Wednesday,19 September, 2018
Current issue | Issue 1178, (2 - 8 January 2014)
Wednesday,19 September, 2018
Issue 1178, (2 - 8 January 2014)

Ahram Weekly

Turbulence on the tracks

Train travel in Egypt was once a fast and comfortable experience, but today it can be fraught with discomfort and delays, reports Hayat Yehia

Al-Ahram Weekly

Egypt’s trains keep making the news — the wrong type of news, the kind you don’t want to hear about. Fires and twisted metal, collisions and derailments, faulty semaphore systems and crossing attendants who fall asleep on the job have all recently claimed the lives of hundreds of Egyptians and broken the hearts of thousands more.

Politics has also got in the way, with disgruntled inhabitants in some areas of the country pressing demands that have nothing to do with the train system and sometimes cutting the rails to vent their dissatisfactions. Train workers have also sometimes joined them in sit-ins for what may well be legitimate, though misplaced, wage and safety demands.

The result has been that the nation now doubts the ability of the railways to provide the kind of service that they once did in the past, one that came with reliability, cleanliness, timeliness and safety.

To top it all, the government discontinued train services for months after the dispersal of the Rabaa Al-Adaweya and Nahda Square sit-ins in Cairo in support of ousted former president Mohamed Morsi. Government officials say that their concern was for safety, although their Islamist opponents contend that the reason was to block supporters of the deposed former president from reaching Cairo in force.

Egypt’s railways are among the oldest in the world, the first line running between Cairo and Alexandria dating back to 1853. According to official figures, Egypt now has 1,800 trains running on 9,435km of track, ferrying an average of 1.4 million passengers and 500,000 tonnes of merchandise on any given day.

TRAGEDIES GALORE: At dawn on 18 November 2013, 30 people were killed and 33 injured, nearly all from the same family, when a train ran into two buses returning from a wedding at a railway crossing near Dahshour.

On that same day, but one year earlier, 60 people, mostly children studying in an Al-Azhar-run institute, died when a train crashed into a school bus at the Manfalout crossing, near Assiut.

However, the worst incident in living memory was that of the Al-Ayyat train that caught fire when it was travelling, forcing passengers to jump from windows in an attempt to save their lives. To this day, the government has not published the official death toll from the disaster, which some claim was close to 1,000.

“The death toll on the Egyptian railways is one of the highest in the world,” said Abdel-Kader Lashin, a former UN adviser for transportation. Speaking to Al-Ahram Weekly, Lashin said that an average of 36 people died annually on Egypt’s 5,000km of railways. This is the same number of fatalities that Europe experiences on its 220,000km of railways. And it is getting worse.

Between 2004 and 2011, the number of rail accidents in Egypt climbed from 480 to 700 per year, Lashin pointed out.

Following each tragedy, talk turns to the semaphores, or train crossing signals, used on Egypt’s railways, with the manual signalling system and its operators being routinely blamed for the accidents. However, converting the system’s crossings from manual to automated could cost billions of pounds that the loss-making Egyptian Railways Authority, with its outdated equipment, low fares, and under-trained staff, cannot afford.

Following every major accident, the government announces the purchase of automated signalling systems. On the day of the Dahshour accident, the Ministry of Finance allocated nearly LE700 million to improve train crossings. Earlier this month, Adel Labib, minister of local administration, said that the government had allocated LE4.5 billion to modernise 27 train crossings in 13 governorates.

According to press reports, Labib said that his ministry was paying for half of the modernisation plan, with the rest being provided by the army. Egypt has also accepted a grant from the United Arab Emirates to modernise four further train crossings at a total cost of LE680 million.

Egypt’s railways chief, Hussein Zakaria, told journalists earlier this month that his agency had warned 15 governorates of dangerous train crossings, saying that he had also told local officials and officials from the Ministry of Interior that they needed to help with policing and running the crossings.

Last January, Railways Infrastructure Manager Said Hamed said that train crossings personnel were short of 1,885 operators. He reiterated the request that the Ministry of Interior deploy traffic personnel on every crossing. The ministry has yet to oblige.

Egypt has 1,352 railway crossings, nearly half of them operated manually and in need of modernisation. Railway officials complain that crossing operators are sometimes assaulted. They also complain that vehicles tend to ignore railway signals, speeding up rather than stopping when no-crossing signals are on.

Overworked and underpaid operators are frequently blamed for the tragedies that have occurred. Many train-wreck stories feature an attendant who was sleeping on the job, forgot the train times, or even went out for dinner during working hours. The Dahshour tragedy was blamed on an operator who had left the location to eat, for example.

Sometimes, passengers have been blamed. In the case of the Al-Ayyat train disaster, the fire reportedly started when a man started cooking on a stove inside the train. Fathi Al-Toni of the National Transport Institute said that “the proper use of equipment is something that is too often ignored in Egypt,” as if to underline such problems.

Speaking to the Weekly, Lashin said that human error accounted for some 39 per cent of train accidents, while lack of maintenance of carriages and rails accounted for 27 per cent more. The steady deterioration of the railways over recent years has led to a decline in passenger and merchandise movements. Over the past 10 years, the number of passengers using the railways has dropped by about 13 per cent per year.

In 2005-2006, nearly 436,000 passengers used the railways. In 2008-2009, the number was 247,000, a drop of nearly 40 per cent in just three years. According to Lashin, companies are now also using trucks rather than railways to ferry most of their goods.

Less than one per cent of the country’s merchandise is transported by train at present, compared with 6.1 per cent in 1979. Yet, if they were properly maintained, the railways would be a superior mode of transport in terms of quality, cost, and timeliness.

Trains use only 30 per cent of the energy that buses need to do the same job. Compared to private automobiles, trains use only 15 per cent of what private vehicles do for passenger transport, and they can do it faster too.

Trains are also more powerful. One train can carry 1,000 tonnes of goods, or 800 passengers, making every trip by train equivalent to 50 trips by buses or trucks and taking a lot less time.

“Despite the frequent accidents, trains nevertheless remain the safest form of transportation,” Lashin said. But for trains to remain reliable, they need considerable investment in hardware and the trained personnel needed to handle their operation.

OPEN-DOOR POLICIES: The problems with Egypt’s train system really started after the deregulation and liberalisation policies introduced by former president Anwar Al-Sadat in the 1970s and usually referred to as the open-door policy to distinguish them from the more centrally-planned years of the socialist-leaning previous president Gamal Abdel-Nasser.

Under Sadat, Egypt forged closer ties with the US, the world’s leading capitalist economy. Within years, the size of Egypt’s foreign trade had increased almost tenfold, Lashin said.

However, the country’s railway system, the second-oldest in the world after that of Britain, could not cope with the rapid expansion of economic activities. Instead, private transport companies began to grow, their door-to-door services attracting more clientele. The government started focussing more on building roads and less on maintaining train services.

“Unlike customers, merchandise did not complain when the trains broke down,” Al-Toni said. Instead, businessmen who had no patience with the frequent train delays used trucks instead.

As for passengers, they too found other options. The affluent bought cars, and the less affluent used the now ubiquitous minibuses. Government policies encouraged such trends, as investment favoured car manufacturing and the building of roads while neglecting the upkeep of the train services.

Fares were also a problem. During Egypt’s socialist phase, it was customary to keep fares low, almost at cost level, leaving little profit to carry out maintenance or modernisation. At present, the price of a first-class train ticket from Cairo to Alexandria is still only LE50, one third of the cost of an equivalent ride in the UK.

Mismanagement of human resources has been another problem, with hiring and firing being done with sometimes little regard for experience or qualifications. There are also too many workers employed in the service.

“The number of workers for one kilometre of railway is 14 in Egypt compared to 3.5 in Britain, 3.5 in Jordan, and six in Morocco,” according to Lashin.

This high number of workers affects the efficiency of the train service, as money that should have been used to maintain trains and rails are spent on salaries instead. “Wages shouldn’t exceed 40 per cent of total running costs, but now most of the railways’ revenues go on wages, and even this is not enough. The railways are dipping into the state’s budget to make up their wages bill,” Lashin added.

Currently, Egypt’s railways are spending about LE5 billion per year on updating and modernising the service.

HARD TIMES FOR UPPER EGYPT: At the bus station in Nagaa Hammadi, near Qena in Upper Egypt, Mohamed looks perplexed.

“I need to go to Cairo on urgent business. I don’t know whether to take the bus or the microbus, whose fares have shot up to LE120 since the trains stopped running. Perhaps I should wait for the trains to start running again, as the government has promised, in a few days’ time. It takes longer to travel by bus, about 12 hours compared to only seven in the train. The train is also more comfortable and has bathrooms,” he said.

The difficulties of passengers like Mohamed ended a few days later, when the trains started running again. But in the meantime the hiatus had been long and painful. The trains had stopped running for nearly 105 days in Upper Egypt and 60 in the Delta after the dispersal of the Rabaa Al-Adaweya and Nahda Square sit-ins in Cairo on 14 August.

During the stoppage, the railways lost about LE250 million in revenues. They also lost nearly LE25 million in stolen hardware, especially in Upper Egypt. “Upper Egypt always gets the short end of the stick, and not only in transportation,” said Lashin.

The fact that the country kept working despite the suspension of the trains may have come as a pleasant surprise for some, but not for Lashin. Indeed, the fact that the trains proved to be at least partially dispensable is far from reassuring, he says.

“Ordinarily, a stoppage of the service should have caused uproar,” he said. But because so many people and companies had already got used to using other alternatives, the stoppage was just another operational hiccup in transitional times.

SELL IT ALL: Leftist economists in Egypt have got into the habit of saying that the government of former prime minister Ahmed Nazif, whose minister of transportation, Mohamed Mansour, was an automobile mogul, deliberately ran down the country’s railways in preparation for their privatisation.

If the railways are privatised, train fares are likely to shoot up, depriving many families of a decent and affordable means of transportation. Today, government officials don’t like to speak about privatisation. But under Nazif, the government hired the consulting firm Booz Allen Hamilton to draw up a plan to privatise the country’s railways, Lashin said.

The two-year study led to a proposal that the existing Railways Authority should be broken up into six companies that should be put up for sale. For his part, Lashin thinks that at the end of the day the train service may need to be privatised.

However, Al-Toni disagrees, saying that modernisation of the railway service can be accomplished in other ways than selling it to private companies. But he thinks that the railways should be broken up into smaller companies. In its current form, the Railways Authority is too big to be properly managed, he said.

“A decision issued by the head of the Authority may take days to reach the intended workers, which makes it harder to pinpoint responsibility for any given errors,” Al-Toni pointed out. Buying new trains and installing new crossings, what current train managers are doing, is “little more than a palliative,” he added.

Aside from its declared modernisation plans, the government is also doing everything else in its old ways. Even compensation payments made to the victims of the railway accidents have been ridiculously low at about LE5,000 for a fatality and LE2,000 for an injury.

Following the Manfalout train accident, the government of former prime minister Hisham Kandil came up with a new study to modernise the railways that called for LE10 billion in investment to meet “urgent” operational needs.

Officials in the Ministry of Transport now say that a fully-fledged modernisation of the train service will cost a total of LE50 billion.

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