovated and a further 81 are scheduled for upgrade. In addition, the ministry is buying 1,000 carriages in a cooperative deal with the Italian government. One-hundred of these will be manufactured in Italy and the remaining 900 in Egypt.”

Two months ago ENR signed an agreement with US-based General Electric to supply 100 new locomotives and refurbish 81 old engines. The $575 million deal includes a 15-year technical support contract and training programmes for more than 275 engineers and technicians.

A $300m loan from the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development (EBRD), which will cover part of the deal, was signed on 19 June.

Arafat said President Abdel-Fattah Al-Sisi had given instructions that the latest technology be used in developing the railway system and stressed the importance of training staff and improving security and safety systems.

“The ministry is keen to offer all railway staff training, and new training programmes have been in place since last month,” according to Arafat.

“Egypt National Railways: ICT Can Save Egyptian Lives”, a study issued by the National Telecommunication Regulatory Authority (NTRA), attempts to quantify the losses incurred by the railway system since 1992 as a result of its inadequate IT infrastructure. Continued dependency on manual systems, said the study, compromises safety standards to an unacceptable degree.

In 2007 ENR began a modernisation programme of its operating systems, including the renewal of signals and consolidation of centralised control systems, partly financed by $270 million loan from the World Bank. The loan was later increased by $330 million.


Past glories

EGYPT’S railway network is one of the oldest in the world. The first railway line in Africa and the Middle East was launched between Alexandria and Kafr Al-Zayyat in 1854, when Abbas I signed a contract with Robert Stephenson. It was followed by an extension between Cairo and Suez in 1858, the first direct link between the Mediterranean and the Indian Ocean before the completion of the Suez Canal.

Lines were added under Said Pasha, and during the rule of the khedive Ismail the railway network was extended to link provincial governorates.

The 1882 British occupation of Egypt led to a hiatus in the development of the network which only resumed in 1888. Following the appointment of Frederick Harvey Trevithick as chief engineer Egypt acquired new locomotives from England, Scotland and France. The network continued to grow in the last decade of the 19th century. In 1890 a second line between Cairo and Tora was opened and in May 1892 the Imbaba bridge was built. Designed by Gustave Eiffel, it remains the only railway bridge across the Nile in Cairo.

Railway accidents (1992-2017)

August 2017: A train from Cairo crashes into the back of a train from Port Said at Khorshid station, southeast of Alexandria, leaving 42 dead and 132 injured.

November 2013: A train collides with two cars, leaving 27 dead and 30 injured.

January 2013: 17 dead and 100 injured in Badrashin.

November 2012: A train crashes into a school bus at Mandara village crossing, killing 51, most of them children, and injuring 17.

October 2009: Collision at Ayyat in Giza, 50 kilometres south of Cairo. According to a security official, 30 people were killed and 50 injured.

September 2006: A passenger train collides with a freight train north of Cairo, killing five and injuring 30.

August 2006: Two trains collide in the town of Qalioub, 20 kilometres north of Cairo, killing 57 and injuring 128.

February 2002: 373 passengers killed when fire engulfs a train.

November 1999: A train from Cairo to Alexandria hits a truck and derails, killing 10 and injuring seven.

April 1999: Ten people die and 50 are injured in northern Egypt after a head-on collision between two trains.

October 1998: 50 people killed and nearly 80 injured in a derailment on the outskirts of Alexandria. The train failed to stop at buffers and ran into a busy market square. Reports suggested that passengers travelling on the roof of the train might have tampered with an air pipe, disabling the brakes.

February 1997: At least 11 people die after a collision caused by human error and a signal failure north of Aswan.

February 1996: Train hits truck on a crossing killing 11 people 90 kilometres north of Cairo.

December 1995: A train rams into the back of another in thick fog, killing 75 people. Investigations show the train was travelling above the designated speed limit.

May 1995: Nine die after train hits a barrier north of Cairo and derails.

April 1995: A train and a bus collide at a level crossing in the Nile Delta, killing 49.

December 1993: At least 12 people die and 60 are injured when two trains collide head-on 90 kilometres north of Cairo.

February 1992: Train collision kills 43 people on the outskirts of Cairo.

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