Tuesday,23 April, 2019
Current issue | Issue 1366, (26 October - 1 November 2017)
Tuesday,23 April, 2019
Issue 1366, (26 October - 1 November 2017)

Ahram Weekly

Renovating Alexandria’s trams

Having survived proposals for its removal, the Alexandria tramway is now awaiting an ambitious renovation plan, reports Dina Ezzat  

Renovating Alexandria’s trams

It is an exceptionally busy weekday afternoon, and Mahmoud, the driver of an Alexandria city tram, is trying hard to push his way through from Karmouz, a western suburb of the city, to the centre near Ramleh Station.

It is not an easy job. Every so often during his 30-minute or so ride, Mahmoud has to stop and wait for street merchants to remove their wares from the tram rails. Half way through, he has to get off to remove a stall selling plastic flip-flops from the rails. As he gets back to his small yellow tram, Mahmoud fails to get it to start.

He needs to call the maintenance team to ask for an emergency intervention. “They’ll come in 10 minutes or so,” he announces to a packed carriage and then gets off to inform the passengers in the other carriages.

The passengers all but look the other way. “What will we do now,” Laila, a young woman in her 20s with her new-born son, asks her husband. Her husband Hossam shrugs his shoulders, takes a puff on his cigarette, and says “just wait. We have already paid for the tickets. I am not going to waste a pound.”

 It takes more than 15 minutes for Alaa, the maintenance man, to arrive. But it then takes him fewer than 10 minutes to get the tram ready to work again. Eventually, Mohamed manages to make it to the city centre, stopping in the heart of a busy fruit and vegetables market.

As the passengers get off, Alaa tries to dissuade some tired and frustrated women and men from getting on to take the tram back to Karmouz. “Workshop — this tram is going to the workshop. Out of service,” he shouts as he tries to reverse and push the three carriages back along the rails. 

“It is a situation that occurs every so often, given the fact that the vast majority of the trams have well passed their expected years in service,” comments Mohamed Al-Tiri, a maintenance engineer at one of the workshops in Karmouz to which Mahmoud brings back his yellow tram.

Renovating Alexandria’s trams

According to Al-Tiri, the vast majority of the carriages on the tramway have been going from the western part of Alexandria to the centre for an average of 50 years. “By all accounts this is a long time, especially so given the heavy service that the carriages have had due to their declining number and the limited budget available for maintenance. Sometimes we have to keep faulty trams in operation rather than see them replaced,” Al-Tiri said.

Having worked in the Karmouz workshop for over three years, Al-Tiri has seen the challenges necessary to keep the trams going. According to Hani Mustafa, the chief engineer who has been in his job since the early 1990s, these challenges are getting tougher by the day.

“It is becoming more difficult all the time. The newest trams have been here since the mid-1980s. The older trams have been in service since the late 1950s, and it is now impossible to get spare parts,” Mustafa said.

Every day, they need to try to get a skilled mechanic or electrician to copy a spare part that cannot be bought any longer for one of the over 100 trams working to transport the inhabitants of the poorer side of Alexandria. In 2010, Mustafa recognised that his task has got more complicated not just because of declining resources, but also as a result of a campaign to get rid of the tramway altogether because of its poor service.

“I realised that what I had to do was not just to fix and maintain the trams, but essentially to rehabilitate the system, if not remake it almost completely,” he said.

He got one of the five workshops serving the Tramway reallocated as a re-fabrication service in which ailing carriages were dismantled to allow every part to be fixed or upgraded by local staff before it was put back into service. Over the past seven years, Mustafa and his team have been able to remake 16 of the city’s trams.

Renovating Alexandria’s trams

HISTORY OF THE TRAMWAY: It was almost exactly 120 years ago in September 1897 that the khedive Abbas Helmi II inaugurated Alexandria’s tramway.

Back then, it consisted of three lines to complement the initial service introduced in 1863 under the khedive Saïd, the first in Africa, to connect the city centre to the eastern part of Alexandria. Today, according to Khaled Elwia, head of the Alexandria Public Transport Service, the tramway and the Ramleh lines in particular have come a long way, with the first offering services on10 lines and the second on four.

“The Alexandria trams are in daily service to a quarter of a million people over 80km from the east to the west of the city,” Elwia said. “They include state school students and members of the middle and working classes who work in the city. These people depend on the Tramway because it is the only service that can take a passenger on a long trip for 50 piastres,” he added.

It was this argument that Elwia used during two hearings in parliament on the future of the Alexandria tramway and its possible replacement with an underground metro similar to the one in Cairo or an extensive bus service.

“Neither of these would fit Alexandria,” Elwia said, arguing that an underground in a city that has layers of unexcavated remains would not be realistic. Adding more buses to the already overcrowded city streets would add to the congestion that has already almost reached the point of suffocation for many residents.

However, the campaign against the trams was based on two points — that the system is too slow and that it adds to the city’s traffic problems because it cuts through intersections from the east to the centre and from the centre to the west in an overpopulated harbour city.

Renovating Alexandria’s trams

But Elwia said things would have been worse had the city allowed the work to remove the tramway and start digging an underground. “This would have been impossible in Alexandria. Instead, the way forward is to upgrade the tram service to make it faster and to build bridges at busy intersections to avoid traffic bottle necks,” he said.

For Mustafa, this solution is also more compatible with the spirit of Alexandria. “It would have been such a loss for Alexandria to have lost its trams as Heliopolis in Cairo did,” he commented. According to Mohamed Gohar, founder of the heritage group Description of Alexandria, “the city has already lost much of its architectural heritage. To add to this the loss of the tramway would have been too much for the city,” he said.

“It would be a terrible waste of a transport service that is safe and environmentally friendly,” Mustafa argued. 

Today, Elwia is discussing the early phases of what he says will be a large-scale plan to upgrade the tram service with the government. It will include the introduction of new carriages to replace the old, and these will be partially imported and partially made in Egypt.

“It will mean much faster movement and shorter intervals between trips on all the lines,” he said.

Then there is the tramway’s planned expansion phase. “This is about adding more lines,” he explained. Over the past four decades, fewer members of the city’s upper middle classes have been using the tramway. The objective Elwia has in mind is to regain at least a part of this clientele to make the system a more profitable operation.

 “We could keep the inexpensive service for a while on essentially the lines of the existing tramway, but we could also introduce a more comfortable service to encourage people to depend less on their cars and more on this environment friendly form of public transport,” Elwia said. 

Over the past three years, the tramway has introduced a LE1 service on the Ramleh lines that cut through lower middle class areas of the city and a LE5 service on lines that cut through more economically advantaged zones. “It has worked very well, and it is something that we could take further across the city,” Elwia argued.

He said that it might not be possible for the government to embark on the plans alone, however. “I think we will have to count on the private sector as well,” he explained. 

For Amal, a school teacher in the early years of her career, it would be “alright to increase the price of the ticket to LE2, but in exchange it would be necessary to make sure that the tram comes on time” and that it does not take forever to make the 15 stops from where she lives to where she works.

“At the end of the day, even if I have to pay LE4 every day for a round-trip ticket on the tram, it will still be cheaper than taking microbuses that have been endlessly raising their fares and that are not really safe given the attitude of some drivers,” Amal said.

The daughter of two government employees, Amal, like her three brothers and sister, has always counted on the tram to go to school or university. 

“But my parents and grandparents had an easier experience, especially my grandparents,” she said. “At that time, the tramway was an essential part of the commute of the middle classes, and this should continue to be the case today when more and more people are dependent on public transport given the increasing cost of living.”

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