“I dream of a time when a train runs safely and reaches its destination on time,” said Islam Shokri, a 29-year-old employee living in the Nasr City district of Cairo and working in Aswan. Shokri, whose work necessitates travelling about 900km by train every week, said that the trip from Cairo to Aswan sometimes takes 15 hours instead of nine, even if there are no strikes or sit-ins blocking the tracks.
The total time lost due to trains being suspended by strikes or sit-ins was 2,580 minutes in 350 days last year, the largest amount of lost time in the history of the railways, according to a report issued by the Egyptian Railway Authority (ERA).
“In addition to the lateness, it has become risky to travel by train due to the increasing number of fatalities the national railways have been witnessing recently,” Shokri added.
Recently, the railways have seen an escalating number of accidents. At least 51 people, mainly schoolchildren, were killed last week after a train collided with a school bus that drove through a railway crossing in Al-Mandara village in Assiut governorate, resulting in transport minister Mohamed Al-Meteini and ERA chairman Mustafa Qenawi resigning from their posts immediately after the crash.
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.
“The railway sector’s deterioration began in the 1950s,” Osama Okail, a professor of engineering at Ain Shams University in Cairo, told Al-Ahram Weekly. Signs of deterioration emerged during the rule of the late president Gamal Abdel-Nasser, when the focus was on the 1952 Revolution and its objectives.
“As a result, the transport ministers in charge had no vision or strategy for the development of the second-oldest railway network in the world,” Okail said. Historically, Egypt is the second country after Great Britain to build railways, and it built the first railway in the Ottoman Empire as well as in Africa and the Middle East in 1854 during the rule of the Khedive Abbas Helmi I, then viceroy of Egypt.
At that time, the construction of the railways was not intended as a service to the Egyptian economy or to exploit Egypt’s natural resources. Rather, colonial interests were behind the building of the railways, and they were built as a result of Britain’s desire to gain political leverage in Egypt in order to secure access to its colonies in Africa and ultimately Asia as well.
The railways were built in order to help create a safe trading corridor to India, the largest and most important British colony at the time. As a result, when the Suez Canal was opened to international navigation in 1869, the foreign interest in railway development in Egypt ceased. However, by then the railways had their own rationale for development and expansion, and the total length of track built between 1858 and 1876 surpassed that built at any other time during the more than 150 years of Egyptian railway history.
“After the end of the Nasser period and in the early 1980s when the sector was in bad need of an upgrade and maintenance, Suleiman Metwalli became the minister of transport and continued to neglect the system for 20 years,” Okail said.
While Cairo’s underground Metro was initiated during his time at the helm, Metwalli was one of the main reasons behind the weakening of the railway sector in Egypt, Okail said. “He was an army officer, and he had no strategy for upgrading the railway system. As a result, he allowed it to decay.”
Today, Egypt has some 9,570km of railway track running across the country, around 100,000 people work at railway facilities, and some 50 million passengers are transported annually, or around 1.4 million passengers a day, according to the Egyptian National Railways (ENR), which is managed by the state-owned ERA.
ENR, the backbone of passenger transport in Egypt, is one of the largest economic institutions in Egypt and the Arab world, and it is the largest in the region in terms of the transport of passengers and goods.
According to some experts, one of the main causes of the deteriorating condition of the railway sector are acts of sabotage that have resulted in increasing losses to the ERA, along with negligence and the lack of efficient maintenance of the 3,500 passenger coaches, including 850 air-conditioned coaches.
“A recent report by the authority revealed that citizens had unnecessarily smashed 30,000 glass windows in trains in less than six months. I wonder why they should want to destroy something that is owned by them,” asked Qenawi, the former ERA chairman, who added that the losses the authority had suffered as a result of the sit-ins and strikes prior to last year’s revolution had exceeded LE650 million.
“Moreover, due to the lack of competent maintenance the authority currently has no spare air-conditioned railway coaches,” Qenawi said.
The authority, he added, must have at least 87 coaches on standby at any one time, but unfortunately this is not always easy to achieve. “There is a plan for the coming period to provide back-up railway coaches after these have been refurbished to comply with the standard ratio of 10 per cent of the total number of coaches operating,” Qenawi told the press days before his resignation following Assiut crash.
This latest tragedy shed light on ageing railway crossings as well as on the poor signals system that was found to be the offender. Eighty-five per cent of the Egyptian railway network’s lines work according to an old mechanical signalling system, while only 15 per cent work using an electrical system.
“There are 1,264 unsafe railway crossing barriers in Egypt,” a source at the Railway Authority, who preferred to speak on condition of anonymity, told the Weekly.
“Railway crossings are among the most frequent reasons for train accidents in the country,” the source said, estimating the cost of upgrading each unsafe railway crossing at LE100,000.
In order to develop the domestic railway infrastructure, the government is presently discussing a new plan to upgrade Egypt’s railway system with Turkey that is centred on finding quick solutions to improve the efficiency, safety and security of the country’s transportation sector and halt the repeated accidents.
“The problem of the railway sector in Egypt is that it is technologically underdeveloped. The entire system is managed with ancient technology and it has not scientifically developed since its inception,” Okail said.
“Following the Al-Ayyat train disaster in 2002 [in which a double-capacity packed train caught fire causing at least 373 deaths] the government gave the railway sector LE8 billion to develop it under the guidance of former minister Mohamed Mansour. However, Mansour squandered the money on buying new engines and painting old ones instead of upgrading the sector’s infrastructure as a whole,” Okail said.
Government studies show that between 2007 and 2011, human error caused 69 per cent of accidents on the railways, while human error in conjunction with technical malfunctions caused 25 per cent of them and technical malfunctions alone caused six per cent. Okail believes that the Assiut accident will be repeated if the state continues to limit its liability for the work of crossing workers or train drivers.
“I reject the idea of renovating the railway crossings since it won’t be 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.
Sixty per cent of Egyptian railway lines are loss-making owing to a lack of sufficient passengers, and these lines should be suspended, he said. The country should focus on the remaining 40 per cent of lines that serve the greatest number of passengers, enabling the railways to save 60 per cent of their financial losses.
“By focussing on only the 40 per cent of profitable lines, we will be able to import modern electrical signals and replace the diesel engines with electric ones. The remaining 60 per cent of the trains and engines can be refurbished in the same way over the long run, while in the short run they can be used for goods transportation, estimated at only 2.5 per cent of the total volume of Egypt’s transport of goods.”
The volume of railway goods transport in Egypt is six million tonnes annually, according to the ENR.
“Railway goods transport should be at least 15 per cent of the total nationally. By increasing it, the state will acquire no less than LE3.5 billion a year.”
Meanwhile, as part of a government plan to reduce train accidents, the Consolidated Contractors Company has announced that it will begin manufacturing new trains for the Egyptian railway sector in partnership with a Chinese company.
“The company will establish a factory with a preliminary investment estimated at $100 million. Our partner company, China Real, has extensive experience in the train-manufacturing sector, and the trains will comply with international standards,” Company Chairman Mustafa Al-Hassan told the Anadolu news agency.
Al-Hassan added that train lines were also expected to be extended to the Sinai governorate. The network will eventually link the Western and Eastern deserts and Al-Wadi Al-Gadid.
Greater railway safety
Railway safety, or Sekket Al-Salama in Arabic, is a popular initiative begun by former MP Bassel Adel and Amira Al-Noshoqati, a writer and journalist, in the light of the recent increase in train accidents.
The initiative aims to protect people from train accidents by motivating them to create monitoring patrols to ensure that railway crossing men are doing their jobs properly until the government is able to upgrade all the country’s crossings.
In addition, the initiative also seeks to create an awareness-raising campaign about the dangers of train accidents among residents near such crossings in order to help avoid collisions from occurring.
The initiative plans to set up popular committees to inspect railway crossings from Alexandria to Aswan. In addition, it seeks to develop cooperation with civil society in all Egyptian governorates in order to avoid road accidents and railway collisions and to help update the signals network such that it depends less on human judgement.
It also aims to develop an inventory of areas where railway track has been stolen.
The railway safety initiative plans to consult with students from the Faculty of Engineering in Cairo in order to develop new ideas at less cost to secure the crossings. It will approach countries having experience in the field in order to take advantage of their expertise.
Finally, there will be a call for a protest in front of the Egyptian Railway Authority building, along with the provision of recommendations to the ERA chairman for upgrading the railway sector as a whole and not just for redecorating stations.